The Justice Department said Thursday that it will provide new information to the families of those killed on 9/11 who are suing the government of Saudi Arabia over possible complicity in the 2001 terrorist attacks — but only under a protective order meant to keep the information from becoming public.
Attorney General William P. Barr also will shield additional details of the case by invoking the rarely used state secrets privilege — arguing that some elements of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the 9/11 attacks would damage national security if they were revealed.
The victims’ families are suing the Saudi government, and as part of that lawsuit have tried to force the FBI to reveal key details of its investigation into possible official support for the plot. They have been battling over a redacted 2012 internal FBI document describing how two individuals linked to the Saudi government are suspected of having helped two of the 9/11 hijackers get settled when they arrived in the United States before the attacks. While most of the al-Qaeda hijackers were Saudi citizens, that country’s government has long denied any complicity in the attacks.
Specifically, the families have been pressing for more details about the Saudi government’s connections to Fahad al-Thumairy, a former Saudi consulate official, and Omar al-Bayoumi, a person the FBI once investigated as a possible Saudi intelligence officer.
After the 9/11 attacks, Bayoumi told investigators that he met the hijackers by chance in early 2000 in a Los Angeles restaurant and that they became friends. Bayoumi helped them navigate their new lives in the United States, but denied any knowledge of their terrorist intentions.
The 9/11 families suspect those interactions were not accidental, but directed by a senior Saudi government official identified in the FBI document.
“There is evidence that [redacted] and tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers,” the FBI document states. The families have been demanding to know the name behind that redaction, and on Thursday the Justice Department acquiesced, saying they would be told the name but only under a protective order that prevents the information from being shared beyond the lawyers directly involved in the case.
“It’s less than ideal that some of the information has to be handled under seal, but the primary objective is to secure the evidence so that we can obtain justice for our clients,” said Sean Carter, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. He said the families will keep pressing for more details.
Barr invoked the state secrets privilege in denying the families’ bid to find out other still-redacted details in the 2012 FBI memo.
In a court filing one day after the 18th anniversary of 9/11, Justice Department lawyers said the investigation into the attacks, and possible assistance to the attackers, remains an open case.
Bayoumi, the suspected Saudi intelligence officer, helped two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, when they arrived in Los Angeles. They were two of the 19 men who took over four commercial airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, crashing them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
The 9/11 families’ lawsuit charges that the Saudis provided financial and logistics support to the terrorism plot.
According to court records, in 2007 the FBI opened an investigation into whether there was a larger support network for the terrorists than previously known. That investigation examined the activities of Bayoumi and Thumairy, as well as others.
But the FBI has been withholding some details related to that investigation, because “some of the records involve equities of other government agencies or foreign governments where coordination is required for those outside of the FBI,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Normand said during a May hearing on the case.