US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order directing the FBI to declassify documents related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The order, coming a little more than a week before the 20th anniversary, is a significant moment in a years-long fight between the government and victims’ families over what classified information about the run-up to the attacks could be made public.
The families have long sought the information in hopes of implicating the Saudi government, with many coming out against Biden’s involvement in 9/11 memorial events if the documents remained classified.
Speaking on Friday, the president pledged that his administration “will continue to engage respectfully with members of this community”.
The executive order states: “The significant events in question occurred two decades ago or longer, and they concern a tragic moment that continues to resonate in American history and in the lives of so many Americans.
“It is therefore critical to ensure that the United States Government maximises transparency, relying on classification only when narrowly tailored and necessary.”
It directs the Justice Department, and other executive branch agencies, to begin the review and declares that all declassified information must be released over the next six months.
The move seems to be welcomed by campaigners, with one commending it as a “critical first step”.
Brett Eagleson, whose father Bruce died during the attack on the World Trade Center, is now an advocate for other victims’ relatives.
He said: “The first test will be on 9/11, and the world will be watching. We look forward to thanking President Biden in person next week as he joins us at Ground Zero to honor those who died or were injured 20 years ago.”
Mr Eagleson also said the families will be closely monitoring the process to make sure the Justice Department follows through and acts in “good faith”.
However, the order’s practical impact and any documents it might reveal are not quite clear.
In the last two decades, information that has been made public, including by the 9/11 Commission, has detailed numerous Saudi entanglements but has not proved government complicity.
A long-running lawsuit in federal court in New York aims to hold the Saudi government accountable and alleges that Saudi officials provided significant support to some of the hijackers before the attacks.
Earlier this year, the lawsuit took a major step forward with the questioning under oath of former Saudi officials.
Victims’ family members have long regarded the disclosure of declassified documents as an important step in making their case.
Fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda network was behind the attacks.
The Saudi government has denied any connection to the attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people.
Last month, the Justice Department revealed the FBI had recently completed an investigation examining certain 9/11 hijackers and potential co-conspirators, and that it was working toward providing more information.
Under the terms of the executive order, the FBI must complete its declassification review of documents from that investigation by 11 September.
Additional documents, including phone, bank records, and reports with investigative findings, are to be reviewed with an eye for disclosure over the next six months.