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.
“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?
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.”
In 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?
On 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.
“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.