Joe Biden has signed an executive order directing the Justice Department to oversee a declassification review of the FBI’s investigation into the 9/11 attack on the US.
The order requires Attorney General Merrick Garland to publicly release any declassified documents on the attacks over the next six months.
In a statement, Mr Biden said that when he ran for president, he made a commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of such documents and that as the 20th anniversary approaches he is honouring 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 executive order requires the attorney general to release the declassified documents publicly over the next six months.”
The text of the executive acknowledges that the indiscriminate release of classified information could jeopardise national security, including the US government’s efforts to protect against future acts of terrorism.
However, information should not remain classified when the public interest in disclosure outweighs any damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure, the order states.
An exception is included for when “the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.”
Upon completion of the document review, the attorney general, in consultation with the heads of any other agencies that originated relevant information, shall submit to the president and to the congressional intelligence committees, reports on the results of the declassification review. This will include a justification for each decision not to declassify information.
Congressman Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a statement giving his support to the decision for a declassification review of documents relating to the attacks.
He promised that his committee “will closely oversee this process, to ensure that all agencies adhere to the president’s guidance to apply the maximum degree of transparency allowed by law when conducting the review”.
Families of the victims of 9/11 had previously told Mr Biden that he would not be welcome at 20th anniversary memorial events unless he declassified the government’s records concerning the investigation.
A letter sent to the White House in August states: “Six months ago the 9/11 community had great hopes that President Joe Biden would be the long lost champion of those directly affected by this murderous attack on our nation, finally placing the values of truth, justice, and accountability before the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,”
It was signed by 1,800 family members of victims, survivors, and first responders. Families are seeking evidence uncovered by the 9/11 Commission that implicates Saudi Arabian officials in allegedly supporting the attacks.
The president’s Friday statement continues: “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.”
He concludes his statement: “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. I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward.”