A lawsuit seeking disclosure of FBI files that may detail a U.S.-based support network for the 9/11 hijackers has reached a federal appeals court, which is being asked by a Florida online publication to order a Freedom of Information Act trial on the dispute.
The case centers around reporting published by the Broward Bulldog on the FBI's investigation into a Saudi family that abruptly left its home in a gated Sarasota community two weeks before the 2001 terror attacks. One FBI document written in 2002 that was disclosed in court said agents had found "many connections" between the family and some of the hijackers who took flying lessons at a nearby airport, including ringleader Mohamed Atta.
Later, however, the FBI disputed its own document, telling a 9/11 review commission in 2015 that it was "poorly written and unsubstantiated."
The former Sarasota residents, Saudis Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, have denied having connections with or supporting the hijackers. They now live overseas.
And the FBI's position is that it doesn't have to explain why it discounts its 2002 memo, despite details that were reported by the Bulldog and other media a decade after the attacks. Those 2011 stories on the Al-Hijjis focused on how neighbors had reported that they abruptly moved out of their home in an upscale, gated Sarasota community before the 9/11 attacks, leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and even a refrigerator full of food. The possible connections to hijackers include gate records indicating some had visited the home as well as telephone calls involving them.
Documents filed Monday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta by Broward Bulldog attorneys seek an order overturning a Miami judge's June decision not to have a FOIA trial over the FBI documents provided to the review commission. The FBI has asserted seven exemptions to the FOIA requirements, including that releasing the files would endanger national security and expose law enforcement techniques.
"How much information concerning its investigation of the 9/11 attacks must the FBI share with the public? The answer, according to the district court, is very little," Bulldog attorney Thomas Julin wrote in the document, adding that the hidden records are "paramount to the nation's right to know how the FBI handled the investigation of 9/11."
The appeal also seeks an order enabling the Bulldog attorneys to take a sworn deposition of the FBI agent who told the 9/11 review commission to discount the Sarasota "many connections" memo.
The attacks by 19 hijackers in four planes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania killed 2,977 people.
Separately, the Broward Bulldog is awaiting a different judge's decision on whether any or all of some 80,000 pages of files from the FBI's Sarasota investigation will be made public. U.S. District Judge William Zloch has been reviewing those documents in private since 2014, and announced this month that his review is complete. Zloch has asked the FBI and the publication to suggest how he should rule.
The FBI has also indicated it will file its response with the 11th Circuit over the FOIA trial issue.