So began one of the most complex witness examinations in the biggest lawsuit in U.S. history -- a legal claim that Saudi government officials helped pull off the 9/11 attacks nearly two decades ago.
The landmark case, which involves more than 10,000 U.S. citizens seeking damages against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its alleged links to the attacks, has crept for years at a slower-than-snail pace through federal district court in Manhattan.
Now in the coming weeks, it takes its most important and potentially groundbreaking turn.
A federal judge gave the go-ahead for lawyers representing 9/11 victims to formally question more than a dozen Saudi officials under oath in a series of legal depositions, conducted by video conferences and across time zones because of the social distancing rules of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two depositions of mid-level Saudi officials took place in January. But on Wednesday, lawyers are scheduled to question their first important witness -- the former high ranking official at the Saudi embassy in Washington who supervised another staffer with reported links to al-Qaeda operatives who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
The transcripts of the depositions have been sealed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn -- meaning that lawyers are prevented from discussing specifics or sharing details even with their clients. Only the names of the 16 Saudi officials on the witness list have been released in court records.
But the fact that American lawyers are now allowed to interrogate a variety of Saudi officials under oath about possible connections to the deadliest terrorist attack in American history, which killed nearly 3,000 people, will undoubtedly shape the course of the lawsuit and potentially cast a shadow over future diplomatic relations with one of America's key Middle East allies.
'A turning point'
"We are at a turning point," said James Kreindler, a Manhattan attorney representing a large cross-section of 9/11 victims.
"We're building the case methodically."
Saudi Arabia's embassy in Washington, D.C., which has long denied that any Saudi officials were even remotely connected to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Justice Department, which has attempted to block 9/11 victims from access to a variety of still-classified investigative files including an FBI probe of alleged Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks, also did not respond. The U.S. State Department and the White House National Security Council declined to comment, with spokespeople from both agencies explaining that they do not want to speak about pending litigation.
When contacted, the U.S. lawyers representing Saudi Arabia also declined to comment.
"We never comment about pending cases," said Michael K. Kellogg, a Washington-based attorney who is leading the legal defense team for the Saudi government. Such a tight lid on information -- and comment -- reflects the sensitive nature of this case and its immense financial and political implications for both sides.
If the 9/11 victims win, they could receive a collective payout that would easily exceed the multibillion-dollar settlement with Libya in the Pan Am 103 terror bombing case or the record $70 billion after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
If the Saudis prevail, they would effectively erase one of the most enduring, mysterious and anger-filled chapters of the 9/11 narrative -- that Saudi intelligence operatives and midlevel diplomats actively assisted several of the al-Qaeda operatives who crashed hijacked commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and into a Pennsylvania farm field.
For the 9/11 victims, the slow, no-end-in-sight process has become inordinately frustrating, causing many of them to mistrust the U.S. government and its refusal to pressure the Saudis to clear up the mystery of their links to 9/11.
"I think about it constantly. Then I get angry," said Tim Frolich, 56, an accountant and former Little Falls resident who injured his foot escaping from the 80th floor of the Trade Center's South Tower.
"It's normal to ask questions, but the abnormal is what's happening," said Frolich, who now lives in Brooklyn and has emerged as a leading critic of the Saudis. "Our own government is not helping us. And Saudi Arabia -- they're certainly not going to help." Brett Eagleson of Middletown, Connecticut, who was 15 when his father was killed in the 9/11 attacks and has signed on to the lawsuit, said he would have preferred to wait until restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic could be eased so lawyers could question the Saudi witnesses in person.
"I'm not trying to be melodramatic, but this is like the Mafia," said Andrew Maloney, a former federal prosecutor who is now on the legal team that represents the 9/11 victims.
Another figure in the investigation is Jamal Khashoggi, the former Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was murdered by Saudi intelligence officials in 2018.
A year before his death and dismemberment in Istanbul, Turkey, Khashoggi met with a former FBI agent who was assisting lawyers for the 9/11 victims. Khashoggi reportedly agreed to help the victims' lawyers.
But it's not clear how much he could help -- or whether his meeting with the former FBI agent contributed to his murder.
Despite the sense that the case has entered a new phase, lawyers for the victims say they are frustrated that they have to conduct depositions over long-distance Zoom calls without in-person access to witnesses.
"It is very frustrating," said Jerry Goldman a Manhattan-based attorney representing victims. "We know more today than we knew 20 years ago. The American people have a right to know this stuff. If you're going to have a democracy, you need information."
But Goldman pointed to an inevitable toll on victims after so many years. "My clients," he said, "are starting to die on me."
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