Opinion: It’s time to end excessive secrecy about the Saudis and 9/11

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President Biden’s miserable late summer is about to get worse because of an unfulfilled campaign promise. Commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will occur not only under the cloud of the Afghanistan war’s last days, but also after a statement issued Aug. 6 and now signed by more than 2,000 family members of victims and first responders. They say Biden will be unwelcome at the ceremonies unless he releases, as he tentatively promised to do, classified material pertinent to Saudi Arabia’s possible complicity with the 19 airplane hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis.

Immediately after 9/11, lawyers for the families filed suits against Saudi charities and individuals but could not sue Saudi Arabia until Congress in 2016 amended (over President Barack Obama’s veto) the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. A federal court granted the lawyers limited discovery, and they subpoenaed FBI material concerning the role of Saudi officials who supported some 9/11 hijackers when they entered the United States.

The FBI, the lawyers say, has been dilatory, yielding only enough to create a veneer of cooperation. When the court ordered the FBI to be more forthcoming, the material they received was covered, at FBI insistence, by a protective order preventing the lawyers from telling their clients what they know about Saudi involvement, and requiring the lawyers to file almost all court submissions under seal. “We,” says one of the lawyers, “have never seen this level of secrecy placed on any lawsuit.”

On Aug. 9, the White House and Justice Department promised to “re-review” the contested material to see if more could be declassified. Because similar statements have been made by past administrations, the lawyers suspect that the government is stalling, hoping that after the 20th anniversary pressure for transparency will subside.

The 9/11 Commission’s interestingly worded 2004 report found no evidence that the Saudi government “as an institution” or that “senior” Saudi officials “individually” funded the hijackers, but noted “the likelihood” that “charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.” Since 2004, FBI investigations have found more.

The 9/11 Commission knew about substantial assistance rendered by persons directly or indirectly funded by Saudi Arabia to the first two hijackers to arrive in this country. Today, much more is known. For example, just last week, CBS News reported about a notebook that belonged to a San Diego Saudi “student” on the Saudi payroll and a close associate of those two hijackers. CBS: “The notebook contained a handwritten drawing of a plane and mathematical equation that might be used to view a target and then calculate the rate of descent to the target.”

Will the families succeed in prying information from their government? The CIA’s official history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle remained secret until 55 years after the event. It is impossible to imagine that national security was jeopardized by at long last releasing the history. It is easy to imagine how a government prone to foreign policy pratfalls could have benefited from studying one.

In his 1998 book on secrecy, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) affirmed that some of it is necessary to protect government’s deliberative processes, and to conceal the sources, methods and fruits of intelligence-gathering. He also argued, however, that covetous and rivalrous government bureaucracies regard their secrets as property, hiding them from other bureaucracies, with which they sometimes barter secrets. The U.S. Army did not tell President Harry S. Truman that the Venona intercepts of 2,900 Soviet communications proved that Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were spies, knowledge that would have calmed two national controversies.

Moynihan said secrecy is regulation, but unlike most regulation, which “prescribes what the citizen may do,” secrecy “prescribes what the citizen may know.” Excessive secrecy — secrecy breeds its own excess — allows bureaucracies stockpiling secrets to enjoy what sociologist Max Weber called “the superiority of the professionally informed.” But secrecy necessarily makes the citizenry and the government unnecessarily ignorant.

A bipartisan group of 21 House members and 12 senators, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, support releasing the disputed 9/11 material. Information that might tend to substantiate Americans’ suspicions that Saudi Arabia has more 9/11 blood on its hands than is already known would not subtract measurably from Americans’ regard for today’s Saudi regime, which the CIA says directed, from the highest levels, the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The regime’s audacity was perhaps encouraged by the U.S. government’s pattern of protecting the regime with secrecy. Really, how would U.S. national security be diminished by information that diminishes Saudi Arabia’s good name, which it has already forfeited?

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