The Justice Department will reveal the name of an individual believed to be connected to the Saudi government and accused of aiding two of the 9/11 hijackers, prosecutors said in a court filing Thursday.
The person's identity will remain a closely guarded secret for now, though it will be shared with attorneys representing the families of victims of the attacks who have alleged the government of Saudi Arabia helped to coordinate the terrorists in a lawsuit. the attorneys can then petition the Justice Department to release the name wider.
The move to disclose the name came a day after the 18th anniversary of the attack, which left nearly 3,000 men and women dead, and followed intense deliberation at the top of the Justice Department.
That the disclosure came under President Donald Trump is especially striking given the administration's efforts to maintain close relations with the powerful Arab ally, including by downplaying the kingdom's involvement in the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Attorney General William Barr made the final decision, a Justice Department official said.
While the Saudis have continually denied any government involvement in the attacks, their role has been the subject of dispute in Washington.
Fifteen of the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals.
The 9/11 Commission established by Congress said in 2004 that it had found "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded" al Qaeda, although a number of commission members have since said, including in declarations that were submitted as part of the lawsuit, that the review did not include an exhaustive investigation of evidence of possible Saudi government involvement.
The name the Justice Department plans to release comes from a four-page summary from 2012 of an FBI investigation into three people who were said to help find living quarters and provide financial assistance, as well as assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver's licenses, to two of the hijackers in Southern California in the period before the attack.
Two of the names are already known from a version of the document that is publicly available, though the third name has remained redacted. The two men, Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar Ahmed al-Bayoumi, have been connected to the Saudi government previously in government reports.
Attorneys for the families have argued that the unnamed individual is likely a more senior Saudi official and point to a portion of the document where the FBI said a person whose name is redacted "tasked" al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with "assisting the hijackers."
In a statement, the FBI said it decided to declassify and provide the attorneys with the name "in light of the extraordinary circumstances of this particular case."
An official added that the information in the report about the unnamed individual referred to an investigative theory pursued by the FBI at the time and not a statement of fact.
The decision to release the document to the plaintiffs in the suit was "coordinated at the highest levels of the Department of Justice," prosecutors wrote in a court filing last week.
If the Justice Department had claimed they could not release the document under the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information that might endanger national security, Barr himself would have had to submit an affidavit making the claim.
Families of the victims have been attempting to sue the country as far back as 2003, and in 2018, as part of their lawsuit, were allowed to proceed with discovery. That was only allowed after Congress passed a law in 2016 widening the ability for civil lawsuits to be filed against foreign countries accused of involvement in a terror attack.
The law was vetoed by President Barack Obama that year, who said it would expose US diplomats and servicemen to litigation in other countries, but Congress overrode the veto.
Attorneys representing family members of almost all of the 9/11 victims, as well as thousands of survivors, last year sent subpoenas to Saudi Arabia, as well as the FBI, CIA and State Department, and have been receiving hundreds of pages of documents on a rolling basis.