Dan Christensen lost his job in the Miami Herald's Broward bureau in 2009, a casualty of rampant cost-cutting in daily journalism. Rather than throw in the towel, Christensen started his own local news site, Broward Bulldog, and vowed to continue breaking stories. "This website was the only way to do it," he says.
Now Broward Bulldog is getting some national attention. On Thursday, three days before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Christensen broke a story that had been unreported until then: A family living in a gated community near Sarasota abruptly
abandoned their home (and brand-new cars and full refrigerator) just two weeks before the planes hit the towers.
They left an open safe in the master bedroom. The family was from Saudi Arabia, a close strategic ally of the United States, which has so far avoided overt connections with the terror attacks. Family members kept addresses in al-Khobar and in the capital, Riyadh.
And in the months before they abandoned the house, security cameras at the front gate recorded vehicle information that identified some curious visitors. Like Mohamed Atta, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI knew about all this, but it never made the information public. Click over to the Bulldog for more on the story, as well as former Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham's reaction to the fact that the FBI never revealed this information to the 9/11 commission or Congress. "One of the things the... administration must do is get to the bottom of these questions," said Graham.
The story drifted as a rumor, a possible lead, for years. Anthony Summers, who shares a byline with Christensen on these stories, had uncovered a hint of the FBI's unpublicized investigation while working on a book about "the full story of 9/11." Summers had been back and forth to Ireland and hadn't had time to investigate the abandoned Sarasota house.
"A couple of weeks ago," Christensen recalls, Summers contacted him with the tip. "We worked on it together," he says. "We both reported it. It's not like he gave me the tip and let me do all the reporting."
Christensen doesn't divulge exactly how he confirmed the scoop but says it came from "just old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting." He says that the Justice Department initially recommended that he file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but that would have taken way too much time. So he made some calls.
Christensen and Summers also met with Graham at Miami International Airport two Sundays ago, and had a three- to four-hour conversation with him to tell him what they had found.
They published the story last Thursday, just after midnight. The following day -- the last business day before the much-heralded tenth anniversary -- Christensen says he called the Department of Justice for comment on why no information on the Sarasota connection had been disclosed. It had no comment.
Then, just after 7 p.m. Friday, the DOJ released a statement. "They acknowledged the existence of the investigation but said they didn't find any links to the 9/11 plot and said they had turned over everything to the [9/11 investigation] committee," says Christensen.
When the reporters called Graham with that response, the senator was livid. "It's total B.S.," he told them.
"Bob Graham is not the kind of guy to get upset about something, but he was upset about this. The FBI has been dissembling for a decade on this whole story," Christensen says.
He adds that the story's release date, a couple of days before the 9/11 anniversary, was a coincidence of timing. The Miami Herald, which occasionally purchases stories from Broward Bulldog along with other outlets, also published the report. Now Graham is calling for an investigation on the new information and why it was withheld.
In the first story on the subject, Christensen and Summers wrote this:
The final 28-page section of the Inquiry's report, which deals with "sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers," was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.
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"To me, it really was amazing that this has been out there, all these people know about it, yet it never found its way into the press before," says Christensen. "It makes you wonder about what else has happened that you don't know about."