Questions Swirl Around 28 Pages Declassification Process

There’s no shortage of news in the drive to declassify 28 pages on foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers. Of foremost concern, uncertainty continues to swirl around precisely what will happen at the end of the intelligence community’s declassification review of the 28 pages. Meanwhile, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia unveiled some some new marketing material, a House hearing examined Saudi Arabia’s position in the fight against terrorism, and Rand Paul is trying to tie 28 pages declassification to a major piece of legislation.

Declassification Process In Need of Its Own Transparency

James Clapper
James Clapper

When former Senator Bob Graham—along with Rep. Walter Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch—met with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last week, Graham was surprised when Clapper suggested that the final move would be left to the Congress.

Graham told Carl Hulse of the New York Times, “No one has ever questioned that this is a decision that rests at the White House. The idea of adding another elongated, contentious step to the process is befuddling.”

When Dan Christensen of first broke the story of Clapper’s confusing comments, some observers interpreted that as possibly referring to a vote of the House or Senate intelligence committees. However, Graham says Clapper hinted at a scenario far more worrisome to transparency advocates. Wrote Hulse:

Mr. Graham said Mr. Clapper had compared the approach to the handling of a Senate report on C.I.A. torture of terror detainees. That document was reviewed by the Obama administration, which redacted parts of it over security concerns, and the Senate ultimately released an executive summary. But that was a messy process that took months of bitter fighting to resolve.

Responding to the Times story yesterday, the September 11th Advocates—a group of activist 9/11 widows—issued a two-page statement expressing alarm over the idea that the 28 pages could follow the same path as the torture report. In addition to expressing concern over the likelihood for delays, the group is also concerned about the idea that the final product would be a synopsis of the pages rather than full declassification: “Executive summaries are not meant to reveal facts or the truth— they are used to hide the facts and the truth. Thus, we find Clapper’s suggestion unacceptable.”

Reached yesterday by, Rep. Jones seemed hopeful for a more straightforward White House recommendation to declassify the material, promptly followed by in a simple vote from the intelligence committees or the full House and Senate. “If President Obama says, ‘I recommend that we declassify the 28 pages,’ I don’t think it would take 10 minutes for the House and Senate to do it. There’s just too much American interest in this,” he said.

The September 11th Advocates claimed that the continued classification of the 28 pages violates the executive order that governs classification. Specifically, they noted that Executive Order 13526 forbids the use of classification to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency, or to delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security—flawed rationales that have been alluded to by CIA Director John Brennan and the two chairmen of the 9/11 Commission.

A spokesperson for Clapper declined both a New York Times and request to clarify his remarks to Graham: It looks like it will be up to the White House to provide the American people with a clear understanding of the declassification end-game.

Saudi Lobby on the Offensive

Front Cover of Saudi Arabia's Counterterrorism Paper
Saudi Arabia’s Glossy Counterterrorism Paper

Last week, Politico revealed that Saudi lobbyists were distributing a slick, 104-page white paper extolling the kingdom’s dedication to countering terrorism. Yesterday, The Hill’s Julian Hattem reported that the lobbyists’ collateral package had grown to include a 38-page prebuttal of the 28 pages, and that Saudi lobbyists are characterizing proponents of 28 pages declassification as “delving into conspiracy theories.”

That term is rarely used in serious discussions of the 28 pages, however it was central to a highly Saudi-friendly paper on the topic published last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies—and then scathingly critiqued by CSIS accepts money from Saudi Arabia and a who’s who of defense companies that call the kingdom a customer.

We’ve obtained and posted both the Saudi white paper and 28 pages prebuttal so you can see precisely what the Saudis are selling.

House Hearing on Saudi Arabia and Counterterrorism

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

Yesterday, Texas Congressman Ted Poe chaired a hearing of a House foreign affairs subcommittee that focused on Saudi Arabia and counter-terrorism. (Archived video here.) A few highlights:

  • As The Intercept’s Alex Emmons reported, when the panel of witnesses was asked by California congressman and House Resolution 14 cosponsor Dana Rohrabacher if they believed “the royal family of Saudi Arabia did not know and was unaware that there was a terrorist plot being implemented that would result in an historic attack in the United States,” only two of the four raised their hands. One of the doubters was 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer, who declared it too difficult a question to answer with a show of hands—perhaps owing to the vast size of the royal family.
  • Rohrabacher said, “We are intentionally ignoring who’s financing (terrorism). It’s clear to all of us…that the Saudis and the Saudi royal family have been right up to their eyeballs in terrorist activity and supporting the terrorist activity of radical Islamic forces in the Middle East.”
  • The panelists were uniform in their support of releasing the 28 pages. Roemer said, “The 9/11 families deserve it, the American people deserve it, and justice deserves it. We have a right to transparency and sunlight.”
  • Poe said he has read the 28 pages and supports their release, but is notably absent from the list of cosponsors of HRes 14.
  • Georgetown University’s Dan Byman said the biggest beneficiary of Saudi intervention in Yemen has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Rep. Brad Sherman said Saudi Arabia can’t claim to oppose terrorism while supporting extremism: “It’s time for Saudi Arabia to come clean.”

Rand Paul Working to Catch-Up with House Allies

Senator Paul, who last year introduced a bill with Sen. Ron Wyden that would direct the president to declassify the 28 pages, yesterday introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would do the same thing.

While a House resolution aimed at achieving the release of the pages has been steadily accumulating cosponsors—reaching 62 this morning—the Senate bill has inexplicably languished, even after 60 Minutes thrust the issue into nationwide headlines last month and a number of senators advocated their declassification.

New York’s Kristin Gillibrand was an original cosponsor of the Senate bill; in stark contrast to what House declassification leaders Walter Jones, Stephen Lynch and Thomas Massie have accomplished, Paul and Wyden have yet to persuade even one additional senator to officially sign on to a cause that has wide public support.

This is the second time Paul has pursued a 28 pages amendment to the NDAA. Last year’s amendment was not taken up for a vote.

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Paul Offers NDAA Amendment to Drive Release of 28 Pages

Senator Rand Paul
Senator Rand Paul

Following through on intentions he announced earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul today offered an amendment to the pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require the president to declassify 28 pages on foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers. The language is identical to S.1471, the bill Paul introduced on Monday with Senators Ron Wyden and Kirsten Gillibrand.

In a story on Paul’s new move, The Hill’s Julian Hattem said the proposed amendment (No. 1680) “heightens the profile of the fight and may increase the stakes for the opponents.”

Speaking via press release, Paul said, “For over 13 years, the family members of the victims of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have been deprived of the details surrounding the redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry. I firmly believe the American people deserve a government that instills trust and a restoration of their sense of security, and think my amendment is a step in the right direction.”

Flushing Opponents of the 28 Pages Movement into Daylight

While there are a growing number of vocal champions of the declassification of the 28 pages, those who want the 28 pages kept under wraps have worked quietly and effectively out of public view.

As we wrote earlier this year, “It’s likely that among the most powerful of those unseen opponents of 9/11 transparency are two strange bedfellows: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—which has fueled the growth of terror, and the U.S. intelligence community—which is charged with thwarting terror.”

Paul’s amendment to the must-pass NDAA could force some of those opponents—and, more specifically, their Senate allies—out of the shadows.

In addition to Wyden and Gillibrand, there are 11 other senators who, if they are consistent on principle, should support Paul’s amendment. Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Harry Reid (NV), Barbara Boxer (CA), Patty Murray (WA), Dick Durbin (IL), Jack Reed (RI), Chuck Schumer (NY), Bill Nelson (FL), Tom Carper (DE) and Maria Cantwell (WA) each signed a 2003 letter asking then-President George W. Bush to release the 28 pages.

Similar 2003 Move Thwarted by McConnell

This isn’t the first time a senator has tried to elevate the 28 pages by way of an amendment to a bill. In October 2003, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan offered an amendment to the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act, urging Bush to reverse his decision to redact the 28 pages.

Dorgan offered the amendment twice, but was thwarted on each attempt by then-GOP Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, who objected and claimed that the amendment was not germane to the legislation. (For transcripts of that debate—which included a supporting speech from Senator Bob Graham—click here and here.)

McConnell, who is now Senate Majority Leader, recently engaged in a high-profile—yet cordial—parliamentary battle with Paul over the extension of the PATRIOT Act.

Where Dorgan’s “sense of the Senate” amendment would have urged the president to declassify the 28 pages, Paul’s language is more forceful. His amendment and bill each say that, not later than 60 days after the NDAA’s enactment, “the president shall declassify and release to the public the previously redacted portions” of the report of the joint intelligence inquiry where the 28 pages are found.

Protecting “Sources and Methods” or Preventing Embarrassment?

However, the language may also offer President Obama an opportunity to continue his administration’s refusal to release the 28 pages, as it says he is not required to declassify sources and methods if that release would “result in imminent lawless action or compromise presently on-going national security operations.”

Rep. Walter Jones
Rep. Walter Jones

In 2003, Bush invoked “sources and methods” when defending his decision to classify the pages, saying “Declassification of that part of a 900-page document would reveal sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror. … It would help the enemy if they knew our sources and methods.”

Among many who have read the 28 pages, Congressman Walter Jones denies that declassification would harm national security in any way, pointing to other motives for the secrecy. “There’s nothing in it about national security. It’s about the Bush administration and its relationship with the Saudis,” Jones told The New Yorker.

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