By Lawrence Wright
President George W. Bush meets with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, on August 27, 2002, at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Credit Photograph by Eric Drapper/The White House via Getty
On the bottom floor of the United States Capitol’s new underground visitors’ center, there is a secure room where the House Intelligence Committee maintains highly classified files. One of those files is titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.” It is twenty-eight pages long. In 2002, the Administration of George W. Bush excised those pages from the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. President Bush said then that publication of that section of the report would damage American intelligence operations, revealing “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror.”
The Saudis have also publicly demanded that the material be released. “Twenty-eight blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States at the time of the 9/11 attacks, has declared. “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”
The effort to declassify the document comes at a time when a lawsuit, brought ten years ago on behalf of the victims of the attacks and their families, along with the insurers who paid out claims, is advancing through the American court system. The suit targets Saudi charities, banks, and individuals. In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity, but in July the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. The plaintiffs believe that the withheld twenty-eight pages will support their allegation that the 9/11 hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials in the United States. According to representatives of the families of 9/11 victims, President Obama has twice promised to release the material but so far has failed to do so. “The redaction of the twenty-eight pages has become a coverup by two Presidents, and coverup implies complicity,” Sharon Premoli, who is co-chair of 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, said. “The families and survivors have the right to know the whole truth about the brutal murder of three thousand loved ones and the injuries of thousands more.”
Those advocating declassification present a powerful and oftentimes emotional argument, but others offer compelling reasons that the document should remain buried under the Capitol. Immediately after the Joint Congressional Inquiry finished its report, in late 2002, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—better known as the 9/11 Commission—began its work, under the leadership of Thomas Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana. The questions raised by the twenty-eight pages were an important part of the commission’s agenda; indeed, its director, Philip Zelikow, hired staffers who had worked for the Joint Inquiry on that very section to follow up on the material. According to Zelikow, what they found does not substantiate the arguments made by the Joint Inquiry and by the 9/11 families in the lawsuit against the Saudis. He characterized the twenty-eight pages as “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports” concerning Saudi involvement. “They were wild accusations that needed to be checked out,” he said.
Zelikow and his staff were ultimately unable to prove any official Saudi complicity in the attacks. A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations.
Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.” But, thirteen years later, is that still a reason to keep the document a secret?
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The theory behind the lawsuit against the Saudis goes back to the 1991 Gulf War. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a shattering event in the country’s history, calling into question the ancient bargain between the royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, whose blessing allows the Saud family to rule. In 1992, a group of the country’s most prominent religious leaders issued the Memorandum of Advice, which implicitly threatened a clerical coup. The royal family, shaken by the threat to its rule, accommodated most of the clerics’ demands, giving them more control over Saudi society. One of their directives called for the creation of a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which would be given offices in Saudi embassies and consulates. As the journalist Philip Shenon writes. citing John Lehman, the former Secretary of the Navy and a 9/11 commissioner, “it was well-known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.”
The story told in those twenty-eight pages picks up with the arrival of two young Saudis, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, in Los Angeles in January, 2000. They were the first wave of
the 9/11 hijackers. Neither spoke English well, so their mission—to learn how to pilot a Boeing jetliner—seemed crazily improbable, especially if they had no assistance.
Two weeks after Hazmi and Mihdhar got to L.A. a benefactor suddenly appeared. Omar al-Bayoumi, a forty-two-year-old Saudi national, was an employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco. Although he drew a salary, he apparently never did any actual work for the company during the seven years he spent in America. Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. and with the consulate in Los Angeles; he was widely considered in the Arab expat community to be a Saudi spy, though the Saudi government has denied that he was.
Bayoumi and a friend drove from San Diego, where they lived, to L.A. Bayoumi then went to the Saudi consulate, where he spent about an hour meeting with an official in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs named Fahad al-Thumairy, whom he considered to be his spiritual adviser. (In 2002, Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported, because of suspected ties to terrorists.) Afterward, Bayoumi and his friend drove to a halal restaurant in Culver City. Bayoumi later told investigators that, while eating there, he happened to overhear two men—Hazmi and Mihdhar—speaking Arabic with Gulf accents. He struck up a conversation with them and soon invited them to move to San Diego. He set them up in the same apartment complex where he lived. Because the hijackers-in-training did not have a checking account, Bayoumi paid their security deposit and first month’s rent (for which they immediately reimbursed him). He also introduced them to members of the Arab community, possibly including the imam of a local mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki—later to become the most prominent spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Another Saudi who was in San Diego at the time, Osama Basnan, also befriended Hazmi and Mihdhar. As it happened, Basnan’s wife was receiving charitable gifts from Prince Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa. The payments—as much as seventy-three thousand dollars over a period of three years—were supposed to fund the treatment of a medical condition that Basnan’s wife suffered from. According to pleadings in the lawsuit against the Saudis, some of that money went to support the hijackers in San Diego. The F.B.I. has not found any evidence that the money got into the hands of the hijackers, however, and the 9/11 Commission found no links to the royal family.
“We assert that purported ‘charities,’ established by the government of the Kingdom to propagate radical Wahhabi ideology throughout the world, served as the primary sources of funding and logistical support for Al Qaeda for more than a decade leading up to the 9/11 attacks,” Sean Carter, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit, told me. “Not coincidentally, these so-called charities were themselves regulated by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which from its formation, in 1993, assumed primary responsibility for the Kingdom’s efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam.”
Thomas Kean remembers finally having the opportunity to read those twenty-eight pages after he became chairman of the 9/11 Commission—“so secret that I had to get all of my security clearances and go into the bowels of Congress with someone looking over my shoulder.” He also remembers thinking at the time that most of what he was reading should never have been kept secret. But the focus on the twenty-eight pages obscures the fact that many important documents are still classified—“a ton of stuff,” Kean told me, including, for instance, the 9/11 Commission’s interviews with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton. “I don’t know of a single thing in our report that should not be public after ten years,” Kean said.
September 11th may be a part of history now, but some of the events that led to that horrible day remain veiled by the political considerations of the present. The intelligence community doesn’t want to light up its failures once again, and no doubt the Obama Administration doesn’t want to introduce additional strains on its relationship with the Saudis. In the meantime, the forces that led to catastrophe before are gathering strength once again. Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman from Kentucky and a sponsor of the House resolution to declassify the material, told me that the experience of reading those twenty-eight pages caused him to rethink how to handle the rise of ISIS. It has made him much more cautious about a military response. “We have to be careful, when we run the calculations of action, what the repercussions will be,” he said.
“In some ways, it’s more dangerous today,” Timothy Roemer, who was a member of both the Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission, observed. “A more complex series of threats are coming together than even before 9/11, involving ISIS. Al Qaeda, and cyber-terrorist capabilities. The more the American people know about what happened thirteen years ago, the more we can have a credible, open debate” about our security needs. Releasing the twenty-eight pages, he said, might be a step forward. “Hopefully, after some initial shock and awe, it would make our process work better. Our government has an obligation to do this.”
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