By Chris Mondics Philadelphia Inquirer
It was four days after a U.S. Navy SEAL team had killed Osama bin Laden, and many of the events of that afternoon are a blur. But Bill Doyle’s recollection of his chat with President Obama remains crystal clear.
To mark bin Laden’s demise, Obama had laid a wreath at the former site of the World Trade Center on May 5, 2011, and met later in the day with families of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at a reception near ground zero.
The president stopped at Doyle’s table midway through the event, and Doyle asked when the government would make public portions of a congressional investigation that weighed evidence that Saudi Arabia provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.
“He said, ‘Bill, I will get them released,’” Doyle recalled.
Doyle, whose 25-year-old son, Joseph, a trader at the investment firm of Cantor Fitzgerald L.P., died in the World Trade Center attacks, has been a leader of survivors and family organizations pushing the government to release more information.
Doyle isn’t the only one who says Obama promised to make public the contents of 28 redacted pages in the December 2002 joint inquiry report by members of the Senate and House intelligence committees that considered evidence of potential Saudi involvement. Among those interested in the pages are a Philadelphia law firm as well as other families who lost loved ones.
Kristen Breitweiser, a New Jersey widow who for years was a leading voice of 9/11 survivors, said Obama made the same promise to her and others at a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office building adjoining the White House in February 2009, shortly after he took office.
“We had opportunities to raise our hands and ask questions, and I asked him whether he would be interested in releasing the 28 pages, because for years we had been trying to get President Bush to do it,” said Breitweiser, who now lives in New York and whose husband, Ronald, worked on the 94th floor of the South Tower and died in the attacks.
Obama “said absolutely, I don’t see why not. The bottom line is he agreed to do it, and he gave me and the rest of the world his promise,” Breitweiser said.
New urgency The issue has taken on new urgency because of a decision in December by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York reinstating Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a suit by the Center City law firm Cozen O’Connor, alleging the kingdom financed Islamist charities that in turn funded the terrorist organization al-Qaeda.
In an earlier decision, in 2008, the Second Circuit had removed the kingdom as a defendant, but on different grounds, and the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Cozen and other law firms.
Saudi Arabia, denying it is responsible, has appealed the latest Second Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected in June to decide whether or not to take the case.
‘Direct involvement’ Cozen lawyers, who represent dozens of insurers that lost billions in the attacks and who have been litigating the case since 2003, say that argument would be undermined if the redacted 28 pages show otherwise.
“The 28 pages of the joint inquiry report are absolutely critical to the claims brought against Saudi Arabia,” said Sean Carter, a Cozen partner who has managed much of the litigation for the firm. “Those pages contain details and findings concerning the possible direct involvement of Saudi government officials living in the United States in support of the 9/11 hijackers.
“The release of that evidence would lay bare the sovereign immunity defenses Saudi Arabia has hid behind for more than a decade.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the remarks by Obama, who arrived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Friday for talks with King Abdullah and other senior Saudi officials.
But 9/11 survivors and their allies on Capitol Hill have renewed their campaign to have the information released, pushing for enactment of a congressional resolution urging the 28 pages be made public. Reps. Walter B. Jones (R., N.C.) and Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.) said they decided to sponsor the resolution after reading the classified contents.
Jones, speaking at a March 12 news conference on Capitol Hill, described the report as “shocking.”
After the joint inquiry report was completed in late 2002, the New York Times and other news organizations reported the redacted pages dealt with allegations that Saudi government officials may have provided financial support to hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who entered the United States in early 2000. They later became part of the five-member team that crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, after taking off from Washington’s Dulles airport. Authorities later reported the two had received assistance from Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national based near Los Angeles who worked for a private contractor to the Saudi government.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, of Florida, who was cochair of the joint inquiry, has declined to discuss the details of the 28 pages. But in a statement filed in connection with the Cozen suit, Graham said he believed that Bayoumi was a Saudi government agent who assisted the hijackers, likely working with a former Saudi consular official and Muslim cleric in Los Angeles, Fahad al-Thumairy, who was banned from this country in 2003 for alleged terrorist ties.
‘Convinced’ “I am convinced that al-Bayoumi was an agent of the government of Saudi Arabia,” Graham said in his statement. “To this date, the evidence has not been fully explored or pursued.”
Bush administration officials explained in late 2002 that it was necessary to classify the 28 pages because they contained information U.S. authorities still were using to hunt down terrorists. Breitweiser and others say that justification has long since lost its merit. She said she never anticipated the information would remain classified for so long.
“The joke is we walked away thinking it was going to get done, and it wasn’t done and no one followed up on it,” Breitweiser said of the February 2009 meeting with Obama. “We basically exhaled and said the hard work is over and went on our happy way.”