Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, left, greets former Sen. Bob Graham in a Dec. 17, 2004 file photo. Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, says the FBI did not inform his panel or a separate investigation co-chaired by Keane, about suspicious contacts between Saudi citizens living in Florida and some of the 9/11 hijackers.
Special to msnbc.com
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has seen two classified FBI documents that he says are at odds with the bureau’s public statements that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis then living in Sarasota, Fla.
“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.
“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” Graham said. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”
Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”
Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, he said, only to find the man had been instructed by FBI headquarters not to talk.
FBI: ‘No credible evidence’
The FBI-led investigation a decade ago focused on Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia, near Sarasota, and left the country in the weeks before 9/11. The couple left behind three cars and numerous personal belongings such as furnishings, clothes, medicine and food, according to law enforcement records. After the 9/11 attacks, a concerned neighbor contacted the FBI.
Analysis of Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle, according to a counterterrorism officer and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.
Al-Hijji, who now lives and works in London, recently called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.
The FBI has backed up al-Hijji. After initially declining to comment, the bureau confirmed that it did investigate but said it found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.
The FBI reiterated its position in a Feb. 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.
Booking photo of Wissam Hammoud.
Newly released Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents, however, state that an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, the ex-Broward County resident and suspected al-Qaida operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.
That prompted Graham to ask the FBI for assistance in locating in the National Archives the Sarasota-related files that were allegedly turned over to Congress. Instead, after what Graham said were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, the bureau suddenly turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.
Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, which responded by setting up a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. According to the former senator, Joyce told Graham he “didn’t want to talk” about the Sarasota episode. Graham said he was assured, however, that he would shortly be shown material that supported the FBI’s denials, and a further meeting was arranged with an FBI aide.
In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.
Graham believes the joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks was not the only national investigative body kept in the dark about Sarasota. He said the co-chairs of the later 9/11 Commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have told him they also were unaware of it.
Kean, a former New Jersey governor, told Graham the commission would have “worked it hard,” because the hypothesis that the hijackers completed the planning alone was “implausible,” the former senator said.
Kean did not return several phone messages seeking comment. But Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, confirmed this month that he learned nothing about the Sarasota matter while serving as vice-chair of the 9/11 commission.
Graham sees the information now emerging about Sarasota as ominously similar to discoveries his inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from two other Saudis, one of whom helped al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi find a place to live. Multiple sources told investigators they believed both the latter Saudis had been Saudi government agents.
Later, when 9/11 Commission staff gained limited access to these individuals in Saudi Arabia, the aides’ reaction was caustic. One memo described the testimony of one of them as “deceptive … inconsistent … implausible.” The testimony of another displayed an “utter lack of credibility,” it said.
Graham is troubled by what he sees as FBI headquarters’ apparent effort to conceal information, including the fact that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi lived for months in California in the home of a paid FBI informant. Even when that emerged, the FBI denied his inquiry access to the informant. Graham wonders if that was merely because of the bureau’s embarrassment, or because the informant knew something that “would be even more damaging were it revealed.”
The newly surfaced FDLE documents containing informant Hammoud’s troubling 2004 information about al-Hijji have reinforced Graham’s concerns because they conflict with the FBI’s public statements.
Hammoud’s statement that al-Hijji introduced him to Saudi terror suspect Shukrijumah is consistent with the report that Prestancia gate logs showed Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji house – and buttresses longstanding official suspicion that he was linked to the hijackers. When Mohamed Atta visited a federal immigration office in Miami to discuss a visa problem in May 2001, a 9/11 Commission footnote reports, a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah accompanied him.
Graham sees what he believes to be the suppression of evidence pointing to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers as arising from the perceived advantages to the West, at the time and now, of keeping Saudi Arabia happy.
“This agreement serves to reinforce the strong enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. “It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security.”
Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.
“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”
Anthony Summers is co-author, with Robbyn Swan, of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden.” Dan Christensen edits the Miami-area investigative Website Broward Bulldog, in which this article first appeared.