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9/11 and the Mirage of American Democracy

Continued secrecy around the role of Saudi Arabia in the events of two decades ago undermines representative government.

Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government continues blindfolding the American people. Four presidents have either actively engaged in a cover-up or have kowtowed to the FBI and other federal agencies to shroud damning information regarding an atrocity that left almost 3,000 innocent citizens dead. Will President Biden shock Washington and the world by finally revealing the truth?

Politicians have exploited 9/11 since before the smoke cleared at Ground Zero. President George W. Bush used images of 9/11 wreckage in his 2004 reelection campaign. On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump promised voters: “You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers in there that are very secret. You may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.” When Trump met representatives of families of 9/11 victims at the White House on September 11, 2019, “He looked us in the eye on 9/11, he shook our hands in the White House and said, ‘I’m going to help you — it’s done,’” said Brett Eagleson, whose father perished in the terrorist attack.

Instead, Attorney General William Barr invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to justify continuing to perpetuate the 9/11 cover-up. The state secrets doctrine presumes government knows best, and no one else is entitled to know. Barr notified a federal magistrate that any public disclosure of the issues involved “would reveal information that could cause the very harms my assertion of the state secrets privilege is intended to prevent.” By hiding behind “state secrets,” the feds did not have to explain why they refused to disclose information in a lawsuit.

Shortly before the 2020 election, then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden sent a letter to 9/11 activists: “The 9/11 Families are right to seek full truth and accountability…I will direct my Attorney General to personally examine the merits of all cases where the invocation of privilege is recommended, and to err on the side of disclosure in cases” from two or more decades ago. But Biden’s Justice Department continued the stonewall.

Last month, a group of families who lost kin in the 9/11 attacks issued a public statement declaring that “there is simply no reason” for continued secrecy. The group warned: “If President Biden reneges on his commitment and sides with the Saudi government, we would be compelled to publicly stand in objection to any participation by his administration in any memorial ceremony of 9/11.”

Biden responded last week by promising new disclosures on the 9/11 attack. His executive order declared: “When I ran for president, I made a commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of documents [on the 9/11 attacks]…As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, I am honoring that commitment.” Biden proclaimed that it was “critical to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency.”

Done deal? Fat chance. The Washington Post noted that Biden “seemed to direct the [FBI] to favor disclosure in questionable calls.” Material should be disclosed “if there was ‘significant doubt’ about the need for it to remain classified, and the attorney general and others should determine ‘whether the public interest in disclosure of the information outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure,’” the Post reported.

Previous “declassification reviews” have been worth less than wooden nickels, however. The system remains rigged to defer to baseless claims by federal officials. The FBI is its own bureaucratic empire, and it played a role in crippling the Trump administration and perhaps also in helping elect Biden (the FBI took possession of Hunter Biden’s laptop in late 2019 but never publicly disclosed any of the alleged criminal activity it documents). The FBI has stonewalled almost every president since Calvin Coolidge.

Anyone who wonders why the vast majority of Americans distrust Washington should consider the government’s systematic deceit ever since the 9/11 attacks. As the Bush administration rushed to exploit 9/11 to justify invading Iraq, a joint House-Senate congressional investigation found extensive evidence that Saudi government officials had directly aided some of the 9/11 hijackers (15 of 19 were Saudis). The Bush administration succeeded in suppressing the key 28 pages of that congressional report on the Saudi role on 9/11.

In lieu of disclosure, Bush and congressional leaders appointed the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission  became the Bush administration’s most successful faith-based initiative. The commissioners were far more concerned with restoring trust in government than in embarrassing its White House patrons.

The biggest boon the Commission conferred on Bush was to shroud the role of the Saudi government in financing the 9/11 attacks. Commission executive director Philip Zelikow, who was in contact with Bush chief political advisor Karl Rove while directing the commission, fired a staffer who pursued the Saudi connection too vigorously. Shortly before the report was finished, Zelikow and another staffer rewrote key passages of the report to remove “virtually all of the most serious allegations against the Saudis.” Commission member John Lehman “was struck by the determination of the Bush White House to try to hide any evidence of the relationship between the Saudis and al-Qaeda,” noted Philip Shenon, author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. If the 9/11 Commission had quoted the 2002 FBI memo stating that there was “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these [9/11 hijacker] terrorists within the Saudi Government,” Bush might have been seriously damaged. But the commissioners didn’t go looking under any rocks they were told to ignore.

Pressure from kin of 9/11 victims and members of Congress eventually swayed the Obama administration in 2016 to declassify those 28 pages of the 2003 congressional report. Those pages revealed that the “Blame Iraq for 9/11” Bush storyline had been one of the greatest and most costly shams in American history. That disclosure helped sway Congress to open the door to legal redress. As columnist George Will noted, “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.”

Evidence of a Saudi role in 9/11 has continued to seep out. Former FBI Special Agent Stephen Moore, who led one of the key FBI teams investigating 9/11, stated in a 2017 affidavit: “Based on evidence we gathered during the course of our investigation, I concluded that diplomatic and intelligence personnel of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knowingly provided material support to the two 9/11 hijackers and facilitated the 9/11 plot. My colleagues in our investigation shared that conclusion.” Former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham said in 2018 that the FBI has “just thrown the biggest blanket they can find over everything that has to do with the Saudi role in 9/11,” as Brian McGlinchey reported. Former FBI agent Danny Gonzalez told CBS News last week that disclosing FBI documents on the case would reveal more links between Saudi government officials and the hijackers.

Unfortunately, federal secrecy exploded after 9/11. Since the 1990s, the number of documents classified annually by federal agencies has increased more than 15 times. The federal government is now creating trillions of pages of new secrets every year. The total number of new secrets each year is equivalent to “20 million four-drawer filingcabinets filled with double-spaced text on paper,” the Washington Post reported.  

Each classified document is tacitly backed by a federal fist ready to squash anyone who discloses it without permission. “We don’t think there is a First Amendment right to classified documents,” Justice Department lawyer Catherine Dorsey told a federal judge in 2015. Catch-all definitions of secrecy provide a pretext to harass anyone who dissents from the official line. Americans have little hope of learning the truth about U.S. government policies or foreign interventions until long after new debacles have occurred.

On August 31, President Biden declared, “It is time to be honest with the American people again.” But it would be naïve to expect nearly all-powerful federal agencies to change their stripes. Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson declared in 2019, “If people don’t have the facts, democracy doesn’t work.” Regarding the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history, American democracy continues to dismally fail. If Biden fails to deliver the facts on 9/11, maybe Lincoln’s famous adage should be updated to “government of the people, by the people, and for the Saudis.”

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.