Leaders of the congressional panel ending an investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks yesterday accused the administration of refusing to declassify information about possible Saudi Arabian financial links to U.S.-based terrorists because the material would be embarrassing and would heighten political tensions with the desert kingdom.
In releasing the panel's final report on the intelligence agencies' performance before the attacks, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the vice chairman, said the information on Saudi Arabia should be made public to inform the public about a continued source of support for anti-American terrorism groups. Doing so also would put more pressure on the U.S. government to force the Saudis to sever their financial links to charities and individuals who support terrorism, they said.
Citing "their people and a lot of their leaders and probably even the royal family," Shelby said: "I believe [the Saudis] cannot support so-called charities that support terrorism on a big scale, and then pretend that they're our friends or our allies.
"As we get into the money trail, it might be embarrassing, but the American people need to know; the victims and their families need to know," he added. Shelby and Graham said avoiding embarrassment and maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia are not legitimate reasons to withhold information from the public.
"The question is," Graham said after the news conference, "will we get [the information declassified] in 30 years when the archives are open, or will we get it in time, before the next attack?"
U.S. officials have been trying to cut off funds for terrorist groups, some of which, they say, flow from wealthy Saudis through a network of Muslim charities. Senior administration officials, including President Bush, have publicly praised Saudi cooperation, although a number of authorities have privately criticized the Saudi effort as less than energetic. Last month, an interagency group working on the financing issue decided to recommend that the White House put more pressure on Riyadh, although the recommendation has not yet reached Bush's desk.
A CIA spokesman said the information Shelby and Graham cited is classified either because it involves an ongoing investigation or sources and methods that, if revealed, would harm future intelligence-gathering.
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy said he did not know what information Graham and Shelby were referring to, but said Saudi officials have been aiding U.S. efforts to track terrorist financing. "We are going to cooperate fully with investigative authorities in this country," he said.
The panel convened in February to investigate how U.S. intelligence agencies handled information about the hijackers and their plot. It released 19 recommendations for improving the spy system -- most of which have been made public in recent days -- and 19 findings, most of which emerged during public hearings this fall. Many of the joint committee's findings remain classified; the panel is asking the CIA to declassify most of the rest.
The key recommendations include a proposal to create a Cabinet-level intelligence czar with budget control over all 13 U.S. intelligence agencies. CIA Director George J. Tenet, who is also director of central intelligence, is supposed to have that authority now. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, not Tenet, has control over about 80 percent of the intelligence budget, and the intelligence agencies have devolved into separate, often competing, fiefdoms.
The panel also strongly criticized the FBI for not adapting rapidly after the terrorism attacks into a domestic intelligence bureau and said the government should study the creation of a domestic spying agency.
The panel said the CIA lacked an effective system for holding its officials accountable for their actions, and recommended that inspectors general at each agency further investigate allegations of improper judgment and unsatisfactory performance by a number of individuals responsible for monitoring and disrupting terrorism worldwide.
In a separate statement, Shelby, the panel's most outspoken member, named six top officials he said had "failed in significant ways to ensure that this country was as prepared as it could have been. He singled out Tenet; Tenet's predecessor, John M. Deutch; former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh; National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden; Hayden's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan; and former Deputy Director Barbara McNamara.
On the issue of Saudi Arabia, the panel recommended that the FBI and CIA "aggressively address the possibility that foreign governments are providing support to or are involved in terrorist activity targeting the United States and U.S. interests."
The furor over Saudi funding for terrorism peaked last month with reports that Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and his wife made charitable contributions to San Diego associates of two of the Sept. 11 terrorists. The two men helped hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi with introductions to the Muslim community when they arrived in San Diego in 2000.
Saudi Embassy officials have said that neither Bandar nor his wife knew the men, and that they make many charitable contributions to needy Saudis living in this country. There is no evidence any of the money made it into the hands of the hijackers, the officials said.