9/11 families and top Democrats demand Biden finally release FBI records thought to reveal Saudi government’s role in the attacks

US Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey speaks at a press conference on the introduction of the 'September 11th Transparency Act of 2021' at the Capitol on Aug 5, 2021.
US Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey speaks at a press conference on the introduction of the ‘September 11th Transparency Act of 2021’ at the Capitol on Aug 5, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
  • Biden officials said Monday they may declassify FBI documents long sought by 9/11 families.
  • Sen. Chris Murphy said Congress should still pass a bill to compel the White House to release the documents.
  • Some family members had disinvited Biden from 20th anniversary commemorations unless he ordered the review.
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The Biden administration announced on Monday that the Department of Justice would review a series of classified FBI documents with an eye towards disclosing them, hoping to head off a confrontation with 9/11 families and fulfill a campaign promise.

But both the families and top Democratic senators still say more should be done. Last week, a group of senators introduced the September 11 Transparency Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill backed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that would mandate the CIA, the DOJ, and the Director of National Intelligence declassify documents that could reveal whether the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia played any role in the attacks.

Yet Biden’s announcement only applied to the DOJ, which a group of families took note of.

“This announcement is a necessary but insufficient step towards transparency, accountability and above all, justice,” said Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, in a press release. She also called it a “half-hearted, insufficient commitment to transparency.”

“Only quick passage of the 9/11 Transparency Act will ensure that the government carries out the full declassification review that is needed for the 9/11 community and the American people,” she also said.

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, one of the cosponsors of the transparency bill, also said the bill should still be passed. “I trust the Biden administration’s decisionmaking on matters of national security, but I think it’d be better to have to have clear law on transparency,” he told Insider.

“I think it’s a good first step,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, another co-sponsor of the bill. “But the documents should be released. I hope [the review] will result in the release of those documents.”

On Friday, nearly 1,700 loved ones of 9/11 victims released a letter to President Joe Biden telling him that unless he ordered the declassification of the documents, he will not be welcome at the 20th anniversary commemoration event in New York City next month.

“We cannot in good faith, and with veneration to those lost, sick, and injured, welcome the president to our hallowed grounds until he fulfills his commitment,” says the letter.

Fifteen of the 19 men who hijacked four airplanes on September 11, 2001 were Saudi citizens, and were part of the terror network led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi expatriate from a family with extensive business ties to the country’s rulers. The 9/11 Commission found no evidence the Saudi government supported the attacks, but speculation has continued.

Biden had told 9/11 families last October, “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 where… the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”

In 2016, Congress overrode a veto by then-President Barack Obama to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which opened the door for 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia for culpability in the terrorist attacks. As family members have sought to bring suit against the Kingdom in the wake of that legislation, the FBI has refused to cooperate, citing state secrets privilege.

While many of the family members have directly accused the Kingdom of playing a role in their loved ones’ deaths, senators have taken a more cautious approach.

In a brief interview, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – another cosponsor of the transparency bill – said she’d personally reviewed the documents and believed that they should be released.

Asked whether she believed Saudi Arabia played a significant role in 9/11, she demurred. “I’m not going to speak to the content of these documents, but I will say that families… have a right to have access to the information,” she said.

“I think it’s important for us to get all the information out in the public sphere so that everybody can make that decision for themselves,” said Murphy. “There’s obviously some pretty troubling evidence that the Saudis had some connection to these individuals beyond just citizenship papers.”