Declassify the Secret 28 Pages
Those 28 "classified" pages are back in the news. CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran a segment in which I and others urged the prompt declassification and public release of 28 pages from the Congressional Joint Inquiry, which assessed 9/11 intelligence failures, concerning the possibility of Saudi Arabia’s participation in the terrorist attacks on America.
The substance of the allegations were investigated by the 9/11 Commission, whose conclusions have been available for all to read since 2004. The Saudis won’t relish the renewed spotlight, and it could strain relations with a valued ally with whom we have sometimes experienced a turbulent partnership. But we have more to fear from secrecy and conspiracy theories than pursuing transparency and truth, and the 9/11 families deserve to have the fullest possible record available from past investigations. By smartly declassifying this document, we could use this process to help reset the crucial relationship and establish new trust.
When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia for meetings on April 21, the traveling press corps is certain to push him to address this topic. He’ll have a more productive trip if he can put this matter to rest, rather than simply saying that his director of national intelligence is reviewing the document for potential declassification.
The 28 pages were written by the Joint Intelligence Committee, a combined 2002 House and Senate inquiry that, among other things, sought to discover whether any foreign country was involved with 9/11. But the JIC, on which I sat, only had about 12 months to ask complex questions, sift a vast body of evidence, interview dozens of suspects, travel to distant lands, and reach concrete conclusions—and the committee eventually ran out of time.
At the urging of the families of those who lost loved ones in the tragic attacks, the 9/11 Commission was later created to pick up the baton and provide a comprehensive investigation of the 9/11 plot, including a full review of questions raised by the 28 pages. We hired the two staff investigators from the JIC who authored the 28 pages to continue a seamless investigation. Those pages have been described as a preliminary “police report”: initial clues, witness reports, sometimes partial answers, and concrete conclusions.
While the 9/11 Commission would have 80 staff members, $3 million, and over 16 months for its investigation, the 28 pages were one of the challenges we were tasked to explore. Could we fully account for all of the hijackers’ time and contacts abroad and in the United States? What precisely were two of the terrorists doing in Southern California? Would other countries give us unfettered access to their clandestine intelligence? What were the motives of Anwar Aulaqi, the imam in California and Virginia who met with the terrorists?
In the 9/11 unclassified report, we were direct about Saudi Arabia: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi; extreme religious views and limited oversight of charitable donations made Saudi Arabia a fertile fundraising ground for al-Qaeda; foundations located in the kingdom helped fund al-Qaeda.
We also explored allegations of a connection between two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, and an individual at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles who allegedly helped them find housing and support after their arrival in Southern California. This Saudi official, Fahad al Thumairy, was later denied entry to the United States in May 2003 after the State Department determined that he might be involved in terrorist activity. The Saudi government seems to have attempted to discipline him in the summer of 2002 for espousing extremist views.
Additionally, a mysterious Saudi national named Omar al Bayoumi, who was strongly suspected of being a Saudi spy, was alleged to have been helpful to the hijackers. The man the FBI considered their “best source” in San Diego said that al Bayoumi must be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power, according to Newsweek.
As we wrote in the 9/11 Commission Report: “Hazmi and Mihdhar were ill-prepared for a mission in the United States. … Neither had spent any substantial time in the West, and neither spoke much, if any, English.”
The report continued, “We believe it unlikely that Hazmi and Mihdhar would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival.”
While there were numerous Saudi individuals, financial links, and general Wahhabist religious support for 9/11, the 9/11 Commission did not discover senior Saudi-directed government connections to the attacks, though many questions remain about al Thumairy’s role, his intersection with the hijackers, and al Bayoumi’s precise involvement. The commission did not exonerate the Saudis. Still, many Americans believe there was a high-level Saudi government conspiracy against America and see Saudi Arabia as an enemy, not an embattled ally.
I believe the 28 pages should be declassified for three critical reasons.
--First, the 9/11 families and the American people have a basic right to know as much as possible about the most devastating terrorist attacks against the United States. The Saudis themselves have said they support the release of these 28 pages.
--Second, releasing the 28 pages would increase transparency in this strategically important partnership. Whether it is counterterrorism, human rights, Yemen, or Syria, the words of the 9/11 Commission report still apply: “The problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship must be confronted, openly.”
--Finally, these 28 pages should be declassified because our partnership is crucial to successfully fighting violent extremists around the world. Only when both Saudis and Americans can publicly defend our relationship and honestly discuss our differences will we succeed.