Chasing the Saudi-Sarasota Connection

Chasing the Saudi government’s connection to a Sarasota gated community and the 9/11 attacks: Bob Graham doggedly chases the truth

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For many years, former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has been a lonely voice urging people to do something about Saudi Arabia.

Now that a group of Saudi security agents are accused in Turkey of killing a Washington Post journalist, Graham is hoping it will get a strong reaction from officials in the United States. So far, President Donald J. Trump and other officials in Washington have done nothing to punish the Saudi government for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the wake of news from Turkey that he was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and murdered last month.

Graham believes the Saudis are also responsible for the deaths of Americans killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

Fifteen of the nineteen men who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Graham has spent a lot of years trying to help the families of Americans killed on that day and put a spotlight on the actions of high- ranking Saudi officials. It has not been easy.

An important family of Saudi citizens suddenly left their home and cars in a gated Sarasota subdivision just two weeks before September 11, 2001, the day nearly 3,000 Americans died in the worst terrorist attack ever launched in the United States.

Bob Graham and Porter Goss co-chaired the Joint Inquiry into 9/11Graham was chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of a joint congressional committee that investigated the attacks. The Committee heard about the Saudis who were on airplanes, but was not told about the Sarasota family that had been visited repeatedly by some of the Saudi pilots who took over those airplanes filled with passengers and crashed them into buildings.

That information came to Graham and others from a report in the FloridaBulldog.org, a South Florida nonprofit news organization.

Graham was flabbergasted to learn from a reporter in September 2011 that the FBI had compiled a report on the Sarasota family. That report that was never given to members of the joint committee investigating the attack. The FBI initially denied the existence of reports on the Sarasota connection, but after Graham and reporters continued to press for access to records, the FBI turned over over 80,000 pages to a federal judge in South Florida. U.S. District Judge William J. “Bill” Zloch has spent the past six years reading the 80,000 pages, but has not responded to a request from Graham’s lawyers for a status report.

The 9/11 Commission’s official report said the hijackers acted on their own without help. But the Joint Committee’s earlier report included a 28-page segment dealing with the FBI’s investigation of Saudi involvement titled “Specific sources of foreign support for hijackers.’’ Those 28 pages were classified by the FBI and not made pubic until 2016.

Graham has long believed those working to block release of the report were trying to protect access to Saudi oil reserves and longtime friendships between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He has received almost no help from other public officials and some officials have repeatedly suggested he “forget it.’’

And the FBI went to some trouble to convince Graham to stop asking questions. Just before Thanksgiving in 2011, Graham, who had retired from the Senate six years earlier, and his wife, Adele, were heading to Washington to spend Thanksgiving with family. The FBI sent agents to meet him at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington. They were detained by high ranking FBI agents, who locked Mrs. Graham in a room by herself while they tried to convince the former senator that the FBI had done a thorough investigation and concluded there was no relationship between the Saudi family that fled Sarasota and the hijackers.

Graham was not convinced. He had seen some of the reports indicating that Mohammed Atta, the Saudi who flew the first plane into the World Trade Center, had been a visitor to the Saudi family’s house in Sarasota. The license plate of the car Atta was driving had been photographed at the subdivision gatehouse and guards had recorded his name in entry logs. When Graham tried to contact the agent who had written the reports, he was told the agent had been transferred from Tampa to Honolulu and was instructed not to return telephone calls.

World Trade Center aftermath: Ground Zero
The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. U.S. Navy Photo by Chief Photography Mate Eric J. Tilford

There was a similar situation in San Diego, where a Saudi family had provided assistance to other hijackers in the United States to obtain flight training, but that incident was reported to members of the joint investigative committee.

“The United States has continued a policy of placating the Saudis that has lasted for three administrations,’’ Graham noted. “It has emboldened them to do even worse things.’’

He is hopeful that some administration will at some point say “To hell with this, we’re going to start treating Saudi Arabia for what it is: a narcissistic nation-state whose only apparent redeeming feature is that it sits on top of the world’s largest petroleum reserves while protecting the identity of Saudi malefactors,’’ Graham said.

The fight by Graham and others to gain access to all of the records is being waged in three different federal courts. The families of those killed on September 11 finally won the right to file suit against Saudi Arabia in an attempt to seek damages. It took an act of Congress and a vote to overturn a presidential veto to gain that right. Their lawsuit for damages is still pending.

Meanwhile, the Florida Bulldog is pursuing two Freedom of Information Act suits against the FBI. The first, before Judge Zloch, is attempting to obtain the bureau’s records of its Sarasota investigation. The second, now before a federal appeals court in Atlanta, seeks record of the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

“I just turned 82 on Friday,’’ Graham says. “I hope I live long enough to see the truth.’’