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The Obama administration may soon release 28 classified pages from a congressional investigation that allegedly links Saudis in the United States to the 9/11 attackers. A former Republican member of the 9/11 Commission alleged Thursday that there was“clear evidence” of support for the hijackers from Saudi officials.
But in Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil.
The still-secret files speak to one of the strangest and most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks. Why did the Saudi occupants of a posh house in gated community in Sarasota, Florida, suddenly vanish in the two weeks prior to the attacks? And had they been in touch with the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, and two of his co-conspirators?
No way, the FBI says, even though the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers. On further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.
But a team of lawyers and investigative journalists has found what they say is hard evidence pointing in the other direction. Atta did visit the family before he led 18 men to their deaths and murdered 3,000 people, they say, and phone records connect the house to members of the 9/11 conspiracy.
The FBI did initially suspect something was off when their agents descended on the Sarasota house shortly after the attacks, tipped off by suspicious neighbors who had always found the family aloof.
Investigators found signs that the occupants had left in a hurry. Food was left on the counter and the refrigerator was stocked. Toys were still floating in the back-yard swimming pool. Dirty diapers were left in a bathroom. It also looked like the people who lived there weren’t coming back. The mail was piling up outside, and the door to an empty safe was wide open. Three cars remained parked in the garage and driveway.
The FBI later said it came up with reasonable answers to explain this odd behavior. But not until after the Tampa field office opened an investigation that claimed to find “numerous connections” between the family and the 9/11 hijackers.
The final answers about what really happened in Sarasota may lie somewhere in those 80,000 pages. To be sure, not all of them concern the FBI’s investigation of the Saudi family. The documents represent the entire case file of the 9/11 attacks at the Tampa field office. But some subset surely will reveal more about what the FBI knew, and when, and why it reached a different conclusion.
For the past two years, U.S. district court judge William Zloch has been going through the files, page-by-page, to determine what information that pertains to the Saudi case can be released.
But based on about three dozen pages that had been made public already under the Freedom of Information Act, and the work of the reporters, this is the picture that emerges of life at 4224 Escondito Circle, a three-bedroom house in an exclusive community called Prestancia, in the weeks before 9/11.
The house was occupied by a Saudi couple, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii and his wife Anoud, and their three small children. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a financier and interior designer, owned the home, along with his American-born wife, Deborah.
The family largely kept to themselves. A neighbor told the Tampa Bay Times thatAbdulazzi said he was a student, and that his wife was religious. “He would come over for a cigarette and a drink and to get away from that praying every two hours,” the neighbor said.
But the family’s behavior, and undoubtedly their national origin, drew new suspicion after the 9/11 attacks. In April 2002, “based upon repeated citizen calls,” the FBI opened an investigation, which “revealed many connections” between a member of the family “and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks,” according to one of the few released documents.
Those jaw-dropping claims remained largely unknown for years. In part, that’s because the FBI now says that the initial reports came from an agent who couldn’t support his suspicions. Investigators later interviewed members of the family and found they had left the U.S. because Abdulazzi had just graduated and gotten a new job in Saudi Arabia.
The Sarasota family also had no connections to the 9/11 terrorists, the FBI concluded. (Their names are redacted in the reports, for privacy, but they have been publicly confirmed.)
Case closed? Hardly. In 2011, a pair of Irish journalists, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who were publishing a book on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, contacted Dan Christensen, a veteran Florida reporter. They’d heard about the Sarasota family and had a confidential source—an unnamed counterterrorism official—who claimed to have detailed knowledge of the FBI’s investigation into the couple, including analysis of phone records that showed calls to and from the house connected to the hijackers. What’s more, the source also said that visitor logs from the security gate of the community showed that Atta, along with co-hijacker Ziad Jarrah, had come to the house, and that those logs had been turned over to the FBI.
The journalists teamed up and published an exposé on Christensen’s independent news site, FloridaBulldog.org, and on the front page of the Miami Herald. The story was an instant sensation, prompting the FBI to publicly declare that the case had been investigated and found to have no merit.
Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who had led the congressional inquiry that produced those 28 pages on Saudi connections, was stunned by the Sarasota allegations. The FBI hadn’t given Graham’s committee any information about the family or their suspected ties to Atta and other hijackers. Even the initial reports the FBI later said proved wrong weren’t disclosed to congressional investigators, Graham said. The journalists findings “open[ed] the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11,” Graham said at the time.
The FBI continued to publicly knock down the Sarasota connection. Graham eventually confronted the bureau and asked to see files from the Tampa field office. As he told The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift for a forthcoming article, Graham saw records that did show alleged contacts between the family and three hijackers, and further lines of inquiry that investigators could follow.