WASHINGTON — Families of 9/11 victims are ramping up pressure on President Donald Trump to release documents about a Saudi Embassy official who allegedly helped the hijackers, after the FBI accidentally revealed his name in a court filing.
The remarkable accidental disclosure by the FBI came in a court filing unsealed last week in which the name of the official, Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, was left unredacted in one instance in the document, Yahoo News reported. Two sources close to the lawsuit confirm to NBC News that the FBI declaration was filed incorrectly to the public docket and then removed once the Department of Justice learned of the error. It’s no longer publicly accessible.
The families seeking to sue Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have long sought information about al-Jarrah, who allegedly worked with two other Saudi nationals to assist and direct the hijackers.
Now the name is in public view due to the FBI’s filing error. But two sources close to the case tell NBC News that the FBI and the Justice Department are asserting that since it was an erroneous disclosure, the name is still subject to a protective order and neither side is allowed to discuss it publicly.
The erroneous FBI filing, according to Yahoo News, mentioned “any and all records referring to or relating to Jarrah,” a Saudi diplomat who in 1999 and 2000 was assigned to the embassy in Washington. The 9/11 families now argue that since the name has been made public, the FBI’s national security argument has become moot and that those underlying FBI records relating to al-Jarrah should be released.
Last September, on the anniversary of the attacks, the families got a partial victory when the Trump administration agreed to declassify the name — but not release it publicly, as NBC News reported at the time. Instead, the administration allowed the plaintiffs' lawyers to be informed of the name under protective seal, meaning they could not discuss it publicly.
The Trump administration has also withheld the underlying evidence gathered by FBI officials regarding al-Jarrah’s potential involvement. The government says the information is extremely sensitive and has cited various other objections to its release, in what critics of the Trump administration claim is an attempt to protect Saudi Arabia, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump administration.
Terry Strada, who chairs the group 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, said that Trump had committed to help the families by giving them access to what they needed from the FBI files when they met with him last September at the White House, only to turn around and keep much of it secret. In April, Attorney General William Barr and acting Director of National intelligence Richard Grenell asserted the “state secrets” privilege over further information.
“We are definitely hoping this will push the president to keep his commitment to us. We were given assurances,” Strada said. “Clearly they are using state secrets to cover up their mistakes or protect the Saudis.”
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to several requests for comment.
The issue has pitted Trump's efforts to show he's seeking justice for 9/11 victims against his desire to maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia, already strained in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. Trump has worked to preserve the relationship with the Saudis despite widespread criticism in Congress of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's leadership.
Although 15 of the 19 attackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens and mastermind Osama bin Laden was born there, Saudi Arabia's government has long denied involvement in the terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Commission that investigated the attacks found it likely that Saudi government-funded charities did fund the attacks but did not find evidence that the government or senior Saudi officials were involved.
The lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was enabled by a 2016 law called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that allowed for a civil suit against a foreign state if it supports international terrorism against Americans or their property. Former President Barack Obama vetoed the law, warning it could create a precedent for the U.S. or its officials to be sued in foreign courts, but Congress voted to override his veto.