Joe Biden has ordered the Justice Department to release previously withheld documents relating to the 9/11 attacks on September 11, 2001.
Many of the family members who lost loved ones on that day and are currently engaged in a lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian government cheered the news. They believe the documents may shed new light on the role of the Saudi government in facilitating, bankrolling, and supporting Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 al-Qaeda hijackers.
The FBI investigation into the attack is believed to have been the largest in the bureau’s history and it’s unknown exactly what files will be published. There is much sensitive material that the government will refuse to release. Some of the same actors in the drama are still alive and many are still in government.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised the families that he would release the documents.
In particular, the U.S. government has long withheld numerous documents on the attacks in litigation related to a federal lawsuit under the state secrets privilege, which allows the U.S. government to shield some material from being disclosed in court filings if it would do damage to national security. The lawsuit, which is still under way in federal court in New York, accuses the Saudi government of helping coordinate the 2001 suicide attacks.
In April 2020, the Trump administration invoked the privilege to avoid disclosing. Then-Attorney General William Barr also refused to publicly disclose the rationale for why the material needed to be withheld, writing that public discussion of the issues involved “would reveal information that could cause the very harms my assertion of the state secrets privilege is intended to prevent.”
First President Bush, then Obama, and then Donald Trump were stymied in efforts to release the documents by the nature of the unique relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In 2001, the Saudi’s were the biggest producer of crude oil in the world and were seen as a strategic buffer against Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. After 9/11, revealing the role of at least one anti-American faction of the Saudi government in the attacks would have led to a catastrophic break in relations.
But our relationship with the Saudis has changed. We no longer need their oil as badly as we did in 2001, but they are now a putative ally of Israel. Releasing documents that might reveal a connection between al-Qaeda and the Saudi Royal family would only strengthen the forces in Saudi Arabia who wish to push the U.S. and Saudi Arabia apart.
Is that really worth “transparency”?
The impact of Mr. Biden’s order could be felt as soon as next week. The order specifies that the Justice Department’s review of a once-secret FBI evaluation of Saudi links must be completed by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
An internal FBI task force entitled Operation Encore looked at the potential role of Saudi nationals with possible connections to the government in assisting hijackers and issued an evaluation in 2016 that has long been withheld from the public and sought by families of the victims.
One can certainly sympathize with the families who want all the information possible in the plot that killed their loved ones. But Biden — as Trump did before him — must weigh the impact of the disclosures on Saudi Arabia’s precarious position in the Middle East and the royal family’s fragile hold on power. Who would benefit from the fall of the House of Saud? The same forces who brought down the towers and killed nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens on September 11, 2001.