Revealing serious fractures within the 9/11 Commission, a former member of that panel has called for the immediate declassification of the so-called "28 pages" that detail Saudi ties to the 2001 terrorist attack, saying they expose evidence that Saudi government officials were involved in the hijackers' support network.
"There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government," Republican John Lehman said in an interview with the Guardian published Thursday. Referring to the commission's final report, issued in 2004, Lehman stated: "Our report should never have been read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia."
He said recent claims made by the Commission's former chairman and vice-chair—that only one Saudi government employee was "implicated" in supporting the hijackers, and that the Obama administration should be cautious about releasing the 28 pages because they contain "raw, unvetted material" but no "smoking gun"—was "a game of semantics."
In fact, Lehman said, at least five Saudi government officials were strongly suspected of supporting the terrorists. "They may not have been indicted, but they were certainly implicated," he told the Guardian. "There was an awful lot of circumstantial evidence."
In making these statements, Lehman, an investment banker in New York who was U.S. Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, becomes the first of the 10 former commissioners to speak so "bluntly" about the inquiry and the contents of 28 pages.
But he is not alone in his opinion, writes Guardian reporter Philip Shenon:
Another panel member, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of offending the other nine, said the 28 pages should be released even though they could damage the commission’s legacy – “fairly or unfairly” – by suggesting lines of investigation involving the Saudi government that were pursued by Congress but never adequately explored by the commission.
“I think we were tough on the Saudis, but obviously not tough enough,” the commissioner said. “I know some members of the staff felt we went much too easy on the Saudis. I didn’t really know the extent of it until after the report came out.”
The commissioner said the renewed public debate could force a spotlight on a mostly unknown chapter of the history of the 9/11 commission: behind closed doors, members of the panel’s staff fiercely protested the way the material about the Saudis was presented in the final report, saying it underplayed or ignored evidence that Saudi officials – especially at lower levels of the government – were part of an al-Qaida support network that had been tasked to assist the hijackers after they arrived in the United States.
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A top aide to President Barack Obama who also worked on the 9/11 Commission report made similar statements on a CNN podcast in April, saying the Saudi government did not overtly support al Qaeda leading up to the 2001 attacks, but that individuals in the country did.
The White House is currently reviewing the 28 pages for possible release, and Obama is expected to announce a decision about declassification by June.
In an op-ed at the Washington Post on Wednesday, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, reiterated the call for declassification.
He scoffed at comments made earlier this month by CIA Director John Brennan, who had echoed the argument that "people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there... and to point to Saudi involvement, which I think would be very, very inaccurate."
Graham wrote: "With all due respect, that argument is an affront not only to the American public in general but also to all those who lost family members, loved ones and friends on that fateful September day in 2001. Americans are fully capable of reviewing the 28 pages and making up their own minds about their significance."
The Hill reported earlier this week on allegations that the Obama administration tried to "strong-arm" Graham into reversing his stance on the 28 pages.
Meanwhile, Shane Harris reports Thursday for the Daily Beast that the 28 pages "are just a start."
"[I]n Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers' Saudi connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil," Harris wrote.