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Justice Department to Conduct Fresh Review of ‘Privileged’ 9/11 Docs

August 9, 2021 by Dan McCue
The camera bag, cameras and press ID of William Biggart, a freelance photojournalist killed by the collapse of the World Trade Center's North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001. His last photos, capturing street views of the unfolding events of that day, were published in the Oct. 15, 2001 issue of Newsweek. This display honoring him was at the Newseum. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday committed to conducting a fresh review of documents related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the government had previously deemed privileged and unreleasable to the public.

The decision was announced just days after the families of hundreds of 9/11 victims wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, telling him he is not welcome at this year’s memorial events marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks unless he declassifies government evidence ahead of time that could link Saudia Arabia to the attack.

“Six months ago the 9/11 community had great hopes that President Joe Biden would be the long lost champion of those directly affected by this murderous attack on our nation, finally placing the values of truth, justice, and accountability before the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said the letter signed by about 1,800 family members of 9/11 victims, survivors and first responders.

The crux of their anger at the president goes back to last October, when, while campaigning for the presidency, he vowed if elected he would direct the U.S. attorney general to personally examine the merits of all the cases where the federal government invoked a state secrets privilege.

He went on to say he’d direct the AG to “err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”

The families believe the bipartisan 9/11 Commission uncovered evidence that implicates Saudi government officials in supporting the attacks.

They also contended that several presidential administrations have sought to keep this involvement secret.

“As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and having been used as a political bargaining chip for two decades, our patience has expired,” their letter stated.

On Monday, Biden said he welcomes the Justice Department review, which he said is exactly what he promised during his campaign, that he would ensure” the maximum degree of transparency under the law” while following “the rigorous guidance issued during the Obama-Biden administration on the invocation of the state secrets privilege.”

The guidance Biden referred to was announced by then-Attorney General Eric Holder in an April 2014 filing is a case involving Rahinah Ibrahim a Stanford PhD student who was put on a no-fly list for no apparent reason.

It was later revealed an FBI agent had “checked the wrong box,” resulting in her falling under suspicion as a terrorist. 

But even when the government found and corrected the error years later, they still refused to allow Ibrahim to return to the country or learn on what grounds she had been banned in the first place.

Holder, in his declaration, restated his own state secrets policy, that “[t]he Department will not defend an invocation of the privilege in order to: (i) conceal violations of the law, inefficiency, or administrative error; (ii) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency of the United States Government.”

“For 20 years, children have grown up without parents. Husbands and wives have had to find a way forward without their partners in life,” Biden said. “Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, have celebrated 20 years of birthdays, family gatherings, and milestones, all with a hole in their hearts. I know well the all-consuming grief of losing someone you love so suddenly. 

“I can only imagine the added pain these families have endured, spending 20 years pursuing accountability and justice,” he said.

“I welcome the Department of Justice’s filing today, which commits to conducting a fresh review of documents where the government has previously asserted privileges, and to doing so as quickly as possible,” the president said.

“My heart and my prayers continue to be with the 9/11 families who are suffering, and my administration will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community. I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward,” he concluded.

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