7 Unanswered Questions About the 28 Pages Declassification

Two weeks ago, after a declassification review led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the congressional intelligence committees finally released 28 pages from a joint congressional inquiry that outline a wide variety of connections between Saudi government officials, members of the Saudi royal family, suspected Saudi intelligence operatives and the 9/11 hijackers.

While the pages invite many questions about Saudi ties to the 9/11 attacks and just how thoroughly they were investigated by the 9/11 Commission, there are also many unanswered questions about the declassification itself.

Did President Obama ever read the 28 pages himself?

In 2009, Obama reportedly gave the first of two assurances to 9/11 family members that he would declassify the 28 pages. Seven years later—in April of this year—9/11 families were disappointed when he admitted he still hadn’t bothered to read the pages that were said to link a supposed ally to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Obama Charlie Rose“I have a sense of what’s in there. But this has been a process which we generally deal with through the intelligence community and Jim Clapper, our director of national intelligence, has been going through to make sure that whatever it is that is released is not gonna compromise some major national security interest of the United States,” the president told Charlie Rose.

The average adult can read 28 pages in about a half hour. One would hope Obama ultimately insisted on reading the pages for himself and didn’t rely on an ODNI recommendation that may have hidden important information not only from the American people but from Obama himself. The importance of his personally reading the pages is underscored by the possibility that, as discussed below, some of the still-redacted information may shed unflattering light on the very intelligence community that was performing the declassification review.

What’s still hidden from view?

Rep. Justin Amash
Rep. Justin Amash

In the last hours before the release, Rep. Walter Jones—Capitol Hill’s foremost advocate for the release of the pages—was assured by an ODNI representative that the remaining redactions would be minimal. However, the public version of the 28 pages has 97 separate redactions, some of a single word or name and many representing multiple paragraphs in sequence.

In a Wednesday Q&A session following remarks at a convention of Young Americans for Liberty, Rep. Justin Amash—who had co-sponsored the House resolution that called for the release of the 28 pages—said he and fellow co-sponsor Thomas Massie intend to read both the public and the unredacted 28 pages side-by-side to see what’s still being kept under wraps.

What are the specific rationales for each redaction?

When declassifications occur under the Freedom of Information Act or the Mandatory Declassification Review process, each redaction is labelled to give the reader an understanding of the reason the information must remain secret. These labels usually don’t offer a lot of specificity, but instead simply refer to a provision of Executive Order 13526, which governs the classification system. For example, a label that says “E.O. 13526, section 1.4(c)” tells us the redaction is related to “intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology.”

Bassnan RedactionIn the declassified 28 pages, however, there are no such labels, leaving us to question if there’s truly a bona fide national security reason behind every redaction. We confess that even a label wouldn’t necessarily remove that doubt, but it would at least represent an attempt by the government to justify each individual decision.

It’s important to note that E.O. 13526 explicitly prohibits classification meant to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error,” “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency” or “prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.” Looking at what we can read in the 28 pages, it’s hard not to conclude that President George W. Bush’s original classification of essentially every word of the 28-page chapter from the congressional inquiry was a violation of these rules.

Do some redactions provide lingering cover for Saudi Arabia?

Bandar McLean VA RedactionOn the day before the 28 pages were released, White House press secretary Josh Earnest seemed to indicate that the U.S.-Saudi relationship would be factored into just how much of the 28 pages the American people would finally be granted permission to read.

“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.

Did the intelligence committees make adjustments to the redactions recommended by ODNI?

The release of the 28 pages was preceded by a intelligence community declassification review that President Obama requested in the summer of 2014. The White House portrayed the conclusion of that review as a recommendation from the intelligence community, with the ultimate decision on the release of the 28 pages left in the hands of Congress.

Considering the intelligence committees reportedly released the 28 pages on the same day they received the ODNI recommendation, it seems likely they chose to give full deference to the executive branch and made no adjustments. We’ll have to rely on the judgments of declassification advocates like Jones, Amash and Massie to see if that deference was actually warranted.

Were some of ODNI’s recommendations self-serving?

At a June press conference calling for the release of the 28 pages, Rep. Stephen Lynch seemed to imply that information in the 28 pages would be embarrassing to the intelligence community.

FBI Saudi Threat Redaction“There may be some very embarrassing facts, some very embarrassing moments, and some criticisms on our own intelligence service because of what happened, if all the facts come out,” said Lynch. “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 prevent the 9/11 attacks.

The released 28 pages do contain some passages that don’t reflect well on the intelligence community, including an admission that, before 9/11, the FBI didn’t focus resources on Saudis in the United States “due to Saudi Arabia’s status as an American ‘ally.'” However, given nearly 100 redactions, we’re left to wonder if some of them are intended to safeguard individual and departmental reputations rather than national security.

What will become of the still-pending Mandatory Declassification Review of the 28 pages?

Separate from the intelligence community’s declassification review, the 28 pages were in a queue for a similar but not identical assessment by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, or ISCAP. That assessment—called a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR)—was requested by attorney Tom Julin on behalf of investigative reporters Dan Christensen, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

ISCAP is dominated by representatives of the intelligence community, so it’s safe to assume it wouldn’t deviate much if at all from the recommendation produced by the ODNI review, and, in any event, the ultimate outcome of a Mandatory Declassification Review is a non-binding recommendation to the president.

While that could be a different president by the time the process is complete, we may find that the MDR, if seen through, would only give us the benefit of some token rationales for each of the remaining redactions.

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ODNI Declassification Review of 28 Pages Enters Second Year

ODNIA declassification review of 28 pages describing financial links between the 9/11 hijackers and one or more foreign governments has already taken far longer than the entire joint congressional intelligence inquiry that produced those pages—and a National Security Council spokesperson declined to say whether the end is in sight.

Last September 10, following an in-depth Jake Tapper report on the 28 pages controversy, the National Security Council issued this response: “Earlier this summer the White House requested that (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) review the 28 pages from the joint inquiry for declassification. ODNI is currently coordinating the required interagency review and it is ongoing.”

28Pages.org asked National Security Council spokesman Ned Price for more clarity on the timing of the request, but Price said he couldn’t comment on what day or even in which month the White House tasked ODNI with the review.

Considering the summer of 2014 hadn’t ended at the time of the NSC statement, the highly imprecise phrasing—and the subsequent refusal to clarify it—leaves the possibility that the request to ODNI occurred very shortly before the statement was issued.

Price also declined to indicate when the American people might expect the conclusion of the ODNI review—or to say what administrative or procedural milestones in the review process have been accomplished thus far. “I can’t comment on the specifics of the process or deliberations on this issue,” said Price.

Glacial Pace

To fully appreciate just how slowly ODNI is proceeding in its review of 28 pages, it isn’t enough to realize the review has already taken much longer then the full joint inquiry that produced those pages. It requires an understanding of just how large an undertaking that inquiry was.

Former senator Bob Graham co-chaired the 2002 inquiry. In his book, Intelligence Matters, he described the breadth and depth of the staff’s work. In about six months, the staff:

  • Reviewed nearly a half million pages of documents from intelligence agencies and other sources
  • Conducted roughly 300 interviews
  • Participated in briefings and panel discussions involving about 600 people from the intelligence community, other government departments, state and local entities, foreign government representatives and other individuals
  • Held 13 closed-door sessions and nine public hearings
  • Dueled with intelligence agencies and the White House over many aspects of the inquiry’s undertaking, including requests for information and the format of the final report
  • Wrote, edited and revised an 838-page report on the inquiry’s findings
Former Senator Bob Graham
Former Senator Bob Graham

ODNI’s review of just 28 pages has already taken a year…and counting. All of this time to weigh the declassification of material that—according to views adamantly expressed by members of both parties who’ve read it—shouldn’t have been classified in the first place.

“(Republican) Senator (Richard) Shelby and I, after rereading those…pages, independently concluded that 95 percent of that material was safe for public consumption, and that these pages were being kept secret for reasons other than national security,” wrote Graham, a Democrat, in Intelligence Matters.

Complicating the declassification picture is the fact that the 28 pages are also being scrutinized under a process called Mandatory Declassification Review, which was initiated last year by a request from attorney Tom Julin on behalf of investigative reporters Dan Christensen, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

The MDR process is managed by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).  The NSC’s Price told us “(The ODNI) request is separate from the ISCAP request.”

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Federal Panel Evaluating Need for Continued 28 Pages Secrecy

The movement to declassify a finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers might be strengthened soon: A federal panel is reviewing the censored 28-page chapter of the report of a Congressional joint inquiry into 9/11 and is expected to make a recommendation to President Obama in the coming months.

Attorney Tom Julin: Advocate for 28 Pages Transparency
Attorney Tom Julin: Making the Case for 28 Pages Transparency

The review of the redacted chapter on sources of foreign support of the September 11 terrorists is being conducted under a process called Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR), and was initiated by attorney Tom Julin on behalf of Dan Christensen, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Christensen is the editor of FloridaBulldog.org, and has been working to learn what the FBI knows about a 9/11 cell in Sarasota; Summers and Swan are investigative journalists and authors of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11.

Understanding the MDR Process

MDR is a multi-tiered process that begins with a request to an agency to review a specific classified document and consider releasing it. It was created by an executive order issued by President Clinton, and can now be found in Executive Order 13526 (see Sec. 3.5).

The 28 pages request was directed to the Department of Justice, which failed to respond within the deadline imposed by the process. Ultimately, Julin appealed to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, or ISCAP. The highest authority in the MDR process, ISCAP agreed to review the 28 pages for declassification. At a Nov. 11 event, Julin said he’d been told to expect the panel’s recommendation to President Obama sometime this winter.

A few weeks before that event, nine members of Congress who’ve read the censored chapter sent a letter to ISCAP urging their release, saying “we firmly believe that declassification of the 28 pages would enhance, not harm, U.S. national security interests.”

Under the rules governing the ISCAP review, a recommendation to declassify a document “requires the affirmative vote of at least a majority of the members present.” The panel consists of senior level representatives appointed by:

  • The Department of State
  • The Department of Defense
  • The Department of Justice
  • The National Archives
  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • The National Security Advisor

In addition, the director of the CIA can opt to appoint a voting member to the panel where information that originated with the CIA is in question.

Anticipating the Verdict

Eyeing the ISCAP “jury box” and contemplating the governmental constituencies each member represents, it’s far from certain the panel will side with so many authoritative figures on the 28 pages and acknowledge there’s no national security justification for the blanket redaction of this entire chapter of the congressional joint inquiry’s report.

And even if the panel does reach the same conclusion of the chairs of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate co-chairs of the joint inquiry, it’s important to emphasize that the word “mandatory” in the name of the process refers to the review and not to the declassification—the panel’s verdict is but a recommendation to the president, one may be accompanied by a final, urgent appeal for secrecy from a government agency. It would, however, be the most powerful such recommendation to date, one that would add substantial pressure on the president to honor the commitment he made to 9/11 family members and release the 28 pages—while further eroding the credibility of those who say they must remain secret.

The Mandatory Declassification Review is a very important and intriguing front in the fight to finally release the 28 pages, but it’s not the only one: If you want to know what’s in the 28 pages, it’s critical that you make your voice heard on this issue from Capitol Hill to the White House—right now, while you’re thinking about it.

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Florida Event Spotlights Signs of Foreign Support of 9/11 Hijackers

Last month, 9/11 parents Loreen and Matt Sellitto hosted an informative event focused on one of the most important yet least-understood aspects of September 11: the extent to which the terrorists received support from foreign governments—and the extent of the government’s knowledge of that support, both before and after the attacks.

Former Senator Bob Graham
Former Senator Bob Graham

Held in Naples, Florida, the November 11 event was called “The Untold Story of 9/11: A Conversation with Bob Graham.” Following opening remarks from host Loreen Sellitto and from Terry Strada of 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, the event featured three speakers:

  • Former Senator Bob Graham, the most prominent voice outside government fighting for declassification of the 28 pages.
  • Broward Bulldog editor Dan Christensen, who broke the story of the FBI’s discovery of a 9/11 cell in Sarasota, and who continues working to bring FBI investigation documents into the daylight.
  • Attorney Tom Julin, who is helping the Broward Bulldog in its effort to overcome the government’s stonewalling.

Here, we cover many of the highlights; a full video of the event can be found at the bottom of the page.

Bob Graham on the San Diego Cell

Graham’s remarks centered on the story of Omar al-Bayoumi, a man who, before 9/11, held what Graham called a “ghost job” with a Saudi company in San Diego. Bayoumi, whom the FBI had previously identified as a Saudi agent, helped two 9/11 hijackers establish themselves in the United States.

Bayoumi later claimed that—on the same day he made a two-hour drive to Los Angeles to attend a meeting with the director of religious affairs at the Saudi consulate —he just happened to become acquainted with future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar in a Middle Eastern restaurant after he overheard them talking Arabic in Saudi accents.

This encounter occurred soon after the pair’s arrival in Los Angeles, which in turn happened just days after they attended a terrorist summit in Malaysia. On the spot, Bayoumi invited the two to move to San Diego, where he furnished them with generous assistance, including the initial payment on an apartment and spending money. Adding to the cluster of coincidences, Bayoumi’s salary soared upon Hazmi and Mihdar’s arrival, while his wife began receiving payments from the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Broward Bulldog Battles Feds Over Sarasota Investigation

Christensen’s quest for answers about foreign sources of support of the 9/11 hijackers began in 2011 with a tip passed to him by Anthony Summers, who, with his wife Robbyn Swan, had just completed their book, “The Eleventh Day.” Summers and Swan had learned about an FBI investigation of a Saudi family with close ties to the Saudi government that suddenly abandoned its upscale home just outside Sarasota about two weeks before 9/11.

Pursuing the lead, Christensen contacted Senator Graham for his insights into the Sarasota cell. Braced for the possibility that Graham would decline comment because of classification restraints, Christensen was stunned to learn that Graham—who had been chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chaired the joint Congressional inquiry into 9/11—was unable to comment for an altogether different reason: Graham said the FBI had never told him about its Sarasota investigation.

Broward Bulldog Editor Dan Christensen
Broward Bulldog Editor Dan Christensen

Christensen then inquired with the FBI, which confirmed there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to 9/11. Next, seeking to learn how they reached that conclusion, he requested the FBI’s investigation documents using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the FBI said there were no documents matching the request. Finding that completely implausible, in September 2012, Christensen and the Broward Bulldog filed a FOIA lawsuit.

About six months later, the FBI sent Christensen 35 partially redacted pages that contained a bombshell conclusion directly contradicting the government’s earlier denials: The investigation had in fact “revealed many connections” between the Saudi family that fled their home and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” (Indeed, investigations showed the home had been called and even visited by future 9/11 hijackers.)

In April 2014, as the Bulldog’s lawsuit progressed, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its files, chiding the government for advancing “nonsensical” legal arguments in its effort to maintain secrecy. Later, he ordered the FBI to turn over more than 80,000 pages from its Tampa office so he could personally review them and reach his own conclusions about the need for secrecy. The judge’s review of that enormous cache is still underway.

In July of 2014, the FBI released a new and intriguing document. This one revealed that, on Halloween in 2001, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office was called by a citizen who observed a man discarding items in a dumpster behind a rented storage unit in Bradenton, Florida. After interviewing the man, who held a visa from Tunisia, police searched the dumpster and found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”

Attorney Tom Julin’s Pursuit of the 28 Pages

Attorney Tom Julin
Attorney Tom Julin

Julin, in addition to providing an interesting elaboration on the legal battle to liberate the FBI’s Sarasota files, explained the Broward Bulldog’s attempts to secure the release of the 28-page finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers found in the 2002 report of the joint Congressional inquiry.

Julin is helping Christensen, Summers and Swan push for the declassification of the 28 pages through a little-known process called Mandatory Declassification Review. Under that process, an agency’s refusal to declassify material can ultimately be appealed to a multi-agency panel that reviews the material and presents a recommendation to the president. The panel is now reviewing the 28 pages. While there’s no deadline, Julin has been told to expect the panel’s recommendation to President Obama sometime this winter.

The first amendment attorney said he was hopeful the panel would take the request seriously, pointing to the fact that “so many Congressmen have said declassification will not harm the national security interest, it will help the national security for the public to know what was Saudi Arabia’s role.”

Many More Questions Remain

Before opening up the discussion to questions from the audience, Graham discussed some of the remaining mysteries around the 9/11 plot. First, noting that 9/11 hijackers had spent significant amounts of time in Paterson, NJ, Falls Church, VA and Palm Beach County, Graham said, “We have been trying to find out, were there investigations similar to what we know took place in Sarasota in those three areas and if so, what result? We have run into exactly the same stone wall.”

Graham also explored the questions of:

  • Why would the Saudis support Islamic terrorists operating in the United States?
  • Why did the Bush administration shield Saudi Arabia by preventing the release of damning material?
  • Why would the Obama administration continue the Bush administration’s “soft treatment” of Saudi Arabia?

In the course of his remarks, Graham briefly discussed two of his books. The first, “Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America’s War on Terror,” is a non-fiction work, which required advance clearance from the federal government that resulted in many passages being censored. That disappointing experience prompted Graham to do an end-run around government censors by publishing “Keys to the Kingdom,” a work labelled as fiction but which Graham used to write on the topic with greater freedom.

This post shares just some of the many interesting points covered during the event. To learn more, watch the full video below—then send a pre-written letter to Congress urging the release of the 28 pages.