-- The U.S. intelligence community has officially lifted the veil on 28 classified pages from the first congressional investigation into the 9/11 terror attacks that some believe, once exposed, could demonstrate a support network inside the United States for two of those al-Qaeda hijackers.
Today, the Obama administration declassified those documents -- closely held secrets for over 13 years -- and Congress released them to the public this afternoon. The FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies had kept the information secret until now, citing reasons of national security.
The information in the pages lays out a number of circumstances that suggest it's possible two of the 9/11 hijackers living in California had been receiving operational support from individuals loyal to Saudi Arabia in the months leading up to the attacks.
But intelligence officials say the information was preliminary, fragmented and unfinished data that was subsequently investigated along with more complete information in subsequent 9/11 investigations.
Saudi Arabia, an ally to the U.S. in the Middle East, has strongly denied any involvement in the attacks and these accusations, and believes the 2004 9/11 Commission Report, Congress's final investigation into the attacks, serves to completely exonerate Saudi Arabia.
"It does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al Qaeda before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al Qaeda sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al Qaeda's fundraising activities," the 9/11 Commission report reads. "Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)"
The Saudi Ambassador to the United States Abdullah Al-Saud released a statement today welcoming the release of these pages.
“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," Al-Saud said.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, one of the authors of the report produced by the Joint Congressional Inquiry in December of 2002, had been pushing for the classified pages to be released since the day they were made secret. He said he still harbors suspicion that these men were being helped by senior Saudi connections and told CBS News in April it is "implausible" to believe these two hijackers "could've carried out such a complicated task without some support from within the United States."
The declassified documents are also of great interest to the lawyers representing family members of 9/11 victims who have brought a lawsuit against the Saudi government, alleging it provided financial support to al-Qaeda. They feel unseen evidence in these documents pointing to Saudi involvement could bolster their case.
The families released a lengthy statement to the media today that was harshly critical of the Saudis, accusing them of "making every possible effort to deflect the content of the 28 pages."
"Numerous members of the 9/11 Commission have confirmed, including in sworn affidavits filed of record in ongoing court proceedings, that the 9/11 Commission did not exonerate the Saudis and that the Commission’s investigation uncovered substantial and tangible evidence of Saudi government involvement in the events of 9/11 and sponsorship of al Qaeda in preceding years that deserves further development," the statement said in part. "Any suggestion to the contrary, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or anyone else, simply is not accurate."
Members of Congress sympathetic to the interests of the families have introduced legislation called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that would limit the sovereign immunity of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, and if passed would allow the victims' families to sue Saudi Arabia -- something they currently can't do.
The Saudis have threatened to sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets if such a law is enacted. And although it has passed the Senate and is pending in the House, the White House doesn't favor it and worries that it could set a dangerous precedent that would open up the U.S. government to similar liabilities and litigation.
What did the 28 pages say?
The 28 pages point to a number of FBI and CIA leads is acknowledges were preliminary and even "speculative" findings.
The first line of the report reads: While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government."
A number of Saudi individuals are mentioned, but it focuses intensely on two men named Omar al-Bayoumi and Shaykh al-Thumairy. The report cites previous reports from the FBI alleging that Bayoumi may be a Saudi agent and that his FBI file suggested he provided "substantial assistance to hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al Hamzi after they arrived in Sand Diego in February 2000."
Thumairy is described as diplomat at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles and an imam at a mosque at a Culver City, California Mosque, "widely known for it's anti-Western views." The report says FBI and CIA memorandum at the time also suggested he may have had contact with the hijackers.
What is the intelligence community saying now?
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a lengthy statement after the pages were released, essentially explaining that it was deemed that this information no longer posed a threat to U.S. national security and that these information in the pages has been examined thoroughly.
The decision to authorize the release of a portion of Part Four [the 28 pages] does not indicate the Intelligence Community’s agreement with Part Four’s accuracy or concurrence with any information it contains," the statement reads. The Committee itself highlighted that it “has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues…[and that it] was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of such alleged support to the hijackers…”
The statement goes on to say that they 9/11 Commission had the final say and concluded that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded [al Qaeda]."