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.

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.

The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President

By Kara Brandeisky, ProPublicaobama081

When the House of Representatives recently considered an amendment that would have dismantled the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program, the White House swiftly condemned the measure. But only five years ago, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. was part of a group of legislators that supported substantial changes to NSA surveillance programs. (more…)

Syria’s Jihadi migration emerges as top terror threat in Europe, beyond

By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica 

The suicide bombing at al-Nairab military base in northern Syria on June 1, 2012, as seen in a propaganda video by al-Nusrah, al-Qaida's Syrian branch.

The suicide bombing at al-Nairab military base in northern Syria on June 1, 2012, as seen in a propaganda video by al-Nusrah, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch.

MADRID — Rachid Wahbi came to Syria from a Spanish slum, rushing toward death.

And he didn’t plan to die alone.

Facing a camera hours before the end, the bearded, 33-year-old cabdriver wore a black headdress and a black flak vest and held an AK-47 rifle. He spoke in hesitant classical Arabic with a north Moroccan accent. He said he had studied his target and, God willing, his action would end in triumph. He wished the glory of martyrdom for his fellow fighters in the al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch. (more…)

Hunger Strikes and Indefinite Detention: A Rundown on What’s Going on at Gitmo

By Cora Currier, ProPublica 

A detainment camp at Guantanamo Bay

A detainment camp at Guantanamo Bay

It’s been 11 years since the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay. But the future of the prison, and the fate of the men inside it, is far from certain.  With 59 detainees at Gitmo currently on hunger strike, by the military’s count, here’s a primer on what’s going at the island prison.

What started the hunger strike?

It began after guards allegedly mishandled detainees’ Korans in a cell search in early February — but it’s certainly become about more than the holy books. (more…)

Fact-Check: How the NYPD overstated Its counterterrorism record

By Justin Elliott, ProPublica

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly

The NYPD is regularly held up as one of the most sophisticated and significant counterterrorism operations in the country. As evidence of the NYPD’s excellence, the department, its allies and the media have repeatedly said the department has thwarted or helped thwart 14 terrorist plots against New York since Sept 11.

In a glowing profile of Commissioner Ray Kelly published in Newsweek last month, for example, journalist Christopher Dickey wrote of the commissioner’s tenure since taking office in 2002: The record “is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly’s watch.”

 The figure has been cited repeatedly in the media, by New York congressmen, and byKelly himself. The NYPD itself has published the full listsaying terrorists have “attempted to kill New Yorkers in 14 different plots.” (more…)

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