Families of 9/11 victims hope for answers about Saudi involvement in attacks

President BidenJoe BidenBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Biden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Biden: Comment that DOJ should prosecute those who defy subpoenas 'not appropriate' MORE's order directing the Justice Department to review, declassify and release some documents related to the FBI’s investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could shed new light on Saudi Arabia’s involvement and offer some closure for the families of victims 20 years later.

Biden last week signed an executive order directing the Justice Department and other agencies to review and release certain documents related to the FBI’s investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The first batch of materials is expected to be released in the coming days.

The process marks something of a culmination for thousands of families who lost loved ones 20 years ago who have spent the last few years fighting for transparency. And it could mark a turning point in the public understanding of Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.

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“For the families it’s like an open wound that’s never healed,” said Terry Strada, whose husband died in the attacks and is the chairwoman of 9/11 Families United. “But the open wound of not knowing and having information withheld, that wound will heal. That chapter will close after this entire six-month process, if it’s successful.”

Brett Eagleson, who was 15 years old when he lost his father in the attacks, said he’s cautiously optimistic about what Biden’s review might make public after years of fighting with his own government to lift a veil of secrecy around Saudi Arabia.

“It's not time to celebrate yet,” Eagleson said. “But I think that it's an acknowledgement by the president of the United States that we have this struggle. He's personally intervening, he's making an executive order.”

“I think that is a win in and of itself that the federal government, the president of the United States acknowledges that yes, there are classified government documents related to the FBI's investigation into the Saudi Arabian government for 9/11,” he said.

Biden pledged during the campaign to declassify and make public some documents related to the FBI’s 9/11 investigation. While advocates of the decision acknowledge some materials are likely to remain classified, they view the publication of any new information as a form of vindication.

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Former President TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE met with some of the families in September 2019 and assured them that his administration would release some key information about the alleged links between Saudi officials and the hijackers. But on Sept. 12 of that year, then-Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMeadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report Why it's time for conservatives to accept the 2020 election results and move on Bannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ MORE told a federal judge in a court filing that he was invoking state secrets privilege on the requested documents, allowing the government to shield it from the court’s discovery process on the grounds that it would harm national security.

“The families were furious and didn’t want to be used as a political prop again,” said James Kreindler, one of the attorneys representing families suing Saudi Arabia over the terrorist attacks. 

The families have fought a protracted battle with three administrations over sealed information that they say will shed light on the full extent of the kingdom’s role in assisting the hijackers. In August, about 1,800 family members of 9/11 victims signed a letter to Biden making clear that he would not be welcome at memorial events on the 20th anniversary of the attacks unless he took steps to declassify the information they were seeking.

The evidence supporting the allegations against the Saudis revolves around the assistance that two of the hijackers received after they arrived in California in 2000 from two men with links to the kingdom, Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al-Bayoumi.

The 2004 9/11 Commission Report said it found scant evidence that Thumairy and Bayoumi were a link between the Saudi government and the hijackers.

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But according to a 2017 court declaration by Stephen MooreStephen MooreRepublicans have moral and financial reasons to oppose raising the debt ceiling Ex-Trump aides launch million campaign against Biden economic agenda Families of 9/11 victims hope for answers about Saudi involvement in attacks MORE, a former FBI official who led the Los Angeles bureau task force investigating the attacks, investigators had found evidence that Bayoumi was an undercover intelligence operative for Saudi Arabia and that he and Thumairy, who had diplomatic status as a Saudi representative, were active in a terror cell. Moore, who retired in 2008, said that they had helped the two hijackers get settled in San Diego, assisting them with finding lodging and providing them with funding.

In 2006, the FBI launched its own investigation of possible Saudi involvement in the attacks, called Operation Encore, which lasted until 2016.

The families of 9/11 victims have been seeking Encore’s classified documents ever since and in 2017, they sued Saudi Arabia for facilitating and funding the 2001 attacks.

The Gulf kingdom has steadfastly denied any involvement in the attacks and the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., issued a statement this week welcoming the potential release of documents surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks and denying any involvement in the event.

“Any allegation that Saudi Arabia is complicit in the September 11 attacks is categorically false,” the embassy said in a statement. “As the administrations of the past four U.S. presidents have attested, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has unwaveringly condemned and denounced the deplorable crimes that took place against the United States, its close ally and partner.”

Eagleson said that he believes the government’s efforts to keep the records out of the public eye is due to embarrassment over intelligence failures prior to the attack and Saudi Arabia’s influence within the U.S. as well as the country’s status as a key global oil supplier. He said that he feels a sense of betrayal after seeking answers for two decades and remains guarded about his expectations of the results of Biden’s review given how hard intelligence and law enforcement officials have fought efforts at transparency.

“We have the best country in the world and I believe that we will continue to have the best country in the world. But I just wish that our government would have our backs,” Eagleson said.

“If our government has any information on the involvement of any person, entity, or foreign sovereign, that had anything to do with 9/11, the families should know,” he said. “Twenty years is far too long to wait for closure and justice.”