'The truth is important to the families of 9/11': 20 years later, a new chapter starts | Mike Kelly
Sen. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat from New Jersey, jumped into the war on terrorism on Thursday along with a handful of congressional colleagues.
None are deploying overseas.
None will be firing guns.
The battle Menendez kicked off with the support of several Democrats and Republicans will be fought in the halls of Congress and then perhaps in the castles of secrecy that encircle the FBI and the CIA – all in search of an answer to one of the most daunting questions of the 9/11 attacks two decades ago: Did Saudi Arabian government officials, operating secretly inside America, provide money and other assistance in the terrorist plot that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001?
As America approaches the 20th anniversary of that bloody day, it still has no conclusive answers over what has come to be known as the “Saudi Connection.”
Nor does America know why U.S. intelligence agencies — with the support of every president since George W. Bush — continue to turn a deaf ear to requests from Congress and relatives of 9/11 victims for information on Saudi Arabia’s links to the deadliest terrorist attack in American history
On Thursday in Washington, with a nearly a dozen relatives of 9/11 victims standing behind him on a stretch of grass outside the U.S. Capitol known as the “Senate Swamp,” Menendez introduced potentially ground-breaking legislation to declassify thousands of pages of secret documents on alleged Saudi support for the 19 followers of Osama bin Laden who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
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Menendez said he hopes to break the logjam of secrecy that has stymied attempts to know the full 9/11 story. The effort he plans to mount in the coming months could evolve into one of the most consequential battles against terrorism in American history.
“I’m in search of the truth,” Menendez said in an interview before introducing legislation known as the “September 11 Transparency Act of 2021.”
“The truth is important to the families of 9/11,” he said. “It’s also important for the United States of America.”
At stake is a long-standing concern, raised by relatives of 9/11 victims who filed a massive federal lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, that key officials from one of America’s staunchest Middle East allies, in a misguided attempt to prop up a radical form of Islam, may have secretly supported the 9/11 plot.
Column continues below the video
On the home front, however, another sensitive issue involves the growing concern that U.S. intelligence agencies not only ignored clear warnings of the attacks in the months before they took place but covered up the evidence of Saudi involvement afterward.
“Let's get real here: We're talking about the declassification of evidence relating to an attack that took place 20 years ago,” Menendez said in his formal remarks outside the Capitol.
Menendez was joined at the briefing by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat and the Senate's majority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
“These families have mounted a legal struggle against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Blumenthal said at the briefing, which was broadcast on a video link through Menendez’s office. “Now their struggle is not only against the Saudis, it is against their own government that is continuing to conceal evidence necessary for them to have that fair day in court.”
“Justice, justice, justice — that’s what this is about,” added Schumer in brief remarks in which he also recalled visiting the burning ruins of the World Trade Center that came to be known as “Ground Zero” soon after the attacks and encountering throngs of people wondering what had happened to their loved ones.
“Before we even got to the rubble we could smell the death in the air,” Schumer said, describing the “thousands of people standing in line, holding pictures … ‘Have you seen my daughter, Mary? Have you seen my brother, John?’ ”
“I'll never forget that,” Schumer added.
Menendez’s bill, which has garnered bipartisan support from such Republican senators as Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, would force the FBI and the CIA — and possibly other American intelligence agencies that examined the 9/11 plot — to turn over all their files on the Saudi connection to a special declassification review.
If that review concludes that the files should remain secret, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence services would have to explain why.
While the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have all blocked efforts to gain access to evidence in U.S. intelligence files of Saudi support for the 9/11 terrorists, it's not clear where President Joe Biden stands.
Last October, in response to a letter from James Kreindler,an attorney representing 9/11 victims in their federal lawsuit against the Saudis, Biden said the 9/11 families "are right to seek full truth and accountability." But he stopped short of promising to declassify all the Sausi files.
On Friday, without telling Menendez, a group of 1,600 relatives of 9/11 victims released a stern statement in which they asked Biden not to attend any 9/11 memorial ceremonies this year unless he promised ahead of time to open up U.S. intelligence files on the Saudi link to the attacks.
"Our patience has expired," the relatives said in the statement.
Until now, the FBI and CIA have merely told Congressional investigators or lawyers for relatives of 9/11 victims who are pursing a civil lawsuit against the Saudi government that most of the files were secret and therefore off-limits. In one case, then-Attorney General William Barr cited national security concerns. But Barr did not have to explain what those concerns were or why they mattered nearly 20 years after the attacks.
Despite being blocked by their own government, lawyers for the 9/11 relatives have found considerable evidence of a Saudi link to a plan by 19 Islamist jihadists — 15 of them Saudi citizens — to hijack four, California-bound commercial jetliners on Sept. 11, 2001.
Two of the planes took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Another left Newark Liberty International Airport and the fourth from Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.
After killing the pilots and several flight attendants, the hijackers flew the two planes from Boston into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The plane from Dulles International was crashed into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. The plane from Newark crashed into a farm field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought back against the hijackers.
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After the attacks, U.S. investigators quickly focused attention on bin Laden’s terrorist al-Qaeda network, based in Afghanistan. Within months, however, the CIA also admitted that it had known that two of the eventual hijackers had been on the loose inside the U.S. since early 2000 after meeting with al-Qaeda leaders in a "terrorist summit" in Malaysia. The two flew to Thailand, then to California with U.S. visas.
The CIA never told the FBI until only weeks before the 9/11 attacks that a pair of well-known al-Qaeda terrorists had been roaming across America — even staying in a motel in South Hackensack, New Jersey. But the CIA’s revelation came too late for the FBI to step in and possibly break up the plot.
The disclosure that the CIA held back secrets from the FBI sparked an outcry from relatives of 9/11 victims. It eventually led to the series of revelations – notably by the 9/11 Commission — that Saudi officials in California had assisted the two al-Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, in getting settled after they arrived in California in early 2000.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi eventually made their way across America to New Jersey. But how they made that trip – and who financed it – is still a mystery.
In an exclusive report last year, this columnist revealed that an official from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., who was also linked to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi reportedly delivered a check for $1 million to a mosque in Jersey City a month before the attacks.
It’s not entirely clear how the money was used by Jersey City’s Al-Taweed Mosque. But in what now seems to be an accidental disclosure from its secret files, the FBI revealed last year in a court document that the same Saudi embassy official who delivered the $1 million to the Al-Taweed Mosque, was also among a handful of Saudi officials who provided money, lodging and other help to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi before they participated in the 9/11 attacks.
The trip to Jersey City by the Saudi embassy official, Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, coincided with a visit to New Jersey by the 9/11 plot ringleader, Mohammed Atta, who stayed at two motels in Wayne, New Jersey.
One of the lingering questions from that trip by al-Jarrah is whether he met with Atta or with al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi who were also in New Jersey at the time.
Al-Jarrah, was recently interviewed by lawyers representing the 9/11 relatives in their federal lawsuit against the Saudi government. But the lawyers have declined to comment on the interview, citing an order by a federal judge that bars them from disclosing what they learned in the deposition with al-Jarrah, which was conducted over a Zoom-like link between the American attorneys and Saudi Arabia.
Yet another question is whether Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was murdered in Turkey in 2018 by Saudi intelligence agents, may have known about a Saudi government link to the 9/11 plot. Khashoggi was killed a year after he met with an investigator who was assisting lawyers in the federal lawsuit by the relatives of 9/11 victims.
'Travesty of justice must ... end'
Terry Strada of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who gave birth to her youngest son only four days before losing her husband, Tom, in the collapse of the twin towers in Manhattan where he worked, specifically pointed to the CIA’s mystery surrounding al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi in her remarks Thursday after traveling to Washington to support of Menendez’s bill.
“This travesty of justice must come to an end,” Strada said, her voice rising with emotion as she criticized the FBI and the CIA for “perpetuating our continued pain and suffering” by not releasing its files on the possible Saudi link to the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI and the CIA did not comment on either the proposed legislation by Menendez or to the renewed allegations against the Saudi government. The Saudi embassy in Washington also did not comment.
Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed at the World Trade Center and who now co-chairs with Strada the group 9/11 Community United, said he sometimes feels forgotten by his own government in his quest for truth.
“It's a sad truth to know that the United States government values foreign interests more than its own citizens,” Eagleson said.
He said he has become especially disheartened of some political figures as another Sept.11 approaches.
“They stand up and utter words, 'never forget,'” Eagleson said. “But the administration, behind a cloak of secrecy, continues to stab us in the back.”
If Menendez’s bill passes — and is signed into law — that cloak of secrecy and backstabbing may end.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.