MANHATTAN (CN) – Pulled into a legal battle 15 years in the making, lawyers for the U.S. government apprised the court Friday of its efforts to declassify documents that could link Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The 9/11 families have waited for years for this moment,” Steven Pounian, an attorney for the survivors, said Friday at a hearing in New York.
The breakthrough was made possible this past March when Saudi Arabia lost its bid to avert a lawsuit calling it liable for the deadly attacks 17 years ago on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As part of that case, U.S. District Judge George Daniels granted the families limited discovery to explore Saudi Arabia’s connections to Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy — a reputed intelligence officer and former consular official, respectively, whose alleged ties to hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi are detailed in a 28-page section of the 9/11 Commission Report, which the U.S. government declassified two years ago.
With the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia picking up steam, the government will be forced to reveal more information about the men.
“Our office asked the FBI to conduct a declassification and privilege review,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Normand said.
Normand revealed that the government is processing three tranches of documents, including of FBI witness interviews known as 302s.
Although the Saudi government’s attorney Michael Kellogg downplayed these files as “hearsay,” Pounian asserted that they will help tie al-Thumairy to a circle of people in the Los Angeles area linking the kingdom to the hijackers.
“Those documents are going to go, we expect, to the heart of that,” said Pounian, a partner at the firm Kreindler & Kreindler,
The attorney claimed that the Saudi government has not been making their job easy in turning over what he described as an unsorted, unindexed and incomplete document dump entirely in Arabic.
Denying that, Kellogg, the kingdom’s attorney, said: “We did not dump the documents willy-nilly on the plaintiffs.”
Four separate law firms have been sorting out the bounty, and Pounian requested another month before seeking to compel seven more Saudi-tied witnesses that he believes to have found in Thumairy and Bayoumi’s orbit.
“We have been engaged this summer in an investigation, a private investigation, ourselves, very intense,” the attorney said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn granted that 30-day extension, but she indicated that she may not be as accommodating next time.
“I think the families would like to have closure,” Netburn said.
Attorneys for the families must submit a brief with their discovery demands by Oct. 26.
“My primary goal is to move this case forward,” the judge added.
A longtime irritant on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the 9/11 liability suit turned a corner after the families persuaded Congress to enact the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, narrowing the kingdom’s sovereign immunity.
When that law passed two years ago, over the objections of then-President Barack Obama, the Saudi government responded with an ultimately empty threat to sell up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities.
Tensions flared up again in the lead-up to today’s hearing over the disappearance of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and is presumed dead. Anonymous Turkish authorities have told news outlets that a Saudi assassination squad deployed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tortured, killed and dismembered the journalist.
International backlash is proving furious. Top executives from Viacom, Uber, HP, Android and the Los Angeles Times rebuked the Crown Prince by dropping out of the so-called “Davos in the Desert,” as the White House faces questions over President Donald Trump’s refusal to put financial pressure on the kingdom.