WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday directing the Justice Department and other agencies to review classified material related to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks for possible release of sensitive new information – meeting a key demand of victims’ families ahead of next week’s 20-year anniversary.
“When I ran for president, I made a commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of documents on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America,” Biden said in a statement. “As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, I am honoring that commitment.”
The executive order requires Attorney General Merrick Garland to release declassified documents publicly over the next six months.
“Information may remain classified only if it still requires protection in the interest of the national security and disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security,” the executive order states.
The order says agencies cannot keep information classified if there’s “significant doubt” about the need to do so.“Nor shall information remain classified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” it says.
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Relatives of Americans who were killed on 9/11 have spent years pushing successive administrations to release classified information that they believe will reveal Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people. Some had even said they did not want Biden to attend any memorial events unless he moved to release the long-sought documents.
“We are thrilled to see the president forcing the release of more evidence about Saudi connections to the 9/11 Attacks,” Terry Strada, whose husband died in the World Trade Center’s North Tower, said in a statement Friday. “We have been fighting the FBI and intelligence community for too long, but this looks like a true turning point.”
Many of the Sept. 11 families are involved in a lawsuit that accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting the operation.
In the 9/11 Commission’s final report, the authors said they found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida, the terrorist group that orchestrated the attacks.
“This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al-Qaida,” the report said.
In 2016, U.S. officials declassified the final chapter of a congressional report on the attacks, which named people who had contact with the hijackers after they arrived in the U.S. and who helped them get apartments, open bank accounts and connect with mosques.
The document said information from FBI sources suggested at least two people who assisted the hijackers may have been Saudi intelligence officers. But as with prior probes, the report did not conclude the Saudi government was directly involved.
“There is much more work to be done to secure justice for our murdered loved ones and to rectify the immense damage the 20-year shroud of secrecy has caused, but we now are optimistic that President Biden will be helping us achieve those goals,” Strada said on Friday.
Contributing: Associated Press