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9/11 Commission Chairs Issue Statement on Today’s Release of 28 Pages

Friday, July 15, 2016

Washington, D.C. – The following is a statement by former Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who served as chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission:

Today, the Congress released 28 pages related to investigating the 9/11 attacks that had previously not been made public. We addressed this topic in a statement a few months ago, but it may be useful to again provide some information relevant to this material.

These 28 pages were not drafted by the 9/11 Commission. Those pages were part of a prior report by a congressional panel investigating intelligence failures related to the 9/11 attacks. That panel completed its work before the commission began its work. The 9/11 Commission was created, in part, to finish the work the congressional panel had begun.

The questions and possible leads related to Saudi Arabia thus became part of the commission’s work, and the two staff members who had worked on this issue on the congressional panel joined the much larger commission staff. Thus the same substance found in the 28 pages was restated in one of several staff workplans prepared early in the commission’s labors. That staff workplan (June 2003) was declassified last year and was covered recently by The New York Times.

This workplan joined with several other complementary workplans prepared by other parts of the commission’s staff. These included the rest of the al Qaeda plot team, the al Qaeda terrorist finance team, the team investigating the overall background of al Qaeda, the team investigating foreign state issues and U.S. policy (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and so on), the team investigating FBI performance, and the team working on terrorist travel/border security issues. All those workplans, which were further refined over time, guided our investigation during the following year.

Both the 28 pages from 2002 and the related staff workplan of June 2003 were based almost entirely on raw, unvetted material that had come to the FBI. That material was then written up in FBI files as possible leads for further investigation. As of June 2003 none of these leads had been checked out. The documents are therefore comparable to preliminary law enforcement notes, which are generally covered by grand jury secrecy rules. In general, such preliminary notes should be viewed with regard to implicating people in serious crimes before there has been sufficient follow-up investigation to determine if such suspicions are substantiated. This point is crucial because the 9/11 attacks were the worst mass murder ever carried out in the United States. Those responsible deserve the maximum punishment possible. Therefore, accusations of complicity in that mass murder, made by responsible authorities, are a grave matter. Such charges should be levied with extreme care.

The leads developed in 2002 and 2003 were checked out as thoroughly as possible. The lead staff team was overseen by a veteran federal prosecutor with direct experience in prosecuting international terrorism cases. That team, augmented by the commission’s executive director and the work of other teams, conducted relevant interviews in California, Saudi Arabia, and Europe and examined thousands of additional documents.

The results of this work are in the 9/11 Commission Report. None of those conclusions are classified. For those interested in our findings, we encourage reading Chapters 5 and 7 of that report and, importantly, their endnotes. We also suggest reading the separately published commission staff monograph on terrorist financing. There is some other relevant material in the commission staff monograph on terrorist travel.

It may be helpful to again mention a few of the commission’s findings. Our report said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda architect of the attacks, probably had a support network in mind for the first two would-be hijackers who came to the United States in January 2000. KSM denied this to his CIA interrogators. We did not credit these denials, for reasons we explain in the report and endnotes. We still do not know what these two men did during their first two weeks in Los Angeles, or who may have helped them. They spoke no English. The more important pilot-hijackers came months later, and staged their preparations mainly on the east coast of the United States.

Although the commission expressed concerns about multiple individuals, only one employee of the Saudi government was implicated in the commission’s plot investigation. A few other such people are mentioned in various leads but only one turned out to be of continuing interest—a man named Fahad al Thumairy. He was employed by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs and was working as an imam at a mosque in Los Angeles. He became a controversial figure within the mosque and, in May 2003, after Thumairy went home to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government refused to let him back in the United States. He is still a person of interest. The earlier congressional panel did not interview Thumairy—or any other Saudi. 9/11 Commission staff did interview him in Saudi Arabia. So did the FBI. But we had to acknowledge in our report that “we ha[d] found no evidence that Thumairy provided assistance to the two operatives.” (p. 217)

Based on all the evidence available to the commission in July 2004, when the commission issued its final report, we found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda. (p. 171)

To be sure, there is much in the 9/11 Commission Report that is highly critical of Saudi Arabia, and the commission also sharply criticized the conduct of other foreign governments. Individual Saudis were culpable of heinous crimes: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. For years, the Saudi government tolerated and in some cases fanned the diffusion of an especially vitriolic extremist form of Islam, funding schools and mosques across the globe that spread it. Wealthy Saudis contributed to Islamic charities, some of which had links to terrorism. That policy has had tragic consequences for Saudi Arabia itself. Extremists made the Saudi kingdom one of their top targets. This is one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States in combatting terrorism; many Saudi public servants have died in their battles with al Qaeda operatives.

In 2015 another independent panel, the 9/11 Review Commission created by Congress, reviewed the evidence gathered in recent years. That commission reaffirmed the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission (see p. 101 of the Review Commission’s report). That panel also thoroughly reviewed the Saudi-related leads in the 28 pages and concluded that despite the fact that two FBI teams continue to actively investigate the issue, there was no new evidence against the Saudi government.

We welcome public discussion of the 9/11 attacks. We hope the accused perpetrators of the attacks who are currently in custody will soon be brought to trial and face justice. We also hope that the work of the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 Review Commission, and the continuing work of the FBI will help advance fact-based reflections on the past and the future.

Kean and Hamilton are co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program.