When the 9/11 commission resumes its hearings Tuesday, it will be fascinating to see whether it addresses what may be the most serious security failure related to the attacks: the evacuation of about 140 Saudis almost immediately after 9/11.
Think about it: U.S. intelligence knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. Analysts also knew that Saudi money was a major force behind Al Qaeda. And, of course, Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the worst crime on American soil, was Saudi.
It is standard practice in murder investigations to interview friends and relatives of the primary suspect. One of the highest U.S. security priorities should have been the interrogation of Bin Laden’s relatives and other Saudis who, inadvertently or not, may have funded him.
“Certainly it would be my expectation that they would do that,” says Oliver “Buck” Revell, former associate deputy director of the FBI. And it should not have been difficult. U.S. airspace was almost entirely locked down. Virtually no one could fly. Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian Embassy was able to organize a massive operation to evacuate these citizens from the U.S.
It began with a chartered flight from Tampa, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 13. Soon there were at least eight planes stopping in 12 U.S. cities to fly Saudis out. About two dozen passengers were related to Bin Laden. Because of the lockdown, the initial flight required authorization from the highest levels of government -- and specifically from the White House. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said he was a party to such conversations in the White House.
Except for Clarke’s brief testimony before the 9/11 commission, however, the issue has received scant attention. The FBI has said “unequivocally” that it played no role in facilitating any flights. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the White House claim the Sept. 13 flight did not take place.
But it did -- as did the subsequent flights. How do I know? For my book, I interviewed two men, Dan Grossi and Manuel Perez, who were on the plane that took off from Tampa as security guards. I spoke with FBI agents who identified Saudi passengers boarding the flights but said they did not have lengthy interviews with them. I talked to sources who helped orchestrate the operation. And I obtained passenger lists for four of the flights. (The documents can be seen at www.houseofbush.com.)
Out of several dozen passengers on those lists, the most astonishing name was that of the late Prince Ahmed Salman. Best known as the owner of War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Ahmed was a prominent Saudi prince, but his presence is of interest for another reason.
As reported in Gerald Posner’s “Why America Slept,” Salman allegedly had ties to Al Qaeda and even had advance knowledge that it would stage a major attack in the U.S. on 9/11. Posner’s report is based on sources who were in a position to know details of the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubeida, a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan in 2002. Not long after Zubeida’s startling allegations about him, Salman died of a heart attack at age 43.
That leaves the questions of why the FBI did not appear to be interested in Salman or the Bin Laden relatives or the others on the flight, and why the White House went to such great lengths to expedite the departure of a potential treasure trove of intelligence. The 9/11 commission should ask FBI Director Robert Mueller and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft why such a man was allowed to leave the country immediately after the attacks. Did the president play a role in authorizing the evacuation himself?
The Bush family has a long, close relationship with the House of Saud. I have traced at least $1.4 billion in investments and contracts over the last 20 years from Saudis to companies in which the Bushes and their allies have had prominent positions -- among them, Harken Energy, Halliburton and the Carlyle Group. Did these relationships persuade the Bush White House to turn a blind eye to the Saudi role in terror? At a time when millions of Americans were numb with terror, was the Bush administration delivering favors to its Saudi friends?
If the commission addresses these questions, it will probably be accused by Republicans of politicizing this historic investigation -- in an election year, no less. But if it does not, it risks a far worse fate: betraying the thousands of people who lost their lives that day.
Craig Unger is the author of “House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties” (Scribner, 2004).