The key perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks was hunted down in 2011, and the US has now exited the country where it had sent in troops to dismantle the terror networks that had made the strike possible. But 20 years since passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon, much remains unknown about the gravest attack on US soil. Now, days after American troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has said his government would release to the public secret documents related to the attack.
Why Is US Declassifying 9/11 Documents?
That the Osama bin Laden-led al Qaeda plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks is well known as also are the names of the core group of terrorists who carried it out. But the American public is not sure it has learnt all that it needs to in order to find closure on the 9/11 tragedy. In fact, the campaign for more disclosure is arguably as old as the one that US carried on with in Afghanistan to uproot terror actors. But even as the one wrapped up, those fighting for more information stepped up their efforts to get the US government to tell them more.
A statement from a group representing the families of 9/11 victims recently told Biden in a letter that he should not attend any events to mark its 20th anniversary if his government took no steps to share the information related to the attacks that it has kept secret from the American public.
The New York Times reported that “the families group said that it could not ‘in good faith, and with veneration to those lost, sick and injured,’ welcome Mr Biden to the commemorations next month if he did not follow through on his campaign promise". The reference was to a commitment from Biden on the campaign trail for the 2020 presidential election that, if elected, he would order a review of the 9/11 documents “for possible declassification and release".
How Will The Declassification Work?
The last US troops had pulled out of Afghanistan by August 31. On September 3, President Biden issued an executive order that said the “information collected and generated in the US Government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise".
According to the order, the assessment as to what material can be released to the public will be made by the US “Attorney General and the heads of any other executive departments and agencies" that originally collected and compiled the information. It also laid down a staggered timeline for the release of the documents that, all told, should not exceed 180 days, or six months, from the date of the directions from the President’s office.
While it is not immediately clear what, and how much, information will be shared with the public, the order at least tells the relevant authorities that they should have diclosure as the chief goal in mind and not the need to protect what cannot be disclosed.
“Even when information requires continued protection in the interest of the national security, the Attorney General or the head of any other agency… should determine, as an exercise of discretion, whether the public interest in disclosure of the information outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure," the order says.
Which is not to say, though, that it paves the way for the widest disclosures as the order does state that “information may remain classified only if it still requires protection in the interest of the national security and disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security".
What Is The Saudi Angle To The Declassification Demand?
Fifteen of the 19 identified 9/11 attackers were Saudi nationals with al Qaeda founder Bin Laden, too, hailing from that country. The families of 9/11 victims have long suspected that there is more to the Saudi involvement in the attack that has been revealed with the identities of its perpetrators.
The letter from the victims’ families group that asked Biden to skip memorial services if his administration did not declassify 9/11 documents had said that, “Since the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission in 2004 much investigative evidence has been uncovered implicating Saudi government officials in supporting the attacks".
Efforts by the public and affected families to get the US authorities to share more information on 9/11 have now continued under four presidents and the hesitancy on part of the government to release more details has led to suspicions of a cover-up.
“Through multiple administrations, the Department of Justice and the FBI have actively sought to keep this information secret and prevent the American people from learning the full truth about the 9/11 attacks," the victims’ families had told Biden.
But US investigators have said that they have found no evidence of official Saudi involvement in the attack. The 9/11 Commission said it had found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded" al Qaeda.
The New York Times says that “an investigation last year by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica found that FBI agents, who secretly investigated Saudi connections to the September 11 attacks for more than a decade, had discovered circumstantial evidence of such support but no smoking gun".
But that has not prevented hundreds of victims’ family members from filing a case in a US court against Saudi Arabia over its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks even though the West Asian kingdom has maintained that it was not connected in any way to the attacks.