US President Joe Biden on Friday ordered the US Department of Justice to review the confidentiality status of documents from the FBI investigation into the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that nearly killed 3,000 people.
In recent months, Biden has been pressured by relatives of bomb victims, rescuers and survivors to publicize the documents — which, according to the group, could point to an alleged participation of the Saudi Arabian government in the attack. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the action were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden, killed in 2011 in Pakistan by US military personnel.
“When I ran for President, I made a commitment to ensure transparency regarding the release of documents on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” Biden said in a statement on Friday. “As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, I am honoring that commitment.”
“We must never forget the enduring pain of the families and loved ones of the 2,977 innocent people who were killed during the worst terrorist attack in our history,” said Biden.
The presidential executive order is intended for the Department of Justice and other agencies that participated in the investigations into the bombing. In the document, Biden also asks Merrick Garland, the US Attorney General, to release, over the next six months, the documents that are declassified.
In 2019, while still under Republican Donald Trump, then Attorney General William P. Barr declared to a federal court that documents related to the attacks should remain confidential in order to protect national security.
It is not yet clear which documents will surface or whether their content will somehow meet the aspirations of the victims’ families. A representative of this group, to The New York Times newspaper, however, said he was confident. “We are thrilled to see the president pushing for more evidence to be released about Saudi connections to the attacks,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, died on 9/11. “This seems like a turning point.”
Biden’s order comes a day after the US government received a letter, signed by 3,500 relatives of victims, rescuers and survivors. In the document, the group highlighted the desire for the investigation documents to be made public.
For them, the government of Saudi Arabia —among the main American allies in the Middle East— may have ties to the terrorists who hijacked the four planes used in the attacks. The group suspects that, at the time, the FBI lied or destroyed evidence that made this link. “The circumstances make it likely that one or more FBI officials committed misconduct with the intent of destroying or hiding evidence to prevent its disclosure,” they note.
Among the evidence requested by the authors of the letter are telephone records and a video of a party in California with the presence of two of the kidnappers, recorded more than a year before the attacks.
The Saudi government has always denied any involvement in terrorist attacks on American soil. A US government investigation commission, which ended in 2004, found no evidence that Saudi Arabia had directly financed al Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks, but it left open the possibility that authorities in the country had participated in the planning alone.
The American government, at the time under the administration of Republican George W. Bush, accused Afghanistan of sheltering the terrorist group, which motivated the occupation of the Central Asian country by the American military – which ended this week.
In 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, which is back in power.
Last month, relatives of 9/11 victims had already warned Biden that he would not be welcome at memorial events marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks if he did not disclose the requested documents.
Despite the lack of concrete public evidence pointing to the Saudis’ relationship to the attacks, relatives of 2,600 dead and more than 20,000 injured have sued the Middle East country, seeking billions of dollars in damages. Similar actions were filed by companies and insurance companies.
Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the US involves economic aspects — the Saudis are major arms importers and one of the largest oil exporters — and geopolitical aspects, especially in a region marked by tensions and conflicts.
These ties, however, are the target of frequent criticism, particularly from the Democrats, as the Saudis are accused of human rights violations, including the harassment and even murder of critics. In the election campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden promised a hard line with the Saudi Arabian government, supported by then-President Donald Trump.
In February, the CIA released a report that blames Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne and who really rules the country, for ordering the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey , in 2018.
On the same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions for 76 people from Saudi Arabia who “would have been directly involved in activities against extraterritorial dissidents”. Despite the findings, Bin Salman was not punished by the Americans.