By Jim Sciutto, Ryan Browne and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
A long-classified U.S. report released Friday found that some of the 9/11 hijackers were in contact with and received support from individuals likely connected to the Saudi government.
Known as the “28 pages,” the secret document was part of a 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks and has been classified since the report’s completion, despite repeated calls for its release. The document, which the administration finally delivered to Congress earlier Friday, actually contains 29 pages of material plus a letter from then-CIA Director George Tenet.
“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,” the document says.
The pages also say that the inquiry obtained information “indicating that Saudi Government officials in the United States may have other ties to al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups,” but the commission that authored them acknowledged that much of the info “remains speculative and yet to be independently verified.”
Saudi Ambassador to the United States Abdullah Al-Saud put out a statement after the document’s release Friday welcoming its publication, though he didn’t address the details it contains.
“Several government agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have investigated the contents of the ’28 Pages’ and have confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government provided any support or encouragement for these attacks,” he said. “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.”
“It should be clear that this Joint Inquiry has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information,” the report says.
On the one hand, the report notes, it is possible that these kinds of connections could suggest “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi Government. On the other hand, it is also possible that further investigation of these allegations could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations.”
The report also criticizes the lack of effective intelligence-sharing in the U.S. government, highlighting an episode where a CIA memorandum “which discusses alleged financial connections between the September 11 hijackers, Saudi Government officials, and members of the Saudi Royal Family” was placed into an FBI case file and never forwarded to FBI headquarters until the memo was discovered by the inquiry.
It also says that there was a lack of emphasis on intelligence-gathering directed at Saudis in the U.S. in the time before the attacks.
“Prior to September 11th, the FBI apparently did not focus investigative resources on [[redacted]] Saudi nationals in the United States due to Saudi Arabia’s status as an American ‘ally.’ ”
But the report also references instances where the Saudi government was “uncooperative” in counterterrorism interrogations both before and after 9/11.
“A number of FBI agents and CIA officers complained to the Joint Inquiry about a lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks,” citing one New York FBI agent who said “the Saudis have been useless and obstructionist for years.”
The report details one post-9/11 episode where an FBI agent couldn’t get the Saudi government to provide information on Saudi nationals despite providing copies of the subjects’ Saudi passports.
Under pressure from the victims’ families and lawmakers, President Barack Obama said in April his administration would declassify the pages.
Sources told CNN ahead of the report’s release that intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the State Department had all reviewed and approved the release of the pages with “minimal redactions.” But the report Congress put out had multiple inked-out sections.
“This is great news,” said Jerry Goldman, a lawyer who represents families of victims in a class-action suit seeking to sue Saudi Arabia, ahead of the release. “The families are happy just as the American people should be happy that information that has been kept hidden for well over a decade is finally coming to light.”
Former Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired the committee that carried out the investigation and has been pushing the White House to release the pages, said Thursday he was “very pleased” that the documents would be released.
“It is going to increase the questioning of the Saudis’ role supporting the hijackers,” Graham told CNN. “I think of this almost as the 28 pages are sort of the cork in the wine bottle. And once it’s out, hopefully the rest of the wine itself will start to pour out.”
Graham added, “Would the U.S. government have kept information that was just speculation away from American people for 14 years if somebody didn’t think it was going to make a difference?”
One of those who wants to read the pages is Terry Strada, who has been pushing for the right to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged involvement in the attack. Her husband, Tom, was working on the 104th floor of the North Tower when the planes struck. The couple’s third child had been born just four days eariler.
“If it was just this low-level … government officials in the Saudi Arabian government, then they have nothing to worry about,” Strada said. “The American people deserve this just as much as the 9/11 families deserve it, but we’re the ones that are suffering by not having them released.”
The Saudi government itself had repeated called for the pages to be made public so that it could respond to any allegations, which it long called unfounded.
“We’ve been saying since 2003 that the pages should be released,” said Nail Al-Jubeir, director of communications for the Saudi Embassy, ahead of Friday’s developments. “They will show everyone that there is nothing there.”
After the pages appeared online Friday afternoon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement saying that their declassification and release did not constitute a national security risk.
But it noted that the decision to authorize the release “does not indicate the Intelligence Community’s agreement” with the report’s “accuracy or concurrence with any information it contains.”
In the wake of the release, the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement endorsing the declassification of the pages.
Chairman Devin Nunes added, however, that “it’s important to note that this section does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the Intelligence Community.”