WASHINGTON — The FBI inadvertently revealed one of the U.S. government’s most sensitive secrets about the Sept. 11 terror attacks: the identity of a mysterious Saudi Embassy official in Washington who agents suspected had directed crucial support to two of the al-Qaida hijackers.
The disclosure came in a new declaration filed in federal court by a senior FBI official in response to a lawsuit brought by families of 9/11 victims that accuses the Saudi government of complicity in the terrorist attacks.
The declaration was filed last month but unsealed late last week. According to a spokesman for the 9/11 victims’ families, it represents a major breakthrough in the long-running case, providing for the first time an apparent confirmation that FBI agents investigating the attacks believed they had uncovered a link between the hijackers and the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
It’s unclear just how strong the evidence is against the former Saudi Embassy official — it’s been a subject of sharp dispute within the FBI for years. But the disclosure, which a senior U.S. government official confirmed was made in error, seems likely to revive questions about potential Saudi links to the 9/11 plot.
It also shines a light on the extraordinary efforts by top Trump administration officials in recent months to prevent internal documents about the issue from ever becoming public.
“This shows there is a complete government cover-up of the Saudi involvement,” said Brett Eagleson, a spokesman for the 9/11 families whose father was killed in the attacks. “It demonstrates there was a hierarchy of command that’s coming from the Saudi Embassy to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs [in Los Angeles] to the hijackers.”
Still, Eagleson acknowledged he was flabbergasted by the bureau’s slip-up in identifying the Saudi Embassy official in a public filing. Although Justice Department lawyers had last September notified lawyers for the 9/11 families of the official’s identity, they had done so under a protective order that forbade the family members from publicly disclosing it.
Now, the bureau itself has named the Saudi official. “This is a giant screwup,” Eagleson said.
After being contacted by Yahoo News on Monday, Justice Department officials notified the court and withdrew the FBI’s declaration from the public docket. “The document was incorrectly filed in this case,” the docket now reads.
But FBI and Justice Department officials declined to comment on how the erroneous disclosure had been made. A Saudi government spokesman, meanwhile, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Saudi government has consistently denied any connection to the 9/11 hijackers,telling the New York Times and ProPublicain January: “Saudi Arabia is and has always been a close and critical ally of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”
Ironically, the declaration identifying the Saudi official in question was intended to support recent filings by Attorney General William Barr and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell barring the public release of the Saudi official’s name and all related documents, concluding they are “state secrets” that, if disclosed, could cause “significant harm to the national security.”
The declaration was filed by Jill Sanborn, the assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. Her declaration fleshes out some of the assertions Barr and Grenell have used in their filings, arguing that publicly disclosing internal FBI files — including “interview reports, telephone and bank records, source reporting documents and foreign government information” — would reveal intelligence sources and methods of collection and would hamper the willingness of foreign governments to assist the FBI on sensitive cases.
But while Sanborn’s 40-page declaration blacks out the Saudi official’s name in most instances, in one it failed to do so — a discrepancy first noted this week by a Yahoo News reporter.
In a portion describing the material sought by lawyers for the 9/11 families, Sanborn refers to a partially declassified 2012 FBI report about an investigation into possible links between the al-Qaida terrorists and Saudi government officials. That probe, the existence of which has only become public in the past few years, initially focused on two individuals: Fahad al-Thumairy, a Saudi Islamic Affairs official and radical cleric who served as the imam of the King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles and Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi government agent who assisted two terrorists, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who participated in the hijacking of the American Airlines plane that flew into the Pentagon, killing 125.
After the two hijackers flew to Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000, al-Bayoumi found them an apartment, lent them money and set them up with bank accounts.
A redacted copy of a three-and-a-half page October 2012 FBI “update” about the investigation stated that FBI agents had uncovered “evidence” that Thumairy and Bayoumi had been “tasked” to assist the hijackers by yet another individual whose name was blacked out, prompting lawyers for the families to refer to this person as “the third man” in what they argue is a Saudi-orchestrated conspiracy.
Describing the request by lawyers for the 9/11 families to depose that individual under oath, Sanborn’s declaration says in one instance that it involves “any and all records referring to or relating to Jarrah.”
The reference is to Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, a mid-level Saudi Foreign Ministry official who was assigned to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1999 and 2000. His duties apparently included overseeing the activities of Ministry of Islamic Affairs employees at Saudi-funded mosques and Islamic centers within the United States.
Relatively little is known about Jarrah, but according to former embassy employees, he reported to the Saudi ambassador in the United States (at the time Prince Bandar), and that he was later reassigned to the Saudi missions in Malaysia and Morocco, where he is believed to have served as recently as last year.
Jarrah has been on the radar screen of the lawyers for the 9/11 families for some time and is among nine current or former Saudi officials who they suspect have important information about the case and have sought to either question them or get access to FBI documents that mention them.
The families have also tapped former agents to help investigate the activities of the potential witnesses, including Jarrah.
Jarrah “was responsible for the placement of Ministry of Islamic Affairs employees known as guides and propagators posted to the United States, including Fahad Al Thumairy,” according to a separate declaration by Catherine Hunt, a former FBI agent based in Los Angeles who has been assisting the families in the case.
Hunt conducted her own investigation into the support provided to the hijackers in Southern California. “The FBI believed that al-Jarrah was ‘supporting’ and ‘maintaining’ al-Thumairy during the 9/11 investigation,” she said in her declaration.
The Sanborn declaration represents the first public confirmation that the so-called “third man” referred to in the 2012 report was in fact an accredited Saudi diplomat. But all of the FBI evidence the agents had gathered about Jarrah and his communications about the hijackers remain under seal.
Elsewhere in her declaration, Sanborn asserts that the contention that Jarrah “tasked” Thumairy and Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers was more a “theory” of the agents working the case rather than a conclusion based on hard evidence.
One former bureau official familiar with the FBI investigation into the matter, and who asked to speak confidentially, says that agents had developed strong evidence of meetings and communications among Jarrah, Thumairy and Bayoumi in which assistance to Mihdhar and Hazmi, the two hijackers, was believed to have been discussed.
But the agents were unable to prove that Jarrah, who the agents found had flown to Los Angeles to meet with Thumairy, knew that Mihdhar and Hazmi were members of al-Qaida and were plotting the attacks on U.S. soil, resulting in bitter divisions within the bureau about what to make of the contacts the agents had uncovered.
“We just didn’t have enough evidence” to move the case forward, said the former official.
Complicating the question is whether FBI agents would ever get an opportunity to question and potentially confront Jarrah. “There was no reason to believe the Saudis would ever give us access to him,” said the former official.
Over time, with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015, senior bureau officials grew weary of the issue and reassigned most of the top counterterrorism agents working on the case to what were viewed as more pressing priorities.
“There were definitely people at FBI headquarters who wanted this closed,” the former official said.
Suspicions about a possible Saudi role in 9/11 are as old as the attacks themselves. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, investigators quickly concluded that 15 of the 19 hijackers were of Saudi origin.
The 9/11 commission, which extensively investigated the question, ultimately concluded that, while Saudi Arabia had long been viewed as the primary source of al-Qaida funding, “we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
But the 9/11 commission also acknowledged there were significant gaps in the record, especially relating to a critical two-week period after Mihdhar and Hazmi flew into Los Angeles in January 2000 after attending an al-Qaida planning summit in Kuala Lumpur that the CIA had monitored.
Moreover, the panel’s investigators had deep suspicions about the role of Thumairy, a radical cleric known for delivering anti-Western sermons, who they believed had lied to them about ever having met the hijackers or even knowing Bayoumi, who did provide extensive support to the hijackers. Thumairy told agents he did not know Bayoumi despite phone records showing the two of them had been in frequent contact.
The lingering questions about the Saudi role prompted the FBI in the mid-2000s to quietly initiate a “subfile” investigation — whose code name, Operation Encore,was first revealed by the New York Times and ProPublicain January — that focused on the activities of Mihdhar and Hazmi in Southern California and their interactions with Thumairy, Bayoumi and others.
The agents working the case reinterviewed key witnesses and uncovered phone records and other material that the 9/11 commission had never seen. One of the former agents now assisting the 9/11 families, Steven Moore, a former assistant special agent in Los Angeles,wrote in a 2017 declarationfor the families that Thumairy “was the primary point of contact for Hazmi and Mihdhar in Los Angeles,” was aware in advance of their travel to the United States and even invited Hazmi, the future hijacker, to lead prayers at the King Fahd mosque.
Moore’s conclusion: “Based on evidence we gathered during the course of our investigation, I concluded that diplomatic and intelligence personnel of the Kingdom of the Saudi Arabia knowingly provided material support to the two 9/11 hijackers and facilitated the 9/11 plot. My colleagues in our investigation shared that conclusion.”
But even while the agents hit a roadblock when they were unable to persuade FBI headquarters about the strength of their evidence, the 9/11 families who wanted to hold the Saudi government accountable got a huge break in 2016, when Congress overrode a veto by then-President Obama and passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allowed them to bring a lawsuit against the kingdom in federal court.
The fight for access to key documents and evidence has dragged on ever since, with repeated battles between the lawyers for the families on one side, and lawyers for the FBI, the Justice Department and the Saudi government on the other.
Last Sept. 11, a group of the families, their lawyers and two of the former agents helping them met with President Trump at the White House and raised their concerns about their lack of access to the material they were seeking.
“We told him, ‘Please, Mr. President, help us, please declassify the documents. Our government has been covering up the Saudi role,” said Eagleson.
Trump was receptive and even got energized after being told that among those who had resisted disclosure in the past were former FBI directors Robert Mueller and James Comey. Trump at one point said they were “scum” and vowed to help the families.
“Hey Melania,” Trump said at one point, referring to the first lady, who attended the meeting and posed for photos with the family members along with the president, according to one of the former agents present who asked not to be identified. “Listen to these guys — the same scum that is fighting me is now fighting the 9/11 families.”
Trump vowed to help, according to those in the meetings. “He shook all of our hands and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to help you guys,’” said Eagleson.
“We left that meeting feeling elated,” he said. “We were finally going to see the documents.’”
The White House did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
The very next day, on Sept. 12, Justice Department lawyers gave the families the identity of the third man — but under the condition that they couldn’t publicly disclose it. That same day, Barr filed his first motion with the court declaring all the material being sought by the families as “state secrets” that could not be shared.
“We felt we had been stabbed in the back,” said Eagleson.