Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons
By Dan Christensen
In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.
At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.
A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.
Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.
Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).
“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.
Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”
Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:
‘Significant public interest’
“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”
The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.
Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.
Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”
The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:
- “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
- “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
- “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.’’
- “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided.”
- “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”
- “July – August 2001: Knife purchases”
- “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
- “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
- “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
- “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.
Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.
A future king’s involvement
Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.
The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”
Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.
The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.
Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”
For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.
Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.
Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.
After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.
FBI tries to discredit own report
In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.
Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.
One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.
The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.
In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”
The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.
Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”
On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.
“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”