PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- President Joe Biden signed an executive order to begin the process of declassifying documents related to Sept. 11, 2001.
Friday's move came as we approach the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks and amid the persistence of families who filed a lawsuit alleging Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility.
KDKA's Andy Sheehan spoke with a local attorney representing two of those families.
This development is significant. For several administrations, the U.S. Justice Department has kept much of the investigation classified. Now, President Biden — stating the need for transparency — says some of those documents should be disclosed.
Twenty years after planes hit the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, and the in-flight heroes brought Flight 93 down in Shanksville, families of those who died have gnawing questions about just who was behind the attacks.
Why were 15 of the 19 hijackers — like Osama bin Laden himself — Saudi Arabian? Who supplied them support, training and flying lessons while on U.S. soil? And what role, if any, did some members of the Saudi government play?
"We just want transparency and accountability," said Pittsburgh attorney Tom Johnson.
In a lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York, just blocks from the World Trade Center site, hundreds of victims' family members make that claim. Though Johnson, who represents two of those families, lacks direct evidence of the Saudi Government's involvement, in the suit, he and the other plaintiff's lawyers contend: the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the 9/11 Attacks because its agents and players directly and knowingly assisted the hijackers and plotters who carried out the attacks."
The case centers in part on two Saudi hijackers — Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar — who traveled from Saudi Arabia to California and later hijacked and crashed Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 125 people in the building and all 64 onboard.
The suit claims a man it identifies only as a suspected Saudi spy working with an Iman at a San Diego mosque set up a "US based support network... at the direction of an unnamed Saudi official." This included an apartment and flying lessons, funding which the suit says came from so-called "charities" with links to the Saudis.
"Charities which were not charities at all. They were vehicles through which the Saudi Government could sponsor spying, terrorism and who knows what else," Johnson said
Calls and emails to the Saudi Consulate in Washington, D.C. have not yielded a response to any of these claims, but in court papers, the Saudi government denies involvement. Their lead attorney would not comment to KDKA but has argued in court the plaintiffs have produced no direct evidence linking the Saudi government to the hijackers.
And, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission report, states "We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization." Meaning Al-Qaeda.
Still, some say that doesn't clear the country. Johnson and his fellow attorney concede more definitive proof is needed and for years have pushed to de-classify FBI documents concerning the investigation. They claim U.S. attorneys general over several administrations kept them sealed.
"Not only can we not see the documents, our own FBI is withholding," Johnson said. "What is being hidden? Why is it being hidden? Who is accountable for this ?" Johnson said.
Johnson suspects the U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia as the reason. Long considered our ally in the Middle East, the U.S. military operates from bases there. We buy their oil, and they buy our warplanes.
The White House declassification review doesn't mean all classified documents will be released. Federal agencies still have the authority to keep documents classified if there's a national security threat.
It will be months before documents would be made public, provided the review process allows them to.
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