A long-classified document, detailing suspected connections between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 2001 attacks, was released by the House Intelligence Committee after being redacted by U.S. intelligence.
The document, referred to as the “28-pages” throughout a years-long battle over whether it should be made public, was part of a 2002 joint inquiry by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees into the al-Qaeda attacks.
Victim families and some lawmakers had pushed for the release, charging that the government had tried to cover up possible Saudi links to the attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
But the document does not appear to add significantly to information collected in subsequent investigations, including the 9/11 Commission report, published in 2004, and numerous other documents that have since been made public.
All of the Saudis named in the pages released Friday, including several who had been in direct contact with two of the hijackers during their time in the United States prior to the attacks, were investigated by the FBI and CIA, with results detailed in later reports.
The 9/11 Commission report, the most exhaustive study of the attacks, said in its report that it found no evidence that the “Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaeda.”
Eleanor J. Hill, who served as staff director of the joint congressional inquiry, stressed that the panel itself never reached any conclusions about the material contained in the newly released pages, and that the public should understand that they contain threads that were at the time seen as investigative leads for others to pursue.
“People are thinking they’re going to see conclusions,” Hill said. “What people should remember was that this was information that was found in the files of law enforcement and intelligence agencies” by lawmakers and their staff and was “information being referred for further investigation.”
Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the joint committee and had pushed for release of information he said showed the hijackers received “substantial” support from Saudi Arabia, was in the forefront of pressing for the release.
Saying he was “very pleased” at the release, Graham told CNN Friday that the pages were “the cork in the wine bottle,” whose removal would allow other information to “pour out.”
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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?”
But others said they proved exactly what was argued all along–that there was no new information to implicate Saudi Arabia.
Committee Ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement that he hoped the release “will diminish speculation that they contain proof of official Saudi Government or senior Saudi official involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” adding the intelligence community investigated similar allegations following the 9/11 report “and was never able to find sufficient evidence to support them.”
That may not be the most welcome news to certain relatives of Sept. 11 victims, who are presently pushing for the House to take up a Senate-passed bill they hoped would let them sue Saudi Arabia over alleged support for terrorism. They also have been campaigning for the release of the previously-classified pages.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that the released pages “don’t shed any new light or change any of the conclusions about responsibilities for the 9/11 attacks,” but that the administration released them to be “consistent with the commitments to transparency that the administration has tried to apply to even sensitive national security issues.”
Abdullah Al-Saud, Saudi Arabai’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the release of the redacted pages from the 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry. Since 2002, the 9/11 Commission and 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.
“Saudi Arabia has long called for the release of the classified ‘28 Pages,’” the statement 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.”
Congressional leaders who advocated for declassification of the pages welcomed their release with a mix of caution and careful optimism.
“It’s important to note that this section does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
Many members of Congress applauded the release of the pages as a necessary gesture of transparency to the American public, particularly since it could be done “without jeopardizing national security,” as Nunes said.
“There is no excuse for keeping these 28 pages secret for more than a decade, so this release is welcome and long overdue,” said Senate Select Committee on Intelligence member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
“The American public deserved to see the reports’ declassified contents and now they can,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.
Senate intelligence leaders Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) stressed that it was particularly important to read a supplementary document, detailing the results of a CIA and FBI investigations “that debunk many of the allegations contained in the declassified section of the report.”
“We need to put an end to conspiracy theories and idle speculation that do nothing to shed light on the 9/11 attacks,” Burr and Feinstein said in a joint statement released by Feinstein’s office.
Last year, a panel of experts selected by Congress reviewed the FBI’s response to the 9/11 Commissions’ recommendations. The panel, which included noted counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, found nothing that altered the original findings of the commission.
The report also revealed that the FBI had re-interviewed Abdullah Bin Laden in 2011. Bin Laden, whose name also appears in the pages released Friday, claimed to work for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. He was identified by the FBI as the half-brother of Al Qaeda founder Osama and a “possible associate” of Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, both of whom took part in the 9/11 attacks.
“Abdullah confirmed that he had provided on his own accord various types of assistance to the hijackers in San Diego,” the report said. The review “did not discover anything new in the post-9/11 Commission interviews of Abdullah that would definitively change the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions regarding Abdullah’s pre-9/11 activities.”
Julie Tate and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.