Saudi officials, furious over a congressional report issued last week alleging possible links between individuals in the Saudi government and some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, have requested and been granted a meeting today between Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal and President Bush.
The hastily scheduled White House visit, which will take place shortly after Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, demonstrates the level of Saudi anger and the kingdom's clout with the Bush administration. A key issue in the dispute is that 28 pages of the 900-page report, in a section dealing with allegations about Saudi Arabia, were entirely classified -- but well-publicized -- and some U.S. officials said it appeared the Saudi government was moving toward asking the president to declassify those pages.
A Saudi official said Saud is coming to Washington to meet with the president to discuss "issues of mutual concern." A U.S. official said the request for a presidential meeting came late last week.
Before the report was released, congressional officials had fought hard to declassify the pages dealing with Saudi Arabia, especially Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.).
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who will also attend the meeting with Bush, said last week that the material was classified most likely because it could not be substantiated. "Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide," he said. "We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages."
Yesterday, Graham sent a letter to Bush citing Bandar's statement last week as a reason for declassifying those pages. Bandar "is frustrated by the fact that there are rumors and speculation but the Saudi government does not have the ability to engage," Graham said in an interview. Not only would release of the material inform the American public, he said, but "it is now important to the relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to make it public."
The information has remained classified for several reasons, including the sensitivity of the foreign government, the likelihood of revealing sources and methods used to gather the information and the fact that there may be ongoing criminal investigations that would be compromised were they to be made public, officials said. Were the Saudi government to request that the 28 pages be declassified, it is likely that CIA officials would review the matter and release at least parts of the section, one administration official said.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and the report cited a CIA memorandum that said connections between some hijackers and some Saudis living in the United States amounted to "incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists" from Saudi officials.
The declassified section refers only to "foreign support." But officials from various branches of the U.S. government said those two words refer to Saudi Arabia.
Much of the new allegations is the result of brief investigations conducted by the Sept. 11 inquiry staff. House and Senate members of the inquiry have repeatedly said they do not know whether the allegations are true, and have criticized the FBI in particular for not pursuing them more quickly, especially the case of a network of businessmen and religious figures in San Diego who provided some of the hijackers with financial and logistical support.
But the report holds out the possibility that the Saudi-related allegations "could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations."
The report makes no accusation that it was ever the policy of the Saudi government to support terrorism. Rather, the questionable activity involved Saudi citizens, some of whom worked for the Saudi government.
Two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were befriended upon their arrival in California by a Saudi named Omar Bayoumi, an employee of the Saudi civil aviation authority who had been the subject of a counterterrorism investigation begun in 1998. Bayoumi, who had large amounts of cash from Saudi Arabia, put down a security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment for the conspirators and set them up with an interpreter, a man whose brother is the subject of a counterterrorism investigation.
After Sept. 11, when the FBI renewed its investigation of Bayoumi, agents found he "has connections to terrorist elements," including ties to al Qaeda, the report said. A search of his apartment turned up jihadist literature, and his salary was paid by a man whose son's photograph was found in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan.
The FBI also determined after the attacks that Osama Bassnan, another Saudi man who had befriended the San Diego hijackers, "is an extremist and [an Osama] bin Laden supporter." The FBI was aware of Bassnan previously and received reports that in 1993 he was host of a party in Washington for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric now imprisoned for his role in the first World Trade Center attack. "However, the FBI did not open an investigation" at the time.
Bassnan and his family received charitable support from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Bandar, and members of the joint inquiry have complained they have had to press the FBI to determine whether any of that or other royal family money may have been used to aid the hijackers.