The U.S. Department of Justice will review the release of documents pertaining to certain Saudi Arabian leaders’ involvement in the lead-up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks after mounting pressure from families of those who died in 9/11.
The DOJ’s filing of a two-page letter in federal court in Manhattan on Monday came less than a week after nearly 1,800 families, victims and first responders objected to President Joe Biden's attendance at Sept. 11 memorial events as long as key documents remain classified.
Those documents pertain to a long-running lawsuit accusing Saudi Arabia of being complicit in the attacks, a suit that advanced significantly this year with the questioning under oath of former Saudi officials. Those depositions, however, remain under seal and the U.S. has withheld a trove of other documents as too sensitive for disclosure.
"Since the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission in 2004 much investigative evidence has been uncovered implicating Saudi government officials in supporting the attacks," the letter from victims’ family members read in part. “Through multiple administrations, the Department of Justice and the FBI have actively sought to keep this information secret and prevent the American people from learning the full truth about the 9/11 attacks."
In its letter Monday, the department said that the FBI had recently concluded an investigation that examined certain 9/11 hijackers and potential co-conspirators, and that it would now work to see if information it had previously determined could not be disclosed may instead be shared. It did not reveal in the letter any findings of that probe, which it has referred to as the “Subfile Investigation.”
“The FBI will disclose such information on a rolling basis as expeditiously as possible,” the Justice Department said. The department said in a separate statement Monday that the FBI was newly reviewing the documents for information that could be shared with the families despite prior court rulings "upholding the government’s privilege assertions.”
Biden commended the DOJ review in a statement on Monday, writing in part that his administration is “committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law.”
“In this vein, I welcome the Department of Justice’s filing today, which commits to conducting a fresh review of documents where the government has previously asserted privileges, and to doing so as quickly as possible,” the president added.
But the move — and Biden's response — failed to placate at least some victims’ relatives, who said the FBI and Justice Department have already had years to review the documents.
“We appreciate that President Biden recognizes that long-standing questions about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the worst-ever terrorist attack on American soil remain unanswered, but nobody should be fooled by this half-hearted, insufficient commitment to transparency," said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, died when a hijacked plane flew into the World Trade Center.
She said the announcement only applies to a limited "subset of cherry-picked documents that the FBI has already identified for review.”
Brett Eagleson, whose father, Bruce, was killed inside the World Trade Center and who advocates for 9/11 victims, said in a statement that while he appreciated Biden’s acknowledgement of the families, “we have heard many empty promises before.”
He added: “We hope the Biden administration comes forward now to provide the information the 9/11 community has waited to receive for 20 years, so we can stand together with the president at Ground Zero on 9/11.”
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and injured thousands of others. The vast majority of the casualties occurred after two planes hit the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City; a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Multiple U.S. government investigations have examined ties between Saudi nationals and some of the airplane hijackers, but have not established that the Saudi government was directly involved. Fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida network was behind the attacks. The Saudi government has long denied any connection.
Particular scrutiny has centered on the support offered to the first two hijackers to arrive in the U.S., Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, including from a Saudi national who helped them find and lease an apartment in San Diego.