A missing section from a congressional report into the attacks of September 11, 2001, long held in secrecy for reasons of national security, was released on Friday, ending more than a decade of speculation about its contents.
The section, commonly known as "the 28 pages" [pdf at the end of this story] and part of a report completed during a joint congressional inquiry into the attacks, contains a discussion of the role of the Saudi government, or top Saudi officials, in funding and propagating the plot, which left more than 3,000 Americans dead in the worst terrorist attack on US soil.
The pages had in recent years reached near mythic status, with many people coming to believe that they might reveal conclusive evidence of a link between Saudi Arabia and the attackers.
But according to the documents, "In their testimony before the [congressional] Joint Inquiry [into the 9/11 attacks], neither the CIA nor the FBI was able to definitively identify for those Committees the extent of Saudi support for terrorist activity globally or within the United States and the extent to which such support, if it exists, is intention or innocent in nature."
Several people with security clearances who read the 28 pages before they were released warned that they were far from a smoking gun; instead, the documents were little more than uncorroborated leads "comparable to preliminary law enforcement notes," in the words of Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, which later investigated the claims in the 28 pages.
"What often gets lost in those theories is that the 28 pages were based almost entirely on raw, unvetted material that came to the FBI," Kean and Hamilton wrote in an op-ed in USA Today this past April. "That material was written up as possible leads for further investigation, and the 28 pages were a summary of some of those reports and leads as of the end of 2002 — all of them uninvestigated."
The 28 pages lays out contacts between Saudi government officials and people who interacted with the 9/11 hijackers, including the then-ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan's wife, Princess Haifa bin Sultan. Princess Haifa sent $75,000 to Osama Basnan, a Saudi national living in the US at the time, allegedly for medical treatment for Basnan's wife. Some of the money ended up in the hands of Omar al-Bayoumi, another Saudi national who, along with Basnan, helped two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mindhar, when they first arrived in the US in 2000 and settled in Los Angeles. Bayoumi threw the two hijackers a welcome party, cosigned their apartment lease, and "tasked" another Saudi, Modhar Abdullah, with helping them find flight schools.
The FBI later said later that neither Bayoumi nor Basnan were involved in the attack.
"The Intelligence Community and the 9/11 Commission, which followed the Joint Inquiry that produced these so-called 28 pages, investigated the questions they raised and was never able to find sufficient evidence to support them," said Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which posted the declassified 28 pages on its website Friday afternoon.
Still, Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch said he was "extremely pleased" that the 28 pages were released.
"I am especially happy for the families of the victims and the American people as a whole," Lynch, who for years pushed for the documents to be declassified, said in a statement. "Releasing the contents of the 28 pages will answer some of the many questions that remain. It may help us at last hold those who are responsible accountable. Through the passionate advocacy of victims' families and some of my colleagues in Congress… we finally will have greater transparency about the investigation into the circumstances surrounding September 11th."
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US, Abdullah Al-Saud, said in a statement that the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the release of the redacted pages from the 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry."
"Since 2002, the 9/11 Commission and several government agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have investigated the contents of the '28 Pages' and have confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government provided any support or encouragement for these attacks," the ambassador said. "Saudi Arabia has long called for the release of the classified '28 Pages.' We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia's actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States."
The Saudi embassy also posted several Tweets highlighting quotes from the 9/11 Commission Report and CIA and FBI reports.
A section of the 28 pages also corroborates information previously reported and attributed to unnamed US officials about Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda facilitator who worked at a training camp in Afghanistan and was the CIA's first "high-value" detainee captured months after the 9/11 attacks. Zubaydah, a Saudi national of Palestinian descent, was also the guinea pig for the CIA's torture program and, according to the CIA, one of two CIA detainees who provided the agency with the majority of its information about al-Qaeda.
According to the 28 pages, Abu Zubaydah appears to have had phone numbers of Saudi officials in the US. After he was captured on March 28, 2002, US intelligence officers retrieved Abu Zubaydah's telephone book and discovered a US phone number linked to the management company of the Colorado residence of former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Abu Zubaydah also had the phone number of a bodyguard who worked at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC.
"According to FBI documents, several of the phone numbers found in the phone book of Abu Zubayda[h], a senior al-Qaida operative captured in March 2002, could be linked, at least indirectly, to telephone numbers in the United States," the 28 pages said. "One of those U.S. numbers is subscribed to by the ASPCOL Corporation, which is located in Aspen, Colorado, and manages the affairs of the Colorado residence of the Saudi Ambassador Bandar. The FBI noted that ASPCOL has an unlisted phone number."
Thirteen years ago, reports surfaced, based on information from unnamed intelligence sources, alleging that Abu Zubaydah rattled off the phone numbers of Saudi princes during his interrogations and that he had provided his captors with a wealth of information about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda. The release of the 28 pages now lends additional support to those claims.
Brent Mickum, one of Abu Zubaydah's attorneys, told VICE News it does not surprise him that his client may have had the phone numbers of prominent Saudi officials.
"What we've known is that people were committed to their own version of jihad," Mickum said. "Many of the wealthy people weren't going to go and take up arms. What they did was their own form of charitable work, supporting guest houses and supporting the mujahideen. I can tell you Abu Zubaydah did not get funds for any operation. But he did receive funds from important people that was used to support the mujahideen who would return to Afghanistan from Bosnia, for example, and wanted to get married and needed financial support."
Next month, Abu Zubaydah is expected to have a parole board hearing at Guantanamo to determine if he remains a national security threat or if he can be transferred out of the detention facility.
Bob Graham, a former US senator from Florida who co-chaired the joint congressional inquiry and who has long called for the documents to be released, said the information contained in the 28 pages would be of "great assistance to families who have been trying for the last decade to have closure and accountability about who participated in the murder of their family members."
"Releasing this information will put some brakes on Saudi Arabia's continued support of terrorism," he added. "I believe that the Saudis have received a message by our silence. This message is they have immunity to do whatever they want and what they have continued to do is fund the most virulent terrorist organizations and train a new generation of jihadis."
Before the pages were released, Terry Strada said the 28 pages "will answer some questions and raise 1,000 more." Strada's husband, Tom, was working on the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. His body was never found.
For more than a decade, Strada has been fighting for the release of the pages, routinely traveling to Washington, DC to win the support of lawmakers.
Last year, the CIA declassified a cache of documents about the 9/11 attacks. One of the documents was a heavily redacted June 2005 internal watchdog report that probed the CIA's intelligence failures leading up to the attacks. The report said that investigators on the CIA's 9/11 review team "encountered no evidence" that the government of Saudi Arabia "knowingly and willingly supported" al-Qaeda.
In the years prior to the 9/11 attacks, the CIA had received sporadic reports of possible Saudi support of al-Qaeda, but the agency had not been able to corroborate the intelligence.
A 1999 CIA intelligence report on Osama bin Laden's finances cited in the inspector general's report said "limited" reporting suggested that "a few Saudi Government officials may support" bin Laden, but added that the intelligence reporting was "too sparse to determine with any accuracy" if such support occurred.
Years later, according to the report, "individuals in both [the CIA's] Near East Division and Counterterrorist Center [redacted] told the [CIA's 9/11 review team] they had not seen any reliable reporting confirming Saudi Government involvement with and financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11, although a few also speculated that dissident sympathizers within the government may have aided al-Qai'da."
Follow Joshua Hersh on Twitter: @joshuahersh
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold