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US senators pile pressure on Biden to declassify 9/11 documents

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have called on the White House to release documents related to Saudi Arabia's alleged role in the attacks
Senator Bob Menendez speaks at a press conference at the Capitol Building on 5 August 2021 in Washington.
Senator Bob Menendez speaks at a press conference at the Capitol Building on 5 August 2021 in Washington (AFP)
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Washington

Several US senators have called on the Biden administration to declassify and make available key documents related to Saudi Arabia's alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

In bipartisan legislation introduced on Thursday, Democrat Senators Bob Menendez, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy, and Republican John Cornyn said the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) must oversee a full declassification review of the government's investigation of the attacks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was also a cosponsor of the legislation.

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"We're talking about the declassification of evidence relating to an attack that took place 20 years ago - and not just any attack, an attack that claimed nearly 3,000 American lives," said Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"If the United States government is sitting on any documents that may implicate Saudi Arabia or any individual or any country in the events of September 11, these families, and the American people, have a right to know."

Saudi Arabia has long denied involvement in the attacks, in which almost 3,000 people died as hijacked jetliners crashed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in western Pennsylvania.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi - as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's leader at the time.

Families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks are party to a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, and have accused the country of being involved. They have been seeking US government documents related to Riyadh's alleged role in aiding or financing any of the 19 individuals who carried out the devastating attacks.

In a major step for the case, former Saudi officials were questioned in court depositions over their alleged links to the 9/11 attacks earlier this year, according to the Associated Press.

The depositions have remained under seal, however, and the US government has blocked the release of a number of documents and key intelligence claiming a defence of "state secrets privilege".

"That information is evidence that those families need to seek justice in their effort to hold accountable the government of Saudi Arabia for its alleged complicity, its aiding and abetting, its support for the 9/11 attackers," Blumenthal said on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.

'Foreign interests over US citizens'

Public documents released in the past two decades, including by the 9/11 Commission, have detailed numerous entanglements involving Saudi nationals, but have not proven government complicity.

Schumer said he would "fight as hard as I can to see that this outstanding piece of legislation becomes law".

"I don't care what the relationship is with Saudi Arabia or any other country. If they did something that is bad and horrible, that should be brought to account," the New York senator said at Thursday's news conference. 

During the news conference, families of the victims of the attacks expressed their deep frustration with the federal government for continuing to obstruct the release of information.

"It's a sad truth to know that the United States government values foreign interests more than its own citizens," said Brett Eagleson, National Co-Chair of 9/11 Community United and whose father died in the twin towers.

"Twenty years is far too long to go for anybody, for us especially but for Americans in general, to go without knowing the truth," Eagleson said.

As the 20th anniversary of the attacks approaches, Congress has been increasing pressure on the administration to release more information.

On Friday, family members of the victims said they were opposed to Biden's participation in memorial events unless he declassified documents that they contend will show Saudi Arabian leaders supported the attacks.

The victims' family members, joined by first responders and survivors of the attacks, also released a letter urging Biden to release the files.

"Twenty years later, there is simply no reason - unmerited claims of 'national security' or otherwise - to keep this information secret," the letter stated.

"But if President Biden reneges on his commitment and sides with the Saudi government, we would be compelled to publicly stand in objection to any participation by his administration in any memorial ceremony of 9/11."