Mystery of Sarasota Saudis deepens as Justice moves to end FOI lawsuit citing national security

BrowardBulldog.orgJune 4, 2013 

A senior FBI official has told a Fort Lauderdale federal judge that disclosure of certain classified information about Saudis who hurriedly left their Sarasota area home shortly before 9/11 "would reveal current specific targets of the FBI's national security investigations."

Records Section Chief David M. Hardy's assertion is contained in a sworn 33-page declaration filed in support of a Justice Department motion that seeks to end a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed last year by BrowardBulldog.org.

The government's latest court filings, thick with veiled references to foreign counterintelligence operations and targets, deepen the mystery about a once-secret FBI investigation of Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi and their tenants, son-in-law and daughter, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.

The filings by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole M. Fernandez also seek to justify in the name of national security numerous deletions of information from FBI records about the de

cade-old investigation that were released recently amid the ongoing litigation.

They do not, however, explain why an investigation the FBI has said found no connection between those Saudis and the Sept. 11th attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people involves information so secret its disclosure "could be expected to cause serious damage to national security."

The investigation, which the FBI did not disclose to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, was first reported in a September 2011 story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald.

It began after neighbors in the gated community of Prestancia reported the al-Hijjis had suddenly departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle about two weeks before the attacks. They left personal belongings and furniture, including three newly registered cars -- one of them brand new.

According to a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia's former administrator Larry Berberich, gatehouse log books and photographs of license tags were later used by the FBI to determine that vehicles used by the hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.

The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no evidence connecting the Ghazzawis or the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

Records contradict denials

The newly released FBI records contradict the FBI's public denials. One dated April 4, 2002 says the investigation "revealed many connections" between the Saudis who fled Sarasota and "individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/1 1/2001."

The report goes on to list three of those individuals and connect them to the Venice, Fla., flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The names of those individuals were not made public.

The FBI removed additional information in the report, citing a pair of national security exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

In his declaration to U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, the FBI's Hardy sought to explain those deletions and others. He said information was withheld "to protect an intelligence method utilized by the FBI for gathering intelligence data." Such methods include confidential informants.

Hardy, who stated that he has been designated a "declassification authority" by Attorney General Eric Holder, said redactions regarding the Sarasota investigation were also made to protect "actual intelligence activities and methods used by the FBI against specific targets of foreign counterintelligence investigations or operations." "The information obtained from the intelligence activities or methods is very specific in nature, provided during a specific time period and known to very few individuals," Hardy said.

Damage to national security?

No details were provided, but Hardy said the information was "compiled regarding a specific individual or organization of national security interest." He added that its disclosure "reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security."

Disclosure would reveal the FBI's "current specific targets" and "allow hostile entities to discover the current intelligence gathering methods used and reveal the criteria and priorities assigned to current intelligence or counterintelligence investigations," Hardy said.

"With the aid of this detailed information, hostile entities could develop countermeasures which would, in turn, severely disrupt the FBI's intelligence gathering capabilities" and damage efforts "to detect and apprehend violators of the United States' national security and criminal laws."

For months, the FBI claimed it had no responsive documents regarding its Sarasota investigation. But on March 28, Hardy unexpectedly announced the Bureau had located and reviewed 35 pages of records. It released 31 of them.

Prosecutor Fernandez now contends the FBI conducted a "reasonable search" and "no agency records are being improperly withheld." Her motion asks the court to grant summary judgment in the government's favor.

Broward Bulldog, a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest, can be reached at www.browardbulldog.org or 954-603-1351.

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