Those Secret 28 Pages on 9/11: Read This Before You Read Them

28 Pages Declassified—See What Was Hidden

By Brian P. McGlinchey

911 wtc aerialThirteen years after they were classified by the George W. Bush administration, 28 pages that are said to detail specific financial links between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 hijackers are set to be released as early as Friday, according to CNN and many other outlets. Here’s what to look for both in the 28 pages and in the ensuing debate about their significance.

Less Than Full Declassification

The 28 pages are part of the report of a 2002 congressional intelligence inquiry that spans more than 800 pages. There are periodic, specific redactions throughout the rest of the report, so it would not be surprising if the 28 pages had a few surviving redactions of their own. The more numerous, however, the greater the chance that important information is still being concealed from the American people—and perhaps the greater the chance that concerned members of Congress will take matters into their own hands and release that information on their own.

Residual Cover for Saudi Arabia 

Saudi FlagWhite House press secretary Josh Earnest today seemed to hint that, in addition to protecting intelligence sources and methods, concern for U.S.-Saudi relations will also shape decisions on how much the public is allowed to see.

“We want to make sure that we factor in the diplomatic equities into a decision like that. So when that process is completed, we will obviously coordinate not just with the (Director of National Intelligence) but also with the Congress to make sure those diplomatic equities are properly factored in,” said Earnest at the White House press briefing.

False Narratives About 9/11 Investigations

In the months leading up to the release of the pages, U.S. government officials and the chairs of the 9/11 Commission have been waging a public relations campaign aimed at creating doubt about the reliability of what’s in the 28 pages. Expect that effort to resume with renewed intensity as the pages are released.

Bob Graham
Bob Graham

Detractors have described the 28 pages as unvetted investigatory leads. However, former Senator Bob Graham, who chaired the inquiry that produced the 28 pages, noted that “there’s been no questions raised about the professionalism and quality of the other 820 pages of that report and this chapter followed the same standards that they did.”

Those questioning the value of the 28 pages also point to the fact that they were written before the 9/11 Commission, and declare that the commission thoroughly investigated all the leads in the 28 pages and, quoting the commission report, “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” the hijackers.

In fact, the idea that the 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated Saudi links to the hijackers has been thoroughly discredited—though that discrediting has so far failed to permeate major media reporting.

9/11 Commission member John Lehman, in a statement offered in support of 9/11 families suing the kingdom, wrote, “Evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”

That statement from someone who should know is only the beginning. Indeed, the case against the commission’s work regarding the Saudi line of inquiry is so broad and multifaceted that, rather than repeating it here, we urge you to review our April piece, “9/11 Commission Leaders Circle Wagons Around Their Legacy.”

Ulterior Motives

Tom Kean
Tom Kean

What’s driving the campaign to denigrate the 28 pages? Where 9/11 Commission chairs Tom Keane and Lee Hamilton are concerned, it’s surely about safeguarding their reputations: To the extent the 28 pages cast doubts on the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission—and raise questions about their personal leadership of that effort—the most salient chapter of their professional careers stand to be tarnished.

For the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies, reputations again hang in the balance. At a press conference last week, Rep. Stephen Lynch said, “I think that those individuals (in the intelligence community) don’t want this to come out. They don’t want the facts to come out because it may reveal terrible, terrible errors on their part and they may bear part of the blame” for failing to foil the attacks.

In addition, the very foundation of the U.S. government’s war on terror may be called into question. Saudi Arabia is routinely praised by government officials and Saudi-funded think tanks as an important partner in fighting extremism; revelations that the kingdom may have aided the 9/11 attacks could in turn expose U.S. hypocrisy—particularly when juxtaposing the invasion of Iraq alongside continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Seeming to make that very point, Rep. Rick Nolan, who has read the 28 pages, said, “They confirm that much of the rhetoric preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq was terribly wrong.”

Bogus Reasons for Redactions

If officials announce that some remaining redactions were made to protect individuals who were initially under suspicion but later exonerated, journalists and citizens should push back, because that is not a valid justification for secrecy.

Steven Aftergood
Steven Aftergood

Classification expert Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told 28Pages.org earlier this year, “If you examine the executive order governing the classification system, it does not say that information that is inaccurate or unvetted may be classified. Those words aren’t in there,” said Aftergood.

Driving the point home, Aftergood said, “The 28 pages could be entirely false, malicious and nonsensical. That is not a basis for classification and that should not be an impediment to their declassification.” If persons of interest were subsequently ruled out from aiding the hijackers, the government should release the corresponding documents that led to that conclusion.

Household Names

9/11 Commission member John Lehman was asked by 60 Minutes if the 28 pages name names. He replied, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”

Given very few Saudi officials are household names even among educated viewers, you’d expect Lehman to be referring to someone on the level of, say, former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud.

Outside the 28 pages, it’s already been revealed that cashiers checks found their way from Bandar’s wife to two Saudi citizens in San Diego who furnished heavy financial and other assistance to future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar.

Echoes of Document 17

Last summer, the government silently declassified a 9/11 Commission document that listed dozens of people of interest to investigators who were exploring Saudi links to the hijackers. Written by the same authors as the 28 pages and first revealed by 28Pages.org, “Document 17” had many interesting revelations—most notably, the fact that the FBI found the U.S. pilot license of an al Qaeda associate buried in Pakistan, inside an envelope from the Saudi embassy in Washington.

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9/11 Commission’s Lehman Criticizes Statements by Kean, Hamilton

Tom Kean
Tom Kean

In an important development in the drive for greater 9/11 transparency, John Lehman, the former U.S. Navy secretary who served on the 9/11 Commission, has criticized recent statements by commission co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton. The two had cast doubt on the reliability of 28 classified pages from a congressional intelligence inquiry and also said their commission had only identified one Saudi official as being implicated in aiding the hijackers.

Lehman’s statements appeared in a piece for The Guardian written by Philip Shenon, author of The Commission—the most exhaustive and revealing account of the 9/11 Commission’s work. Shenon wrote:

In the interview Wednesday, Lehman said Kean and Hamilton’s statement that only one Saudi goverment employee was “implicated” in supporting the hijackers in California and elsewhere was “a game of semantics” and that the commission had been aware of at least five Saudi government officials who were strongly suspected of involvement in the terrorists’ support network.

“They may not have been indicted, but they were certainly implicated,” he said. “There was an awful lot of circumstantial evidence.”

Lehman wasn’t the only commission member who spoke out via Shenon:

Another panel member, speaking of condition of anonymity for fear of offending the other nine, said the 28 pages should be released even though they could damage the commission’s legacy—“fairly or unfairly”—by suggesting lines of investigation involving the Saudi government that were pursued by Congress but never adequately explored by the commission.

“I think we were tough on the Saudis, but obviously not tough enough,” the commissioner said.

Shenon also reviews several indications that the commission’s pursuit of Saudi leads may have been thwarted—with specific references to the actions of commission executive director Philip Zelikow.

It’s a must-read; rather than fully summarizing it, we’ll instead urge you to read it all, and to also read our recent piece that makes the case that recent statements by Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow about the 28 pages are likely intended to guard their reputations against a truth that’s becoming more evident each day: The 9/11 Commission failed to vigorously examine potential Saudi ties to 9/11.

In other news today:

  • Three more members of Congress have cosponsored House Resolution 14, which urges the president to declassify the 28 pages: Brad Sherman (D, CA-30), Barbara Lee (CA-13) and Jackie Speier (CA-14). This new trio from the president’s own party brings the total to 52.
  • A story by Shane Harris at The Daily Beast dives deep into the mystery of the wealthy Saudi family that abrubtly left their Sarasota home just two weeks before the 9/11 attacks—but, according to some, not before having contacts with hijackers, including Mohammed Atta.
  • At Salon, Marcy Wheeler offers a new perspective on the NSA’s failures in the weeks leading up to 9/11, and the positively disturbing extent to which relationships with large government contractors influenced decisions and the drive for accountability.

Contact the White House Today: Demand Full Declassification of the 28 Pages

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On 28 Pages, CIA’s Brennan Has Flawed Premise, Ulterior Motives

By Brian P. McGlinchey

John Brennan
CIA Director John Brennan

Echoing recent statements by the co-chairmen and the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, CIA director John Brennan today used an appearance on Meet the Press to cast doubt on the contents of 28 classified pages from a joint congressional intelligence inquiry that are said to link Saudi Arabia to the attacks.

Claiming that he is “quite puzzled” by former Senator Bob Graham and others who have read the 28 pages and are campaigning for their declassification, Brennan described the final chapter of the 2002 inquiry’s report as containing “uncorroborated, unvetted information” and “basically just a collation of information that came out of FBI files.”

In his own Meet the Press appearance last week, Graham countered the notion that the 28 pages are a grab-bag of unsubstantiated leads, pointing to the fact that the 28 pages are just one part of a report spanning nearly 850 pages. “There’s been no questions raised about the professionalism and quality of the other 820 pages of that report and this chapter followed the same standards that they did,” said Graham.

Brennan’s Critical Yet Flawed Premise

911 Report CvrMuch as 9/11 co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton and executive director Philip Zelikow have done in recent days, Brennan portrayed the 28 pages as obsolete: “The 9/11 Commission took that joint inquiry, and those 28 pages or so, and followed through on the investigation. And they came out with a very clear judgment that there was no evidence that indicated that the Saudi government as an institution, or Saudi officials individually, had provided financial support to Al Qaeda.”

Brennan’s discrediting of the 28 pages relies on a key underlying premise: that the 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated the indications of Saudi support found in the 28 pages. However, as we described in detail on Thursday, there’s a compelling case that the commission failed to do so, thanks to obstructionism by the George W. Bush administration, the commission’s lackluster efforts to overcome it and the possibility that executive director Zelikow deliberately aided the White House in curtailing investigation of Saudi connections.

Meanwhile, a recently declassified document revealed that two 9/11 Commission investigators assigned to examine the kingdom’s links to the hijackers were so wary of political influence on their work that they actually recommended making a probe of that phenomenon a key facet of their investigation.

Document 17 Two Questions
Excerpt from Declassified 9/11 Commission Document

Brennan also pointed to the separate 9/11 Review Commission as having reinforced the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission: Note that undertaking was managed by the FBI—which has its own demonstrated record of concealing information that might implicate Saudi Arabia.

Ulterior Motives

Efforts by Brennan, Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow to discredit the 28 pages should be viewed in light of their possible motives. For the 9/11 Commission leaders, those motives may be deeply personal: To the extent the 28 pages counter the commission’s verdict on Saudi links, they pose a very real threat to their professional reputations.

The CIA director’s potential motives are likely more far-reaching; we’ll examine three of them.

Brennan with Saudi King Abdullah
Brennan with Saudi King Abdullah in 2009

First, there’s the long and bipartisan tendency of the U.S. government to preserve U.S.-Saudi relations at all costs. That tendency is cultivated by Saudi Arabia’s enormous public relations and lobbying efforts in the United States, which includes financial ties to many of the think tanks that shape the opinions of government officials, journalists and the public. On Meet the Press, Brennan himself boasted, “I have very close relations with my Saudi counterparts.”

Second, there’s the possibility that the revelation of the 28 pages could strike an enormous blow against the entire narrative of the U.S.-led “war on terror,” in which Brennan’s bureaucracy plays a central role.

In the wake of 9/11, the United States and its partners have lashed out militarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Graham, however, says the 28 pages “point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as the principal financier” of the attacks, and Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan, who has read the 28 pages, recently said, “They confirm that much of the rhetoric preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq was terribly wrong.”

Finally, the 28 pages may reveal embarrassing details about the CIA’s conduct before the 9/11 attacks. Many of the Saudi-9/11 connections detailed elsewhere in the joint inquiry revolve around San Diego-based hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, so it’s reasonable to think the chapter on financial support focuses on them as well.

In January 2000, the CIA learned that al-Midhar, who had already been linked to two 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, had obtained a multi-entry visa permitting him to freely travel to and from the United States. When two FBI agents assigned to the CIA’s al-Qaeda unit tried to alert their headquarters, the CIA stopped them.

Mark Rossini
Mark Rossini

One of those agents, Mark Rossini has a theory for the CIA’s catastrophic silencing of himself and agent Doug Miller: He believes the CIA was attempting to turn al-Midhar into a CIA asset. If conducted on U.S. soil, that action would have been unlawful, Rossini says. Former White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke shares Rossini’s theory.

Awaiting Media Scrutiny of Brennan’s Motives

Thus far, Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow’s assault on the credibility of the 28 pages has been reported by journalists and echoed in editorials without any scrutiny of their potential motives. Let’s hope that one-dimensional approach subsides in the wake of Brennan’s own salvo against the 28 pages, and that his remarks are weighed against those of many others who’ve read them.

Said one unnamed government official: “We’re not talking about rogue elements. We’re talking about a coordinated network that reaches right from the hijackers to multiple places in the Saudi government.”

Contact the White House Today: Demand Full Declassification of the 28 Pages

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9/11 Commission Leaders Circle Wagons Around Their Legacy

By Brian P. McGlinchey

Tom Kean
9/11 Commission Co-Chair Tom Kean

With the campaign to declassify 28 pages from a congressional inquiry moving ever closer to its goal, the chairmen and executive director of the 9/11 Commission are doing their best to discount the significance of the pages, which are said to illustrate damning ties between Saudi Arabia and 9/11.

In interviews, a formal statement and an op-ed piece, the three have cast doubt on the contents of the final, 28-page chapter of a 2002 congressional report.

Their aspersions can be reduced to two propositions:

  • Comparable to “preliminary police notes,” the 28 pages are a collection of “raw, unvetted material,” and were rendered obsolete after the 9/11 Commission fully investigated those and other leads and issued its own final conclusions.
  • Releasing the 28 pages in full could cast a shadow of guilt on individuals who, via the 9/11 Commission’s investigation, were later deemed innocent.

As citizens and journalists weigh the commentary of commission chairmen Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton and executive director Philip Zelikow, they should consider the possibility that members of the Saudi royal family aren’t the only ones whose reputations may be harmed by the release of the pages: To the extent that the release of the 28 pages undermines the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow may have an interest in minimizing their significance. 

Before we proceed, note the 28 pages are not in the 9/11 Commission Report—they’re in the report of a joint congressional intelligence inquiry that preceded the commission.

Conflicting Justifications for Secrecy

There’s a glaring disconnect between the rationale for the redaction of the 28 pages advanced by Zelikow, Kean and Hamilton and the one offered by President George W. Bush when he classified them. While the three commission leaders argue that secrecy was warranted because the material was unvetted and hence unreliable, Bush said classification was necessary to protect intelligence “sources and methods.”

Republican Porter Goss, who co-chaired the joint inquiry and supports the release of the pages, likewise struck national security chords in 2003 as he tried to put the best face on Bush’s decision, saying nothing to question the reliability of the information that was concealed.

Speaking broadly of the need to keep some information in the 838-page report secret, Goss said, “You have to remember we are at war and there are some actionable items still being pursued by the appropriate authorities.” Then, apparently referring to the 28 pages, he said, “You’ll find there’s a couple of blank pages…as soon as the actions that are necessary to deal with those issues are completed, those pages will be filled out.” Not revised, corrected or repudiated after vetting. “Filled out” after action is taken.

Former Sen. Bob Graham
Bob Graham

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, former Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint inquiry, flatly refuted the idea that the 28 pages are raw, unvetted material.

Asked if it’s correct to compare the 28 pages to leads in an initial police report, Graham replied, “No. This report was 850 pages. This is 28 pages out of that. There’s been no questions raised about the professionalism and quality of the other 820 pages of that report and this chapter followed the same standards that they did.”

Serious Doubts About Thoroughness of Commission

In their Friday statement, Kean and Hamilton remind us that the commission—as controversially stated on page 171 of its report—“found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda.

That assertion raises a question that goes to the heart of the 28 pages controversy, a question that could threaten the reputations of Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow: Just how thoroughly did the 9/11 Commission pursue leads both inside and outside the 28 pages that point toward Riyadh?  

Philip Zelikow
Philip Zelikow

Though it may come as a surprise to journalists who are reporting the trio’s criticism of the 28 pages without scrutinizing much less acknowledging their potential conflicts of interest, there are many reasons to doubt that the probe of Saudi links was pursued with the vigor that 9/11 victims and the American people deserved.

That doubt specifically springs from Hamilton and Kean’s lack of investigative assertiveness in the face of Bush administration obstructionism, and the manner in which executive director Zelikow ran the inquiry.

  • Commission member and former senator Bob Kerrey, in a statement submitted in the 9/11 victims’ suit against Saudi Arabia, said “evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”
  • As Philip Shenon recounted in The Commission, 9/11 commission member and former Navy secretary John Lehman “was struck by the determination of the Bush White House to try to hide any evidence of the relationship between the Saudis and al-Qaeda. ‘They were refusing to declassify anything having to do with Saudi Arabia,’ Lehman said. ‘Anything having to do with the Saudis, for some reason, it had this very special sensitivity.'”
  • Kean and Hamilton, against advice from commission member and former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, ruled out the routine use of subpoenas to compel full cooperation by various parts of the government, including the White House.
  • Bush had a close personal relationship with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Investigators learned Bandar’s wife wrote checks worth tens of thousands of dollars that eventually found their way to the wife of Omar al-Bayoumi, who is widely suspected of being a Saudi government operative. Bayoumi helped two future 9/11 hijackers find lodging and provided ongoing assistance to them. (With an admitted air of speculation, note that Lehman told 60 Minutes the 28 pages not only named names, but that “the average intelligent viewer of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”)
  • The commission bent to the White House’s controversial demands that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney only be interviewed by a limited number of commission members, in private at the White House, with no recording or transcription of the conversation. Kean and Hamilton also conceded to the extraordinary White House stipulation that Bush and Cheney were to be interviewed simultaneously, as a team.
  • Commission member Slade Gorton said the questioners, apparently mesmerized by the Oval Office environment, went easy on Bush and Cheney: “Several of my colleagues were not nearly as tough in the White House as they were when they went in.” Lehman asked Bush about the money transfers from Bandar’s wife to the wife of the alleged hijacker-handler in San Diego. “He dodged the questions,” said Lehman.
  • Zelikow had close ties to the Bush administration: He co-authored a book with Condoleezza Rice, worked on the transition team and commission staffers were alarmed to learn, against policy, he had ongoing contacts with Bush political advisor Karl Rove during the investigation. The first public witness Zelikow called was an individual with no special expertise on 9/11 who used the opportunity to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq that had commenced the week before.
  • Mike Jacobson and Dana Lesemann wrote the 28 pages for the congressional inquiry and also worked for the commission. When they set out to further their investigation of Saudi links, they compiled a list of 20 individuals they wanted to interview. Zelikow declared 20 was too many, and directed them to pick just 10, going against basic investigative principles that suggest casting as wide an initial net as possible.
  • After repeatedly asking Zelikow for access to the 28 pages without effect, Lesemann, fed up, went around him to gain access on her own; when Zelikow found out, he fired her.
  • With the commission’s final report nearly complete, Jacobsen was alarmed by a midnight call tipping him off that Zelikow and commission investigator Dieter Snell were rewriting findings that dealt with Saudi Arabia. As Shenon wrote, they removed “virtually all of the most serious allegations against the Saudis” and shifted important information into the footnotes. Members of the investigative team felt the excessive standard of proof demanded by Snell would effectively exonerate the guilty.
  • Rep. Walter Jones read the 28 pages and is championing their release. Asked last week if the government derailed the investigation to protect Bandar and other VIPs, Jones said, “Things that should have been done at the time were not done. I’m trying to give you an answer without being too explicit.”

New Indications of Political Influence on Saudi Investigation

Last week, 28Pages.org broke news by drawing to public notice a recently declassified 9/11 Commission document. While its revelation of a mysterious Saudi embassy envelope made headlines around the world, another revelation has thus far flown largely under the media radar: Jacobson and Lesemann, at the outset of their commission work, questioned the aggressiveness of the investigation of links between the 9/11 attacks and the Saudi Arabia, and wanted to probe the extent to which “political, economic and other influences” had affected that line of inquiry.

Document 17 Two Questions

As we wrote last week:

Organizationally set apart from dozens of other questions as among the more important, overarching lines of inquiry for their particular avenue of the commission’s work, the significance of the questions’ presence in Document 17 is amplified by the absence of corresponding answers in the commission’s final report.

At some point—perhaps after Lesemann’s determined interest in Saudi links to 9/11 led to her dismissal—someone apparently determined a public study of those critical questions was beyond the scope of work.

Between facts old and new, there seems ample reason to place an asterisk after the 9/11 Commission’s declaration that it found no links between the Saudi government and the al Qaeda hijackers. With an eye on the commission’s dubious investigatory approach and stark indications of political influence and White House obstruction, informed citizens and journalists want to know: Just how hard did the commission really look?

As Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow continue their campaign against the credibility of the 28 pages, the world awaits the journalist who will ask them that.

Our gratitude to 9/11 justice advocate Jon Gold for his collections of many facts cited above

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28Pages.org Exclusive: A Buried Envelope and Buried Questions: Your First Look Inside Declassified Document 17