The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ending secrecy over the Saudis and 9/11? It’s about time.

The Sept. 11 Memorial in New York on Aug. 31. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This article has been updated.

By keeping — belatedly and under duress — a campaign promise, President Biden cauterized one wound from his miserable late summer. Commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will occur under the cloud of the Afghanistan war’s last days, but not marred by the anger of more than 2,000 family members of victims and first responders. They had said on Aug. 6 that Biden would be unwelcome at the ceremonies unless he released classified material pertinent to Saudi Arabia’s possible complicity with the 19 airplane hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis. On Friday, he took a tentative step in the right direction.

After 9/11, lawyers for the families filed suits against Saudi charities and individuals but could not sue Saudi Arabia until Congress in 2016 amended (over President Barack Obama’s veto) the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. A federal court granted the lawyers limited discovery, and they subpoenaed FBI material concerning the role of Saudi officials who supported some 9/11 hijackers when they entered the United States.

For years, the lawyers say, the FBI was dilatory. When the court ordered more FBI cooperation, the material the lawyers received was covered, at FBI insistence, by a protective order preventing them from telling their clients what they know about Saudi involvement, and requiring the lawyers to file almost all court submissions under seal. “We,” says one of the lawyers, “have never seen this level of secrecy placed on any lawsuit.”

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After the families’ Aug. 6 statement, the White House and Justice Department promised to “re-review” the contested material for possible declassification. Because similar statements have been made by past administrations, the lawyers suspected Biden’s administration was stalling, hoping that after the 20th anniversary pressure for transparency would subside. But the families’ pressure persuaded an administration averse to more bad news.

The 9/11 Commission’s interestingly worded 2004 report found no evidence that the Saudi government “as an institution” or that “senior” Saudi officials “individually” funded the hijackers, but noted “the likelihood” that “charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.” Since 2004, FBI investigations have found more.

The 9/11 Commission knew about substantial assistance rendered by persons directly or indirectly funded by Saudi Arabia to the first two hijackers to arrive in this country. Today, much more is known. Last week, CBS News reported about a notebook that belonged to a San Diego Saudi “student” on the Saudi payroll and a close associate of those two hijackers. CBS: “The notebook contained a handwritten drawing of a plane and mathematical equation that might be used to view a target and then calculate the rate of descent to the target.”

The families might succeed in prying information from a government unused to yielding. Despite pressure, the CIA’s official history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle remained secret until 55 years after the event. It is impossible to imagine that national security was jeopardized by at long last releasing the history. It is easy to imagine how a government prone to foreign policy pratfalls could have benefited from studying one.

In his 1998 book on secrecy, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) affirmed that some of it is necessary to protect government’s deliberative processes, and to conceal the sources, methods and fruits of intelligence-gathering. He also argued, however, that covetous and rivalrous government bureaucracies regard their secrets as property, hiding them from other bureaucracies, with which they sometimes barter secrets. The U.S. Army did not tell President Harry S. Truman that the Venona intercepts of 2,900 Soviet communications proved that Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were spies, knowledge that would have calmed two national controversies.

Moynihan said secrecy is regulation, but unlike most regulation, which “prescribes what the citizen may do,” secrecy “prescribes what the citizen may know.” Excessive secrecy — secrecy breeds its own excess — necessarily makes the citizenry and government unnecessarily ignorant.

Information tending to substantiate Americans’ suspicions that Saudi Arabia has more 9/11 blood on its hands than is already known will not subtract measurably from Americans’ regard for today’s Saudi regime, which the CIA says directed, from the highest levels, the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The regime’s audacity was perhaps encouraged by the U.S. government’s pattern of protecting the regime with secrecy.

Biden, given more than 2,000 reasons to do so, seems to have opted for transparency. Or — skepticism is always in order — at least a promise to revisit a campaign promise. So, if he follows through on his promise, we are going to learn, among other things, this: National security is not diminished by information that diminishes Saudi Arabia’s good name, which it has already forfeited.