President Biden on Friday signed an executive order directing the Justice Department to review certain documents related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for declassification, bowing to pressure from victims’ families demanding more information on how the attack was plotted and carried out.
The move, which comes just days before the 20th anniversary, fulfills a campaign promise by Mr. Biden but could complicate relations with Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the 19 plotters identified in the attacks on New York and Washington. The executive order requires Attorney General Merrick Garland to make the declassified documents public over the next six months.
“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,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “For them, it was not only a national and international tragedy. It was a personal devastation.”
“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 continued. “I welcome their voices and insight as we chart a way forward.”
It is unclear what information that was not previously known will be revealed after declassification. Victim families have claimed the documents could implicate officials in the Saudi government in supporting the attacks.
Earlier this year, a group of victims’ families urged Mr. Biden to skip the 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York unless he authorized the release of the classified documents.
On Friday, 9/11 Families United, an organization consisting of victims’ families and survivors, hailed Mr. Biden‘s executive order as “a true turning point.”
“We are thrilled to see the president forcing the release of more evidence about Saudi connections to the 9/11 attacks,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, was killed in the World Trade Center. “We have been fighting the FBI and intelligence community for too long, but this looks like a true turning point.”
The drive to declassify the documents has some strong supporters in Congress
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey and fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut last month introduced a bill that would order a full declassification review of the 9/11 investigation and require a justification for any decisions to keep details classified in the future.
Previous administrations have resisted a broader disclosure, in an effort, critics say, to prevent potentially explosive information from being disclosed and to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
In 2016, Congress passed a measure allowing individuals to take legal action against foreign governments accountable that support terrorist attacks in the U.S. President Obama vetoed the legislation but Congress later overturned the veto. Lawmakers and advocates have continued to push for transparency under Mr. Biden.
In May, 22 members of Congress led by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland challenging the previous administrations’ assertion of “state secret privilege” to block declassification of the 9/11 files. In June Reps. Ted Deutch, Florida Democrat, and Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, called on FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to release the documents.
The Justice Department revealed last month that the FBI recently concluded an investigation into certain 9/11 hijackers and possible co-conspirators. It said it would determine if it could release information uncovered during the probe, but did not say when. Mr. Biden‘s order makes no mention of Saudi Arabia or any possible larger role for Riyadh in the plot.