US Covered Up Saudi Ties to 9/11 Attacks; Destroyed Evidence in Case against Accused 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
May 13, 2016
Philip Shenon / The Guardian & Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
In the first serious public split over the release of the 911 Commission's secret "28 pages," a member of the commission has confirmed that there was clear evidence of Saudi ties to September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. Meanwhile, the case against Guantanamo detainee and alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was thrown into "chaos" after a judge ruled the government destroyed critical evidence, leaving the case "fatally flawed."
Saudi Officials Were 'Supporting' 9/11 Hijackers, Commission Member Says
Philip Shenon / The Guardian
(May 12, 2016) -- A former Republican member of the 9/11 commission, breaking dramatically with the commission's leaders, said Wednesday he believes there was clear evidence that Saudi government employees were part of a support network for the 9/11 hijackers and that the Obama administration should move quickly to declassify a long-secret congressional report on Saudi ties to the 2001 terrorist attack.
The comments by John F Lehman, an investment banker in New York who was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, signal the first serious public split among the 10 commissioners since they issued a 2004 final report that was largely read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.
"There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government," Lehman said in an interview, suggesting that the commission may have made a mistake by not stating that explicitly in its final report. "Our report should never have been read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia."
He was critical of a statement released late last month by the former chairman and vice-chairman of the commission, who urged the Obama administration to be cautious about releasing the full congressional report on the Saudis and 9/11 -- "the 28 pages", as they are widely known in Washington -- because they contained "raw, unvetted" material that might smear innocent people.
The 9/11 commission chairman, former Republican governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, and vice-chairman, former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, praised Saudi Arabia as, overall, "an ally of the United States in combating terrorism" and said the commission's investigation, which came after the congressional report was written, had identified only one Saudi government official -- a former diplomat in the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles -- as being "implicated in the 9/11 plot investigation".
The diplomat, Fahad al-Thumairy, who was deported from the US but was never charged with a crime, was suspected of involvement in a support network for two Saudi hijackers who had lived in San Diego the year before the attacks.
In the interview Wednesday, Lehman said Kean and Hamilton's statement that only one Saudi government employee was "implicated" in supporting the hijackers in California and elsewhere was "a game of semantics" and that the commission had been aware of at least five Saudi government officials who were strongly suspected of involvement in the terrorists' support network.
"They may not have been indicted, but they were certainly implicated," he said. "There was an awful lot of circumstantial evidence."
Although Lehman said he did not believe that the Saudi royal family or the country's senior civilian leadership had any role in supporting al-Qaida or the 9/11 plot, he recalled that a focus of the criminal investigation after 9/11 was upon employees of the Saudi ministry of Islamic affairs, which had sponsored Thumairy for his job in Los Angeles and has long been suspected of ties to extremist groups.
He said "the 28 pages", which were prepared by a special House-Senate committee investigating pre-9/11 intelligence failures, reviewed much of the same material and ought to be made public as soon as possible, although possibly with redactions to remove the names of a few Saudi suspects who were later cleared of any involvement in the terrorist attacks.
Lehman has support among some of the other commissioners, although none have spoken out so bluntly in criticizing the Saudis. A Democratic commissioner, former congressman Tim Roemer of Indiana, said he wants the congressional report released to end some of the wild speculation about what is in the 28 pages and to see if parts of the inquiry should be reopened. When it comes to the Saudis, he said, "we still haven't gotten to the bottom of what happened on 9/11".
Another panel member, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of offending the other nine, said the 28 pages should be released even though they could damage the commission's legacy -- "fairly or unfairly" -- by suggesting lines of investigation involving the Saudi government that were pursued by Congress but never adequately explored by the commission.
"I think we were tough on the Saudis, but obviously not tough enough," the commissioner said. "I know some members of the staff felt we went much too easy on the Saudis. I didn't really know the extent of it until after the report came out."
The commissioner said the renewed public debate could force a spotlight on a mostly unknown chapter of the history of the 9/11 commission: behind closed doors, members of the panel's staff fiercely protested the way the material about the Saudis was presented in the final report, saying it underplayed or ignored evidence that Saudi officials -- especially at lower levels of the government -- were part of an al-Qaida support network that had been tasked to assist the hijackers after they arrived in the US.
In fact, there were repeated showdowns, especially over the Saudis, between the staff and the commission's hard-charging executive director, University of Virginia historian Philip Zelikow, who joined the Bush administration as a senior adviser to the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, after leaving the commission. The staff included experienced investigators from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the CIA, as well as the congressional staffer who was the principal author of the 28 pages.
Zelikow fired a staffer, who had repeatedly protested over limitations on the Saudi investigation, after she obtained a copy of the 28 pages outside of official channels. Other staffers described an angry scene late one night, near the end of the investigation, when two investigators who focused on the Saudi allegations were forced to rush back to the commission's offices after midnight after learning to their astonishment that some of the most compelling evidence about a Saudi tie to 9/11 was being edited out of the report or was being pushed to tiny, barely readable footnotes and endnotes. The staff protests were mostly overruled.
The 9/11 commission did criticize Saudi Arabia for its sponsorship of a fundamentalist branch of Islam embraced by terrorists and for the Saudi royal family's relationship with charity groups that bankrolled al-Qaida before 9/11.
However, the commission's final report was still widely read as an exoneration, with a central finding by the commission that there was "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually" provided financial assistance to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The statement was hailed by the Saudi government as effectively clearing Saudi officials of any tie to 9/11.
Last month Barack Obama, returning from a tense state visit to Saudi Arabia, disclosed the administration was nearing a decision on whether to declassify some or all of the 28 pages, which have been held under lock and key in a secure room beneath the Capitol since they were written in 2002. Just days after the president's comments however, his CIA director, John Brennan, announced that he opposed the release of the congressional report, saying it contained inaccurate material that might lead to unfair allegations that Saudi Arabia was tied to 9/11.
In their joint statement last month, Kean and Hamilton suggested they agreed with Brennan and that there might be danger in releasing the full 28 pages.
The congressional report was "based almost entirely on raw, unvetted material that came to the FBI", they said. "The 28 pages, therefore, are comparable to preliminary law enforcement notes, which are generally covered by grand jury secrecy rules." If any part of the congressional report is made public, they said, it should be redacted "to protect the identities of anyone who has been ruled out by authorities as having any connection to the 9/11 plot".
Zelikow, the commission's executive director, told NBC News last month that the 28 pages "provide no further answers about the 9/11 attacks that are not already included in the 9/11 commission report". Making them public "will only make the red herring glow redder".
But Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow clearly do not speak for a number of the other commissioners, who have repeatedly suggested they are uncomfortable with the perception that the commission exonerated Saudi Arabia and who have joined in calling for public release of the 28 pages.
Lehman and another commissioner, former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, filed affidavits last year in support of a lawsuit brought against the Saudi government by the families of 9/11 victims. "Significant questions remain unanswered concerning possible involvement of Saudi government institutions and actors," Kerrey said.
Lehman agreed: "Contrary to the argument advocated by the Kingdom, the 9/11 commission did not exonerate Saudi Arabia of culpability for the events of 11 September 2001 or the financing of al-Qaida." He said he was "deeply troubled" by the evidence gathered about a hijackers' support network in California.
In an interview last week, congressman Roemer, the Democratic commissioner, suggested a compromise in releasing the 28 pages. He said that, unlike Kean and Hamilton, he was eager to see the full congressional report declassified and made public, although the 28 pages should be released alongside a list of pertinent excerpts of the 9/11 commission's final report. "That would show what allegations were and were not proven, so that innocent people are not unfairly maligned," he said. "It would also show there are issues raised in the 28 pages about the Saudis that are still unresolved to this day."
Asked on Thursday if he had any comment on Lehman's claim about individuals working for the Saudi government, White House press secretary Josh Earnest gave a two word answer: "I don't."
Philip Shenon is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation
9/11 Judge and Prosecutors Should Step Down over 'Destroyed Evidence', Defense Demands
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
NEW YORK (May 11, 2016) -- An explosive allegation about destroyed evidence threatens to unravel the already shaky military tribunal for the alleged architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Attorneys for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are calling on the judge and the entire prosecution team in Mohammed's military commission at Guantánamo Bay to step down from the long-running case over what a member of the defense team called "at least the appearance of collusion" that led to the government apparently secretly destroying information relevant to the premier post-9/11 tribunal.
The defense team further argues that the destruction of evidence ought to spell the end of Mohammed's military trial entirely, a development that would leave the Obama administration and its successor to come up with an entirely new plan for what to do with the top terror suspect in US custody.
"Now, and indeed over other matters previously, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's military commission is fatally flawed," said David Nevin, Mohammed's lead attorney.
The prosecution in the 9/11 military tribunal is seeking the death penalty for the self-described architect of the attacks, who has been in US custody for more than 12 years.
The details of what happened are not known because the unclassified legal filing is not yet publicly available. The specific allegations were filed on Tuesday before the commission, but the filing must clear a routine security review that all such legal documents before the commission undergo.
Marine Corps Maj Derek Poteet, another member of Mohammed's defense team, said that the move to call for the removal of the judge, Army Col James Pohl, and the prosecution team headed by Army Brig Gen Mark Martins is "something you do not do lightly".
Poteet said: "I have great respect for Colonel Pohl and Brigadier General Martins, and accordingly I am disappointed, disturbed and sad that we found it necessary to file this motion."
Martins, a widely respected officer whose final military service will be presiding over the military commissions, told the Guardian that he would not comment on an issue before the tribunal.
Cmdr Gary Ross, the Pentagon's spokesman for detentions and military commissions, said "it would be inappropriate to comment on a document not yet released to the public".
Poteet said the rules around discussing classified or protected information limited his ability to describe the case. As he spoke with the Guardian, his defense department-appointed security officer was on the call to advise him about his answers. Nevin also said he was restricted from discussing the matter beyond its vaguest outlines.
But Poteet said that roughly two years ago, the prosecution in the tribunal relayed a request by the US government to destroy evidence relevant to both the guilt phase and the sentencing phase of Mohammed's trial. Pohl issued an order instructing the government not to destroy the evidence, pending a further order. Attorneys for Mohammed did not take further legal action, as they considered the matter settled.
But around late December 2015, the defense team received what the lead attorney Nevin called a "hint from the prosecution that the evidence was no longer available to us".
On 10 February, the defense team received a sealed order from Pohl revealing that 20 months earlier, the judge had permitted the government to destroy the evidence.
Poteet said that had the defense team been alerted to Pohl's reversal of his evidence-destruction order, it would have attempted to stop it.
"There's at least the appearance of collusion between the prosecution and the judge. We're not saying more than that, but there is that appearance," Poteet said.
Mohammed has been in US custody since 2003. CIA operatives waterboarded him 183 times in a single month early in his detention. Earlier attempts at both military tribunals and federal criminal trials for him and his co-defendants have both failed. Congress has passed a law preventing the Pentagon from transferring Guantánamo detainees to the US, for trial or other imprisonment. The second military tribunal of Mohammed and his co-defendants has lasted four years without yet reaching the trial phase.
Nevin and Poteet said that they were ultimately seeking the end of Mohammed's military commission, even if Pohl recuses himself in favor of a different available military judge and a new prosecution is appointed. "The effect is there would be no further prosecution," Nevin said.
Even if the defense team's motion fails and Mohammed is ultimately found guilty, Poteet said Mohammed's attorneys were likely to bring up the evidence destruction issue at sentencing, another indicator of how protracted a legal resolution of the 9/11 attacks has become.
The government must respond to the motion within 14 days. Underscoring the uncertainty of the situation, the next pre-trial hearing in the case is slated for the end of May, but Pohl may not take up the question of whether he should recuse himself and the prosecution from the case, as several other outstanding issues are already on the commission's agenda.
James Connell, an attorney for Mohammed's co-defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, said that among the 9/11 defense teams, "there's a difference of opinion as to whose fault" the destruction of evidence is. Connell said he was "considering my options" on calling for Pohl's removal.
"At the very least, the prosecution team manipulated the system that resulted in the destruction of evidence," Connell told the Guardian.
Asked if the evidence destruction had moved the already turbulent 9/11 military tribunal into uncharted territory, Nevin said: "We've been in uncharted territory for a long time. And this is another instance of it."
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