A long-classified document detailing suspected connections between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was released Friday by the House Intelligence Committee after being redacted by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The document, referred to as the “28 pages” throughout a years-long battle over whether it should be made public, had taken on a near-mythic status. Victims’ families and some lawmakers had pushed for its release, charging that the government had tried to cover up possible Saudi links to the attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
But the pages, part of a 2002 joint inquiry by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees into the al-Qaeda plot, do not appear to add significantly to information collected in subsequent investigations, including the 9/11 Commission report, published in 2004, and numerous other documents that have since been made public.
All of the Saudis named in the pages released Friday, including several who had been in direct contact with two of the hijackers during their time in the United States before the attacks, were investigated by the FBI and the CIA, with results detailed in later reports.
The 9/11 Commission report, the most exhaustive study of the attacks, said it found no evidence that the “Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaeda.”
Eleanor J. Hill, who served as staff director of the joint congressional inquiry, stressed that the panel itself never reached any conclusions about the material in the newly released pages and that the public should understand that they contain threads that were seen at the time as investigative leads for others to pursue.
“People are thinking they’re going to see conclusions,” Hill said. “What people should remember was that this was information that was found in the files of law enforcement and intelligence agencies” by lawmakers and their staffs, and it was “being referred for further investigation.”
Former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the committee that carried out the investigation and has been pushing the White House to release the pages, said Friday that he was “very pleased” the documents were released.
Graham said in a statement that the information in the pages “suggests a strong linkage between those terrorists and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi charities, and other Saudi stakeholders.”
“My thoughts are with all of those who lost family members, loved ones and friends on that fateful September day in 2001,” he said. “But this is not the end. Like the removal of the cork at the end of the bottle, the release of the 28 pages should open the way to even more information that continues to be classified. Americans deserve to know the whole truth about the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history.”
But others said the released pages prove exactly what has been argued all along — that there was no new information to implicate Saudi Arabia.
The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), said in a statement that he hoped the release of the pages “will diminish speculation that they contain proof of official Saudi Government or senior Saudi official involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” adding that the intelligence community and the 9/11 Commission investigated similar allegations and were “never able to find sufficient evidence to support them.”
That may not be the most welcome news to certain relatives of 9/11 victims, who are pushing for the House to take up a Senate-passed bill they hope would let them sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged support for terrorism. They also have been campaigning for the release of the previously classified pages.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the release of the pages means that victims’ families “now will be able to go to court and sue” the Saudi government over its purported support of the hijackers.
“If the Saudi government was complicit in 9/11, they should pay the price to the families who deserve justice, and they should pay the price so no other government will think of playing footsie with terrorists the way the Saudi government may have done in 2001,” Schumer said.
This spring, the Senate passed legislation clarifying when courts can waive foreign immunity in cases involving terrorist acts on U.S. soil. But the House has yet to take up the bill, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) gave no indication Friday that he planned to hustle the measure to the floor.
“While this ultimately doesn’t change what we know, it marks an important step forward for transparency,” he said in a statement.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the pages “don’t shed any new light or change any of the conclusions about responsibilities for the 9/11 attacks” but that the administration released them to be “consistent with the commitments to transparency that the administration has tried to apply to even sensitive national security issues.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who postponed his departure from an unrelated trip to Washington when it appeared that the release of the pages was imminent, said he “welcomed it” and noted that his government had called for years for the document to be made public.
He said, as have others, that the suspicions listed in the pages reflect initial investigative leads at a time, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when it was “natural for people wanting to pursue any lead. We welcomed it. We cooperated” with that pursuit, he said, and all the questions asked in the pages have long since been answered. “They concluded . . . there was no there there.”
“The matter is now finished,” Jubeir said, adding that he hoped “the aspersions that have been cast on Saudi Arabia for the last 14 years” will end.
Congressional leaders who advocated for the declassification of the pages welcomed their release with a mix of caution and optimism.
“It’s important to note that this section does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
Many members of Congress applauded the release of the pages as a necessary gesture of transparency to the American public, particularly since it could be done “without jeopardizing national security,” as Nunes said.
“There is no excuse for keeping these 28 pages secret for more than a decade, so this release is welcome and long overdue,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The American public deserved to see the reports’ declassified contents and now they can,” Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said.
Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, stressed that it was particularly important to read a supplementary document detailing the results of CIA and FBI investigations “that debunk many of the allegations contained in the declassified section of the report.”
“We need to put an end to conspiracy theories and idle speculation that do nothing to shed light on the 9/11 attacks,” Burr and Feinstein said in a statement released by Feinstein’s office.
Last year, a panel of experts selected by Congress reviewed the FBI’s response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. The panel, which included noted counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, found nothing that altered the original findings of the commission.
Its report also revealed that the FBI had reinterviewed Abdullah bin Laden in 2011. Bin Laden, whose name appears in the pages released Friday, claimed to work for the Saudi Embassy in Washington. He was identified by the FBI as the half-brother of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and as a “possible associate” of Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, both of whom took part in the 9/11 attacks.
“Abdullah confirmed that he had provided on his own accord various types of assistance to the hijackers in San Diego,” the report said. The review “did not discover anything new in the post-9/11 Commission interviews of Abdullah that would definitively change the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions regarding Abdullah’s pre-9/11 activities.”
Julie Tate and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.