FBI’s attempt to water down judicial order denied; 9/11 documents begin to flow to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers fbitower.jpg

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.

Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private, or “in camera,” inspection.

The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.

The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

NEIGHBORS CALL THE AUTHORITIES

Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al Hijji’s home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the Bureau never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince him that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.

The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.

Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI. He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.

But the government pushed back.

GOVERNMENT SEEKS MORE TIME, LESS REQUIREMENTS

On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay – until May 2 – to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.

Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled secret, and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa (9/11) sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”

The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format.  He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.

Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.

“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.

Finally, Judge Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al Hijj and his father-in-law Esam Ghazzawi, once an adviser to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.

The government has contended the privacy interests of al Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

Judge awaits FBI’s Sarasota Saudi documents; Justice Department wants more time

By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune september11

Relatives of 9/11 victims are eagerly watching the legal struggle over information held by the FBI concerning a Saudi Arabian family in Sarasota with possible ties to terrorists, even as calls in Congress ramp up for more disclosure about how the attackers were funded.

On Friday, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale was expected to receive FBI documents pertaining to the agency’s investigation of the Saudi family that abruptly left Sarasota just before the September 2001 attacks.

Late Thursday, however, the government asked for more time to submit the records, saying the materials that need to be searched comprise 23 boxes totaling 92,000 pages in the agency’s Tampa field office – some of the documents carrying a “secret” classification.

Government lawyers proposed a May 2 deadline, but the judge did not immediately grant the government’s request.

On April 4, the judge ordered the FBI to turn over the materials in response to a lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org that was joined by both the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald.

“Defendants’ eagerness to assert exemptions and wooden method of interpreting Plaintiffs’ (Freedom of Information Act) requests essentially deprives the Court of its role in examining any relevant documents and independently determining whether any exemptions may apply,” U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch wrote of the FBI, a defendant in the case.

Zloch ordered a more exhaustive new search, with the resulting documents to be delivered — uncensored — to him for review Friday. Additional documentation is due in June.

Family members have strongly denied any ties to the 9/11 terrorists.

If the judge eventually makes those documents public, the 16-month-old lawsuit could dovetail with a larger effort to shed more light on who financed the jet attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

One effort is centered in New York federal court, where a 12-year-old case seeks $1 trillion in damages for the relatives of nearly 10,000 9/11 victims.

In that case, families are attempting to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and charities that it established.

In Congress, meanwhile, there is a growing drumbeat to make public a censored 28-page chapter about the terrorists’ financing, pulled by unnamed government censors from the report of the “Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 2001.” The joint Congressional report, minus the censored chapter, runs about 800 pages and was published in late 2002.

The classified section is believed by activists to be based on FBI and CIA documents, and to point fingers at Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States and a key oil supplier.

“It all ties together about financing power, leading back to the Saudis,” said Bill Doyle, a retired stockbroker who lives in the Central Florida community of The Villages, and whose youngest son, Joseph, died after being trapped in the World Trade Center.

Doyle is among the lead plaintiffs in one of three lawsuits against Saudi Arabia that have been combined into a single federal court action entitled “In Re: Terrorist Attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Saudi Arabia et al.)”

He said he also believes the Sarasota connection — in which a Saudi family abruptly departed the U.S. two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind many possessions — could answer questions about larger issues.

“You take off a week or so before 9/11 and go back to Saudi Arabia and leave dirty diapers, food, two brand- new cars and a house. And there is also evidence that some of the people who were training over at Huffman Aviation in Venice were visiting their house,” Doyle said.

“It all ties together.”

Saudi Arabia arguments

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will likely soon decide if it will hear arguments from the kingdom’s attorneys, who want their client removed as a defendant.

If successful, it would mark the second time that those lawyers have convinced a court to drop Saudi Arabia as a defendant.

In the first case, they argued that U.S. law does not allow suits against sovereign nations for damages. But a federal appeals court reversed that decision in December.

“We anticipate hearing from the Supreme Court in late June,” said Robert Haefele, an attorney who represents more than half of the 10,000 plaintiffs in the combined suits.

Sharon Premoli, co-chairwoman of activist group 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, is also pushing for all FBI documents to be made public.

“The 28 pages are part and parcel of the FBI documents,” said Premoli, who survived the terror attacks and narrowly escaped from the Trade Center’s north tower. “It is all one big cover-up.”

Doyle and Premoli’s efforts are in sync with those of retired U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional inquiry that published the 800-page report. The former Florida governor has battled for years to have the censored chapter about possible terror financing declassified.

Recently, a pair of congressmen have also called on President Barack Obama to declassify the censored pages, and written a form letter to other members of Congress urging them to review the missing chapter.

“The information contained in the redacted pages is critical to U.S. foreign policy moving forward and should thus be available to the American people,” said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-North Carolina.

Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, have also introduced a House resolution to declassify the 28 pages, which has drawn some bipartisan support.

Both had to go through a lengthy process to read the 28 pages, which are kept under tight security, and each was monitored by a federal agent making sure that notes were not taken and the pages were not copied or removed.

President Obama has publicly promised to make the chapter public, but thus far has not done so.

“We have a burning question,” Premoli said. “We would like to know if President Obama has read the 28 pages.”

Local connections to 9/11

What already is clear — and has been since shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — is that three of the 9/11 terrorists paid for flight training at Venice Airport.

Unclear is how they paid for that training and other activities.

The terror cell living in Sarasota County was one of a number scattered around the nation. Others are known to have existed in Los Angeles and San Diego, and in Falls Church, Va.

In the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org — joined as “friends of the court” by the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald — the Justice Department acknowledged that it has tens of thousands of documents related to the Southwest Florida portion of its overall 9/11 investigation.

To date, the Bulldog has received 35 heavily redacted pages. The pages that were released, however, said the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

In a 10th anniversary story by BrowardBulldog.org and published in the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale news organization claimed that the same terrorists who trained in Venice visited a home in the gated Prestancia community owned by Saudi businessman, Esam Ghazzawi, who had close ties to the Saudi royal family.

For six years prior to 9/11, the home was occupied by Ghazzawi’s daughter, Anoud, and her husband, Abdulazziz al Hijji. “Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers,” the Bulldog reported.

The FBI initially refused a Bulldog request to search for the family’s names in its archives, claiming that would amount to an invasion of privacy.

In his recent order, Judge Zloch described the FBI’s initial search as “preemptively narrowed in scope based on agency decisions that categories of documents are exempt, and thus, will not even be sought.”

Zloch then ordered the agency to use its most advanced document search system, and provided specific search terms — including the family’s names — that the FBI was required to use.

The Reagan appointee and former Notre Dame quarterback also ordered the original uncensored documents to be delivered to him for private review.

That is known in legal terms as “in camera.”

A conservative judge rebukes FBI as he orders it to find and turn over 9/11 documents

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch has a reputation as a no-nonsense, conservative judge who can be short on patience, but is long on courtroom preparation and does not recoil from speaking his mind.

On Friday, after months of legal wrangling, Zloch spoke his mind for the first time on the FBI’s handling of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by BrowardBulldog.org that seeks records from the Bureau’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In a stinging, 23-page order, Zloch told the Department of Justice that it had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior records searches had been “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents,” as courts have said the law requires.

Zloch ordered the FBI to do something it had not done: use its sophisticated, $440 million Sentinel case management system to lead the search for relevant documents while adhering to various court-ordered conditions, including specific automated text searches. The judge gave the Bureau until April 18 – two weeks – to produce photocopies for his private inspection of all documents it identifies.

Zloch’s ruling is a “strong, clear directive to the FBI,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who in 2002 chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and has pushed Washington to release the FBI’s files about what happened in Sarasota.

“Since 2002 many sources, including the U.S. Senate, have been attempting to get information such as that which is likely to be disclosed under Judge Zloch’s order made available. This is the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving that objective,” said Graham.

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

Further, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a manual review of all documents in its Tampa field office regarding the Bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, code-named PENTTBOM. He gave the FBI until June 6 to complete that more time consuming task.

The Department of Justice has opposed any additional search. In court papers filed last August, it argued that a manual review would require “extraordinary effort, time and resources to conduct.”

“The manual review which plaintiffs are requesting is not reasonable; nor is it warranted,” the department argued in court papers filed in August. “The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation.”

Zloch disagreed. He decided a more thorough search is necessary due to “inconsistencies and concerns” about the government’s searches to date, as well as his need to assure himself that “the documents in dispute exist.”

Zloch noted, too, that early FBI assertions that its initial searches had yielded no responsive documents were followed months later, after the lawsuit was filed, by the release of 35 heavily redacted pages. Those pages, some partially blacked out on grounds of national security, contained no investigative reports yet did include some summary information that contradicted prior FBI public statements about the findings of its Sarasota investigation.

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” the order says.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the non-profit news organization, said it appears Judge Zloch “definitely wants to get to the bottom of this and doesn’t like the fact that the FBI put out public statements trying to discredit the Bulldog’s reporting…His order makes it sound like he believes the government may be deliberately covering up.”

Zloch’s order goes beyond instructing the FBI to search and produce its own investigative reports. It also requires both the Justice Department and the FBI to “advise the court of any documented communications between defendants and other government agencies concerning the investigation” of the Sarasota Saudis. Again, Zloch wants that information by June 6.

“He’s showing real sensitivity to the likelihood that the FBI is acting under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency,” said Julin. “If the FBI is simply following orders then he is telling the FBI he wants to know what those orders are and from who they are coming, whether it’s the CIA, the NSA or the President.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2012, after the FBI denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the agency’s reports about its Sarasota investigation.

A year earlier, BrowardBulldog.org had first disclosed the existence of the investigation in a story that reported how Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple, had abruptly moved out of their home in Sarasota’s Prestancia development and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before September 11, 20001.  Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Law enforcement focused on the al-Hijjis after suspicious neighbors called following the attacks to report that the couple had appeared to depart in haste, leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothing and even food in the kitchen.

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

The story reported that agents who later searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found evidence in logbooks and snapshots of license plates that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s home. A law enforcement source said an analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and former Broward resident Adnan Shukrijumah, a fugitive and alleged al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stated that a now imprisoned terrorist figure, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who prior to 9/11 had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Al-Hijj was interviewed last year by the London Telegraph. He acknowledged knowing Hammoud, but denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terror attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, ex-Sen. Graham has said.

In his order, Judge Zloch explained that his doubts about the quality of the FBI’s prior records searches was rooted in part in the “gaps and inconsistencies” he observed in the handful of documents the FBI has produced to date.

He noted, for example, that one FBI document written after the Sarasota story broke in 2011 states that the investigation found no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers while another, dated April 2002, says authorities found “many connections” between the family and  “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“These statements seem to be in conflict, and there is nothing in defendant’s 35 produced pages that reconciles this stark contradiction,” the order says.

Skeptical U.S. judge gives FBI two weeks to conduct better search of 9/11 records

 

fbilogo

UPDATE 4/4/14 — Troubled by “inconsistencies” and the government’s sometimes “nonsensical” legal arguments, a federal judge on Friday ordered the FBI to conduct a detailed search of its records for information about apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, saying the Justice Department had failed to show that the FBI satisfied the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, gave the FBI precise instructions as to how the search is to be conducted, right down to the text terms to be used and the databases to be queried.

The judge also imposed a tight deadline. The FBI must conduct the search and produce photocopies of all documents it finds to him by April. 18, two weeks from the date of his order.

A full story about this significant development in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA lawsuit seeking information about a local Saudi family’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers will be published this weekend.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

April 1 - A federal judge Monday ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its vast files to identify documents about its once secret investigation of terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch’s order also rejected a request by the Department of Justice to throw out the Freedom of Information case filed by BrowardBulldog.org in September 2012. Justice has argued that the release of certain information about the matter “would reveal current specific targets” of national security investigations.

The suit alleges the government has improperly withheld information about a local Saudi family’s apparent connections to terrorists including 9/11 hijack pilot Mohamed Atta and Adnan Shukrijumah, the former Broward resident and alleged al-Qaeda figure who’s got a $5 million federal bounty on his head.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the four-year-old news organization. “The decision tells the FBI that this federal judge wants to make sure that the truth comes out.”

In his four-page order, Judge Zloch said he would issue a separate order detailing steps the FBI must take to comply with his order requiring the additional records search.

BrowardBulldog.org asked the court in July to compel the additional document search. The suit was filed after the FBI denied the news organization’s record requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI RECORDS CONTRADICT PUBLIC STATEMENTS

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the Bureau unexpectedly released 35 heavily redacted pages, including four pages that were completely blanked out, and asserted it had no more responsive documents to produce. The declassified pages flatly contradicted earlier public statements by FBI agents in Sarasota and Miami that the decade-old investigation had found no evidence of terrorist activity.

In his order, Zloch noted the government has provided him with un-redacted copies of those pages “for the court’s inspection.”  Whether that information played a role in the judge’s decision is not known.

The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in a friend of the court brief last week, argued to the court, “The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate (record) searches.

In the motion requesting a better search, attorney Julin proposed a number of measures the FBI could take to identify records: Use its $440 million Sentinel computer system, employ better word searches and conduct a manual review of all 15,342 documents about its 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOM, said to be stored in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

The FOIA lawsuit seeks FBI records about its investigation of “activities at the residence at 4224 Escondito Circle in the Prestancia development near Sarasota, Florida prior to 9/11/2001 The activities involved apparent visits to that address by some of the deceased 9/11 hijackers.”

TIES TO TERRORISTS, TIES TO ROYALS

The address was the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji until August 2001, when the couple quit their home and returned to Saudi Arabia –leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other items. Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, the al-Hijji’s neighbors began calling the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to tell them about the couple’s abrupt departure.

BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story reported how agents who searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found logbooks and snapshots of license plates that provided evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including Atta, had visited the home. An analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and Shukrijumah, according to a law enforcement source.

An FBI informant later reported that prior to 9/11 al-Hijji had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Records obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show the FBI continued to investigate until at least 2004, when the informant was interviewed. The Bureau, however, never disclosed the existence of its investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

Graham has accused the FBI of impeding Congress’s inquiry into 9/11.

The 31 pages of FBI records released one year ago say that the Sarasota Saudis who “fled” their home before the attacks had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The records list three individuals, including one identified as a relative of the al-Hijjis, but their names were blanked out. All three, however, were tied to the Venice, Fl. flight school where Atta and fellow hijack pilot Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Attorney Julin said Monday’s federal court ruling could lead to a better public understanding of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

“Maybe now we’ll get a chance to find out what the FBI knew about the Sarasota Saudis and why it did not tell Congress,” said Julin.

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Citing broad public interest, newspapers ask judge to deny U.S. bid to block 9/11 lawsuit

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
BrowardBulldog.org 911weremember

Two Florida newspapers have asked a Fort Lauderdale federal judge to deny the Justice Department’s effort to shut down a Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records from an FBI investigation into apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota shortly before 9/11.

BrowardBulldog.org filed the suit in September 2012 alleging the government was improperly withholding records on the matter. The government, after unexpectedly releasing 31 highly censored pages last spring, argued the court should end the case due to national security considerations and asserted that a “reasonable search” had determined “there are no agency records being improperly withheld.”

Court papers filed Tuesday by attorneys for The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune say they were intervening “to stress that the outcome of this case is a matter of intense interest to the media and the public generally.” The newspapers also argued that “government officials charged with investigating terrorist connections in our state must also be held fully accountable.”

“The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate searches in response to its federal Freedom of Information Act request,” said the joint brief filed by Tampa attorneys Carol LoCicero, Rachel Fugate and Mark Caramanica. “The stakes are simply too great to accept as a matter of law the government’s vague, often second hand conclusions as to the adequacy of its document searches.”

The newspapers’ friend-of-the-court brief asks U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch not to be “too quick” to accept an agency’s claim that it conducted “an appropriate search,” citing examples where records that should have been produced were not.

One cited case involves the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, which sued in 2012 seeking records about the Obama Administration’s alleged coordination with the producers of Zero Dark Thirty, the motion picture about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Allegations had been made that the White House provided the filmmakers with access to highly sensitive national security records in order to burnish President Obama’s reputation prior to the 2012 election.

A judge ordered the CIA to produce records about the matter, “but it was only months later that additional ‘overlooked’ documents were produced that included illuminating correspondence among the White House, the Department of Defense and the CIA suggesting a coordinated effort to provide a heightened level of access to the filmmakers and a desire that the administration be portrayed positively.”

Broward Bulldog.org, represented in the suit by Miami attorney Thomas Julin,  first disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011.

The story reported how, a decade earlier, the FBI had found direct ties between 9/11 hijackers and a young Saudi couple, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who appeared to have hurriedly departed their upscale home in a gated community in the weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, a refrigerator full of food and an open safe in the master bedroom.

Anoud al-Hijji is the daughter of the home’s owner, Esam Ghazzawi, a long-time adviser to a senior Saudi prince. Ghazzawi was also a focus of FBI interest after 9/11 when agents sought to lure him back to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia to close the transaction when the home was sold, according to a lawyer for the homeowner’s association.

Agents searched gatehouse logbooks and license plate snapshots and found evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home, according to a counterterrorism agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. A sophisticated analysis of incoming and outgoing phone calls to the home also established links to Atta and other terrorists, including Adman Shukrijumah, the agent said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident, is currently on the FBI’s “most wanted” list and the State Department is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The FBI publicly acknowledged its investigation but said it had found nothing connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired Congress’ Joint inquiry into the attacks, has said the FBI never informed Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation.

The story has taken several twists since news of the investigation first broke.

In February 2012, Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained using the state’s public records law showed that in April 2004 Wissam Hammoud, a now imprisoned “international terrorist associate” then under arrest in Hillsborough County, told the FBI that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers who trained at a flight school in Venice, about 10 miles from the al-Hijji residence. Hammoud also told the FBI then that al-Hijji had  introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a local mosque prior to 9/11. Hammoud confirmed making those statements in an interview.

Al-Hijji was reached in London in 2012 where he worked for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. He told The Telegraph that he knew Hammoud, but denied any involvement with terrorists. He called 9/11 “an awful crime.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012  Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

One year ago, six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI suddenly made public 31 redacted pages about its Sarasota investigation. The records flatly contradicted the Bureau’s earlier public statements that it had found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers. Instead, the FBI records said the family had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The declassified documents tied three individuals, with names blanked out, to the Venice flight school where Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi trained. One of those individuals was described as a relative of the al-Hijjis, whose names were also redacted.

Last June, the Justice Department moved to end the lawsuit, citing national security. A senior FBI official told the judge disclosure of certain classified information about the Sarasota Saudis “would reveal current specific targets of the FBI’s national security investigations.”

The FBI did not explain how an investigation that it previously said had found no connection between those Saudis and the 9/11 attacks involved information so secret that its disclosure “could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.”

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

9/11 “cover up” could collapse as Saudi Arabia restored to victims’ lawsuit, says Bob Graham

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org towersbridge

With an unusual acknowledgment of a mistake in a high-profile case, a federal appeals court in New York City has restored Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by thousands of 9/11 victims, their families and others.

For a decade, the 9/11 plaintiffs have asserted that the desert kingdom bankrolled al Qaeda prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Now, they can once again pursue their claim in court.

The ruling also restores as a defendant the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a government agency the plaintiffs contend funneled tens of millions of dollars to terrorist fighters across the globe.

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, hailed Thursday’s ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.

“This is a very significant breakthrough that could collapse the dam of cover up which has kept information on the Saudis involvement from the American people,” Graham told BrowardBulldog.org in an exclusive interview.

Saudi Arabia, which has denied the lawsuit’s accusations as “categorically false,” had been dismissed from the sprawling lawsuit in 2005 on grounds of sovereign immunity, despite exceptions to that protection regarding acts of terrorism.

‘ERROR OF LAW’ 

The 16-page order by a three judge appellate court panel is a labyrinth of legal argument. Its essence, however, is that the court’s own conflicting rulings about how to apply the law in different 9/11 lawsuits led to an “error of law” by a lower federal court judge in New York, George B. Daniels, who wrongly let the Saudis off the hook for potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.

The rejuvenated case now goes back to Judge Daniels for further proceedings, the order said.

“We are very happy about the news and cautiously optimistic,” said 9/11 survivor Sharon Premoli, who was pulled from the wreckage of the North Tower.

“The appellate court’s decision is something I feared I would never see in my lifetime,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, died in the North Tower on 9/11. “Our group, 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism remains committed in our fight for the truth and justice.  Only then will we be able to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks and hold those accountable for the death, destruction, pain and suffering inflicted on us 13 years ago.”

saudiarabiamapBut Michael K. Kellogg, a Washington, D.C. attorney who represents Saudi Arabia, called the decision “contrary to settled law.”

“It is extremely unfortunate and burdensome that a sovereign nation and ally of the United States will continue to have to litigate this matter more than 10 years after it was filed. The government of Saudi Arabia will seek further review of this erroneous decision,” Kellogg said.

“It is also important to recognize that the Second Circuit’s decision has nothing to do with the facts of the case and does not find that the plaintiffs’ allegations are meritorious or even plausible.”

The ruling comes amid a parallel push in Congress to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would ensure that victims of terrorism on U.S. soil have the opportunity to hold its foreign sponsors accountable in U.S. courts.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, introduced JASTA in the Senate in September. Co-sponsors include seven Democrats and five Republicans. An identical bill in the House has similar drawn similar bipartisan support.

When Schumer introduced the bill, he said JASTA was needed “due to flawed court decisions that have deprived victims of terrorism on American soil, including those injured by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, of their day in court.”

‘SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE’ OF FUNDING TO AL QAEDA

Previously, Schumer said, “Substantial evidence establishes (the Saudi defendants) had provided funding and sponsorship to al Qaeda without which it could not have carried out the attacks.”

In a related development earlier this month on Capitol Hill, Reps. Walter B. Jones, R-NC and Stephen Lynch, D-Ma introduced a resolution urging President Obama to declassify 28 pages that were withheld from the public by President George W. Bush when Congress issued the Joint Inquiry’s report in late 2002.

The missing pages deal with “specific sources of foreign support” for the 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi nationals.

The two congressmen, who recently read the blacked out pages, told the New York Post that they were “absolutely shocked” at the level of foreign state involvement in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Former Sen. Graham, who helped write the censored 28 pages, has long championed their release as necessary to the public’s understanding of how the hijackers managed to pull off their murderous plot and who helped to finance it. He says the information should never have been kept hidden because its release poses no threat to national security.

“Without being able to go into details, I can tell you that there are some other channels that are also beginning to move on the 28 pages,” he said Friday. “I feel more optimistic about their release in the near term than I have in a dozen years.”

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch is considering whether to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its records regarding its once-secret investigation of apparent ties between Saudis living in a gated community near Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta.

BrowardBulldog.org disclosed the existence of the investigation two years ago. Sen. Graham and others have said the FBI told neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota probe.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily departed their upscale home, and left the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks. Authorities summoned by neighbors later found they’d left behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other personal items.

The FBI has said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

BrowardBulldog.org filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department and the FBI last year after its requests for records about the matter were denied. The Miami Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune have asked the judge to intervene in support of the Bulldog’s efforts.

Last spring, the FBI unexpectedly released 31 pages to the Bulldog that included an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

The FBI heavily redacted the reports, citing national security. Still, they disclose that those connections included a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where Atta and co-conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Atta piloted the American Airlines jetliner that slammed into the North Tower; al-Shehhi was at the controls of the United Airlines plane that rammed the South Tower.

New push to release censored pages in Congressional report that detail 9/11 link to Saudi Arabia

By Jamie Reno, International Business Times 

The skyline of New York's Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center.

The skyline of New York’s Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center.

Since terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, victims’ loved ones, injured survivors, and members of the media have all tried without much success to discover the true nature of the relationship between the 19 hijackers – 15 of them Saudi nationals – and the Saudi Arabian government. Many news organizations reported that some of the terrorists were linked to the Saudi royals and that they even may have received financial support from them as well as from several mysterious, moneyed Saudi men living in San Diego.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any connection, and neither President George W. Bush nor President Obama has been forthcoming on this issue. (more…)

On 9/11 anniversary, push in Congress to win day in court for victims of terrorism on U.S. soil

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org survivor911

Twelve years after al Qaeda hijackers flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – killing nearly 3,000 people – a renewed push is underway in Congress to ensure that victims of terrorism on American soil can hold its foreign sponsors to account in U.S. courts.

In the House next week, New York Congressmen Peter King, a Republican, and Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, are expected to introduce the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). New York Democrat Charles Schumer will sponsor the same bill in the Senate.

Congressional aides would not discuss the bills in advance of filing. Sen. Schumer, however, has said JASTA is needed “due to flawed court decisions that have deprived victims of terrorism on American soil, including those injured by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of their day in court.”

JASTA’s second purpose: to choke off the money pipeline flowing to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups by making those who fund them liable for damages in American courts.

“JASTA will allow all victims of terrorism in the U.S. what was intended by Congress – the right to hold terrorist financiers accountable in civil court,” said Sharon Premoli, who was in her office on the 80th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck.

“I’m all for this new bill. It’s important to deter terrorism and provide justice for victims,” said Rachel Ehrenfeld, an authority on terrorist financing and director of the New York-based noprofit American Center for Democracy.

HUNDREDS SUED, A DOZEN REMAIN

In the wake of 9/11, thousands of survivors, family members and business interests that suffered billions of dollars in losses sued several hundred defendants alleged to have provided financial and other material support to al Qaeda and others terrorist organizations. Those lawsuits were consolidated into a single sprawling federal case in 2003.

Among the defendants were the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an official Saudi charity and several Saudi princes. In 2005, however, the Saudis were dismissed from the case, principally on grounds of sovereign immunity.

The courts for other technical reasons of jurisdiction later dismissed most of the rest of the defendants. One striking reason: Under the Alien Tort Statute defendants must be shown to have committed a wrongful act in violation of international law, but the plaintiff/victims did not do so because no definition of “terrorism” existed “under customary international law as of September 11, 2001,” according to New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today, only about a dozen defendants remain, according to plaintiff’s attorney Jodi Flowers, of the Motley Rice law firm in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY

On Monday, Flowers and other attorneys for the 9/11 plaintiffs took their case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn a trio of adverse rulings by the Second Circuit in April.

Schumer and others contend the courts have misconstrued the law and Congressional intent that specifically authorized lawsuits and created exceptions to the doctrine of sovereign immunity in cases of terrorism.”

“SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE” 

“Substantial evidence establishes that (the Saudi defendants) had provided funding and sponsorship to al Qaeda without which it could not have carried out the attacks,” Schumer said in 2011.

If passed, JASTA would put Saudi Arabia and similar deep pockets back on the liability hook. Sen. Schumer and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) first introduced JASTA in December 2009. It was reintroduced in 2011 with broad bipartisan support, but drew little media attention and did not become law.

9/11 Families for Justice Against Terrorism, a group that represents more than 6,600 survivors and relatives, said it expects “a strong bipartisan cast of co-sponsors” this time, too.

The group started an online petition drive where JASTA supporters can urge Congress to pass it.

Terry Strada is a member of the 9/11 group. Her husband, Tom, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and died in the North Tower.

She said JASTA would overturn the “erroneous” court rulings that held American courts have no jurisdiction when it comes to foreign terrorist financiers who gave their money abroad – even when an attack took place in the U.S.

“The problem can best be understood by example: If we discover someone intentionally gave aid or money to the Boston Marathon bombers and that money had been given to them outside our borders – no accountability from a civil action would be possible,” she said.

TWO PROBES, QUESTIONS REMAIN

Two official accounts of 9/11 – Congress’s Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission – have not told the public the complete story about what happened and why, particularly regarding who funded the hijackers.

For example, 28 pages were redacted from the Joint Inquiry’s report regarding “specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.”

Further, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the inquiry, has said that neither Congress nor the Commission were told about an FBI investigation into apparent connections between the hijackers and a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family who abruptly fled their Sarasota area home two weeks before the attacks.

BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the existence of the post-9/11 inquiry in Sarasota two years ago. “The public still does not know the whole story about who bankrolled the attacks. It is still a secret,” Strada said. “Graham, after learning about the hijackers’ Sarasota cell, has been calling for a reopening of the 9/11 investigation and the transparency that has been totally absent over the past 12 years.”

Terrorism expert Ehrenfeld, while supportive of JASTA, is skeptical of the U.S.’s intentions about getting at the root of problem because “politics are dictating who is considered a terrorist and who is not.” “I have many doubts because if the government wanted to do something serious, the government would have done it already,” Ehrenfeld said.

Are civilian nuclear plants vulnerable to terror attacks?

By Rebecca LaFlure, Center for Public Integrity 

Cooling tower at MIT's Nuclear Reactor Lab, in October 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Cooling tower at MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Lab, in October 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At a research facility some two dozen miles from the White House, government scientists operate a nuclear reactor burning uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. A similar research reactor sits just blocks from where the suspected Boston Marathon bombers gunned down a campus policeman. A third reactor is located in the Midwest, less than a mile from a 71,000-seat college football stadium.

Yet more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, these facilities “are particularly vulnerable to sabotage attack” and are not required to meet tougher standards used by the military to protect its weapons-grade uranium from terrorists, say the authors of a new Pentagon-funded study. (more…)

FBI resists thorough search of vast 9/11 files in Tampa for records about Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

A mass of documents detailing the Tampa area connection to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many of which may have never been made public, are stored out of sight in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

“The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation,” say new court papers filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

Precisely what information is contained in those records was not disclosed.

The Justice Department cited the Tampa records in an effort to convince U.S. District Judge William Zloch not to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records of its investigation into apparent ties between the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and Saudis living in Sarasota.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily left their upscale home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated community of Prestancia, and the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, leaving behind numerous personal items and a trail of suspicion and mystery.

The FBI said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. But after BrowardBulldog.org sued last year under the Freedom of Information Act the FBI released a handful of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents had found “many connections” to persons associated with the 9/11 terrorists.

Those connections include a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where 9/11 hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained, according to the report. The flight student’s name was censored.

The news organization alleges the FBI’s two prior searches were inadequate and that additional records of its Sarasota investigation have been improperly withheld.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, has told the court in a sworn declaration that he believes the FBI should have hundreds or even thousands of pages of additional records about the matter.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org, has proposed a new search method for the records, including requiring better word searches, and has asked the court to approve it.

The Justice Department is resisting. In court papers, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez said the proposal “would require the FBI to conduct an exhaustive fishing expedition” for no good reason.

[Court documents filed in the case can be found here.]

The FBI’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, was code-named PENTTBOMB, a compression of the words Pentagon, Twin Towers and Bombing. The FBI has said PENTTBOMB was its largest investigation ever, which at its peak involved more than half of its agents.

The FBI has a number of ways that it stores records about PENTTBOMB and its other cases, including its antiquated Central Records System (CRS).

The FBI searched CRS in response to BrowardBulldog.org’s original Freedom of Information Act request in the fall of 2011, but reported finding nothing. It wasn’t until earlier this year, well after the lawsuit was filed, that a further search of CRS turned up the approximately 30 pages that were made public.

The CRS has been replaced by the FBI’s new, $440 million “Sentinel” computer system that was deployed after the original search. Court papers say all FBI records prior to Sentinel’s start-up have been migrated into its system. Attorney Julin has requested the FBI be ordered to conduct a search of the more efficient Sentinel system.

Fernandez acknowledged that the FBI did not search several databases including a pair of surveillance databases and the FBI’s email system.

The surveillance databases were not searched because they were not “specifically requested” to be searched, Fernandez wrote. The email system was not searched, she said, because the FBI “had no reason to believe responsive records would be located on these systems.”

In a reply filed Wednesday, Julin accused the government of playing “cat and mouse” in its responses.

“The reason that the FBI has not located many additional records relating to this investigation has now been made clear. The FBI states in its response…that it ‘did not interpret plaintiffs’ request as seeking information as to any findings regarding family members who resided at the Sarasota address,’” Julin said.

“In essence, this seems to say that the FBI specifically structured its search to exclude the very documents that the FBI knew that the plaintiffs were attempting to obtain and that might either explain the FBI’s public contradiction of the plaintiffs’ published reports or show the FBI’s public statements to be false.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

 

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