Fourteen years after 9/11, the White House says it is finally considering making public 28 controversially redacted pages of a congressional investigation into the terrorist attacks that are said to detail damning evidence of Saudi government support for al Qaeda.
The Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 was issued in December 2002. Many portions, including the entirety of a 28-page section titled "Finding, Discussions and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters," were redacted by the Bush administration on national security grounds.
Current and former members of Congress who have reviewed the classified pages say that they point to Saudi involvement in the attacks. What those ties where, and who precisely is referred to in the pages, however, remains unclear.
In December 2013, House Representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA), introduced a resolution urging President Barack Obama to declassify them. Despite that resolution, which was reintroduced this year, as well as claims from family members of victims that Obama had privately promised to unredact the material, they remain secret.
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Their effort, however, was given new momentum this week after the surprise release of testimony from an al Qaeda operative who described high-level support for the terror group from the Saudi royal family. The deposition of French-born Zacarias Moussaoui, jailed in federal prison on terrorism charges, was introduced as part of a lawsuit brought by relatives of 9/11 victims against the Saudi government.
In October, Moussaoui told lawyers for the plaintiffs that in the late 1990s he was charged with keeping a list of donors to al Qaeda. On it, he said, were the names of then Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal and the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. Moussaoui alleges that he encountered other high-level officials on several occasions, including Saudi Arabia's current King Salman, who was a prince at the time. While based in Afghanistan, Moussaoui said he met with an official from Bandar's office in Washington. Together, the two allegedly planed to bring down Air Force One with a stinger missile.
Though Moussaoui is seen as a wily and possible unstable witness with dubious credibility, his story, which was first reported in the New York Times, has put greater pressure on the White House, which acknowledged on Thursday that it was considering publishing the pages.
"The administration, in response to a specific congressional request, last year asked the intelligence community to conduct a classification review of that material," White House spokesperson Joshua Earnest told reporters.
He said that the review, which will determine "whether or not it's appropriate to release" the material, is ongoing.
House Representative Thomas Massie, a co-sponsor of the latest House resolution, told VICE News that both Moussaoui's testimony and the news that the White House is addressing the matter should encourage other members to read the 28 pages.
"More than ever, I think those pages should be released," Massie said.
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Massie noted that despite the recent revelations, many members of Congress haven't seen the entire report, which can only be accessed in a secure room guarded by FBI agents.
"Frankly, I'm disappointed that most of my colleagues still haven't taken the time to read the 28 pages," he said. "In spite of their blind spot, they still speak with confidence regarding the causes and enablers of Islamic terrorism."
Prince Bandar visited President George W. Bush at the White House two days after the 9/11 attacks. The two men smoked cigars on a balcony and chatted with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The closeness of Bandar to the Bush family — he was at times referred to as "Bandar Bush" — lead some to assume that the administration had redacted the pages to avoid embarrassing one of America's closest allies in the Middle East.
Intelligence experts contend that by not releasing the redacted pages, victims' families and the American public as a whole are left only with the words of Moussaoui, a man who is alleged to have been the failed 20th 9/11 hijacker, and who was determined to be mentally unstable by a psychologist at his trial.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Government Secrecy Project, told VICE News that he thinks keeping the pages secret has overtime imbued them with a significance perhaps greater than their contents warrant.
"I think there's a temptation to fetishize documents and to imagine that if someone wants to withhold these pages they must be incredibly valuable, and that's not necessarily true," Aftergood told VICE News.
He pointed out that Saudi Arabia's record of globally supporting the extreme and austere form of Islam known as Wahhabism — a strand favored by Osama bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda — is already well known. Nevertheless, he said, "they should have been declassified ten years ago, and they certainly should be declassified now."
The Saudi government has always denied accusations that it had any involvement in the attacks. As allegations about the contents of the pages circulated, the royal family requested that they be made public, but the Bush administration insisted on keeping them secret. In the decade since, however, a picture has emerged of what the pages contain.
Last year, former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) told VICE News that they detailed a financial trail leading up to the attacks. Their secret status, he said, amounted to a "cover-up."
Graham was more forthcoming in a 2012 affidavit given in the 9/11 relatives' lawsuit against the Saudi government.
"I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia," he told the court.
Rep. Jones has said that releasing the material would not, as the Bush administration contended, endanger national security.
"If it steps on somebody's toes, then I'm sorry," he told VICE News last year.
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