U.S. Signals It Will Release Some Still-Secret Files on Saudi Arabia and 9/11
The Biden administration, under pressure from families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, said on Monday that it intended to disclose some long-classified documents that the families think could detail connections between the government of Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the attacks.
In a court filing in long-running litigation brought by the victims’ families against Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said that the F.B.I. “recently” closed a portion of its investigation into the terrorist attacks and was beginning a review of documents that it had previously said must remain secret with an eye toward disclosing more of them.
“The F.B.I. has decided to review its prior privilege assertions to identify additional information appropriate for disclosure,” the department said in a letter to two federal judges in Manhattan overseeing the case. “The F.B.I. will disclose such information on a rolling basis as expeditiously as possible.”
The terse letter provided no further details about what additional information might become public, or when disclosures would begin.
The decision came after a group representing more than 1,600 people directly affected by the attacks called last week for President Biden to not participate in any memorial events for the 20th anniversary of the attacks next month unless he fulfilled a campaign promise to review the documents for possible declassification and release.
After the filing, the White House issued a statement from Mr. Biden expressing sympathy for the family members and invoking a 2009 policy, issued when he was vice president, that imposed limits on when the government may assert the state secrets privilege to block the disclosure of evidence in lawsuits for national security reasons.
“As I promised during my campaign, my administration is committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law, and to adhering to the rigorous guidance issued during the Obama-Biden administration on the invocation of the state secrets privilege,” Mr. Biden said.
He added, “In this vein, I welcome the Department of Justice’s filing today, which commits to conducting a fresh review of documents where the government has previously asserted privileges, and to doing so as quickly as possible.”
In a letter sent to a representative of the families before the presidential election last fall, Mr. Biden had said he would direct his attorney general to “examine the merits of all cases where the invocation of privilege is recommended, and to err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
Mr. Biden had referred to a Trump-era decision that kept the documents classified on the grounds that they contained state secrets, and said his own administration would “work constructively on such cases.”
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The organizers of the statement last week calling for Mr. Biden to release the documents said they were unsure how many victims were represented by its more than 1,600 signatures. Each name belongs to either a close relative of someone whose death was caused by the attacks, a person who became severely sick as a result of them or a survivor, they said.
The Biden administration’s decision to review the classified documents was the latest development in a nearly two-decade odyssey for some of the families. They have pushed four American presidents, with little success, to release more information about Saudi involvement in financing the attacks.
The 9/11 Commission found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks. But the commission’s phrasing left some to speculate that there might be evidence of involvement by other, lower-ranking officials.
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