The Renewed Sept. 11 Debate Over The 'Missing 28 Pages' And Saudi Arabia

May 16, 2016
Originally published on May 19, 2016 3:10 pm

They are often called the "missing 28 pages," and while they are not exactly missing, they are back in the news again.

They are, more precisely, the final 28 pages of a massive 2002 congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks that runs more than 850 pages. Those last few pages have never fully been made public and they deal with the highly sensitive question of foreign financing of the suicide hijackers who carried out those attacks.

President George W. Bush ordered that those pages be viewed by official eyes only, and they've remained classified ever since. Some who have read them say the time has come to reveal their contents.

Leading those calls for declassification is a former senator, Bob Graham. When he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Florida Democrat was deeply involved in the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the run-up to the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

"While I can't discuss the details of that chapter," Graham said of the redacted 28 pages in an April interview with NPR, "they point a strong finger at Saudi Arabia."

Some of Graham's former colleagues on the intelligence committee are now seconding his call.

"The American people deserve to see this information," said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would mandate declassification of the pages. "Then there'll be a debate about what the pages mean," Wyden added. "I've read them; the American people deserve to know what's in them."

Different Interpretations

The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel agrees those pages should be made public.

"I think it would clear the air," said Dianne Feinstein of California. But unlike Graham and Wyden, Feinstein doubts that declassification would have big repercussions.

"I've read the 28 pages now over the years three times — I just read them again last week," she told NPR. "It's my belief that investigative bodies have found essentially no evidence that the 28 pages relate to any specific government's culpability."

A 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission concluded, in a carefully worded line, that it found no evidence that "the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials" had supported the Sept. 11 hijackers.

But investigators did find that Saudis in the U.S. met with, helped and gave money to the attackers as they plotted and prepared for the attacks. One question raised by the classified section of the report is what connection those men may have had with Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency or other parts of its government.

John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy who was one of that bipartisan panel's Republican members, recently told The Guardian the report should not be read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia. Lehman also joined the calls for declassifying the congressional report's censored 28 pages.

No Final Word From The Administration

Obama administration officials have not said whether the pages will be made public. But the president's trip to Saudi Arabia last month reawakened the issue, and a decision may come soon. Earlier this month, the White House let it be known a lengthy evaluation of whether to declassify was nearing completion.

"The good news is that our intelligence officials have indicated that they expect to complete that process by the end of June," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, "and we'll look forward to their decision at that point."

At least one of the Obama administration's top intelligence officials is opposed to releasing the pages.

"I think some people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there that was basically just a collation of this information that came out of FBI files," CIA Director John Brennan said earlier this month on NBC's Meet the Press, and "point to Saudi involvement, which I think would be very very, inaccurate."

Saudi Arabia, for its part, protested 13 years ago against being "indicted by insinuation" and formally requested that the 28 pages be made public. That appeal was rejected by President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, two leading senators, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn, are sponsoring a bill to strip away protections in the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act so that any nation, not just those deemed "state sponsors of terrorism," can be prosecuted for terrorist attacks on American soil.

Opening The Door To Lawsuits

The bill opens the possibility that if a court found evidence that Saudi government officials helped sponsor the Sept. 11 attacks, the kingdom could be liable for damages.

"It creates a very narrow provision which may or may not apply to Saudi Arabia," said Cornyn of what he has called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA. "My attitude is, let the chips fall where they may."

On Tuesday, the full Senate approved the JASTA bill by unanimous consent.

"The United States needs to use every tool available to stop the financing of terrorism," Cornyn declared after the bill's approval. "I'm glad we are one step closer to empowering victims with the ability to hold those who helped perpetrate these horrific acts responsible."

How quickly the House will act on JASTA, or whether it will even consider the legislation, remains unclear. When asked about the bill last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan sounded a note of caution.

"I think we need to review it to make sure we're not making mistakes with our allies," he told reporters, "and that we're not catching people up in this that shouldn't be caught up in this."

Saudi officials are adamantly against the bill. Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir recently warned that to guard against potential lawsuits under JASTA, the Saudi government may feel compelled to liquidate American holdings worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The bill is also opposed by the Obama administration. "We'd be very troubled by it," Secretary of State John Kerry warned Congress earlier this year, "because what it would do is really expose the United States of America to lawsuit and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent in its current form."

Many Senate Democrats disagree. "The families deserve no less than accountability from Saudi Arabia," says Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "The United States has nothing to fear and the administration has been excessively defensive on this issue."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A massive congressional report on the 9/11 attacks has never fully been made public. Then-President George W. Bush ordered 28 pages restricted to official eyes only. And those pages have remained classified ever since. Intelligence officials are reviewing them now to see whether some or all of them can now be released. That review is expected to wrap up next month, but it may already be damaging U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Late last month on this show, we heard from Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who helped lead the Congressional 9/11 investigation as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Graham has since retired from Congress, but he continues to push, as he has all along, for those 28 pages dealing with foreign financing of the 9/11 hijackers to be made public.

BOB GRAHAM: While I can't discuss the details of that chapter, they point a strong finger at Saudi Arabia.

WELNA: And some of Graham's former colleagues on the Intelligence Committee are now seconding his call.

RON WYDEN: The American people deserve to see this information.

WELNA: That's Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. He's co-sponsoring a bill mandating declassification of those 28 pages.

WYDEN: Then there'll be a debate about what the pages mean. I've read them. The American people deserve to know what's in them.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I think it would clear the air.

WELNA: That California's Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Panel's top Democrat.

FEINSTEIN: I've read the 28 pages now over the years three times. I just read them again last week. And it's my belief that investigative bodies have found essentially no evidence that the 28 pages relate to any specific government's culpability.

WELNA: A later report by a Blue Ribbon 9/11 Commission did indeed find no evidence that quote, "the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials had funded al-Qaida." Still, John Lehman, one of that panel's Republican members, told The Guardian newspaper that report should not be read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia. He too called for declassifying the 28 pages. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this month that a lengthy evaluation about whether to do that is nearing completion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: The good news is that our intelligence officials have indicated that they expect to complete that process by the end of June. You know, we'll look forward to their decision at that point.

WELNA: At least one top intelligence official is against releasing the 28 pages. CIA Director John Brennan made that clear earlier this month on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JOHN BRENNAN: I think some people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there that was basically just a collation of this information that came out of FBI files. And to point to Saudi involvement, which I think would be very, very inaccurate.

WELNA: Saudi Arabia, for its part, formally requested 13 years ago that the 28 pages be made public. Meanwhile, two leading senators, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn, are promoting legislation that would strip away so-called sovereign immunity protections from any nation linked to terrorist attacks on American soil. Here's Senator Cornyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CORNYN: It creates a very narrow provision, which may or may not apply to Saudi Arabia. But my attitude is let the chips fall where they may. Let's bring justice to the victims and the 9/11 families and deter, to the extent we can, terrorist attacks on our own soil.

WELNA: That bill is not supported by the Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Congress earlier this year, such a bill could backfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEC OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We'd be very troubled by it because what it would do is really expose the United States of America to lawsuit and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent in its current form.

WELNA: But Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal's not buying that argument.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The families deserve no less than accountability from Saudi Arabia. The United States has nothing to fear, and the administration has been excessively defensive on this issue.

WELNA: Republican congressional leaders have also been wary, especially after warnings the Saudis could liquidate hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets should they face lawsuits in U.S. courts. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.