The movement to declassify 28 pages said to link Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 hijackers received two powerful endorsements today, as the editorial boards of the New York Times and USA Today each urged the president to release the pages to the public.
In an editorial titled, “Unfinished Business from 9/11,” the Times noted that President Obama tasked the intelligence community with reviewing the material for declassification in 2014. “The process is still dragging on. The 28 pages should be released immediately,” said the Times.
The Times, like many others in media and the Saudi Arabian government itself, put too much emphasis on the 9/11 Commission report’s statement that the investigation found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials” funded the hijackers. In the highly influential 60 Minutes segment that aired April 10, former 9/11 commissioner John Lehman pointedly said the statement was “not an exoneration.”
The Times also used its editorial to declare “valid” Obama’s reservations about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would clear a path for 9/11 victims and families to sue Saudi Arabia. Obama and other opponents claim that weakening U.S. sovereign immunity laws may inspire other countries to do that same, exposing not only the U.S. government, but also American businesses and individuals to widened litigation.
An op-ed piece penned this week by the 9/11 plaintiffs’ attorneys counters that the White House position is based on “troubling mischaracterizations of current law and JASTA itself.” Attorney Sean Carter elaborated on those mischaracterizations in a radio interview with Michael Smerconish.
The USA Today editorial, “U.S. Saudi Ties Full of Knots,” begins by acknowledging lingering questions about an alleged Saudi government role in the attacks: “There has long been more innuendo than fact, thanks in part to the continuing classification of the notorious ’28 pages.'”
Noting the controversy about the significance of the 28 pages, USA Today quoted 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow as saying the 28 pages were largely comprised of “preliminary, unvetted reports.” However, there are many reasons why Zelikow may not be an unbiased voice on the issue.
Similar to the Times’ stance on JASTA, USA Today said, “Congress might be getting ahead of itself with the bill to strip Saudi Arabia of its sovereign immunity against lawsuits over terrorism ties,” but concludes that it’s “better to start by declassifying the infamous 28 pages and begin to publicly sort out what the Saudi role in 9/11 really was. Proof of Saudi government complicity would be a powerful argument for letting lawsuits proceed.”
Things have been moving fast since a momentous 60 Minutes report on the drive to declassify 28 pages on foreign government financing of 9/11. Here’s your personal briefing on all the latest developments.
Declassification Decision in “One or Two Months”
Brett Holmgren, senior policy advisor to the assistant to the president for Homeland Security, called former Senator Bob Graham on Tuesday to say a declassification review of the 28 pages will be completed “soon.” Pressed by Graham for a more precise estimate, Holmgren was said to reply “one or two months.”
The review of just 28 pages has been ongoing since the summer of 2014. Last year, a spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to tell us on what day or even in what month the president tasked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with the review.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Signals Support
Congressman Devin Nunes, chair of the House intelligence committee, said the “benefits of publishing this information would outweigh any potential damage to America’s national security.” House Resolution 14, which urges the president to declassify the 28 pages, has 41 cosponsors and been referred to the intelligence committee, but Nunes has yet to schedule hearings on it.
There’s no new word yet from his counterpart, Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee. According to Carl Hulse in a February 2015 New York Times story, Burr “said he was skeptical of the value of releasing the pages, calling them more of a historical document in a fight against terrorism that has shifted substantially since 2002.” [Call the two chairmen right now and ask them to schedule hearings on H.Res.14 and S.1471. Here’s how.]
Congressman: 28 Pages Present “Clear and Startling Picture”
Congressman Rick Nolan this week renewed his support for declassifying the 28 pages. Nolan, who has read the secret chapter, said the secret chapter of the congressional intelligence report “presents a clear and startling picture of who financed the attacks.”
Nolan, a cosponsor of H.Res.14, also said the 28 pages “detail the probable financing behind the Saudi Arabian terrorists…and they confirm that much of the rhetoric preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq was terribly wrong.”
Graham: 60 Minutes Report Didn’t Tell Full Story of Saudi 9/11 Ties
In investigative journalist Dan Christensen’s latest piece, Bob Graham acknowledged disappointment that 60 Minutes didn’t include some “other important information about 9/11,” including the story of an undisclosed FBI investigation into a wealthy Saudi family that abruptly abandoned its Sarasota home two weeks before 9/11. It was later established that the family’s home had been visited by future 9/11 hijackers including Mohammed Atta.
Christensen broke the news of that FBI investigation, has requested the declassification of the 28 pages through a process called Mandatory Declassification Review, and is also party to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking the records of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. His new piece provides an excellent summary of his work to date and the status of his own 9/11 declassification maneuvers: Read it here.
Saudi Government Ridicules 60 Minutes Report
On Sunday evening, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia issued a statement calling the 60 Minutes report “a compilation of myths and erroneous charges that have been thoroughly addressed not just by the Saudi government but also by the 9-11 Commission and the U.S. courts.”
It went on to declare that “the 9/11 Commission confirmed that there is no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia supported or funded al-Qaeda.” That Saudi assertion had already been contradicted in the 6o Minutes report by 9/11 Commission members, including former Senator Bob Kerrey, who said, “We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the resources. We certainly didn’t pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi embassy described the joint congressional intelligence inquiry that produced the 28 pages as an “infamous” undertaking “which aimed at perpetuating these myths instead of investigating them seriously.”
Conspicuously absent from the Saudi statement was a reiteration of its 2003 request that the 28 pages be released so the kingdom could address its contents in the open.
Victims’ Attorneys Respond to Saudi Statement
On Tuesday, James Kreindler and Sean Carter, who represent 9/11 families and victims, responded to the Saudi critique of the 60 Minutes piece. Among other points, the attorneys countered a Saudi claim that U.S. courts had dismissed the kingdom from the 9/11 suit for “sheer absence of any substantive claims” by noting that the Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs had presented a “wealth of evidence, conscientiously cited to published and unpublished sources.”
Kreindler and Carter said, “In fact, the kingdom has never been willing to address the merits of the families’ claims—it has at every stage hidden behind the defense of sovereign immunity, maintaining that U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction to even consider the families’ evidence that Saudi agencies and employees supported al Qaeda and the hijackers in carrying out the worst terrorist attacks in history on US soil. If the kingdom is as confident as it purports to be about its innocence, there is a simple way to prove it—just withdraw the immunity defense it has been hiding behind for 12 years and answer the charges on the merits.”
Dorgan: American People “Deserve” Declassification
Byron Dorgan, who represented North Dakota in the House and Senate, said, “I am absolutely convinced that the American people deserve and need to see what’s in those pages, because only then will they fully understand that they can connect the dots to the financing and other things. It’s just sad to me that’s been labeled ‘top secret.’”
In 2003, Dorgan twice offered language similar to the current H.Res.14 as an amendment to other bills. His effort was thwarted by procedural objections initiated by Senator Mitch McConnell.
Under Media Pressure, White House Resets Review Expectations
The Obama administration’s assurance to Graham that the review should be completed in “one or two months” came just a day after White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced a far less ambitious timetable.
CBS News correspondent Bill Plante kicked off what turned into eight minutes of questioning that centered on how a review of just 28 pages could be nearing the start of its third year, and when the American people could expect it to end. Earnest initially deferred to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Pressed, he said the president “hopes” to see the review completed before his term ends in January 2017.
Pelosi Revives Her Pro-Declassification Stance
In 2003, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi sharply criticized the George W. Bush administration’s decision to declassify the 28 pages—but fell silent on the topic for the first seven years of the Obama administration.
Hours before the 60 Minutes report aired, she issued a statement saying, “I agree with former Senator Bob Graham that these documents should be declassified and made public, and that the Bush Administration’s refusal to do so was a mistake. I have always advocated for providing as much transparency as possible to the American people consistent with protecting our national security.”
One Sloppy Headline Begets Another
As noted above, Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times was first to report the news of the White House call to former Senator Bob Graham assuring a near-term conclusion to the long-running declassification review of the 28 pages. Morgan was on the money, but the editor who penned her headline wasn’t: The story’s title declared that the declassification is “underway.”
Other outlets, racing to follow Morgan’s scoop, took their cue from the headline and doubled down on the mischaracterization. The Daily Beast’s headline said, “Senator Graham: 9/11 Declassification Happening,” and the brief item beneath it said the White House told Graham “the papers are set to be released to the public.” Slate erred in much the same way but corrected it after feedback from a 28 pages activist. The Daily Beast corrected the headline but left the over-exuberant story intact.
To its great credit, however, the Tampa Bay Times on Monday issued an editorial urging the release of the 28 pages.
Lehman Quote Goes Unscrutinized
In our report on the historic 60 Minutes segment, we noted that CBS inexplicably relegated the most intriguing statement in any of its interviews to a web-only extra feature. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, asked if the 28 pages include specific names, said, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
While we have yet to see any other outlets analyze Lehman’s remark, here’s some speculation from the world of social media:
The movement to declassify 28 pages on foreign government ties to 9/11 received its highest-profile exposure to date tonight, as 60 Minutes aired a report that featured insights from several former officials who are familiar with what the 28 pages contain—and believe the information should be public.
Even before it aired, Steve Kroft’s report had already had an impact: This afternoon, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement reviving her long-dormant stance that the pages should be declassified.
The 28 pages are an entire chapter in the 838-page report of a joint House-Senate intelligence inquiry into 9/11 conducted in 2002. They were redacted by the George W. Bush administration over the objection of many who served on the inquiry, and of 46 senators who signed a 2003 letter to Bush demanding the release of the pages to the public. Among the signatories: future Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and future Vice President Joe Biden.
“Substantial” Saudi Support for 9/11 Terrorists
While none of the individuals Kroft spoke to disclosed any specifics about their contents, former Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the inquiry, told Kroft he believes Saudi Arabia “substantially” supported the 19 hijackers. Asked if that support came from the government, wealthy individuals or charities, Graham said, “All of the above.”
Kroft elicited a particularly intriguing statement that, surprisingly, wasn’t included in the prime time segment, but can be found in an online “60 Minutes Overtime” segment. Asked if the 28 pages include specific names, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
Perhaps the strongest unclassified indication of Saudi support of the 9/11 hijackers was found in San Diego, where future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar received cash, assistance with lodging and other help from Omar al-Bayoumi, who is widely believed to have been an operative for the Kingdom.
Though they weren’t covered in the 60 Minutes segment, there are unanswered questions—and more government resistance to transparency—concerning an FBI investigation of a wealthy Saudi family that appeared to have multiple contacts with future 9/11 hijackers including Mohammed Atta from their home in Sarasota. The family abandoned the residence in haste just days before the attacks.
Investigative journalists have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the FBI’s records of its investigation of the Sarasota Saudis. The FBI initially said it had no files on it; a federal judge is now reviewing more than 80,000 pages the FBI ultimately produced.
Along with the secrecy of the 28 pages, the reluctance of the government to share the Florida files is part of what Graham previously called “a pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11, by all of the agencies of the federal government which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.”
Proponents of the release of the 28 pages ostensibly have a surprising ally: Saudi Arabia itself. As former Congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer told Kroft, “Look, the Saudis have even said they’re for declassifying it.”
While it’s true that Saudi Arabia, in the summer of 2003, formally requested that the Bush administration declassify the 28 pages, the public plea may have been offered with confidence—or perhaps even an assurance—that the White House would deny it. In 2014, Congressman Stephen Lynch told MNSBC’s Chris Hayes, “I think there might be some duplicity on the part of the Saudis in terms of them desiring this to be disclosed.”
Protecting Saudi Arabia…At What Cost?
Though Bush attributed the classification of the 28 pages to a need to protect intelligence “sources and methods,” Lehman forcefully refuted the idea that the secrecy is justified.
Referring to himself and other former officials who’ve read the 28 pages and favor their release, Lehman said, “We’re not a bunch of rubes that rode into Washington for this commission….we’ve seen fire and we’ve seen rain and the politics of national security. We all have dealt for our careers in highly classified and compartmentalized in every aspect of security. We know when something shouldn’t be declassified….those 28 pages in no way fall into that category.”
In his report, Kroft said, “Graham and others believe the Saudi role has been soft-pedaled to protect a delicate relationship with a complicated kindgom where the rulers, royalty, riches and religion are deeply intertwined in its institutions.”
There was no mention of a more specific interest Bush may have been protecting when he redacted the pages: His family’s close, multi-generational ties to the Saudi royals, ties that are deeply personal and financial. Likewise missing was commentary on the apparent double-standard applied as the U.S. government identified friend and foe in the nascent “war on terror.”
Graham has previously asserted that, by covering up Saudi ties to the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, the Bush and Obama administrations have only encouraged their continued sponsorship of extremism and proliferation of the ultra-conservative form of Islam called Wahhabism.
Classified State Department documents published on Wikileaks acknowledge Saudi support for extremism enduring well beyond 2001. “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups,” declared then-Secretary of State Clinton in a 2009 cable. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Kroft also spoke with Jim Kreindler and Sean Carter, attorneys representing families of 9/11 victims suing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its alleged financial and logistical support of the 9/11 hijackers. In September, a federal judge dropped Saudi Arabia from that suit for lack of evidence.
Though that decision is being appealed, the case underscores why the press to release of the 28 pages isn’t a mere exercise in updating the history of that pivotal event.
“It’s been difficult for us because, for many years, we weren’t getting the kind of openness and cooperation that we think our government owes to the American people, particularly the families of people who were murdered,” said Kreindler.
In proclaiming its innocence, the Saudi government has routinely pointed to a sentence from the report of the 9/11 Commission: “We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
Carter said the sentence was written with a precision that deliberately narrowed its meaning: “They conspicuously leave open the potential that they found evidence that people who were officials that they did not regard as official had done so.”
The 9/11 Commission’s Lehman agreed: “It’s not an exoneration.”
Lehman’s fellow commission member and former Senator Bob Kerrey told Kroft the 9/11 Commission wasn’t able to fully examine the leads found in the 28 pages. “We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the resoures. We certainly didn’t pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia.”
President Obama to Visit Saudi Arabia Next Week
The publicity around the 28 pages and allegations that a country often described as a U.S. ally aided and abetted the 9/11 hijackers comes at particularly sensitive time: President Obama will visit the kingdom on April 21.
The close U.S.-Saudi relationship sparks anger in many of those who lost loved ones on September 11, among them, Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, worked in the World Trade Center.
Anticipating the president’s upcoming trip, Breitweiser wrote, “I only wish I could adequately relay the disgust I have in my heart when I anticipate having to see my president smiling, laughing, and joking with his ‘special Saudi friends’ — the very same people who I believe underwrote the murder of my husband and nearly 3,000 others.”
Undermined by the U.S. government’s refusal to share everything it knows about the September 11 attacks, the pursuit of justice by 9/11 family members and survivors could be stopped in its tracks within the next 90 days.
In a courtroom just minutes from the World Trade Center, lawyers for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last Thursday asked Judge George Daniels to release the kingdom from a lawsuit seeking to hold it liable for aiding the 9/11 hijackers.
Representing Saudi Arabia, attorney Michael Kellogg said the victims have failed to provide “admissible, concrete, competent evidence” of Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the attacks.
Meanwhile, a 28-page chapter from a 2002 joint congressional intelligence inquiry that might tip the scales of justice in the plaintiffs’ favor remains out of reach, thanks to President Obama’s reluctance to declassify it.
Sean Carter, who represents the families and survivors, told New York’s PIX11 News, “The nature of Saudi support of al Qaeda remains classified at this point…it’s an issue that is featured in a whole range of intelligence documents…there is no real reason for them to be remain classified this many years out.”
The 28 pages detail specific sources of financial support for the hijackers and, according to former Senator Bob Graham, “point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier” of the attacks that killed 2,977 people. Graham and many others who’ve read the 28 pages insist there is no national security justification for the secrecy.
Saudi Arabia’s attorneys claim the 9/11 Commission Report exonerated the kingdom, a notion that’s refuted by, among others, commission member Bob Kerrey. In a sworn statement submitted for the suit last year, the former Nebraska senator wrote, “To the contrary, significant questions remain unanswered concerning the possible involvement of Saudi government institutions…and evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”
The debate over the commission’s conclusion may be rendered moot with the release of the 28 pages: Congressman Walter Jones, who is leading the declassification drive in the House of Representatives, told the New Yorker “those 28 pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 (Commission) Report.”
Will Judge Daniels “Connect the Dots”?
According to Michael D. Goldhaber, writing for The American Lawyer, Thursday’s courtroom exchanges emphasized a February 2000 meeting at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles between alleged San Diego-based Saudi agent Omar al Bayoumi and embassy staffer Fahad al Thumairy. Plaintiffs attorneys and many observers point to that meeting as evidence of Saudi ties to the 9/11 plot.
Immediately after the meeting, al Bayoumi went to a restaurant where he said he just happened to befriend 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, who had only days earlier arrived in the United States. (According to Graham’s book, “Intelligence Matters,” before leaving San Diego for Los Angeles that day, al Bayoumi told at least one person he was going to pick up visitors.)
Al Bayoumi proceeded to help the two move to San Diego, initially hosting them in his own home. He helped them find an apartment, paid their first two months rent and introduced them to a network of associates that included Anwar al Awlaki, who would become a prominent al Qaeda figure before dying in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
Al Bayoumi’s wife served as a conduit for cashiers checks routed from a Saudi princess, and al Bayoumi himself received a dramatic, temporary raise at his no-show cover job coinciding with his generous sponsorship of the pair. On 9/11, al Hazmi and al Mihdhar hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.
That mountain of circumstantial evidence, however, might not be enough to dissuade Judge Daniels from dropping Saudi Arabia from the suit. According to Goldhaber, Judge Daniels challenged the plaintiffs’ attorneys on exactly what was said at al Bayoumi’s meeting at the Saudi consulate, asking, “What’s the factual basis for you to allege that when al Thumairy met with al Bayoumi he said, ‘Give lodging to the hijackers, assist them and give financial support to the hijackers so that they can carry out the 9/11 attacks?’”
Summing the situation, Goldhaber writes, “The quest for historical truth threatens to founder on the judge’s futile desire for direct knowledge of espionage….This case ain’t going to trial against Saudi unless Judge Daniels is willing to connect the dots. The irony is that Daniels already entered a $6 billion default judgment against Iran on far weaker evidence.” (Indeed, even the word “evidence” seems too generous in the context of that case.)
Judge Daniels said he would render his decision within 90 days.
Heightened Urgency for Declassification Effort
Last summer, President Obama tasked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to review the 28 pages for potential declassification. With a year passing since that order, and with the clock ticking on Judge Daniels’ self-imposed deadline, citizens, journalists and legislators should all be asking the White House one simple question: What’s taking so long?
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Chris Mondics, who helped bring to light the promises President Obama made to 9/11 family members to declassify the 28-page finding on foreign government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, has a new story today that focuses on the latest filing by Philly law firm Cozen O’Connor, which is suing the government of Saudi Arabia on behalf of victims, survivors, families and insurers.
As Mondics reports:
The heart of the new filing, essentially an amended complaint reflecting Saudi Arabia’s reinstatement, is the argument that the Saudi royal family, in a bid to retain power, ceded ever greater authority to radical clerics in the early 1980s.
That strategy followed an armed revolt by religious fanatics who briefly took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. The attack made clear that the royal family was on thin ice. To compensate, the family gave fundamentalists broad access to government ministries, Islamist charities, and diplomatic missions, enabling them to spread a virulent form of Islam.
Cozen’s lawsuit is gaining strength, thanks to new investigation details gleaned via the discovery process and Freedom of Information Act requests. The growing mass of evidence increasingly points to a conclusion that interactions between Saudi government employee Omar al-Bayoumi and 9/11 terrorists were not mere happenstance:
Bayoumi claimed after the World Trade Center attacks that his meeting the hijackers was coincidental. But it is one of a chain of events that appear too improbable to be random.
The key facts unfold on the morning of Feb. 1, 2000, when Bayoumi says he traveled from his home in San Diego to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles to meet with an official of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs named Fahad al-Thumairy.
A few hours later, Bayoumi claims to have met Hazmi and Mihdhar by chance at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. Three days later, Bayoumi offered to resettle Hazmi and Mihdhar in San Diego, where he helped them find an apartment and open a bank account.
That same day, Bayoumi made four phone calls to Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter and operative, whose radical preaching had served as inspiration for Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, according to an FBI memorandum acquired by the Cozen firm.
Lead Cozen litigator Sean Carter told Mondics, “Just as a matter of coincidence, you would have less of a chance running into that many people with links to terrorism in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2001.” Read the entire story here.
Have your representative and senators read the 28-page finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers—or are they part of a mass dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill?