Nearly 13 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the extent of Saudi involvement in the deaths of almost 3,000 people remains unclear — but according to members of Congress and the families of victims, information about this has been suppressed ever since the publication of a 2002 congressional investigation into the plot.
Prior to the release of the final report of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration classified a 28-page section in the name of national security.
Though speculations, accusations, and denials have swirled around these pages over the past decade, the call for their declassification has steadily grown since December 2013, when House Representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA) introduced Resolution 428, a two-page document urging President Obama to release them to the public. Nine other representatives from both parties have co-sponsored the resolution.
Conspiracy theorists and fringe publications have seized on suspicion surrounding the redacted pages, but experts and sources close to the investigation have acknowledged that the material’s release would help address significant questions.
In April, Jones and Lynch sent a letter to Obama reiterating their request. They are planning a September 11 press conference with relatives of victims to highlight the issue. Adding fuel to the campaign, various family members have recounted to the media how President Obama had promised them that he would release the material.
The 28 pages make up part four of the report, a section titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.” They are widely believed to implicate Saudi officials or describe support from Saudi intelligence for the hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens.
“On the one hand, it is possible that these kinds of connections could suggest, as indicated in a CIA memorandum, ‘incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists [—————————],’ ” states an introductory note in the section. “On the other hand, it is also possible that further investigation of these allegations could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations.”
Former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who co-chaired the joint Senate-House investigation, dispensed with the equivocation and told VICE News that the redactions are a “cover up.”
“I’ve said this since the first classification of the 28 pages,” he remarked. “It’s become more and more inexplicable as to why two administrations have denied the American people information that would help them better understand what happened on 9/11.”
Graham said that the 28 pages describe the financing of the attacks.
“Follow the money,” he said. “That will illuminate other significant aspects of 9/11.”
Though Graham could not go into further detail, he was quite frank in an affidavit filed in 2012 as part of a lawsuit brought by the families of 9/11 victims against the Saudi government.
“I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia,” Graham told the court.
The Saudi kingdom has always denied any complicity in the attacks.
“The idea that the Saudi government funded, organized, or even knew about September 11 is malicious and blatantly false,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the royal family and an ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005, said in 2003. “There is something wrong with the basic logic of those who spread these spurious charges. Al Qaeda is a cult that is seeking to destroy Saudi Arabia as well as the United States. By what logic would we support a cult that is trying to kill us?”
Around this time, senior Saudi officials reportedly called for the pages to be declassified in order for them to assess and rebut the allegations, but the Bush administration refused. A letter signed by 46 senators urging President George W. Bush to declassify the 28 pages was also rebuffed.
‘I believe when a nation is attacked by a foreign element that those people who lost loved ones, as well as the American people, have a right to know who was involved in that attack.’
Rep. Jones told VICE News that he discussed the classified passages with Graham two years ago and decided to access them on his own.
He first had to get permission from the House Intelligence Committee, which vets such requests. Once approved, Jones was led to a soundproof room where an official watched over him to prevent any note taking as he read.
“I’ll tell you, the 28 pages will be an embarrassment to the previous administration,” Jones said, though he is barred from offering details. “We live in a world where there are certain leaders in certain countries that some people are concerned of their reaction. I feel differently.”
The pages could show that the Bush administration knew all along that Saudi Arabia was closely tied to the attacks that became the basis of more than a decade of hawkish foreign policy, including the misguided invasion of Iraq.
“Perhaps the previous administration sought to insulate us or our allies from embarrassment or liability,” Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, told VICE News. “But the current administration needs to be asked, point blank, what benefit this president finds in keeping these pages secret.”
Massie was also granted special access to the material, and has expressed shock at what he read.
“I think it will reshape the public’s opinion of our foreign policy in the Middle East,” he told VICE News. “I feel America needs a complete picture of what enabled 9/11, if avoiding another 9/11 is going to be the justification for involving us in more wars in the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia has long had an outsized influence in American politics due to its mammoth presence as an oil exporter. After World War II, the United States tacitly agreed to ensure regional security in exchange for a steady supply of Saudi crude for the world market. Despite periodic tensions, especially during the 1973 oil crisis, the relationship between the two countries remained cordial. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, King Abdullah released 9 million barrels of oil to the US.
The royal family is also believed to have used its oil largesse to pay off Osama bin Laden to the tune of several hundred million dollars to prevent al Qaeda attacks in the Saudi kingdom.
President George W. Bush meeting with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Prince Bandar has been persistently dogged by accusations that he has withheld what he knows of the 9/11 plot. Bandar was particularly close to the Bush family during his time as ambassador over two administrations — to the point of being referred to as “Bandar Bush.” Bandar later served as Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief between 2012 and 2014.
Two days after 9/11, Bandar successfully petitioned the White House to evacuate dozens of Saudi citizens from the US, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family. According to the journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, Bandar met with his old friend Bush that evening. The two men smoked cigars on a White House balcony as they chatted with Vice President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Adviser at the time.
The rapid evacuation of relatives of bin Laden and other Saudi nationals reflected the special relationship between the governments in Riyadh and DC.
The redacted pages are believed to contain further details beyond what was made public about two Saudi nationals, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan. Bayoumi is known to have made contact on the West Coast with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi; Bassnan was a close associate of Bayoumi. Portions of the report about the two men that are available to the public are also heavily redacted, but they are not included in the House declassification request. Jones and Massie have not read classified material outside of the 28 pages that make up section four.
“I believe significant and excessive redactions occurred elsewhere in the 800 pages, but for me the point of lifting the veil should start with the 28 pages,” Graham said.
A 2003 New York Times article reported that sources who had seen the classified Joint Inquiry pages said that they suggested that Bayoumi and Bassnan were working with Saudi intelligence. Graham has said he is convinced that Bayoumi was “an agent of the government of Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority employed Bayoumi as a contractor in San Diego, with a Saudi official authorizing his earnings. But the Times reported that congressional officials believed that Bayoumi never actually worked, and noted that his compensation increased after he connected with the two hijackers. Mihdhar and Hazmi stayed with Bayoumi in San Diego in early 2000.
It also emerged that Prince Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, had made a series of payments to Bassnan beginning in the late 1990s, which Saudi officials maintained were meant to help support his sick wife. She vigorously denied that the money had financed terrorism. The 9/11 Commission later concluded that, “contrary to highly publicized allegations, we have found no evidence that Hazmi or Mihdhar received money from another Saudi citizen, Osama Bassnan.”
Bayoumi and Bassnan left the US and were never charged in connection with the attacks. The FBI could not determine whether the two men knew that the hijackers were terrorists. Law enforcement officials told the Times that they believed the Joint Inquiry report risked overstating the link between the terror plot and Saudi officials.
‘I was amazed in reading this stuff that it was stuff I knew already.’
The Bush administration said that releasing the redacted information would imperil national security. There may be unanticipated revelations to come — or, as the report noted, innocent explanations for the allegations discussed in the section. Yet knowledge of what is believed to be in the classified pages seems so common that experts whom VICE News consulted discussed the material offhandedly.
“We live in a world where people are peddling a plethora of lunatic conspiracy theories,” Jeffrey Bale, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies who specializes in terrorism and the Middle East, told VICE News. “Yet here we potentially have real evidence of covert aid provided to some of the hijackers by Saudi officials — information that was essentially concealed by the Bush administration.”
Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former House Representative Lee Hamilton, who chaired the 9/11 Commission that followed the Joint Inquiry, have also recently said that the material should be released.
“I’m embarrassed that they’re not declassified,” said Hamilton, speaking with Kean at an event last month marking the tenth anniversary of the commission’s final report — the text of which noted, “we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)”
“I was amazed in reading this stuff that it was stuff I knew already,” Kean added, referring to classified intelligence he had seen while on the commission. He recounted how he turned to the FBI agent watching him read the material and remarked, “I knew all this already,” to which the agent replied, “Yes, but you didn’t know it was true.”
“That is not a reason for classification,” Kean told the audience.
Though Obama, who was an Illinois State Senator at the time of the attacks, faces no personal cost from releasing the information, it would doubtlessly complicate diplomacy in the Middle East at a time when the region is dealing with various crises that have already strained US-Saudi relations.
Obama, who happens to be in the middle of a fight over redactions, might also fear that declassifying the information could open the door for the next president to do the same to him. On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made headlines when she criticized the White House for trying to “eliminate or obscure key facts” of the committee’s study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
“You have a White House that may not want to release damaging information from a prior administration, which could set a precedent,” Stuart Gottlieb, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University who served as senior foreign policy adviser to New York Senator Chuck Schumer at the time of the attacks, told VICE News. “Then there’s the issue of potentially damaging ongoing relationships with close allies. The tensions on this issue are all you would expect to be present.”
“On a human level, you have the families of 9/11 victims that understandably want closure and to get as much information as possible about what happened that day,” he added.
Given Obama’s track record of continuing Bush-era national security policies, he has exhibited little inclination to declassify the Senate report, despite his promises to relatives of 9/11 victims.
“I can understand some of the rationales for why the Bush administration may have covered up by classifying the report,” Graham told VICE News. “But I do not have a credible rationale for why President Obama, who campaigned in significant part on the misdeeds of the Bush administration before, during, and after 9/11, and who it has been reported told some of the husbands, wives, and children of those killed that he would release the 28 pages, hasn’t.”
The White House did not respond to questions from VICE News.
For his part, Jones maintains that the disclosure would not put American citizens in danger.
“If it was a national security issue, I would tell you up front,” he said. He didn’t understand why the Obama administration wouldn’t “give families peace,” as he put it, by declassifying the material. “I believe when a nation is attacked by a foreign element that those people who lost loved ones, as well as the American people, have a right to know who was involved in that attack.”
“If it steps on somebody’s toes, then I’m sorry,” he added. “A nation that tries to hide the truth will eventually fail.”
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford