WASHINGTON — The Biden administration, under pressure from families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Monday that it intended to disclose some long-classified documents that the families think could detail connections between the government of Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the attacks.
In a court filing in long-running litigation brought by the victims’ families against Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said that the FBI “recently” closed a portion of its investigation into the terrorist attacks and was beginning a review of documents that it had previously said must remain secret with an eye toward disclosing more of them.
“The FBI has decided to review its prior privilege assertions to identify additional information appropriate for disclosure,” the department said in a letter to two federal judges in Manhattan overseeing the case. “The FBI will disclose such information on a rolling basis as expeditiously as possible.”
The terse letter provided no further details about what additional information might become public, or when disclosures would begin.
The decision came after a group representing more than 1,600 people directly affected by the attacks called last week for President Joe Biden to not participate in any memorial events for the 20th anniversary of the attacks next month unless he fulfilled a campaign promise to review the documents for possible declassification and release.
After the filing, the White House issued a statement from Biden expressing sympathy for the family members and invoking a 2009 policy, issued when he was vice president, that imposed limits on when the government may assert the state secrets privilege to block the disclosure of evidence in lawsuits for national security reasons.
“As I promised during my campaign, my administration is committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law, and to adhering to the rigorous guidance issued during the Obama-Biden administration on the invocation of the state secrets privilege,” Biden said.
He added, “In this vein, I welcome the Department of Justice’s filing today, which commits to conducting a fresh review of documents where the government has previously asserted privileges, and to doing so as quickly as possible.”
In a letter sent to a representative of the families before the presidential election last fall, Biden had said he would direct his attorney general to “examine the merits of all cases where the invocation of privilege is recommended, and to err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
Biden had referred to a Trump-era decision that kept the documents classified on the grounds that they contained state secrets, and said his own administration would “work constructively on such cases.”
Nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks. The organizers of the statement last week calling for Biden to release the documents said they were unsure how many victims were represented by its more than 1,600 signatures. Each name belongs to either a close relative of someone whose death was caused by the attacks, a person who became severely sick as a result of them or a survivor, they said.
The Biden administration’s decision to review the classified documents was the latest development in a nearly two-decade odyssey for some of the families. They have pushed four U.S. presidents, with little success, to release more information about Saudi involvement in financing the attacks. The 9/11 Commission found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida, which carried out the attacks. But the commission’s phrasing left some to speculate that there might be evidence of involvement by other, lower-ranking officials.
An investigation last year by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica found that FBI agents, who secretly investigated Saudi connections to the Sept. 11 attacks for more than a decade, had discovered circumstantial evidence of such support but no smoking gun.
The families were stunned in 2019 when William Barr, who was the attorney general under President Donald Trump at the time, declared in a statement to a federal court that documents relating to the attacks should stay classified to protect national security.
On Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that White House officials had met in recent weeks with groups representing families of victims, and that the document requests would “continue to be a priority” for Biden.
In the statement last week, the families group said that it could not “in good faith, and with veneration to those lost, sick and injured,” welcome Biden to the commemorations next month if he did not follow through on his campaign promise.
“It’s 20 years; this has gone on for too long,” Brett Eagleson, who was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school when his father, Bruce, died at the World Trade Center, said in an interview last week. “If you’re not going to release the documents and you’re going to continue with the process of covering up the Saudi role in 9/11, we’ll have to object to you coming.”
Eagleson, who is now 35 and works in banking, said that seeing the documents might offer him and other victims’ relatives some long-overdue closure.
He said Monday that the FBI’s review was a step in the right direction, but that it was not sufficient to assuage families’ anxieties about the documents.
“It sounds like it’s promising, but let’s see what they actually produce,” he said. Another group of victims’ families and survivors, 9/11 Community United, criticized the Biden administration’s move, calling it a “halfhearted, insufficient commitment to transparency” in a statement and saying that it applied only to limited documents.
“This announcement is a necessary but insufficient step towards transparency, accountability and above all, justice,” a member of the group, Terry Strada, whose husband died in the attacks, said in a statement.
Eagleson is among the thousands of victims’ relatives who accused Saudi Arabia in a 2017 lawsuit of complicity in the attacks. They had successfully fought for years for the right to sue, gaining it in 2016 when Congress overrode a veto by President Barack Obama to pass into law a bill allowing such a lawsuit.
The suit has languished in the courts as lawyers for the kingdom fought it. On Friday, James P. Kreindler, one of the lawyers representing the families, said that 20 Saudi officials were recently questioned under oath, and added that a judge would decide next year whether the case advances.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.