By Michael Pollick Herald-Tribune
SARASOTA – A support group for families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks is applauding the Herald-Tribune and the Miami Herald for intervening in a federal lawsuit that seeks information about a Saudi family who abruptly left Sarasota just prior to the attacks.
The 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism contends that the FBI has covered up information that could shed light on alleged Saudi financing of the terror plot, which killed more than 3,000 [sic] in New York and outside Washington, D.C.
“Maybe someday soon we’ll finally get to hear the truth,” said Bill Doyle, whose son, Joseph, died when the World Trade Center collapsed a dozen years ago.
“On the one hand, they say they have no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to 9/11,” Doyle — who lived on Staten Island and now resides in The Villages near Orlando — said of the FBI. “On the other hand, they say releasing the information would threaten national security. Both of those things cannot be true. The federal court should not let them get away with it.”
In late September, the Miami Herald joined the Herald-Tribune Media Group in urging a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale to make the FBI disclose details of its long-running Sarasota 9/11 investigation.
The FBI documents could shed light on the alleged interactions between the terrorists and the one-time local family, relatives of well-connected Saudi businessman Esam Ghazzawi.
Ghazzawi owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Prestancia, which was occupied by his daughter, Anoud, and her husband, Abdulazziz al-Hijji, until two weeks prior to 9/11.
When they departed, the couple left food in their refrigerator, dirty diapers lying about, an empty safe and cars in their driveway.
Records from Prestancia’s front gate show that some of the 9/11 hijackers who trained in Venice visited the al-Hijji household on multiple occasions, according to the Broward Bulldog, a Fort Lauderdale-based independent news organization, and a former security consultant interviewed by the Herald-Tribune.
But the FBI has stated publicly that it has cleared the family of any involvement in the plot.
“I don’t understand who they are protecting here,” said Sharon Premoli, a 9/11 survivor and a spokeswoman for 9/11 Families United, which has filed its own lawsuit in New York seeking details about the attacks. “I don’t understand why it is so intense, this shield, after the murder of 3,000 people.”
Premoli was on the 80th floor of the North Tower when a hijacked airliner slammed into her building. “That I am alive is a miracle,” she said.
Broward Bulldog founder Dan Christensen uncovered the Prestancia connection in 2011, and filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department and the FBI the following year.
Prior to the lawsuit, the FBI had dismissed Christensen’s story as baseless and denied access to investigative files that he requested.
“I think it is important for the newspapers to participate to underscore the importance of the documents we are seeking,” said Christensen’s attorney, Thomas R. Julin. “Now, what you are seeing from the 9/11 families is this is not just a matter of local interest but a matter of national interest.”
Besides ruling on whether the media groups can chime in, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch has two other critical motions to determine: a request to compel the government to do a better search for documents, as outlined by Julin in a court document requested by the judge this summer, and a motion by the government to throw the case out.
“My hope is that he will rule very soon, and that we will get a trial date set,” Julin said. “Then we can get an order requiring disclosure of all these documents that we know exist.”