WASHINGTON — For years, some current and former American officials have been urging President Barack Obama to release secret files they say document links between the government of Saudi Arabia and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Other officials, including the executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, have said the classified documents do not prove that the Saudi government knew about or financed the 2001 terrorist attacks, and that making the material public would serve no purpose.
Now, unsubstantiated court testimony by Zacharias Moussaoui, a former al-Qaida member serving life in federal prison, has renewed the push by those who want a closer look into whether there was official Saudi involvement with al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 hijackers. They say it should start with the release of 28 pages relating to Saudi Arabia from a joint congressional inquiry into the attacks.
“We owe the families a full accounting,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, a Democrat who has read the classified pages written in 2002. They were left out of the public version of the report on the orders of President George W. Bush, who said they could divulge intelligence sources and methods. Officials on both sides of the debate acknowledge that protecting the delicate U.S.-Saudi relationship also played a role.
Lynch and Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., have sponsored a resolution that calls for declassifying the records. The White House has asked intelligence agencies to review the pages with an eye toward potential declassification, spokesman Ned Price said, but there is no timetable.
The controversy comes at a consequential moment in the relationship between the U.S. and the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has a new king – pro-American like the late monarch – and the two wary allies are working closely to confront the Islamic State, the turmoil in Yemen and Iran’s nuclear aspirations. At the same time, U.S. officials say they continue to privately admonish Saudi Arabia over human rights abuses in the kingdom, such as the recent flogging of a blogger, and its support of the spread of religious extremism abroad.
Moussaoui, who claimed during his terror conspiracy court case that he had planned to fly a plane into the White House on Sept. 11, was deposed by lawyers in a civil suit by some Sept. 11 families who are seeking damages from the Saudi government and other defendants, including charities and banks. Saudi Arabia vigorously disputes the allegations.
Moussaoui testified at his trial that key members of the Saudi royal family continued to fund al-Qaida in the late 1990s, even after the organization had declared war on the House of Saud. He also described plotting with an employee of the Saudi Embassy in Washington to shoot down Air Force One.
Lynch said the classified 28 pages, which are drawn from intelligence collection and FBI investigations, “are consistent” with Moussaoui’s testimony.
“There are specifics, there are transactions, there are names,” Lynch said.
Others who have read the document say it’s far from definitive.
Two senior congressional aides described the case as weak. One noted that just because Saudi citizens helped the mostly Saudi hijackers in the U.S. does not mean they knew about the operation. Another said that the pages contain inaccuracies that could compromise an important diplomatic relationship.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to describe material that remains classified.
“If you think it’s thin, well then, why not release it?” Lynch said.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he supports the release because he believes the pages would “demystify” the notion of a Saudi conspiracy.
“The issues raised in those pages were investigated by the 9/11 commission and found to be unsubstantiated,” he said.
That commission, which built on the work of the joint congressional inquiry with access to FBI files and secret intelligence, did not exonerate Saudi Arabia. But it did conclude in its 2004 report that there was no evidence that the Saudi government funded al-Qaida during the planning of the attacks.
“It does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al-Qaida before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al-Qaida sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al-Qaida’s fundraising activities,” the report said. “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaida funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
Two ardent dissenters from that conclusion have been former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a leader of the congressional inquiry and longtime chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John Lehman, a Sept. 11 commission member and former Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan.
Graham has said he sees “a direct line between some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.” He believes that a Saudi government agent living in the United States, Omar al-Bayoumi, provided assistance to two Sept. 11 hijackers in San Diego at the behest of elements of the Saudi government.
The New York lawsuit argues that Saudi rulers were playing a double game in the years before the attacks, expelling Osama bin Laden and declaring opposition to al-Qaida, while secretly funding it to assuage the kingdom’s religious conservatives.
Moussaoui, in testimony from a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, told plaintiff lawyers it was “an absolute lie” that Saudi Arabia severed its ties with bin Laden and al-Qaida in 1994.
“This is a complete misleading … assumption of people who are not familiar with the way the Saudi government is established” because the government has “two heads of the snake,” he said, according to a transcript.
The House of Saud, he said, “cannot keep power in Saudi Arabia without having the agreement” of the extremist Wahhabi religious establishment, he said.
“Look, see, we are not against Islam or the jihad, we finance bin Laden.”
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.