Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks, 15 were Saudis, but what role (if any) did the Saudi government play in the scheme? While a small team of FBI agents has been trying to uncover the truth, other parts of the FBI are determined to keep possible Saudi connections secret. Why? As Tim Goldenand Sebastian Rotella report in a joint investigation by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, President Trump’s not keen on something that might imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.”‘ Will the families of those who died as a result of the attacks ever get closure?
On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.
One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the F.B.I.’s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents Bush and Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the F.B.I. bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didn’t mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump — of complicity in the attacks.
The president promised to help. “It’s done,” he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an F.B.I. report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi official’s name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families’ hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked “significant harm to the national security.”
Washington’s efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former F.B.I. agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams — a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings — said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an F.B.I. lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.” (The F.B.I. declined to comment.)