Letter from Washington — From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

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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.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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