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The Saudi Connection

July 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Today’s White House meeting between President Bush and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal, was hastily arranged at the Saudis’ insistence. At issue — classified portions of a congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that was released last week. According to a brief description of the classified portions:

“The joint inquiry developed information suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.”

Unnamed sources identified the Saudis as the chief source of foreign support for some of the hijackers. The Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, vehemently protested the report, and the leaked allegations. The inquiry’s chairman, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, wrote the president yesterday, urging him to declassify the section. But today, the president and his aides refused.

After today’s meeting, Prince Faisal spoke briefly to reporters. He said he’d delivered a letter from Crown Prince Abdullah to President Bush, asking that the 28-page section of the report be declassified:

PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL: On Thursday, July 24th, a 900-page report was published by the congressional joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. In that report, Saudi Arabia is indicted by insinuation. It is an outrage to any sense of fairness that 28 blank pages are now considered substantial evidence to proclaim the guilt of a country that has been a true friend and partner to the United States for over 60 years.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been wrongfully and morbidly accused of complicity in the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This accusation is based on misguided speculation and is born of poorly disguised malicious intent. It has been refuted by the consistent public statements of the president and responsible administration officials, especially those who have access to the facts and who have praised Saudi Arabia as an active and strong ally in the war on terrorism. The report seems to have overlooked or intentionally ignored Saudi Arabia’s continuing efforts to fight terrorism.

There is no mention of the fact that Saudi Arabia has questioned thousands of individuals and arrested more than 500 suspects since September 11th. In the area of finance, the report never mentioned the many steps that have been taken, such as strict auditing procedures and financial control mechanisms to ensure that our tradition of charitable giving cannot be abused. I have conveyed these views in a letter from His Royal Highness Crown Prince Abudullah to President Bush.

The president expressed understanding of the crown prince’s position and renewed his own appreciation for our role in the war against terrorism. The president indicated that the release of the missing pages at this time would compromise operations and undermine ongoing investigations, and anyone who believes that this president will cover up for anyone culpable in the events of 9/11 must be out of touch with reality or driven by ulterior motives.

The president congratulated Saudi Arabia on the actions it has taken in the war against terrorism and assured me that these are the actions of a strong ally in this war who deserves our appreciation. The president noted that our nations are not only allies, but also victims in this war.

MARGARET WARNER: Here to discuss today’s meeting and what’s behind it are David Johnston, a reporter for the New York Times; Mathew Levitt, who was an FBI Middle East counterterrorism analyst at the time of the 9/11 attacks; he’s now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Mamoun Fandy, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Defense.

Welcome to you all. David Johnston, beginning with you, what can you tell us about what happened at today’s meeting?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, the meeting means clearly the Saudis were interested in having this report made public in order to diffuse the sort of growing sense in Washington that the report contains a very searing indictment of the Saudi actions over the years in contributing funds to charities that in turn have helped finance terrorist groups. The Bush administration has been very firm, as it has been for many months, in refusing to declassify this chapter and other parts of the report that deal was with Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments.

MARGARET WARNER: The president had already signaled, in fact, said publicly even before the meeting that he wasn’t going to release this classified section, and the meeting went on it looks like for a couple of hours. Were they just at an impasse, or is there is any give?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I don’t think there was any give at all from what we understand. The positions here are quite firm, although there is some sense I think that the Saudis may not be as upset over the refusal to release this report as they may publicly be expressing, that in a way there’s only information here that perhaps could be embarrassing for them and to — there’s the thought, I think, that perhaps they could have it both ways — both complaining about it and benefiting from it being kept secret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Associated Press just moved a quick bulletin saying that the — that President Bush and White House officials had asked Prince Faisal to get the Saudis to cooperate in further investigation of pre-connections before the 9/11 attacks. Can you tell us anything about that?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, we know that there are a number of investigations that are active and underway that the United States would like to have greater Saudi cooperation on. Some of them, we believe, are mentioned in the report and maybe those portions of the report that even members of Congress acknowledge should be kept secret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us a little more, whatever you can, about the secret portions of the report. What is the nub of the accusation or the allegations?

DAVID JOHNSTON: As we understand it, the heart of it is, is an accusation in the report that the Saudi government, that senior Saudi officials have knowledge of the transfer of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars, over the years to charities and other non-government institutions that have in turn financed terrorism. And it goes one step further to say that some of this money wound up in the hands of 9/11 hijackers through agents or other operatives of the Saudi government.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say Saudi officials, are you talking about, a, members of the royal family or non-royal family members of the government?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Primarily, as we understand it, it is senior officials who do not include actual members of the royal family.

MARGARET WARNER: And then is the… are the allegations that it was… they were knowingly contributing to causes that ultimately would finance terror or that it was — we’ve heard these accusations before — that it was kind of unwitting contributions to Islamic charities who on the side were financing terror.

DAVID JOHNSTON: The suggestion here, we believe, is that this was knowing, although intelligence officials describe this as really the same kind of information that they’ve collected over the years. That does not make a convincing case that there is witting knowledge on the part of Saudi officials as to the sort of end use of the money.

MARGARET WARNER: We should say that the committee, just in the little part where they did describe it publicly, said this information has not been independently verified by the CIA and the FBI, is that right?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Which means that the committee staff did not develop their own intelligence sources to independently confirm or corroborate that the information that the CIA and the FBI had obtained.

MARGARET WARNER: There is — now in the published part of the report, there are — there’s a description of a couple of Saudis who lived in San Diego, one of whom it is said helped two of the hijackers. Tell us briefly about this fellow.

DAVID JOHNSTON: This is Mr. Al Bayoumi, who is employed by the Saudi civil aviation authority, but much of what has… what he did in San Diego is a matter of debate. But according to the report, he met two men who later turned out to be hijackers on the Pentagon flight, Khalid Almidhar and Alhazmi and helped them, supported them, provided money to them while they lived in San Diego. At the same time, Mr. Bayoumi was thought within the… some elements of the Saudi community in that area to be in some sense an operative for the Saudi government but more in a way in keeping tabs on potential Saudi dissidents than in helping with any clandestine plot type of activity.

MARGARET WARNER: Mamoun Fandy, help us understand, why would the Saudi government seek and get this high-profile meeting when surely they were told in advance the answer was going to be no on declassifying the report.

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, I think you have to put yourself in their place here. These people who are under pressure in the region itself and inside as well as here in the United States, and they felt probably that 28 pages, blank pages, you can fill in the blank from the wildest theories about involvement of high Saudi officials to low officials and all of that. And that will certainly, from their point of view, is opening the hell gates against Saudi Arabia globally.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think they would really rather have it declassified?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think probably they think that the damage that will come their way from declassified material is less than the damage of allowing these wild stories that we’ve heard from — for the last few years, and now there is pressure from Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals, left and right, so I think there’s been this pressure, that they have to fight back.

MARGARET WARNER: Matthew Levitt, Richard Shelby, the Republican Senator from Alabama, who’s on the committee, said 95 percent of this chapter could be declassified without compromising intelligence sources and methods. Why do you think the administration is flatly refusing to do so, even after this entreaty from the government of Saudi Arabia?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, I think first of all we should not necessarily assume that Senator Shelby’s assessment is agreed with by the officials at the FBI and the CIA. The fact is that current operations could be compromised; there are sources and methods issues here. There’s more than just politics. I think that Prince Faisal was right in saying that anybody who thinks that President Bush or others in the administration are trying to cover up for somebody is just being ridiculous. I think the Saudis did want as much as possible to see this information declassified so that they could confront it, and frankly Adel Al-Jubeir and other Saudi spokesmen have been very good at the spin factor.

What’s damaging about this report is twofold. First of all, that there are direct Saudi links suggested in these pages to the 9/11 plot with Bayoumi in particular going for meetings with the hijackers, to meetings at the Saudi consulate, at the same time that another Saudi consulate official was meeting with possible terrorist suspects in Los Angeles and therefore was kicked out of the country, and then secondarily are the larger picture of their long-term funding or at a minimum facilitating or tolerating funding by other members of the Saudi elites of international terrorism. You put those two together and you have a very difficult position.

Prince Faisal, therefore, wanted to come here, if nothing else, just to be able to stand next to the president and have that photo op to show that the information was not so damning that it’s going to change the nature of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, at least right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So Mamoun Fandy, in other words these allegations, if the reporting is accurate, they go beyond the old story, what’s become an old story, that wealthy Saudis financed charitable groups who gave to terror and really get — it links it to the government — or government officials?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think it takes it to the specifics, I mean, you start talking about Bayoumi who was in San Diego. You start talking about Osama Bassnan, also the story… the old story of the linkage to Princess Haifa right here and so on, so you are connecting all these dots and making it absolutely dangerous although they do not raise to the level of really connecting it to… from a civil aviation person to really senior person in the government. It’s not clear yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there other reasons why the Saudi government at this time would find this report so threatening?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think there are many reasons. One, I think it was obvious in the statement of Prince Faisal is that first of all he feels there is malicious intent behind all of this, that there are people with ulterior motives trying to shift the internal dynamics in the region maybe inside Saudi Arabia that there is sort of a concerted effort to pressure the ruling family in Saudi Arabia to do certain things and they are outraged at that. And the situation in the region as well as inside is extremely sensitive. Only yesterday the Saudis raided one of those farms where there was people connected to al-Qaida, so the situation is extremely sensitive, especially after May 12 when the Saudis realized that indeed the al-Qaida elements are inside Saudi Arabia.

MARGARET WARNER: Matt Levitt, one, do you share that assessment that the Saudis may feel that the U.S. Government’s closeness to the ruling elite isn’t what it was, maybe trying to undermine them? And do you think that’s true? Do you think there’s a real shift in that what, 70-year closeness between America’s political establishment whoever it was and the Saudi royal family?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I don’t think there’s any malicious intent. I think what scares the Saudis most is the fact that this is not a report put out by a think tank, I can say that as someone with a think tank, but by Congress, bipartisan report.

I think that the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is changing, not necessarily for the worst. I think that was happening long before this report was released. By the end of the year, as I understand it, almost all U.S. forces will be redeployed out of the kingdom except for a couple of training missions that the Saudis have asked us to retain. With the liberation of Iraq there’s going to be shift in the oil production there, and that’s also going to have changes for the region in the international oil business.

I don’t think that this relationship is going to crumble. I think it is changing. I personally think that the Saudis are being slow to adapt to those changes. I think that the Saudis instead of coming to Washington and saying that they think that this is a malicious effort, instead should have said what they’ve been saying off and on for some time is that they recognize that there are some things that are wrong in Saudi society, there are some areas that are corrupt, there are some individuals that have been doing things that are wrong. They want that report declassified so they can deal with that issue. They didn’t say that.

One of the things that is most damning in the report is reportedly the fact of the report gets to the fact that members of the Saudi government, not the whole Saudi government, not the whole royal family, but members of the Saudi government — official Saudis — were involved in some way in financing the specific 9/11 plot.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mamoun Fandy, briefly, do you think the Saudi government will be more cooperative with the investigations that David Johnston was describing earlier, some of the follow-up, unresolved questions from this report?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think they will. First of all, they discovered that inside they have a problem and they have to cooperate on this. But I think on issues that like indicting somebody like Bayoumi, there might be still a snag that’s there. I’m not sure if they’re going to flinch on this one.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mamoun Fandy and Matthew Levitt and David Johnston, thank you all three.