WASHINGTON—In the months following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents chased down tantalizing leads that a Saudi official and a princess in the Saudi royal family may have helped two hijackers settle in San Diego before the strike.
But when a 2002 congressional inquiry into the hijackings was released, 28 pages of details about those leads were blanked out, leading to conspiracy theories that the US government was trying to protect Saudi Arabia, its ally, from scrutiny.
The Obama administration on Friday finally declassified those pages, and Congress released the documents to the public. Many of the allegations already have appeared in news reports, government reviews and court documents over the past several years.
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest stressed on Friday that the pages, which were part of the 858-page “Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” reveal no evidence that the Saudi government funded al-Qaeda’s plot.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan said in May the leads were based on unsubstantiated reports and that the FBI investigated and did not find evidence that Saudi officials knew about the 9/11 plot or that Saudi government funds got into the hands of the hijackers.
“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. There is information, primarily from FBI sources, that at least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers,” the declassified portion of the report reads.
The FBI and CIA told congressional investigators in 2002 that “they are treating the Saudi issue seriously, but both still have only a limited understanding of the Saudi government’s ties to terrorist elements,” it states.
The FBI later determined that the Saudi officials who had connections to two hijackers, Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar, while they were living in San Diego, were not aware of a terrorist plot or their connection to al-Qaeda.
Saudi Ambassador to the US Abdullah Al-Saud welcomed the publication of the previously secret pages, saying that the kingdom has long called for their release.
“We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States,” Al-Saud said in a statement.
Family members who lost loved ones in the attacks have sued Saudi Arabia over its alleged role in the attacks and called for the passage of a law that would revoke sovereign immunity for diplomats from countries that support terrorism. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Lawyers for the families said the release is a “first step” toward more transparency around Saudi Arabia’s role in aiding terrorist groups in the years leading up to September 11, 2001.
“The public has a right to know, the families have a right to know,” Jim Kreindler, one of the lawyers representing families whose loved ones were killed or injured in the attacks, said in an interview from New York.
“It is really mind-boggling to say there were breadcrumbs to follow that will show Saudi Arabia participated in the worst terror attack in the United States ever,” Kreindler said.