The FBI said Thursday that it had interviewed members of a Saudi Arabian family that left Sarasota shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and found no evidence they were connected to the hijackers or the terror plot.
In what he called a statement "to correct the public record,'' Steven Ibison, special agent in charge of the Tampa office, took issue with a recent story that claimed the FBI found "troubling ties'' between the hijackers and the al-Hijji family, the residents of a home in a gated Sarasota community.
As the FBI investigated leads after Sept. 11, "family members were located and interviewed,'' the statement said. "At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers, as suggested in the article, and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot.'' The FBI's statement did not say where or when it interviewed the family members.
The statement, elaborating on one released Monday by the FBI, further called into question the accuracy of the story by Irish author Anthony Summers and Florida journalist Dan Christensen. First appearing on the website Browardbulldog.org, the story was reprinted by the Miami Herald and followed by other media, including the St. Petersburg Times.
The Saudi couple drew suspicion from neighbors after the terrorist attacks because they appeared to have abandoned the home and some vehicles.
But the Times later found plausible reasons for their departure. Abdulaziz al-Hijji had just graduated from the University of South Florida and was soon to take a job with a Saudi oil company. When they were unable to rent out the home furnished, Anoud al-Hijji returned two years later to arrange a sale.
In its original story, Browardbulldog.org said that a "link analysis" of incoming and outgoing phone calls "lined up with the known suspects." Link analysis is an investigative technique that does not rely on direct contact between parties.
Despite a request from the Times, the FBI did not specifically deny the most serious allegation in the Browardbulldog.org story — that name and vehicle information for hijackers Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah "fit that of drivers entering Prestancia on their way to visit'' the Saudis' home.
The FBI would not comment on whether it reviewed the Prestancia community's gate records because "it's not our policy to discuss any investigative techniques,'' said David Couvertier, an FBI spokesman in Tampa.
The story's sources for that allegation were an anonymous "counterterrorism agent" and former Prestancia resident Larry Berberich, who represented the homeowners association on security issues.
Ibison's statement said the unidentified source for the story apparently was not an FBI agent and "had no access to the facts and circumstances pertaining to the resolution of this lead — otherwise this person would know this matter was resolved without any nexus to the 9/11 plot.''
However, Summers told the Times on Wednesday that the "counterterrorism agent" had seen FBI reports. Berberich has not responded to several calls from the Times.
Summers met with the "agent" and Berberich recently while in the United States to promote his book, The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of Osama bin Laden and 9/11, due out next month.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired the congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, said Thursday that he wants to see the documents on which the FBI based its conclusion that the al-Hijjis had no ties to the hijackers or the plot.
"This is exactly what happened in San Diego when we were told by the FBI that there was no information that would have linked any activities in San Diego to terrorists,'' Graham said. But when investigators got there, Graham said, "they found these very extensive relations between two of the hijackers and Saudi entities in San Diego.''
The FBI has said it turned over all information it collected on the attacks to Graham's committee and the 9/11 Commission.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, said she "appreciated'' the FBI's statements this week. However, she repeated her call for the House and Senate intelligence committees to verify what information the agency had given Congress and the 9/11 panel.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]