9/11: 20 years onDeclassifying the 9/11 Investigation

By Tim Golden

Published 10 September 2021

President Biden says he will open up the government’s secret files about the plot, but will they answer the questions that remain?

With families of 9/11 victims threatening to protest his appearance at events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the attacks, President Joe Biden took the notable step last week of ordering the Justice Department and other agencies to disclose new portions of their long-secret files on the Qaida plot.

The executive order on Sept. 3 appears to stave off the prospect that the president might be picketed on the eve of 9/11 memorial services, just days after the final, chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

What remains in doubt is whether the declassification of FBI documents will resolve the mysteries that still surround the case or provide evidence to support the families’ claims in a federal lawsuit that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the attacks.

“He has the power to give us closure,” a spokesperson for the families, Brett Eagleson, said of the president. “He has now made us a promise, but he still needs to fulfill it.”

The relatives’ years-long fight against Justice Department secrecy has lately centered on a list of 45 FBI documents that the government has identified as relevant to the families’ lawsuit in a federal district court in New York.

Lawyers for the families said those documents represent only a small fraction of the government files they should be entitled to under a 2018 judge’s order. That order limits the plaintiffs to information on a handful of figures who have been tied to the first two Qaida hijackers to arrive in the United States, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.

The two Saudis flew into Los Angeles from Bangkok on Jan. 15, 2000. Although they had been trained as terrorists, they spoke almost no English and had only the vaguest notions about how to operate in a Western society, people who knew them told the FBI after the attacks.

The pair quickly made their way to a new mosque that the Saudi government had built in Culver City, California, not far from Sony Pictures Studios. During a purportedly chance meeting at a nearby cafe, they were invited to settle in San Diego by Omar al-Bayoumi, a shadowy middle-aged Saudi graduate student who had already been investigated by the FBI as a possible spy for the kingdom.