President Bush refused Tuesday to declassify sections of the congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks that are believed to link the government of Saudi Arabia to some of the suicide hijackers -- rejecting a personal appeal from top Saudi officials who complain their country has been unfairly accused and want to clear the kingdom’s name.
And the Bush administration, even as it faced increasing calls from U.S. lawmakers to declassify the report, seized the face-to-face opportunity with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to ask for access to a Saudi man who is at the center of the growing controversy over the Riyadh government’s potential complicity in the hijackings.
Saud, who had flown from Riyadh for the hastily arranged meeting, said his government would allow the FBI and CIA to interview Omar al-Bayoumi, who provided two of the hijackers with financial aid and other assistance in San Diego in 2001 before returning to Riyadh.
The prince also hand-delivered a letter to Bush from the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, asking that still-classified parts of the report dealing with Saudi Arabia be made public so that Riyadh could counter any accusations.
But Bush said he would refuse to do so, even before he met in the Oval Office with Saud and Riyadh’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
During a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before the meeting with the Saudis, Bush told reporters that his decision was based on national security concerns, not politics, even as he dodged a question about why so many U.S. lawmakers believe that he is refusing to help shed light on any Saudi role in the attacks.
“We have an ongoing war against Al Qaeda and terrorists, and the declassification ... would reveal sources and methods that will make it harder for us to win the war on terror,” Bush said.
“Now, perhaps at some point in time down the road, after the investigations are fully complete, and if it doesn’t jeopardize our national security, perhaps we can declassify the 27 of the hundreds of pages in the document.”
In the meantime, he said, U.S. authorities and their allies are continuing an aggressive investigation into potential co-conspirators in the Sept. 11 attacks. “We don’t want to compromise that investigation,” he said.
“If people are being investigated, it doesn’t make sense for us to let them know who they are,” Bush said.
After emerging from the afternoon meeting, Saud read a statement saying that the Saudi royal family respected Bush’s decision and that he was glad to have had the opportunity to discuss the broader issue of the two countries’ cooperation in fighting terrorism.
“We are disappointed that it is not going to be published, certainly, but we understand the reasons for his not publishing” it, Saud said before TV cameras.
Saud avoided any criticism of Bush or his administration, but angrily denounced those who have publicly suggested that Saudi Arabia played a supporting role in the Sept. 11 attacks, or that it allowed Al Qaeda to flourish within its borders before and after the hijackings. Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers; U.S. officials have long contended that the kingdom is a hotbed of recruiting, training and fund-raising for the terrorist network.
But Saud said that his government has aggressively fought Al Qaeda, and that in their meeting Bush praised the royal family for doing so.
“The president ... assured me that these are the actions of a strong ally in this war,” Saud said. “The fact, as the president said, that we are both victims of terrorism and partners in the war against it makes it incumbent upon us to work together efficiently, in an environment of trust and mutual confidence, if we are to prevail in this war.”
During their meeting, Saud told Bush that Saudi officials were concerned about the appearance that they are not helping in the war on terrorism, particularly given the kingdom’s partnership with the FBI and CIA since May 12, when 35 people -- including nine terrorists -- died in suicide attacks at three Riyadh residential compounds catering to Westerners.
But according to sources familiar with the meeting, Saud said that the Saudi rulers were far more concerned about the allegations of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, which have prompted many U.S. lawmakers to call for further investigation into Saudi Arabia’s actions. At the heart of those allegations is a 27-page section of the congressional report, which remains classified but has been widely reported as disclosing possible links between individuals working for the Saudi government and at least three of the hijackers while they lived in the United States and planned the attacks.
Saud said releasing the classified section would allow Saudi Arabia to see and address the allegations against it. It would also, he told Bush, help dismiss the growing chorus of charges by U.S. lawmakers that the Bush administration has refused to declassify the Saudi sections of the report as a way of shielding both governments from potential embarrassment, the sources said.
“We have nothing to hide, and we do not seek nor do we need to be shielded,” Saud told reporters after the meeting. “We believe that releasing the missing ... pages would allow us to respond to any allegations in a clear and credible manner and remove any doubts about the kingdom’s true role in the war against terrorism and its commitment to fight.”
The congressional report, Saud said, has indicted Saudi Arabia “by insinuation.”
“It is an outrage to any sense of fairness that [the 27] 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,” he said.
Meanwhile, more lawmakers Tuesday joined the chorus of calls for the report’s declassification, including a second Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
“This administration has an obsession with secrecy, and this report is over-classified,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat on the congressional investigation.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a presidential candidate and the co-chairman of the joint inquiry, has been calling for release of the classified sections for weeks. On Tuesday, he said he would introduce legislation to allow the Senate to vote to release the material despite Bush’s opposition.
“The White House has again today decided it is more important to deny the people of America the opportunity to know what happened before and after 9/11 in terms of involvement of foreign governments than it is to open the record for all to see,” Graham told reporters, adding that he believed the president’s motives were based on politics, not national security.
The almost 900-page report by the Joint Inquiry of the House and Senate intelligence committees, released Thursday, alleges that a foreign government appears to have provided the hijackers with financial and perhaps logistical support while they were in the United States. Congressional and law enforcement sources have identified that country as Saudi Arabia.
The report cites a CIA memo that found “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists” from the undisclosed government. And it said that the FBI was highly suspicious of Al Bayoumi, a student in San Diego who an FBI informant believed might have been helping the hijackers as a Saudi intelligence agent. The report said that Al Bayoumi not only provided two of the hijackers with a deposit for an apartment and an interpreter, but had access to virtually unlimited amounts of money from Saudi Arabia.
Al Bayoumi worked for Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority and had been the subject of several counter-terrorism investigations in the United States, which concluded that he was an extremist and a supporter of Bin Laden and that he had “connections to terrorist elements,” the report said.
The report also sharply criticized the FBI for not aggressively investigating Al Bayoumi and a network of other San Diego-based Saudis who helped the hijackers and also had suspected links to terrorist activity. One of those Saudis and his family received large sums of charitable aid from the wife of Prince Bandar, the ambassador.
The congressional report notes that such connections could be “legitimate, and innocent,” but adds that the FBI and the CIA need to aggressively investigate them as a matter of urgent national security.