July 27, 2004
Scrutinizing the Saudi Connection
By GERALD POSNER
In establishing how the government failed to prevent the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the 9/11 Commission Report is excellent. Its grasp of some details, however, is less than reassuring - particularly details about Saudi Arabia, which it calls, in a gross understatement, "a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism."
Perhaps even more startling is the report's conclusion that the panel has "found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually" helped to finance Al Qaeda. It does say that unnamed wealthy Saudi sympathizers, and leading Saudi charities, sent money to the terror group. But the report fails to mine any of the widely available reporting and research that establishes the degree to which many of the suspect charities cited by the United States are controlled directly by the Saudi government or some of its ministers.
The report makes no mention, for example, of an October 2002 study by the Council of Foreign Relations that draws opposite conclusions about the role of Saudi charities and how "Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem." The 9/11 panel also misses an opportunity to more fully explore an intelligence coup in 2002, when American agents in Bosnia retrieved computer files of the so-called Golden Chain, a group of Mr. bin Laden's early financial supporters.
Reported to be among the 20 names on this list were a former government minister in Saudi Arabia, three billionaire banking tycoons and several top industrialists. Yet the report neither confirms nor denies this. Nor does it address what, if anything, the Saudis did with the information, or whether the men were ever arrested by Saudi authorities.
These failures are ones of omission, but the questions are of vital significance. Less important, perhaps, but more well known is the story of how many prominent Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, were able to fly out of the United States within days of 9/11.
On Sept. 13, 2001, a private jet flew from Tampa, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., before leaving the country later that same day. On board were top Saudi businessmen and members of the royal family. The assertion is that they were afforded extraordinary treatment since they flew out after the most cursory F.B.I. checks and at a time when American airspace was still closed to private aviation.
For a long time, the White House, the Federal Aviation Administration and the F.B.I. denied that any such flights had taken place on the 13th, and the first day of travel was the 14th. Now the report of the 9/11 Commission finally admits the flight was on the 13th - but it fails to quell the controversy. Rather, the report says the flight only took off "after national airspace was open" and quotes the pilot saying there was "nothing unusual whatsoever" about that flight.
The report fails, however, to note that when the flights occurred, airspace was open only to a limited number of commercial - not private - planes. And it attributes incorrect positions maintained for months by the federal government, particularly the F.B.I., to a "misunderstanding" between federal and local law enforcement.
Moreover, the report makes no effort to determine whether the question of the special repatriation of high-ranking Saudis from the United States was discussed on the same day as the first flight in a private meeting - no aides permitted - between President Bush and the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The ambassador has denied that the subject was discussed in his conversation with the president. But did the commission ask the president about it when it had the opportunity to question him? If so, there is no indication in the report.
The report makes no mention that one of the Saudis on the flight that left Kentucky for Saudi Arabia was Prince Ahmed bin Salman. Nephew to King Fahd, Prince Ahmed was later mentioned to American interrogators in March 2002 by none other than Abu Zubaydah, a top Qaeda official captured that same month. The connection, if any, between a top operative of Al Qaeda and a leading member of the royal family has remained unresolved despite Saudi denials. Prince Ahmed cannot be asked: he died in 2002, at the age of 43, from complications from stomach surgery in a Riyadh hospital.
Not only does the 9/11 report fail to resolve the matter of whether Mr. Zubaydah - who featured prominently in the now infamous Presidential Daily Briefing of Aug. 6, 2001 - was telling the truth when he named Prince Ahmed and several other princes as his contacts, but they do not even mention the prince in the entire report. The report does have seven references to Mr. Zubaydah's interrogations, yet not a single one is from March, the month of his capture, and the time he made his startling and still unproven accusations about high-ranking Saudi royals.
Of course, none of these matters undermine the report's central conclusions about what went wrong inside the United States leading up to 9/11. And satisfying answers to questions about the relationship between the Saudis and Al Qaeda might not be available yet. But the commission could have at least asked them. By failing to address adequately how Saudi leaders helped Al Qaeda flourish, the commission has risked damaging its otherwise good work.
Gerald Posner, the author of "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11," is writing a book about the Saudi royal family.