Sept. 11 families make emotional plea to Biden

John Minchillo/AP Photo

More than 2,000 family members of people who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks have signed a letter to President Joe Biden protesting a potential plea agreement between the government and five suspected masterminds held at Guantanamo Bay.

The possible agreement, which some victims’ families were notified about in a letter last week, only compounds their pain surrounding the approaching 9/11 anniversary — and their frustration at the U.S. government for continuing to withhold information about the Saudi government’s links to the attackers, despite repeated promises of transparency.

Brett Eagleson, who lost his father in the attack on the World Trade Center, now leads 9/11 Justice, an advocacy group for victims’ families that has sued the Saudi government and is seeking additional information about how the kingdom assisted the hijackers. His main problem with a plea deal for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most infamous of the purported masterminds behind the attack, isn’t that Mohammed would avoid the death penalty.

“This issue of life versus death is a distraction,” Eagleson said in an interview. “A plea deal avoids a trial, a plea deal avoids a public reckoning, and that's the important issue.”

“We cannot have the greatest terrorist attack in the history of this country fade away with plea deals for the last remaining prisoners in Guantanamo,” Eagleson added. “America deserves a trial. We deserve to know what they have to say and we deserve the truth.”

The letter about a possible plea agreement, the White House noted, was sent by the Office of the Chief Prosecutor for Military Commissions. Like with other law enforcement matters, the president was not consulted about it, according to National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “This letter reflects no policy shift, decision, guidance, or anything else from the White House,” Watson said. “We remain deeply committed to justice for victims of terrorists as well as accountability for its perpetrators.”

Watson also pointed to the executive order Biden signed in 2021 requiring government agencies — the FBI, CIA and the Justice Department, among others — to release more details about the attacks to the public. That move, which resulted in the release of more than 900 pages of formerly classified documents last year, reversed the Trump administration’s 2019 filing by then-Attorney General Bill Barr invoking the state secrets privilege to suppress additional information that might have shed light on the Saudi government’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

“President Biden made a commitment to assist these families in their work to seek full accountability regarding the declassification of 9/11 documents and to ensuring the maximum degree of transparency under the law,” Watson said.

But the government, the 2,000 family members wrote in their Monday letter to Biden, has refused to comply with the president’s 2021 order. It also has moved at a glacial pace to bring the five alleged 9/11 plotters to trial; the Justice Department dropped its prosecution in 2011, handing the matter over to the Defense Department, which now appears to be considering ways to resolve these cases without trials at military commissions in Guantanamo.

“After more than two decades of our search for truth and accountability, we find ourselves again, inexplicably, thwarted by our own government,” the families wrote, regarding their struggle to obtain the information Biden directed his government to declassify months after taking office.

“Less than two years later, his agencies — the DOD, FBI, CIA, all the three letter agencies — are by and large, ignoring the executive order,” Eagleson said in an interview. “We don't think that President Biden realizes the level of intransigence that exists at the FBI.”

Eagleson wants to see the Biden administration share the documents — and argues it would be a political win. “President Biden has a unique opportunity to separate himself from the past administrations, separate himself from President Trump,” he said. “Why doesn't he embarrass Trump over it? Trump is now hosting the Saudi government at multiple golf courses” via LIV Golf, Eagleson added, also referencing the millions in investment capital Jared Kushner has received from the Saudis.

But all this comes as Biden is reportedly considering meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on the sidelines of next month’s G20 summit in India, Axios reported. At stake is a “mega-deal” that includes normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Given how MBS has sought to reform and modernize the kingdom, a full accounting of how low-level government officials in his grandfather’s government aided the 9/11 hijackers could go a long way toward demonstrating that things in Riyadh are actually changing, Eagleson said. But the 9/11 families are focusing their appeal less on the current Saudi leader than on Biden, urging the president to intervene directly and framing his choice in stark terms.

“We ask that you prioritize the interests of the victims of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks over those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or other terrorists,” they write in their letter. “That you not bow to the demands of any embarrassed government officials willing to sacrifice transparency in favor of reputation; and that you continue to support us in our search for truth and justice.”