Meeting with the leaders of NATO countries in May, President Trump chastised them sternly for their shortcomings as allies. He took the time, however, to make respectful reference to the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, whom he had just visited at the start of his first overseas trip as president. “I spent much time with King Salman,” he told the glum-looking cluster of Europeans, calling him “a wise man who wants to see things get much better rapidly.”
Some might find this fulsome description surprising, given widespread reports that Salman, who took the throne in January 2015, suffers from dementia. Generally seen wearing a puzzled look, the king has been known to wander off in the middle of conversations, as he reportedly did once while talking with President Obama. When speaking in public, he depends on fast-typing aides whose prompts appear on a discreetly concealed monitor.
Whatever wisdom Trump absorbed from his elderly royal friend, the primary purpose of his trip to Riyadh, according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the proceedings, was cash — both in arms sales and investments in crumbling American infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, and tunnels. The Trump Administration is “desperate for Saudi money, especially infrastructure investments in the Rust Belt,” the former official told me. An influx of Saudi dollars could generate jobs and thus redound to Trump’s political benefit. As a cynical douceur, the Saudis, derided by Trump during his campaign as “people that kill women and treat women horribly,” joined the United Arab Emirates in pledging $100 million for a women’s-empowerment initiative spearheaded by Ivanka Trump. A joyful president took part in the traditional sword dance and then helped launch a Saudi center for “combating extremism.”
This was not the first time the Saudis had dangled the prospect of massive investments to leverage U.S. support. “Mohammad bin Salman made the same pitch to the Obama people,” the former official told me. “ ‘We’re going to invest all this money here, you’re going to be our great economic partner, etc.’ Because the Trump Administration doesn’t know much about foreign affairs, they were really seduced by this.”
The president certainly viewed the visit as a huge success. “We made and saved the U.S.A. many billions of dollars and millions of jobs,” he tweeted as he left Saudi Arabia. The White House soon trumpeted $110 billion in weapons sales and billions more in infrastructure investments, with the total purportedly rising to $350 billion.
Yet amid the sword dances and flattery, a shadow lingered over the occasion: 9/11. After years of glacial legal progress, the momentous charge that our Saudi allies enabled and supported the most devastating act of mass murder on American soil may now be coming to a resolution. Thanks to a combination of court decisions, congressional action, and the disclosure of long-sequestered government records, it appears increasingly likely that our supposed friend and peerless weapons customer will finally face its accusers in court.
Over the years, successive administrations have made strenuous efforts to suppress discussion of Saudi involvement in the September 11 attacks, deploying everything from abusive security classification to the judiciary to a presidential veto. Now, at last, we stand a chance of discovering what really happened, largely because of a court case.
In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, which grew out of a suit filed in 2002 on behalf of bereaved family members and other victims of the attacks, includes a charge of direct Saudi government involvement in 9/11. It also claims that Riyadh directly funded the creation, growth, and operations of Al Qaeda worldwide. The Saudis, though scorning the accusation, have been striving ever more desperately to prevent the case from advancing through the legal system. To that end, they have employed to date no fewer than fifteen high-powered Washington lobbying firms.
The task is growing more urgent because the kingdom, long confident of essentially unlimited wealth, is facing money problems. Oil prices are in a slump and likely to stay there. The war in Yemen, launched in 2015 by Salman’s appointed heir, Mohammed bin Salman, drags on, costing an estimated $200 million a day, with no end in sight. To alleviate his cash-flow problems, the young prince is set on raising as much as $2 trillion by floating the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, on international stock markets. That is part of the reason the 9/11 lawsuit poses such a threat — it raises the possibility that much-needed cash from the stock sale might never find its way to Riyadh. “They’re afraid they’re going to get a default judgment against them, and some of their domestic assets will be seized,” the former senior official explained to me.
To Sharon Premoli, one of the more than 6,500 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, that is precisely the goal. On September 11, she had been at her desk at a financial services software company, on the eightieth floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building thirteen floors above her. Fleeing the area, she had almost reached safety when the South Tower came crashing down, propelling her into a plateglass window. Coming to, she found herself lying on top of a dead body. Like many other survivors, she has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the legal issues around the case, not to mention the world of terrorism and Saudi connections thereto. A multibillion-dollar award “would certainly stop the Saudis from financing terrorism,” she told me. “That’s the whole point of this. It is all about money. If you can cut that off, that would make a serious impact on the dissemination of this rabid ideology around the world.”
Premoli was more fortunate than Peter Owens, a forty-two-year-old bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, twenty-four floors above her, who had no chance of escape. He left behind a wife and three children. “It’s kind of sad to look forward to the anniversary,” Kathy Owens told me recently. Each September gives her hope that the recurring news peg will inspire journalists to explore the case. “We started a war because of 9/11 — more than one war — and the wars are still going on,” she said. “Every war we start now, we say it’s because of 9/11. It manages so much of our lives. They keep fighting the war on terror, but we are giving the Saudis a pass, despite all of this evidence.”
There has always been evidence — in abundance. The Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 began work in February 2002. Congressional investigators soon uncovered numerous failures by the FBI and CIA. The degree of cumulative incompetence was breathtaking. Most egregiously, the CIA had been well aware that two known Al Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were en route to the United States, but the agency had refused to tell the FBI. The FBI, meanwhile, had multiple reports in its San Diego office on locally based Saudis suspected of terrorist associations, but failed to take action.
San Diego looms large in the recorded history of 9/11, though not because it was the focal point of the plot. While preparing for the operation, the future hijackers had been dispersed around the country, in such places as New Jersey and Florida. The reason we know so much about the West Coast activities of the hijackers is largely because of Michael Jacobson, a burly former FBI lawyer and counterterrorism analyst who worked as an investigator for the Joint Inquiry. Reviewing files at FBI headquarters, he came across a stray reference to a bureau informant in San Diego who had known one of the hijackers. Intrigued, he decided to follow up in the San Diego field office. Bob Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me recently that Robert Mueller, then the FBI director (and now the special counsel investigating connections between Russia and the Trump campaign) made “the strongest objections” to Jacobson and his colleagues visiting San Diego.
Graham and his team defied Mueller’s efforts, and Jacobson flew west. There he discovered that his hunch was correct. The FBI files in California were replete with extraordinary and damning details, notably the hijackers’ close relationship with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi living in San Diego with a no-show job at a local company with connections to the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The FBI had investigated his possible connections to Saudi intelligence. A couple of weeks after the two hijackers flew into Los Angeles from Malaysia, in February 2000, he had driven up to the city and met with Fahad al-Thumairy, a cleric employed by his country’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs who worked out of the Saudi Consulate. Thumairy, reported to be an adherent of extreme Wahhabi ideology — he was later denied a U.S. visa on grounds of jihadi connections — was also an imam of the King Fahad mosque in Los Angeles County, which the hijackers had visited soon after their arrival.
After meeting with Thumairy, Bayoumi had driven across town to a Middle Eastern restaurant where he “accidentally” encountered and introduced himself to Hazmi and Mihdhar. He invited them to move to San Diego, found them an apartment, paid their first month’s rent, helped them open a bank account, and introduced them to members of the local Saudi community, including his close friend Osama Bassnan.
During the time Bayoumi was catering to the hijackers’ needs, his salary as a ghost employee of the aviation company got a 700 percent boost; it was cut when they left town. That was not his only source of extra funds: After Hazmi and Mihdhar arrived in San Diego, Bassnan’s wife began signing over to Bayoumi’s wife the checks she received from the wife of the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The total value reportedly came to nearly $150,000.
Jacobson also found evidence, noted but seemingly ignored by the bureau, that Hazmi had worked for a San Diego businessman who had himself been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation. Even more amazingly, the two hijackers had been close with an FBI informant, Abdussattar Shaikh. Hazmi had actually lived in his house after Mihdhar left town. Shaikh failed to mention his young Saudi friends’ last names in regular reports to his FBI case officer, or that they were taking flying lessons. Understandably, the investigators had a lot of questions for this man. Nevertheless, Mueller adamantly refused their demands to interview him, even when backed by a congressional subpoena, and removed Shaikh to an undisclosed location “for his own safety.” Today, Graham believes that Mueller was acting under orders from the White House.
Another intriguing document unearthed by the investigators in San Diego was a memo from July 2, 2002, discussing alleged financial connections between the September 11 hijackers, Saudi government officials, and members of the Saudi royal family. It stated that there was “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi Government.”
Back in 2002, Graham himself was already coming to the conclusion that the 9/11 attacks could not have been the work of a stand-alone terrorist cell. As he later wrote, “I believed almost intuitively that the terrorists who pulled off this attack must have had an elaborate support network, abroad and in the U.S.A.,” with expenses far exceeding the official estimate of $250,000. “For that reason,” he continued, “as well as because of the benefits that come with the confidentiality of diplomatic cover, this infrastructure of support was probably maintained, at least in part, by a nation-state.”
I asked Graham whether he believed that a careful search of the FBI files in Florida and elsewhere would yield similarly explosive disclosures. He told me that the inquiry would have doubtless discovered whom the hijackers were associating with in those places, and where that money came from. Fifteen years on, Graham still regretted not having pursued the possibility of revelatory FBI files in those other locations “aggressively.” Instead, he lamented, the inquiry ended up “with San Diego being the microscope through which we’ve been looking at this whole plot.”
1 Several years later, Awlaki would become notorious as a recruiter of terrorists; he was deemed so dangerous that President Obama ordered his execution by drone in Yemen, in 2011.
Even the comparatively comprehensive accounts of the San Diego phase of the plot may be missing some telling leads. FBI records detailed the close connections between Bayoumi, the hijackers, and a local imam, Anwar al-Awlaki.1 Awlaki apparently served as the hijackers’ spiritual mentor. He soon moved to Northern Virginia, and when Hazmi and another hijacker arrived in the neighborhood in April 2001 to begin their final preparations, he served in that capacity again, and also found them an apartment. Many investigators, including Graham, concluded that Awlaki was not only aware of the developing plot but very much a part of it.
But before that, Awlaki reportedly served as a senior official of a “charity” — viewed by the FBI as a terrorist fund-raising operation — founded by Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a Saudi-backed cleric in Yemen. Zindani had been the spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden himself. He also founded a powerful Yemeni political party and headed Iman University in Sanaa, often described as a jihadi recruiting hub. Both of these enterprises were supported by Saudi money.
In 2004, the U.S. government listed Zindani as a “specially designated global terrorist” and a supporter of Al Qaeda. This in no way interfered with his travels to Saudi Arabia, however. As recently as this February, Zindani was observed in the company of prominent clerics in Mecca. Among those who have drawn attention to this in published reports is Michael Jacobson, who after service with the 9/11 inquiries returned to counterterrorism analysis with the U.S. Treasury. Currently, he is at the State Department. When I called him to discuss Zindani’s relationship with the Saudis, he quickly replied, “I can’t talk about that,” and ended the conversation with the words, “Good luck.”
After a mere ten months, in December 2002, the Joint Inquiry team presented its report to the CIA for declassification. The agency demanded numerous cuts, only a few of which, in Graham’s view, were justified. But one section had been censored in its entirety: a twenty-eight-page summary, written by Jacobson, of the evidence relating to Saudi government support for the hijackers. It was the only area on which the Bush White House absolutely refused to relent. “The president’s loyalty apparently lay more with Saudi Arabia than with America’s safety,” Graham told me bitterly. To highlight the degree of censorship, he made sure that the published version of the report included the blacked-out pages, much to the irritation of the intelligence community.
The report concluded that the FBI, in light of its lamentable performance, deserved to be drastically reformed. But many questions remained unanswered. The 9/11 families, now emerging as a powerful lobby, called for a more sweeping probe. In November 2002, Congress had authorized another bipartisan panel, a National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The initial choice of chairperson for the new probe, Henry Kissinger, drew outrage from 9/11 families, particularly a formidable foursome of well-informed widows known as the Jersey Girls, who questioned his impartiality given his suspected professional ties to prominent Saudis. Rather than divulge his Saudi client list, Kissinger quit. Ultimately, the White House selected in his place two retired politicians — Tom Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, who had represented Indiana in the House. Neither, especially Hamilton, showed much inclination to challenge the Bush Administration’s preferred version of events.
For the post of executive director, Kean and Hamilton appointed Philip Zelikow, a historian and national security scholar with strong connections to the Bush Administration. (He had served on the Bush transition team and prepared an important policy paper for his friend Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.) A forceful personality, Zelikow maintained strict day-to-day control of the investigation. According to The Commission, by the former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, Dana Lesemann, a Justice Department lawyer who had worked on the prior congressional investigation before transferring to the commission staff, asked for Zelikow’s permission to review the redacted twenty-eight pages. In Shenon’s account, he refused. Bucking his orders, she obtained them anyway, whereupon she was promptly fired.2
2 Speaking to Harper’s Magazine, Zelikow denied the account and said that Lesemann, who had a security clearance, had been fired for “violating her security agreement.” He declined to elaborate further, citing what he called a “privacy issue.” Lesemann died in March 2017.
Despite these obstacles, commission staffers did energetically pursue leads uncovered by the original probe. They were therefore frustrated when telling indications of a Saudi connection were largely excluded or downplayed in the main text of the final report. The staffers were, however, able to smuggle much of what they had uncovered into endnotes at the back of the document — an act of small-print, guerrilla-style resistance. For example, Jacobson and a colleague flew to Riyadh to interview Fahad al-Thumairy, the cleric from the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles subsequently banned from the United States as a suspected terrorist. During the interview, with Saudi officials in attendance, Thumairy denied any connection to the plot — in fact, he disclaimed ever having met Bayoumi or the hijackers. The investigators concluded that he was “lying” and “dangerous.” The main text of the report mentions both the allegations and his denials, without coming to any particular conclusion. But lengthy endnotes specify the numerous phone calls between Thumairy and Bayoumi over several years, as well as evidence that Thumairy’s occasional chauffeur had driven Hazmi and Mihdhar, at Thumairy’s request, on sightseeing trips to Sea World and other spots.
The main conclusion from the final report was that there was “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” The Saudi authorities were so pleased by this verdict that they posted the quote on the website of their Washington embassy. The published version of the report was a bestseller, nominated for a National Book Award, and hailed by the novelist John Updike as the greatest masterpiece written by a committee since the King James Bible.
So far as the U.S. government and most of the media were concerned, there was no need for further investigation. But the Bush Administration didn’t reject the notion that a nation-state had been behind the attacks. They merely offered up a different nominee for the role: Iraq. In the absence of any evidence to back this up, interrogators at Guantánamo were tasked, according to a 2008 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, to torture detainees into admitting to such a link.
The 9/11 families, however, had no interest in letting the kingdom off the hook. Nor did their lawyers. These included Ron Motley, of the South Carolina firm Motley Rice. He had recently scored the largest civil settlement in history — some $246 billion from America’s tobacco companies — and was eager for a fresh challenge. Also enlisted in the multiple suits were Jim Kreindler, the New York aviation lawyer who had won more than $2 billion from Muammar Qaddafi in the Pan Am Flight 103 case, and Stephen Cozen of Cozen O’Connor, specialists in recovering money for insurance companies.
The 9/11 suit as it now stands is a compilation of many such suits. It cites evidence of direct support for the attacks by Saudi officials such as Thumairy, Bayoumi, and Bassnan. It also lays out the case for the intimate involvement of the Saudi government in the creation and expansion of Al Qaeda. Whereas the 9/11 Commission Report began its narrative with Osama bin Laden, In re Terrorist Attacks goes back to the foundation of the Al Saud family’s rule and its alliance with the puritanical and intolerant Wahhabi sect. In the 1970s, and then again in the early 1990s, violent challenges to the family’s legitimacy, fostered by its corruption and backsliding from the fundamentalist creed, persuaded the ruling princes to appease the clerics by giving them further leeway, and massive amounts of money, to export their extremist agenda.
For example, according to internal Al Qaeda documents seized by U.S. forces in 2002, a man named Abdullah Omar Naseef was simultaneously the head of one such Saudi “charity,” the Muslim World League, and a member of the Majlis al-Shura, the kingdom’s consultative assembly, which is entirely appointed by the government. Naseef not only met with bin Laden and leaders of Al Qaeda at the time of its founding but reportedly agreed that the league’s offices would be used as a platform for the new organization. He then proceeded to appoint senior Al Qaeda figures to run league offices in such key outposts as Pakistan and the Philippines, the latter position being entrusted to bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Another group, the International Islamic Relief Organization, is meanwhile said to have funded terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the 9/11 hijackers graduated, and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, for the evident use of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Should there have been any doubt about the connection between these Wahhabi missionary groups and the Saudi government, they were dispelled by the groups themselves. In documents filed between 2002 and 2005, some formally declared themselves to be organs of the state. They could thus shelter behind the principal Saudi defensive fortification in the case: the immunity enjoyed by foreign countries against being sued in U.S. courts, granted by the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.
For years, this appeared to be a sound strategy, in large part because of the 9/11 Commission’s concluding blanket absolution of the Saudi government. In 2005, U.S. District Judge Richard Casey dismissed the case against the kingdom itself and many of the individual defendants, on the grounds that they were covered by sovereign immunity.
Casey’s judgment was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2008, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court in 2009, just as Barack Obama entered the White House. Candidate Obama had talked derisively about Bush’s “buddying up to the Saudi royal family and then begging them for oil.” President Obama’s Justice Department almost immediately informed the Supreme Court that the Saudis were in no way liable. Shortly thereafter, Obama flew to Riyadh, where he was royally entertained and duly bedecked with the gold chain and medal of the Order of King Abdulaziz, an honor also conferred on Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Trump. “Goodness gracious,” he exclaimed when presented with the costly bauble, “that’s something there!”
“The mystery to me is Obama,” remarked Graham. He could, he said, understand Bush’s rationale for covering up the Saudi connection in order to bolster the case for war with Iraq. But Obama’s refusal to address the issue, which included a multi-year reluctance to release the twenty-eight pages, mystified him. Meeting with officials on Obama’s National Security Council, he found them “very non-forthcoming. ‘You’ve got all the files,’ ” he told them. “ ‘Go back and verify what I’ve just said and see if you hold the same opinion about the Saudis that you have just stated.’ Either they didn’t want to find out the facts, or if they found them out, they ignored them.”
Similarly uninterested in the facts, at least as Graham saw them, was the 9/11 Review Commission authorized by Congress in 2014 to examine the progress of reforms recommended by the original commission, and recheck its conclusions on the attacks. Three commissioners were appointed to the task by the FBI director, James Comey: Reagan’s former attorney general, Edwin Meese; the former Democratic congressman Tim Roemer; and Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and former RAND official. This inquiry, working with the “full cooperation” of the FBI, upheld the conclusions of the original commission in full. No one from this commission contacted Graham.
In reality, the Obama Administration was well aware that Saudi Arabia was a supporter of terrorism, though it kept the information to itself. Only through WikiLeaks did we learn of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s classified cable, circulated to department officials in December 2009, stating as fact that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Saudi Arabia was of course also a significant source of funding to the U.S. defense industry. Two years after the classified cable, Clinton aide Jake Sullivan emailed her the “good news” that the kingdom had just signed a $30 billion order for Boeing F-15 fighters. “Not a bad Christmas present,” observed someone else on the same email thread.
However, while the administration and the intelligence agencies maintained the tradition of protecting the Saudis, the long-stalled legal case against the kingdom was coming back to life. One major stumbling block remained: the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. Faced with this legal bulwark, the families and their lawyers resolved to get Congress to change the law. The resulting legislation, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), was crafted to blow away the Saudis’ immunity from prosecution.
Kathy Owens was among the widows and other plaintiffs crowding the corridors of Congress in May 2016 to push for the bill. For the first decade after the attack, she had paid little attention to the lawsuit, adding her name only at her father’s urging. Then she happened to pick up a magazine excerpt from Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s book on 9/11, The Eleventh Day. “It woke me up,” she told me. “What? There was Saudi involvement and possibly our government was onto it, and nothing was being done about it, and things were being kept secret?” Learning about JASTA from a website run by Sharon Premoli, Owens started making trips to Washington.
The government warned that the proposed law could inspire similar legislation abroad, allowing foreigners to sue America, and Americans (though JASTA did not apply to individuals). The president’s press secretary pushed this argument, as did State Department officials. Prominent former national security experts dispatched warnings to Congress. Even the Dutch parliament weighed in, apparently swayed by the State Department’s pronouncements.
“It was a bogeyman they threw out in every setting,” one of the senior lawyers involved in the lawsuit told me, explaining that the government had been raising the same objection on previous occasions. Yet “we haven’t seen any floodgate of claims against the United States.” In the view of this attorney, who has spent most of his life since 9/11 working on the case, the Obama Administration was merely “feigning” concern. “They’re not dumb. They had to understand that these arguments didn’t hold water.”
There was one foreign state threatening to strike back at the United States if JASTA became law. Visiting Washington in March 2016, before Congress began voting on the measure, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir explicitly warned that his government might sell its portfolio of “$750 billion” in U.S. Treasury bonds, thereby crashing the market in government securities, should JASTA become law. (The figure was a wild exaggeration — U.S. Treasury figures showed that the real amount was $117 billion.)
Even with all the threats and warnings, the House passed the bill that September, whereupon Obama announced he would veto it, which he duly did. The battle resumed with greater intensity as both sides prepared another vote. “President Obama, you can’t hide! We’ll get Congress to override,” protesters chanted outside the White House.
Despite frantic efforts by the administration, and ranks of lobbyists for the Saudis, the Senate crushed Obama’s veto, 97 to 1. It was the first and only time Obama suffered such an indignity. Reportedly, he was “furious.” Meanwhile, bipartisan pressure to release the censored twenty-eight pages in Graham’s original report had been building for some time, led by congressmen such as the Democrat Stephen Lynch and the Republican Walter Jones. Jones, once a fervent hawk, had turned sharply dovish, through guilt, as he told me, over voting for the Iraq war on the basis of “lies.” (He writes a letter of condolence to the family of every single casualty of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Jones, Lynch, and others on both sides of the aisle held regular press conferences about the twenty-eight pages “to keep a drumbeat going to give the 9/11 families the complete truth.”
With the exception of that committed group, Owens was not impressed by what she found on Capitol Hill. Most of the senators and representatives she met didn’t seem to care who was behind 9/11. “They just didn’t want to be seen as voting against the 9/11 families. So they would vote yes for it, and then try to sabotage it behind the scenes. . . . Washington is an ugly place.” Encouraging this assessment was her discovery that at the very moment they were voting almost unanimously for the bill, a significant number of senators from both parties were quietly circulating and signing a letter citing “concerns” regarding JASTA’s “potential unintended consequences” to “the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” In effect, they were suggesting that the law they had just been seen enthusiastically supporting be weakened.
Front and center in this sorry initiative were Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who, following the override, introduced amendments purportedly designed to “fix” JASTA. One of the 9/11 lawyers coolly appraised this tactic as “demonstrably the brainchild of Saudi lawyers here in Washington. They don’t fix JASTA, they’re designed to gut JASTA.” The lawyer speculated that the Saudis’ lobbyists hadn’t told their clients that “even if amendments like that were to be enacted, this litigation would continue.” The lobbyists’ interests, he suggested, lay in keeping the fight going as long as possible. “I think that you’ve got dozens of retainers out there that people would like to extend into the very distant future.”
Meanwhile, after JASTA became law, dozens of veterans across the country received invitations to a “cool trip.” At no cost to themselves, they would fly to Washington, stay at the luxurious Trump Hotel — and tell Congress how the law endangered them and others who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan by potentially opening them to lawsuits. The entire operation was sponsored by the Saudi government. However, according to multiple accounts by veterans who made the trip, they were not informed beforehand of the Saudi involvement as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. They discovered the connection only by accident. Scott Bartels, who served two tours in Iraq, described his experience to me. “We were told that a veterans’ advocacy group [had] brought us there to propose a fix to JASTA,” he said. “If anyone in Congress asked us what group we were from, or who we were associated with, then we were to simply say we were an independent group of concerned veterans here on our own, because JASTA posed a threat to veterans.”
Jason Johns, a lobbyist for Qorvis, which brought Bartels and some 140 others to Washington, denied that the veterans were ever misinformed as to who was paying the tab. He also insisted to me that his failure to mention the Saudis in various written materials distributed to the veterans did not violate the law. (Justice Department guidelines specifically stipulate that all such material must state the name of the “foreign principal.”)3
3 Three of Johns’s colleagues in the veterans-against-JASTA effort echoed his argument that no laws had been broken. It was, in any case, a highly profitable enterprise for the organizers. Johns himself received $100,000, while the Trump Hotel billed Qorvis $270,000 for lodging, refreshments, and parking. In total, Saudi payments to their lobbyists during the JASTA fight ran to at least $1.3 million a month.
At the same time, another legal barrier, erected years before by George W. Bush, had already crumbled. Yielding to mounting pressure, Congress finally released the infamous twenty-eight pages in July 2016, albeit with many passages still censored. At long last, the discoveries unearthed by Jacobson and his colleagues in San Diego could be incorporated in the lawsuit. Though salient details, such as Omar Bayoumi’s role in assisting the hijackers, had previously been bruited about, many new ones came to light, such as the actions of Saleh al-Hussayen, a Saudi cleric and government employee who had suddenly moved to Hazmi and Mihdhar’s hotel the night before the attacks. Hussayen was “deceptive” about his relationship with the attackers when interviewed by the FBI and feigned a seizure to evade further questioning. Taken to the hospital, he escaped and fled the country. The world also learned about Mohammed al-Qudhaeein, another Saudi government agent whose “profile is similar to that of al-Bayoumi.” While on his way to a party at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Qudhaeein researched ways to get into an American Airlines cockpit. (Thanks to a tip from a friendly government archivist, Kathy Owens meanwhile unearthed another long-censored document that had been quietly declassified. It reveals an Al Qaeda member’s flight certificate enclosed in a Saudi Embassy envelope.)
Even before the release of these documents, some with a vested interest in the official story had already begun circling the wagons. Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton penned an op-ed in USA Today misleadingly asserting that the twenty-eight pages consisted merely of “raw, unvetted material,” and stated that 9/11 Commission staff had access to the classified pages and pursued the leads before absolving the Saudi government. In their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, filed on August 1, 2017, Saudi Arabia’s D.C. lawyers, Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, hewed to much the same posture. Employing the assertive bluster common to such documents, they derided the relevance of the missing pages, invoked the findings of the 9/11 Commission as gospel, scorned assertions regarding Saudi government collusion with Al Qaeda, and challenged the very notion that JASTA would allow the lawsuit against the Saudi government to proceed. Naturally, they demanded that the suit be dismissed.
Ironically, the newly released pages also resonated among a group of lawyers very far removed from the JASTA plaintiffs, but no less embroiled in the story of the attacks. In a courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, attorneys employed by the Defense Department were defending five of the original 9/11 conspirators, who were facing charges in a military court. Now these attorneys demanded that portions of the twenty-eight pages still being withheld by the government — a total of three pages — be made available to the defense. (The military judge rejected the motion in an order that was, naturally, withheld from the public at large.) Edwin Perry, who is defending Walid bin Attash, pointed out that his client and the other defendants were being held wholly responsible for the attacks. If there was information, he argued, that identified “other individuals more responsible,” then the government should make it known.
It seems a reasonable request.