To reveal the full truth about 9/11, the US must go far beyond declassifying investigation documents
With the twentieth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks behind us, it is time to ask: how much does the public actually know about what led up to the attacks? The US response to 9/11, as Americans call it, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in US-led wars, and changed the lives of billions of people. By any measure, the 9/11 attacks are an important historical event, and the world deserves to understand them.
The vast majority of the investigation into 9/11, however, is hidden behind the walls of secrecy that 9/11 itself helped erect. President Biden has taken a step toward bringing a part of the investigation into the light, and the first declassified document contains new and valuable information. But President Biden and the US agencies responsible for the investigation need to go much further to reveal the true investigation into 9/11.
After 9/11, the US government, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency, sprung into action. The FBI conducted the largest investigation in US history, and arrested, deported, and prosecuted a variety of people, mostly Muslims. The United States made terrible mistakes, including setting up a CIA torture program, administered at black sites around the world, often using information and questions the FBI supplied to CIA interrogators.
"The vast majority of the investigation into 9/11, however, is hidden behind the walls of secrecy that 9/11 itself helped erect"
The FBI’s investigation involved over 167,000 interviews and millions of pages of documents. Those documents include reports of investigative activities like interviews (called 302s) as well as office-to-office requests, analyses, and summaries (called Electronic Communications or ECs). Some of these documents have been released to the public, thanks to the efforts of journalists and non-governmental organizations.
The Trump administration invoked state secrets privilege over many of those investigative documents, ensuring that they could not be used in the lawsuit of 9/11 victim family members against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others. In the leadup to the twentieth anniversary of the attacks, some victim family members disinvited President Biden from memorial events unless he acted to reverse the Trump administration policy.
On 3 September 2021, President Biden ordered a declassification review of some of those documents. In his remarks, President Biden spoke of his "commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of documents" about the 9/11 attacks. The policy section says that "information collected and generated in the US government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise."
But the actual order does not go so far. It focuses on a particular "subfile investigation" - Operation Encore - on the connection of a few possible uncharged co-conspirators to the hijackers, including Omar al-Bayoumi, Fahad al-Thumairy, and Mohdar Abdullah. In addition to the subfile investigation itself, President Biden’s order requires declassification of records from the original, main investigation "that reference the individual subjects of the subfile investigation," probably the same people.
On 11 September 2021, the FBI released its first document in response to the order, a 2016 EC summarizing FBI investigation into al Bayoumi and others connected to the Saudi consulate. The EC is remarkable in itself, in that it was written by a senior FBI analyst after the FBI essentially shut down the investigation into connections between hijackers and Saudi employees and contractors.
The released EC tells a powerful narrative of the connections between Saudi officials and the hijackers as they arrived in Southern California. In early January 2000, hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at a meeting with two alleged al-Qaeda members photographed and tracked by an intelligence agency. The EC reveals for the first time that in early January 2000, someone in Malaysia or Indonesia attempted to locate Thumairy. The EC reveals that an employee of the Saudi consulate called al Bayoumi on January 5, 2000, around the time of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Dispatches from Guantanamo: ‘A week at the pre-trial 9/11 hearings brings the challenges of the remote island war court sharply into focus‘ writes Katy Stone https://t.co/1aFZQU1DRM— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 10, 2019
The next part of the story is better-known, but the EC documents it thoroughly. Al-Bayoumi - a "ghost employee" paid by a Saudi contractor - went to a meeting at the Saudi consulate, then drove to a Los Angeles restaurant where he met hijackers al Hazmi and al Mihdhar. Bayoumi has maintained that the meeting was a chance encounter. Bayoumi suggested the hijackers (who spoke no English) move to San Diego, where he helped them find a place to live and co-signed their apartment application. In the words of the EC, his "logistic support to Hazmi and Mihdhar included, translation, travel assistance, lodging and financing."
The obvious beneficiaries of President Biden’s order are the surviving victims and their families who are suing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others they suspect of financing or supporting the attacks. Indeed, the declassification review order mentions the case by name, twice.
"Many questions remain about why Saudi and US officials behaved the way they did in the lead-up to 9/11, fueling both reasonable hypotheses and wild conspiracy theories"
But the first document released under President Biden’s order raises issues of public importance beyond the civil lawsuit. The new EC describes phone calls around the time of the Kuala Lumpur meeting. At the time, the CIA knew of the Kuala Lumpur meeting but blocked a notification to the FBI of Hazmi and Mihdhar’s travel from Malaysia to Los Angeles. Why? Some credible former US officials have suggested the CIA asked the Saudi government to help recruit Hazmi and Mihdhar as sources inside al-Qaeda, which is a different reason the Saudi government might have assisted them. Many questions remain about why Saudi and US officials behaved the way they did in the lead-up to 9/11, fueling both reasonable hypotheses and wild conspiracy theories.
President Biden could empower journalists, historians, and analysts to write the true history of 9/11 by issuing another declassification review order. This new order should not be limited to the "subfile investigation" into Saudi responsibility, but should - in President Biden’s words - "ensur[e] transparency" into the history of the 9/11 attacks. The first declassified EC could serve as a model for new openness into the most important historical event of the 21st century.
James Connell is lead defence counsel for Ammar al-Baluchi, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. He has handled death penalty cases in the United States since 2003.
Twitter handle: @gitmowatch
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.