by Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica:
On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Donald Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.
One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the FBI’s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the FBI bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didn’t mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump — of complicity in the attacks.
The president promised to help. “It’s done,” he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an FBI report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi official’s name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families’ hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked “significant harm to the national security.”
The families were stunned. They knew that the success of their lawsuit might well depend on access to the FBI’s investigation into possible Saudi involvement in the plot by al-Qaida. In a federal courthouse in Manhattan, near where the twin towers once stood, the fight over evidence had already dragged on for more than a year. Now, as the judge prepared to rule on what documents would be disclosed, the Justice Department was digging in.
Daniel Gonzalez wasn’t surprised by the hard line. A former street agent in the FBI’s San Diego field office, he was one of several retired investigators who had signed on to help the families. During the last 15 years of his FBI career, Gonzalez was a central figure in the bureau’s effort to understand Saudi connections to 9/11. But even on the inside, Gonzalez often felt as if his own government wanted no part of what he was finding.
From the day of the attacks, the trail seemed to point to Saudi Arabia. First, there was the inescapable fact that, like Osama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The first two flew in to Los Angeles in January 2000 and quickly made their way to a Saudi mosque. When they moved to San Diego a few weeks later, they turned for help to a middle-aged Saudi student whom the FBI suspected of spying for the kingdom.
But as details of the 9/11 plot came into focus, the FBI line on possible Saudi involvement began to shift: When the evidence was assessed, FBI officials reported, there was no solid proof that the Saudi government or any of its senior officials deliberately aided the Qaida terrorists. Low-level Saudis with government ties might have helped the two hijackers in California, the bureau acknowledged, but there was no indication that they knew the men were terrorists — much less planning to murder thousands of Americans.
Gonzalez knew he hadn’t seen all the evidence; he had just a corner of an investigation that stretched around the world. American intelligence agencies surely had pieces of the Saudi puzzle that even senior FBI officials might not be aware of. But what Gonzalez uncovered was troubling, and he knew that bigger questions about the plot were still unanswered. “My head was already flat from banging it against the wall,” he recalled. “But I thought, We’re not done.”
Gonzalez, a tough, affable Texan, pressed on. With a small group of like-minded investigators in New York and California, he hunted down witnesses who had slipped away and circled back to clues that had been missed. The evidence they developed was nearly all circumstantial. But it added to the questions about the role of the Saudi government.
The FBI has disputed the idea that foreign-policy considerations significantly influenced its investigation. In interviews, current and former bureau officials and federal prosecutors insisted to us that they never would have hesitated to pursue any Saudi who could have been solidly linked to the 9/11 plot, even if that person never faced trial in the United States. (Saudi Arabia does not extradite its citizens.) “I have never been privy to discussions about not charging someone for 9/11 because we need to maintain a better relationship with the Saudis,” Jacqueline Maguire, a special agent in charge in New York who was closely involved in the case from the beginning, told us. “I have never heard charges be questioned for that reason.”
But others who worked on the matter, including some at the FBI’s highest levels, say that the United States’ complex and often-troubled relationship with the Saudi regime was an unavoidable fact throughout their investigations. Even as the Saudi authorities became more cooperative with the United States in fighting al-Qaida after 2003, they were minimally and grudgingly helpful when it came to the 9/11 inquiry. According to current and former officials, requests for assistance that might rattle the Saudi security agencies were frequently balanced against FBI and CIA needs for Saudi help against continuing terror threats.
How such considerations might also weigh against the appeals of the 9/11 families for a fuller record of what happened remains an open question. If anything, the transactional nature of America’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom has become more overt. In December, following the terrorist shooting by a Saudi Air Force officer that killed three Americans and wounded eight others on a Florida naval base, Trump tweeted what he said were assurances from King Salman that “this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people.” Earlier last year, addressing the Saudi government’s murder of a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, Trump argued that such offenses should be seen in a broader context. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’” he told NBC News.
Washington’s efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former FBI agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams — a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings — said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an FBI lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.” (The FBI declined to comment.)
The full story of the FBI’s investigation into Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks has remained largely untold. Even the code name of the case — Operation Encore — has never been published before. This account is based on interviews with more than 50 current and former investigators, intelligence officials and witnesses in the case. It also draws on some previously secret documents as well as on the voluminous public files of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.
The Encore investigation exposed a bitter rift within the bureau over the Saudi connection. It illuminated a series of missed opportunities to resolve questions about links between one of Washington’s closest allies and the deadliest attack in the nation’s history. Richard Lambert, who led the FBI’s initial 9/11 investigation in San Diego, as the assistant special agent in charge there, says he believes that even if the FBI’s evidence of possible Saudi involvement in the case is not conclusive, it is significant enough that it should be fully disclosed. “The circumstantial evidence has mounted,” he says. “Given the lapse of time, I don’t know any reason why the truth should be kept from the American people.”
Images of the World Trade Center’s collapse were still looping on television sets in the FBI’s San Diego field office when a lead came in from Dulles International Airport, outside Washington. A blue 1988 Toyota Corolla had been found in a parking lot; it was registered to one of the suspected hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which took off for Los Angeles the previous morning before crashing into the Pentagon, killing 64 people on board and 125 inside the building. The hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, listed a San Diego address.
Gonzalez caught the lead. At 42, he had been in the office for a decade, building a reputation as a shrewd, instinctive agent with a gift for getting people to talk. He had worked very effectively against Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt border-control agents, and he pivoted easily to the new target. “He was a phenomenal agent,” Lambert says, “what you would want to see if an agent knocked on your door. He just kept going and going.”
The address from Dulles led Gonzalez to a plain, white, two-story house in the working-class suburb of Lemon Grove. The listed owner was a 65-year-old Indian immigrant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had taught English as a second language at local community colleges and helped establish the Islamic Center of San Diego, the city’s largest mosque. Gonzalez hurried back to prepare a search warrant at the FBI office, where snipers had taken up positions on the roof. “It was chaos,” recalls William D. Gore, who was then the special agent in charge in San Diego. “Nobody knew where the next attack would be.”