As the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, families of the victims — people who have suffered grievous losses — have one last request. They want answers — answers about the possible role of Saudi Arabia, answers still locked in government vaults.
The 9/11 families have made their case to three previous administrations — Bush, Obama, Trump — all to no avail. But they are not giving up. Some 1,800 family members, survivors and first responders involved there on that day have let the Biden White House know that if this president can’t put “the values of truth, justice, and accountability before the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” then he should not show his face at the 9/11 memorial services this year.
Part of the Saudi linkage is well known. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 brought down in Shanksville, Pa.,were Saudi nationals as was their mastermind, Osama bin Laden. But the possible involvement of people within the Saudi government chain of command has remained the source of speculation, fueled in part by our own government’s unwillingness to declassify information deemed too sensitive.
That includes portions of a 2016 FBI report, Operation Encore, which once again examined the notion the hijackers had on-the-ground help from Saudi nationals with ties to their own government. Portions of a congressional report declassified in 2016 added two names to the list of potential Saudi links, both identified as Saudi intelligence officers.
Of course, Saudi Arabia remains a strategic, if still rather problematic, ally. The 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad is a more recent case in point.
And so the diplomatic dance over disclosure continues.
Last October, then-candidate Joe Biden, in a letter to representatives of the 9/11 families, rapped the Trump administration and Attorney General William Barr for invoking the state secrets privilege “to prevent the discovery by the families of FBI information that could shed light on actions that Saudi officials may have taken to assist the hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks.” He promised to direct his own attorney general “to personally examine the merits of all [such] cases” and “to err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki now insists Biden “remains committed to that pledge,” but added, “Of course, any steps would be taken by the Department of Justice.” Yes, the new administration has a lot on its plate, but surely the department can make those steps a little quicker.
Last week Democratic Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut urged the Biden administration to give the 9/11 families the information they have fought so long to get. But their Plan B is the September 11th Transparency Act of 2021, ordering the director of national intelligence to oversee a full declassification review of the government’s 9/11 investigation.
“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 at a news conference, “and not just any attack, an attack that claimed nearly 3,000 American lives.”
The bill also has the support of Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
A lawsuit accusing the Saudi government of complicity in the attacks filed on behalf of some of the families has been allowed to gather testimony under oath from some Saudi officials — but that, too, has been kept under seal, not to be shared with the families themselves.
It has only added to their frustration and their anger.
“Prior administrations have promised ‘reviews’ only to use them as delay tactics to protect the Saudi government and keep the American people in the dark,” said Brett Eagleson, an advocate for 9/11 families who lost his father in the attack, in a statement.
For Eagleson and others who lost loved ones on 9/11, this is no academic appeal for government transparency; it’s about truth and about justice. On this, the 20th anniversary of their loss and a national tragedy, full disclosure is the least their country owes them.
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