President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday calling for the declassification of critical 9/11 documents — weeks after the families of victims called for him to stay away from ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks over his failure to do so.
According to The Washington Post, Biden said he was fulfilling a pledge he’d made on the campaign trail: to direct his attorney general to “personally examine the merits of all cases” involving 9/11 documents protected by state secrets privilege and “to err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
However, according to NBC News, families pressured Biden to stay away after they said their attempts to reach him and his administration went unanswered, following that campaign promise in an October 2020 letter.
In August, he said he welcomed a Department of Justice filing that promised a “fresh review” of the 9/11 documents, which came just days after the families asked him to stay away from 9/11 commemorations.
“As I promised during my campaign, my Administration is committed to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law, and to adhering to the rigorous guidance issued during the Obama-Biden Administration on the invocation of the state secrets privilege,” he said in a White House statement.
With Friday’s executive order, Biden again tried to mollify those who felt he hadn’t followed through on his campaign pledge.
“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 Friday statement.
“As we approach the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, I am honoring that commitment. Today, I signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to oversee a declassification review of documents related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s September 11th investigations,” the statement continued.
“The executive order requires the Attorney General to release the declassified documents publicly over the next six months.”
Should these documents be declassified?
The intended audience was clear: “We must never forget the enduring pain of the families and loved ones of the 2,977 innocent people who were killed during the worst terrorist attack on America in our history. For them, it was not only a national and international tragedy. It was a personal devastation,” Biden said.
“For 20 years, children have grown up without parents and parents have suffered without children. Husbands and wives have had to find a way forward without their partners in life. Brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, loved ones and friends have celebrated 20 years of birthdays, family gatherings, and milestones looking at an empty chair at homes and with a hole in their hearts.
“My heart continues to be with the 9/11 families who are suffering, and my Administration will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community,” the statement concluded. “I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward.”
The order itself states, “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.
“Information shall not remain classified if there is significant doubt about the need to maintain its classified status. 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.”
Much of the controversy stems from families of 9/11 victims — some of whom are suing the government of Saudi Arabia for being complicit with the hijackers and planners of the attack — believing the 9/11 Commission report didn’t fully level with the American people on Saudi’s involvement.
While the report called the Saudis a “problematic ally” and noted Saudi nationals funded al-Qaida, it said there was no evidence leaders had been involved.
“We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.) Still, al Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight,” the report said.
Whatever the case, the Biden administration’s foot-dragging led a group of about 1,800 people — including first responders, survivors and surviving family members — to issue a statement saying the president should recuse himself from the commemorations on Sept. 11.
“We cannot in good faith, and with veneration to those lost, sick, and injured, welcome the president to our hallowed grounds until he fulfills his commitment,” the group said in an August statement.
“Twenty years later, there is simply no reason — unmerited claims of ‘national security’ or otherwise — to keep this information secret,” they added.
“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.”
In the aftermath of Friday’s executive order, several key figures pressing for the release of the documents expressed what could best be termed cautious optimism.
Brett Eagleson, who lost his father in the attacks, called the order “a critical first step” for the president.
“We will closely watch this process to ensure the Justice Department and FBI follow through, act in good faith, and help our families uncover the truth in our pursuit of justice against the Saudi government,” Eagleson said in a statement, according to the Post. “The first test will be on 9/11, and the world will be watching.”
The group 9/11 Families United released a statement saying the order “looks like a true turning point.”
“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.”
The group represents about 10,000 family members, first responders and others affected by the attack.
Granted, this is long in coming — and we’re not just talking about from Biden. Let’s keep in mind that former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush all, to a certain extent, dragged their feet on this. Furthermore, the proof of the pudding is in the declassifying.
However, yes, Joe Biden says he’s going to do the right thing — and he’s signed an executive order to that effect. Shocking, I know. Now it’s time to watch.