A federal judge on Friday chided the FBI for failing to produce records tied to a prominent Saudi Arabian family who seemed to abandon their Sarasota home suddenly just prior to the 9/11 terror attacks.
U.S. District Court Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a much more thorough search than it had previously done and deliver all pertinent documents — uncensored — to him by April 18 for review.
The judge said the FBI must comply using its most advanced document search system, called Sentinel, to search for records pertaining to a year-and-a-half old Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Fort Lauderdale news site Broward Bulldog. The Herald-Tribune Media Group joined the suit earlier this year as a “friend of the court.”
Under the judge’s order, the FBI also must search for documents related to the Saudi family, a home in Sarasota’s gated Prestancia subdivision and the investigation following the 2001 attacks using Sentinel and multiple other search systems.
The agency initially refused to search for the family’s names, claiming that would result in an invasion of privacy.
Judge Zloch ordered the FBI to also inform the court of any documented communications between it and other government agencies concerning the investigation.
That information, and an explanation of how the FBI is complying with the judge’s order, is due by June 6.The 23-page order Friday was Judge Zloch’s second in favor of the Bulldog and its editor, Dan Christensen.
In the latest order, Zloch takes the FBI to task for failing to exhaustively produce documents pertaining to the case.
He describes the agency’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.”
He called one of the government’s characterizations of the Bulldog’s requests “literal to the point of being nonsensical.”
Tom Julin, the attorney for the Bulldog, praised the judge’s action.
“That is just exactly the kind of order a federal judge should render when the FBI refuses to acknowledge the existence of important documents like this,” Julin said. “I hope the FBI will follow his order to a ‘T’ and we will finally get to the bottom of this controversy.”
In joining the case in mid-March, the Herald-Tribune and the Miami Herald cited articles written about the Prestancia case and described ways in which a further search would be in the public’s interest.To date, the FBI has turned over 35 pages of heavily redacted documents — out of the 15,000 files it has acknowledged were part of its Florida inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.
Last summer, Zloch asked Julin to explain in writing how an FBI search could be done better. The FBI, the lawyer noted, did not even search for documents using the names of the family members residing in, or owning, the Prestancia home.
The home was owned by Saudi businessman Esam Ghazzawi and his wife, Deborah. Ghazzawi is known to have connections to the Saudi royal family.
For the six years before the terror attacks, the home was occupied by their son-in-law, Abdulaziz Al-Hijji, and their daughter, Anoud.
The Al-Hijjis came to the FBI’s attention after the couple apparently returned abruptly to Saudi Arabia two weeks before the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., leaving behind clothes, food, children’s toys and cars.
Federal agents also linked phone calls from the Prestancia home — some dating to a year before the attacks — to known 9/11 suspects, the Bulldog has reported.
The calls were made to, or received from Mohamed Atta, fellow pilots and 11 other terrorist suspects, the Bulldog reported.
Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had learned to fly at Huffman Aviation at the Venice Municipal Airport. Ziad Jarrah also took flying lessons nearby, at the Florida Flight Training school.