By Julian Hattem
The House Intelligence Committee on Friday released 28 previously classified pages from a 2002 congressional investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The long-secret pages detail evidence linking Saudi Arabia to 9/11 uncovered in the immediate aftermath, though officials warn that it is merely preliminary and was later dismissed by subsequent investigations into the issue.
There is no single smoking gun within the pages to definitively implicate any senior Saudi leaders for supporting the al Qaeda terrorists. Yet the evidence is nonetheless likely to inflame the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which has been rocky for the last year. In the U.S. in particular, release of the pages will likely lead to new scrutiny of the complex relationship between the two nations, which has previously been used as a foil during the political season.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and rumors have simmered for years about possible links between the kingdom and al Qaeda.
According to the formerly top-secret pages, investigators uncovered “numerous reports” from FBI sources that at least two people in contact with some of the 9/11 hijackers may have been Saudi intelligence officers. Those two men may have provided financial, legal and social help to two of the hijackers in San Diego.
Additionally, the FBI discovered that numbers in the phone book of al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah traced back to an umbrella company used to manage the Colorado residence of the then-Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and a bodyguard at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Another phone number found in a safe house used by 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden traced back to someone in the U.S. who “regularly provides services” to personal assistants of Prince Bandar, the report claimed.
Other bits of evidence create additional potential links, such as a Saudi Interior Ministry official who stayed at the same hotel as one of the hijackers and appeared “deceptive” in a subsequent interview.
And in one instance that appeared notable in retrospect, two men flying on tickets paid for by the Saudi embassy in 1999 acted suspicious during the flight and twice tried to enter the cockpit. Charges were not filed in that instance even though the plane was forced to make an emergency landing, but the FBI’s field office in Phoenix believed the incident may have been a “dry run” to test airline security.
Some of the connections are easy to dismiss as coincidental, especially among the somewhat tight-knit Saudi immigrant community.
The findings were repeatedly characterized as preliminary, and the authors noted that they did not attempt to follow through on the CIA and FBI’s information.
“In their testimony, neither CIA nor FBI witnesses were able to identify definitely the extent of Saudi support for terrorist activity globally or within the United States and the extent to which such support, if it exists, is knowing or inadvertent in nature,” authors claimed in the report.
“It should be clear that this joint inquiry has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues that we found contained in FBI and CIA documents.”
The Friday publication of the pages brings to a close a years-long effort to declassify them, which had in recent months gained nearly unanimous support throughout Washington.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) cautioned that the document “does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the intelligence community.”
Many of those leads were chased down in the higher-profile 9/11 Commission investigation, he noted, in an effort to avoid having the public read too much into the initial reports.
The 9/11 Commission report concluded that investigators “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda, though the specific language left many wondering if there were lower-level figures involved with backing the terrorists.
The 28 pages nonetheless ought to have been revealed, lawmakers have argued, to shed light on one of the darkest days in American history.
“The American people have the right to know the full scope of the matters examined by the joint inquiry, and I have every confidence the public can assess the allegations raised in the 28 pages and the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions on those matters,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.
The pages should “diminish speculation that they contain proof of official Saudi Government or senior Saudi official involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” he added.
The pages have captivated imaginations and taken on an increasingly prominent role as Congress moved forward with legislation allowing Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for any potential role in supporting the terrorists. That bill sailed through the Senate earlier this year, despite vigorous opposition from the White House and Riyadh, and appears primed for action in the House in the fall.
The pages were initially redacted from the 2002 joint congressional inquiry into 9/11, partly out of fear that publication would embarrass the Saudis and upset a relationship that had proven critical for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
In addition to detailing potential connections between the Sept. 11 hijackers and the Saudi kingdom, the report accuses Saudi officials of being extremely uncooperative both ahead of and in the aftermath of the terror attack. Dating back to 1996, the report claimed, CIA officials working to capture bin Laden realized that Saudi Arabia “would not cooperate” on any matters regarding the al Qaeda leader.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the newly unclassified portion of the 9/11 report “does not change” the administration’s position that senior Saudi officials had no role in the attack.
Families of the victims of the terror attack had been among the most vocal advocates of making the document public.
The Saudi kingdom itself has supported the release of the pages, if only to quiet the lingering allegations about its potential connections to al Qaeda.
In a statement on Friday, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. welcomed the release.
“We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States,” Ambassador Abdullah Al-Saud said. “Saudi Arabia is working closely with the United States and other allies to eradicate terrorism and destroy terrorist organizations.”
Intelligence officials throughout the Obama administration had begun reviewing the pages for declassification in recent months.
Earlier on Friday, the White House sent to Congress a version of the pages that had been redacted to remove sources and methods. Shortly afterward, the House Intelligence Committee approved its release to the public.
In addition to the 28 pages, the director of national intelligence will soon release a declassified executive summary of a joint assessment from the FBI and CIA, Nunes said.
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About the author Julian Hattem
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