The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Many family members of victims from the September 11 terrorist attacks are calling on President Joe Biden to declassify information related to Saudi Arabia, or skip upcoming memorial events recognizing the 20th anniversary of the attacks. We don’t blame them.
Nineteen of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has repeatedly denied being connected to the attacks, but victims’ families have sued the Saudi government alleging it was complicit. They believe the unreleased documents could provide evidence supporting their case.
We won’t pre-judge information that hasn’t been released — except to say that when something is hidden from public view for years, it’s a good guess that someone wants it to be kept secret.
“Twenty years later, there is simply no reason — unmerited claims of ‘national security’ or otherwise — to keep this information secret,” read a statement signed by over 1,700 people directly impacted by 9/11. “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.”
All presidential administrations from George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have refused to declassify this information, frequently citing the “states secrets privilege.” On the campaign trail, however, Biden indicated that we would take a different approach.
“I intend to be a President for all Americans, and will hear all of their voices,” then-candidate Biden wrote in a letter. “The 9/11 Families are right to seek full truth and accountability. … I will direct my Attorney General to personally examine the merits of all cases where the invocation of privilege is recommended, and to err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
This isn’t the first or only time that federal officials, from both parties, have pledged to move toward more transparency with this classified information. Trump promised to open FBI records, but his Attorney General William Barr later argued in court that even sharing why the documents couldn’t be released would risk national security. More recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he would be “happy to take a look with the [Director of National Intelligence] and others to see if there’s more information that can be declassified.” Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland, said similar things during his confirmation process, according to the Hill.
But past statements have not turned into action. After 20 years of false starts and over-promising, the 9/11 families are right to link the release of these files with the upcoming anniversary. Federal officials don’t honor the memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks by continuing to sidestep geopolitically difficult information. They can honor them by confronting hard truths.
The news on Monday that the Justice Department said it would review records and work toward providing 9/11 victims’ families with more information is a welcome development. So is Biden emphasizing that his administration is “committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law.” However, to quote Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed inside the World Trade Center, “we have heard many empty promises before.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is also pressuring the administration to take action, recently introducing legislation that would require a declassification review of documents related to foreign support of the 9/11 attacks.
“Nothing should get in the way here, no political or diplomatic or geo-military consideration should get in the way of simple justice after something like 9/11,” said Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the bill’s cosponsors.
“Twenty years ago, we witnessed in horror the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. “As the nation continues to heal from the devastation of 9/11, many families who lost loved ones still want answers.”
It shouldn’t take a bill. Biden and his administration should follow through and move to declassify this information without delay. Victims and survivors of 9/11 deserve respect, remembrance and support. It should go without saying that they and their families also deserve access to a fuller picture of the truth, wherever that leads.