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Families Of 9/11 Victims May Get Answers When Classified Government Records Release

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, hundreds of families and victims of the 9/11 attacks may finally get access to secrets that they have been seeking for years. President Biden has ordered the release of classified government records beginning this week. The families believe the documents could reveal more about a key mystery - who helped the 19 hijackers while they were inside the U.S.? Was the government of Saudi Arabia involved, and if so, how high up in that government? Here's NPR's Laura Sullivan.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Brett Eagleson was in math class 100 miles away when he heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

BRETT EAGLESON: I was a sophomore at my local school in Durham, Conn. - very small town, rural town.

SULLIVAN: His father was working temporarily at the World Trade Center, supervising a renovation. Brett called his mom. She thought his dad was all right, but was going to pick Brett up from the school office.

EAGLESON: There were people in the office who didn't know that I'm sitting here in the office because my dad's in the building. And then I start hearing - I overhear them talking. Oh, my God, the buildings fell.

SULLIVAN: Witnesses later told the family that Eagleson's dad was last seen running back up the stairs to retrieve walkie-talkies for first responders. Like many children whose parents died on 9/11, Eagleson and others have grown up and grown into what they see as their responsibility to get to the bottom of what happened. And they think that the government of Saudi Arabia had more to do with the attacks than has been revealed.

EAGLESON: It still remains to be determined what the Saudis actually did. Our whole lives changed on 9/12. The world changed on 9/12. And Americans deserve a reason and the full story and the full explanation.

SULLIVAN: The families are suing Saudi Arabia for what they believe was the kingdom's role in helping the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi. The Saudi Arabian government says it had nothing to do with it. The defining government investigation into the attacks remains the 9/11 Commission report published in 2004. Page 172 is pretty clear. Commissioners found, quote, "no credible evidence that any person in the United States gave the hijackers substantial financial assistance." They also didn't find any evidence that any foreign government or foreign government official supplied any funding.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I think I speak here for the staff and the commissioners as well. I think we feel very good about the report.

SULLIVAN: Philip Zelikow oversaw the work of the team that produced the commission's final report.

ZELIKOW: We did not think the report would be definitive or the last word on the subject. We thought that it would provide a reliable and authoritative foundation for a lot of further work.

SULLIVAN: In the years since, that further work has largely honed in on one issue - how could the hijackers, many of whom couldn't speak English and had never set foot in the West, get bank accounts, apartments, driver's licenses, navigate America so easily without help? It's a question Zelikow's commission looked hard at.

ZELIKOW: We did have this suspicion, which we couldn't prove, that there was a support network. We actually feel just as strongly as any victim's family that if we thought we could nail one of those people, we would love to do that. But we never felt we could get to the bottom of it.

SULLIVAN: Despite all the investigations, the families think a number of clues suggest a higher level of Saudi involvement. For example, according to allegations and government records that have been made public, one man who allegedly stumbled into a coincidental meeting with two hijackers in a deli was a Saudi government employee. Another man with Saudi Diplomatic status in Los Angeles helped the men find housing. And even higher up, a Saudi diplomat at the embassy in Washington made a series of unusual phone calls to people close to the hijackers at critical times. The men told 9/11 investigators they had nothing to do with the attacks, and the Saudi government denies that any of this points to government complicity.

KEN WILLIAMS: I look at it, quite frankly, as more of an unsolved homicide than anything else.

SULLIVAN: Ken Williams was an FBI agent who wrote the Phoenix Memo, which warned that Osama bin Laden was sending students to U.S. flight schools.

WILLIAMS: They got to go back and they need to do more criminal investigation. And they need to present the victims and their families the information that they're requesting with respect to the stuff that they're declaring to be state secrets.

SULLIVAN: Families have fought for years to get records released from the FBI and other agencies. President Biden has now called on government agencies to release all relevant records over the next six months, starting this week. Families are hoping most of all for a 16-page file from an FBI investigation called Operation Encore. Brett Eagleson, whose father died, says they believe it outlines possible connections between the hijackers and Saudi enablers.

EAGLESON: So we're cautiously optimistic. But let's actually see what we get. We've been down this road before.

SULLIVAN: The families want the big questions answered - whether someone or some government helped get their loved ones killed that sunny morning 20 years ago.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.