The Saudi government must make 24 current and former officials available to testify on their knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, a US judge has ruled, in a victory for victims’ families despite opposition from the Attorney General.
Riyadh was ordered to make the officials – including a prince and his chief of staff – available for deposition in a judgment made public on Thursday, just a day before the 19th anniversary of the worst terror attack ever to take place on US soil.
Manhattan federal Judge Sarah Netburn ruled the victims’ families have the right to question Saudi officials about their alleged roles in providing support to the 9/11 terrorists inside the US.
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The families’ lawyers hailed the unprecedented decision. “No court has ever ordered a foreign nation to produce its highest-ranking ministers to provide testimony – let alone members of a royal family,” attorney Steve Pounian stated in a press release accompanying the unsealing of the decision – which, despite its publication, still contains several redacted passages.
“The Saudi government assumed it could hide documents and protect key officials from being questioned,” said attorney James Kreindler, another representative for the families. “That is clearly not the case.”
Attorney General William Barr has long sought to block the public release of classified documents requested by the families, insisting that it would put US national security at risk. However, the accidental reveal in May of the long-classified name of a Saudi official said to have aided two of the 9/11 hijackers did not appear to have any of the threatened repercussions – though that didn’t stop the Justice Department from memory-holing the filing as soon as the media reported the name. The families’ lawyers themselves had only been permitted to learn it last September – on the condition they didn’t tell anyone, including their clients.
The man in question – Saudi Foreign Ministry employee Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, chief of staff to Prince Bandar bin Sultan – is one of the officials Netburn’s decision allows the victims’ lawyers to question under oath, along with the prince himself. Al-Jarrah is alleged to have directed two other Saudi nationals to set up an apartment, bank account, and living expenses for two of the 9/11 hijackers in Los Angeles. A trip he took to Jersey City in 2001 has also come under scrutiny. While he was supposedly there to deliver a large cash gift to a mosque, the trip took place at the same time as three other men said to be involved in the plot arrived in New Jersey – including Mohammed Atta, the hijacker often referred to as the ringleader of the attacks.
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Barr’s Justice Department filed last year to have the rest of the US government files the victims’ families want entered into evidence suppressed as “state secrets” – including interview reports, bank and telephone records, source reporting documents, and foreign government materials – arguing that even explaining why the papers must remain secret would compromise national security. Netburn had previously ruled the Saudi government was not entitled to have its own “state secrets” kept from the public, but it’s not clear if she has ruled on the Trump administration’s own claimed privileges.
The victims’ families filed suit in 2017 after a congressional veto allowed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act to become law, stripping Riyadh of sovereign immunity. While President Donald Trump initially promised to help the victims’ families, his administration has continued a longstanding tradition of stonewalling all attempts at repealing official secrecy.
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