“When I ran for president, I made a commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of documents on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America,” Biden said in a statement Friday. “As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, I am honoring that commitment.”
The executive order directs the Justice Department and other relevant agencies to oversee a declassification review of documents related to the FBI’s Sept. 11 investigations. The order also requires the U.S. Attorney General to release the declassified documents publicly over the next six months, Biden said.
Families of hundreds of 9/11 victims had told Biden last month that he would not be welcome at this year’s memorial events marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks unless he declassified government evidence beforehand that could link Saudi Arabia to the attack, according to a letter sent to the White House in August.
Shortly afterward, the Justice Department pledged to review evidence related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a move that an advocate for some of the families criticized as insufficient. In a court filing last month, the Justice Department already had said the FBI was reviewing the materials for possible public disclosure. But Biden’s executive order imposes new conditions and timetables on that process, commanding the bureau to review some materials by Sept. 11 and others on staggered deadlines over the next 180 days.
Biden also seemed to direct the bureau to favor disclosure in questionable calls, writing that material should not stay secret if there was “significant doubt” about the need for it to remain classified, and that the attorney general and others should determine “whether the public interest in disclosure of the information outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.”
The FBI said in a statement reacting to the order: “The FBI will continue to work in coordination with the Department of Justice and other agencies to declassify and release documents related to the 9/11 investigation.” The Justice Department declined to comment to The Washington Post.
Some 9/11 families immediately praised the executive order Friday. One group, 9/11 Families United, which represents more than 10,000 people affected by the attacks, said in a statement that Biden’s order “looks like a true turning point.”
“We have been fighting the FBI and intelligence community for too long,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, was killed in the World Trade Center. “There is much more work to be done to secure justice for our murdered loved ones and to rectify the immense damage the 20-year shroud of secrecy has caused, but we now are optimistic that President Biden will be helping us achieve those goals.”
Brett Eagleson, who lost his father, Bruce Eagleson, in the 9/11 attacks, commended Biden for signing the executive order, calling it “a critical first step” to a full accounting.
“We will closely watch this process to ensure the Justice Department and FBI follow through, act in good faith, and help our families uncover the truth in our pursuit of justice against the Saudi government,” Brett Eagleson said in a statement. “The first test will be on 9/11, and the world will be watching.”
Several members of Congress, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said they supported Biden’s decision to order the declassification review of 9/11 documents. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday the committee would closely oversee the review process “to ensure that all agencies adhere to the president’s guidance to apply the maximum degree of transparency allowed by law when conducting the review.”
Biden has not yet made public his plans for the 20th anniversary of the attacks. Last year, while campaigning for president, he attended Sept. 11 memorial events in Lower Manhattan and Shanksville, Pa.
“My heart continues to be with the 9/11 families who are suffering, and my Administration will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community,” Biden said Friday. “I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.