Biden Administration Also Should Declassify Information Related to Military Interventions and Human Rights Abuses
(Washington D.C., September 10, 2021) – On the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks against the United States, the Biden administration should prioritize government transparency and truth for the survivors and the families of victims by pledging that forthcoming declassified materials will include any information about the role of Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials in those attacks, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
Congress also should use this opportunity to investigate decades of disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and human rights abuses tied to the Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, Congress should push the Biden administration to declassify volumes of information about these policy decisions kept secret from the American public.
"Twenty years later, the survivors of the 9/11 attacks and the families of victims could still find themselves on the opposite side of their own government in their search for the truth, a search the U.S. government often obfuscated to assist its authoritarian ally, Saudi Arabia," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN. "Without guarantees that these declassified documents will not shield Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials from information about their role in the attacks, U.S. officials will again fail to provide the truth to those most directly affected by this event."
"Twenty years later, the survivors of the 9/11 attacks and the families of victims could still find themselves on the opposite side of their own government in their search for the truth, a search the U.S. government often obfuscated to assist its authoritarian ally, Saudi Arabia,"
- Sarah Leah Whitson
On September 3, President Biden issued an executive order instructing U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to publicly release declassified materials related to the F.B.I. investigation of the 9/11 attacks over the next six months. By issuing this executive order, Biden fulfills an important campaign promise of erring on the side of disclosure when the passage of time and national security concerns allow. Biden also addresses growing criticism from 9/11 survivors and the families of victims for not disclosing complete information about the potential role of the Saudi government in these attacks.
On August 6, nearly 1,800 survivors, first responders, and family members of victims issued a statement telling Biden to stay away from this year's September 11 memorial events unless he declassified U.S. documents on the Saudi government's role in the attacks. The Biden administration clearly took notice, and only three days later, the U.S. Department of Justice pledged to conduct a fresh review of 9/11-related files for declassification and public release. Now, only a few weeks later, the administration met this demand and the Department of Justice and other federal agencies will begin reviewing documents for declassification.
"The 9/11 Commission's Final Report concluded that there was no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials funded the attacks, but the language of the report did not foreclose the possibility of other types of involvement or participation from lower-ranking Saudi officials," said Whitson. "By declassifying all materials related to the Saudi government's role in these attacks, this matter can finally be resolved."
"Without the declassification of key documents, the people of the United States lack the information to evaluate critical decisions that shaped the U.S. response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, a response that has continued for more than two decades and resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives and many thousands more civilians trapped in indefinite armed conflict."
- Sarah Leah Whitson
Since 2001, three consecutive U.S. administrations declined to declassify sensitive 9/11 documents, citing national security concerns. In 2016, the U.S. Congress overrode a presidential veto and enacted the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign states for their role in international terrorist attacks against U.S. nationals or U.S. property. The ensuing lawsuit filed against Saudi Arabia by the families of 9/11 victims led to the questioning under oath of former Saudi officials earlier this year. However, those depositions remain under seal and inaccessible to the families.
The American people also deserve a fuller picture of the legal justifications and policy positions that allowed the United States to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11, often seemingly without a clear strategy, for two decades. They deserve a clear presentation of the rationale for continued military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as drone strikes in Somalia and elsewhere, said DAWN. In these situations, U.S. officials often rely on dubious interpretations of international law and excessively broad understandings of executive authority to justify attacks increasingly detached from 9/11, Al-Qaeda, and the legal authorities found within the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
DAWN also urges Congress to review U.S. policies still centered on the overly broad Global War on Terror, a militaristic foreign policy shrouded in secrecy and often marked by serious breaches of international law and grave violations of human rights, and to force the Biden administration to disclose information tied to these policies.
"We must urgently overhaul the legal and policy rationale underpinning the Global War on Terror that allowed for the unlawful invasion of Iraq, the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the unlawful detentions at Guantanamo Bay and various CIA 'black sites,' warrantless surveillance, and numerous other abuses," said Whitson. "Congress failed in its responsibilities to oversee the disastrous policies of the U.S. since 9/11; it should investigate these failures, hold the responsible U.S. military and government officials accountable, and ensure they are not repeated."
While downplayed after the Bush administration, subsequent U.S. administrations relied on the same or similar legal positions and policy arguments to wage the Forever Wars that continue despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, much information remains publicly unavailable through an abuse of state secrets privilege and the overclassification of information. Until disclosed, the people of the United States lack the information to ask its government crucial questions and to have an open and honest national discussion about U.S. foreign policy and the actions of U.S. allies.
"Without the declassification of key documents, the people of the United States lack the information to evaluate critical decisions that shaped the U.S. response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, a response that has continued for more than two decades and resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives and many thousands more civilians trapped in indefinite armed conflict," said Whitson.