MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The name was supposed to be redacted, hidden from public view. It was at the bottom of Page 7 of a court document recently filed by the FBI, and it was a name the U.S. government has tried to keep secret for almost two decades. But someone made a mistake. The name was not redacted, which means the government itself publicly revealed the name of a Saudi official the FBI suspected may have had ties to the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Michael Isikoff broke this story for Yahoo News. He joins us now to fill in some details.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Hi there.
KELLY: Hi. Relieve our suspense. Who is this official?
ISIKOFF: (Laughter) Well, he is a - was a Saudi Foreign Ministry official, credited Saudi diplomat assigned to the Saudi Embassy in Washington. His name is Mussaed al-Jarrah, and - not a name that was on anybody's radar screen...
KELLY: No - purposefully so. Yeah.
ISIKOFF: Right. But the FBI - as you know, for years, there have been these questions swirling around the Sept. 11 case as to whether or not there was Saudi government involvement, not necessarily as a government writ large decision made at the very top by Riyadh, but members of the Saudi government who may have assisted the hijackers.
ISIKOFF: And FBI agents were quite suspicious on this score. They found a lot of unanswered questions, particularly about the period in Southern California when two of the hijackers flew in in January 2000. They didn't speak English. They didn't know anybody. And somehow, they're set up with an apartment and bank accounts and lent money so they can live in San Diego while they are plotting the terrorist attack on Sept. 11.
And FBI agents believed that there had been Saudi support and infrastructure that had provided these hijackers with the wherewithal to do what they could. And they focused, in particular, on a number of Saudis in Southern California and directions that they believe they were taking from this Saudi Embassy official in Washington whose duties were to oversee the sort of Ministry of Islamic Affairs activities in the United States at the mosques and the Islamic centers. And...
KELLY: And that's who this guy Jarrah was. He was the guy...
ISIKOFF: And that's who...
KELLY: ...At the embassy in Washington.
ISIKOFF: That was his job.
ISIKOFF: Yes. That was his job - to oversee what Islamic affairs folks were doing at the mosques. And the FBI developed - the agents developed evidence that Jarrah had flown to Los Angeles, met with a radical cleric at the King Fahad Mosque, where the hijackers were known to have spent time. And what they concluded in a 2012 report that had been buried for years that had not been ever made public until the last couple years is that the folks in Southern California - the Saudis who were supporting the hijackers had been tasked to do so by another individual, whose name was blocked out. That was al-Jarrah.
ISIKOFF: That was the secret name that nobody had ever seen. But thanks to this FBI declaration, the world now knows.
KELLY: Well, let's get to the significance of this because that same document says that his name is a state secret that could cause harm to national security if it were ever to be revealed, and here we are saying it. What has the FBI said about how this kind of lapse happened?
ISIKOFF: Well, first of all, the first thing that was done when I called them for comment on this on Monday is the document was stricken from the public record. So if you go...
KELLY: So it's gone. OK.
ISIKOFF: ...To the court record now, you will not find it. But luckily, because I happened to notice it over the weekend, I downloaded it and made a copy. And we published it on Yahoo News' website with my story. So it is there for all to read.
But yeah, what's so interesting about this is that Attorney General William Barr and Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence - both filed these motions with the court, invoking state secrets over not just the name, but all the evidence that supported the conclusion that those FBI agents had come to. So the bank records, the phone records - all the evidence that they compiled in the course of this investigation continues to be a state secret as far as the Justice Department and the intelligence community is concerned.
And that's what the lawyers for the families of the Sept. 11 victims are fighting over in this court case. They want access. They wanted the name out there, but they also want to see the records that support why the agents believed that this guy Jarrah was tasking the support for the hijackers.
KELLY: We just have a few seconds left, Michael, but as a fellow reporter, I'm totally intrigued. How did you stumble upon this document?
ISIKOFF: Well, as a matter of fact, I had been following the case for some time, and I get alerts when new filings come in. I saw it over the weekend. I started to read it, and I noticed the name. And I said, whoa, there it is. That's the name a lot of people have been looking for, and clearly, somebody screwed up.
KELLY: What a tale. That is Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News.
Thanks for coming and sharing it with us.
ISIKOFF: Anytime. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.