In the summer of 2011, Dan Christensen, the editor of a small investigative online newspaper in Broward County, Florida, got a tip about a wealthy Saudi family that had apparently lived in a gated community in Sarasota — until a few weeks before the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the family suddenly disappeared.
It was a mystery, but one that inspired Christensen and his small paper, the Broward Bulldog (slogan: "News you can sink your teeth into") to start poking around. Christensen and a colleague, a Florida writer named Anthony Summers, soon discovered that within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the FBI had been notified of the family's abrupt departure and had come to the house to investigate — but never informed a congressional inquiry into the possible connection between Saudi Arabia and the terror attacks of their work.
So they took the bureau to federal court, demanding that a judge review a Freedom of Information Act request to unseal some 80,000 pages of documents from the Tampa field office.
Four years later, that case is ongoing, but on Friday the campaign received a big boost in morale: the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act," which would allow 9/11 families to sue the Saudi government.
The bill's passage, and a lawsuit that can now follow, has long been hailed by advocates as a way to bring closure and even financial retribution for the attacks of 9/11, but many also see in it another outcome: a new way to uncover the true role, if any, that the Saudis had in financing the attacks. (The Saudis deny any involvement.)
"With a lawsuit, you'd have discovery, you can subpoena things," said Terry Strada, the national chair of the 9/11 Victims' Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, which has pushed for the legislation for years. "There's so many things we can have out in the open."
The bill faces almost a certain veto from President Barack Obama, who has said it would create a dangerous precedent for foreign policymaking. If passed, opponents say, it would carve out an exception to the longstanding practice of sovereign immunity, and potentially expose American diplomatic secrets to the whims of foreign courts.
But the bill was approved by the Senate unanimously in May, and any veto appears likely to be overridden, which would make it the first such override of Obama's presidency.
"We're rooting for them," Christensen said this week, as he waited for news of the bill's passage. "There's a whole lot more. The Department of Justice has docs, Treasury has docs — there's a lot of material out there."
A lawsuit against the Saudis could provide another avenue for securing the documents Christensen has sought in federal court — and would help him close a chapter of investigation that has nagged him for years. Days after the Saudi family left, agents apparently found the refrigerator full of food, and unopened mail on the kitchen table. "They just went back to Saudi Arabia," Christensen recalled this week. "Left their cars and their clothes and all their other shit in house."
The agents also reportedly learned that among the cars repeatedly photographed driving through the community's security gates was one registered to Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 plot's mastermind.
Christensen and Summers have been pressing the FBI for more information for years. They spoke with Bob Graham, the former Florida Senator who'd chaired the first congressional inquiry in the 9/11 attacks, and who told them that he'd never heard of the FBI's investigation into the Saudi family. Earlier this summer, after years of lobbying, the White House finally declassified a 28-page dossier, put together by congressional investigators, into the possible ties between the Saudi government and the 9/11 attacks.
When the 28 pages were released, Christensen was elated, but he also wrote an article in the Bulldog — now called the Florida Bulldog — arguing that the papers weren't "the last word in the search for who was behind 9/11."
Strada, who lost her husband, Tom, in the World Trade Center on 9/11, says she has been closely watching the work being done by Christensen down in Florida. "He's doing great work," she said. "The 28 pages are just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, I think it'll be closer to a hundred thousand pages."