The case heard Thursday before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals centers on reporting published by the Florida Bulldog about the FBI investigation into a Saudi Arabian family that abruptly left a Sarasota home two weeks before the 2001 terror attacks. One FBI document that was released said that agents had found "many connections" in 2002 between the family and some hijackers who took flying lessons at a nearby airport, including ringleader Mohamed Atta.
Florida Bulldog attorney Thomas Julin told a three-judge panel of the court that the FBI has been dragging its heels on releasing more FBI documents about the Sarasota case submitted to the 9/11 Review Commission, improperly redacted more material and claimed too much was exempt from FOIA release. Julin wants a lower court to hold a full FOIA trial on the dispute.
"Obviously, we don't know what is in those documents. We think there is severe over-classification," Julin said. "All of that is a huge deterrent to people using the Freedom of Information Act."
The judges did not immediately issue a ruling.
Media organizations including The Associated Press filed briefs in support of the Florida Bulldog, as did former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham - a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Graham, who attended the hearing, said in an interview that the public needs the full picture of how the hijackers pulled off attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
"The government's conclusion is that there is no evidence linking the Saudi government to a facilitation of the hijackers," said Graham, also a former Florida governor. "Our feeling, to the contrary, is that there is abundant evidence."
The former Sarasota residents, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, have denied having any connections with or supporting the hijackers. They now live overseas.
The FBI has discounted the accuracy of its own 2002 "many connections" memo but won't explain why. Justice Department attorney Thomas Byron told the judges Thursday that a lower court judge made the correct ruling for the government and that the FBI search for documents sought by the Florida Bulldog was reasonable.
"Reporters are not entitled to a perfect search. They are entitled to a reasonable search. We went way beyond that," Byron said. "It was above and beyond what was required."
The FBI has also asserted seven exemptions to the release of some material under FOIA, including that some would endanger national security and expose sensitive law enforcement techniques and sources.
Previous stories on the al-Hijjis have reported on how the family left behind cars, clothes, furniture and even a refrigerator full of food when they left their Sarasota home before the 9/11 attacks. Possible connections to hijackers include records at the neighborhood's gate indicating some had visited the home as well as telephone calls involving them, authorities have said.
Circuit Judge William Pryor suggested the best course might be to send the case back to Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga for a full FOIA trial so that the documents and the FBI claims could be fully evaluated.
"Why am I not right about that?" Pryor asked Byron.
"I don't think you need to do that. The (lower) court did not abuse its discretion," Byron replied.
Separately, the Florida Bulldog is awaiting a different Florida federal judge's decision on whether some or all of the 80,000 pages of FBI files on the Sarasota investigation should be made public. That case has been pending for six years.
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