Still Seeking 9/11 Documents

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 11, 2021

Continuing dismay over the Afghanistan withdrawal and confusing predictions about terrorism of all sorts are reflecting an odd, uncomfortable juxtaposition with the solemnity of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Open questions remain whether we’ve just rewound the terrorism clock in an Afghanistan that surely will prove hostile to U.S. interests, and whether Americans are even capable of mustering the kind of united sense of purpose felt 20 years ago. Indeed, as domestic terrorism from white nationalists have pushed international Islamic radical evildoers to the side, we’re facing our own versions of civil disorder on a scale that we never imagined two decades ago.

That American democracy is hanging on personality and partisan political impulses over balancing public health vaccines against government mandates, that we are openly split over seriously restricting people’s ability to vote rather than encouraging participation, that we are more divided by insistence on “choice” in gun-carrying and abuse of neighbors over issues of race, gender and sexual orientation over fairness and healing is remarkable.

Even the 9/11 celebrations carried the undertone of division, with the well-organized families of victims from that day threatening to picket the U.S. president unless he declassified some of the investigative documents that three previous presidents did not.

Declassifying Documents

So, Joe Biden, in an executive order, did order the declassification of select FBI documents that families want to resolve the mysteries that still surround the case or to provide evidence to support claims in a federal lawsuit that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the attacks.

As ProPublica reports, as those documents are released over the next six months, what remains in doubt is whether they resolve anything at all. ProPublica has reported extensively on what is known and not known from those attacks.

The years-long effort to get through U.S. government secrecy has focused most recently on 45 FBI documents seen as relevant to a lawsuit by the families. The documents are a tiny fraction of the files they want, but a court decided in 2018 that they could have information about the first two Al Qaeda hijackers to enter this country.

Generally, until now, it has been known that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, and that they had support from Saudi religious sects. It is not clear whether they had direct help from the Saudi government, something the kingdom denies, and which previous presidents have helped shield because the U.S. needs Saudi help in global terror efforts.

Biden said that he was making good on a campaign commitment for transparency by ordering the declassification review and pledged that his administration “will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community.” His order directs the Justice Department and other agencies to begin a declassification review and requires that declassified documents be released over the next six months.

Practical Impact?

Associated Press reporting agreed with ProPublica, saying that the practical impact of the executive order and any new documents it might yield is not immediately clear. Public documents released in the last two decades, including by the 9/11 Commission, have detailed numerous Saudi entanglements but have not proved government complicity.
The long-running lawsuit in federal court in New York advanced this year to questioning of former Saudi officials. Scrutiny has centered on support offered to hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, including from a Saudi national with ties to the Saudi government who helped the men find and lease an apartment and who had earlier attracted FBI attention. The documents being declassified previously had been considered too sensitive.

What is so compelling here is the desire 20 years later to know the details of an attack on American honor — and nearly 3,000 lives.

We insist on knowing who in the administration screwed up in creating a chaotic withdrawal from the Afghan war launched to squash those 9/11 hijack terrorist groups. We worry openly over whether the entire Afghan and Iraq wars were useless if we may face international terrorism training camps again in a Taliban-run Afghanistan.

By contrast, we’re fighting openly in this country over recalling the details of our own civil strife on Jan. 6 and watching as Republican state after Republican state throws out voting rights in this country, all in the name of fighting voter fraud that never happened. The FBI and others are openly preparing for physical violence to bring down our democracy.

Maybe this will look different 20 years from now, but it appears that by ourselves, we’re creating exactly the kind of chaos that international terrorists had sought.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer