No Saudi Backing of 9/11 Found
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is expected to reject claims that Saudi Arabia provided money and assistance to the hijackers, challenging one of the most contentious allegations raised by a joint congressional inquiry that concluded last year.
In a long-awaited final report scheduled for release today, the Sept. 11 panel concluded that there was no evidence that the Saudi government or Saudi officials knew of or supported the plot to attack the United States, according to sources who had been briefed on the report’s contents.
In particular, the report, running more than 500 pages, dismisses long-standing suspicions that two hijackers who resided in San Diego obtained money and logistical support through a Saudi intelligence network in the U.S. that had agents in Southern California who were funded in part by a member of the Saudi royal family.
The commission’s report “exonerates the Saudis to a large degree,” said a Senate official who attended a recent briefing by the Sept. 11 panel. He said the commission had concluded that contacts between the hijackers from San Diego and two Saudi men “can be explained away as innocent and incidental.”
Such a finding would be the most definitive judgment yet rendered on a controversy that erupted with the release of a joint congressional report last July. That report from the House and Senate intelligence committees cited evidence that there were “specific sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were in the United States,” and chastised the CIA and FBI for failing to fully investigate the matter.
Although the unclassified portion of the report did not specifically point to Saudi Arabia, officials familiar with the investigation said that was the country to which lawmakers were referring. The “foreign support” language was followed by a 28-page gap, pages that the Bush administration refused to declassify on the ground that they contained material that would compromise national security.
Dozens of lawmakers protested that decision, saying it was designed to avoid embarrassing a country that had become an important American ally in the war on terrorism. Sources who had seen the classified version said the text outlined evidence of Saudi connections to the hijackers. Some of that material is expected to surface today in the section of the Sept. 11 commission’s report that discusses -- and dismisses -- the allegations of a Saudi role, according to sources familiar with the document.
The Saudi material is part of an expansive narrative that spans hundreds of pages and provides the most detailed public examination yet of the Sept. 11 plot and documents failures by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The report is said to list a series of squandered opportunities to prevent the attacks, and subjects the CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies to often scathing scrutiny. The document is also expected to cast a harsh light on the Bush administration, which has been portrayed during commission hearings as distracted by other issues and not focused on the terrorist threat in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Anticipating that criticism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that President Bush had done all he could to prevent the strikes. “If something had come to our attention that could have helped us prevent the Sept. 11 attacks from happening, the president would have moved heaven and Earth,” McClellan said.
The report’s release marks the culmination of an 18-month investigation by a bipartisan panel known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
The commission’s findings on Saudi Arabia were first spelled out last month in an interim staff statement that said the panel had found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded Al Qaeda.” The report noted, however, that Al Qaeda “found fertile fundraising ground in the Kingdom, where extreme religious views are common.”
The June statement also said that there was no evidence that the hijackers from San Diego received funding from two Saudi men with ties to the Saudi government: Omar al Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan.
Nor was there evidence that Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal had “provided any funds to the conspiracy either directly or indirectly,” the statement said. The princess is the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
After the congressional report last year, intelligence sources said some evidence indicated that Bassnan had received significant charitable support from Princess Haifa. Sources suggested that some of that money was then provided to the two hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Al Bayoumi had a number of contacts with the hijackers considered by many to be suspicious. He met them at a restaurant in Los Angeles shortly after they had entered the country, then helped them find an apartment and paid their first month’s rent.
At the time, U.S. officials said, Al Bayoumi was employed by a contractor for the Saudi civil aviation authority, even though he appeared to do little or no work for the contractor. Based on that financial arrangement and other evidence, some congressional officials thought that Al Bayoumi was a Saudi agent.
Congressional officials involved in the inquiry last year said they remained suspicious about the Saudi contacts. A Senate aide who worked on the investigation noted that Al Bayoumi’s salary doubled at “precisely the same time he meets these two” hijackers, and that the Saudi contacts “are way too suspicious to write off as being purely innocent.”
Eleanor Hill, executive director of the congressional inquiry, said she was not surprised the panel concluded that there was no proof of Saudi complicity, mainly because it would be difficult to prove otherwise. “It would be extremely difficult to determine that any foreign government as an institution funded and supported terrorists,” she said. “You would almost have to have an official declaration of the government saying it was a policy of the government.”
The panel’s conclusions are a form of vindication for the CIA and FBI, which have long been skeptical that Saudi Arabian officials were tied to the plot.
“We just never saw any hard evidence, any reliable evidence, that the Saudis offered any assistance to the San Diego hijackers,” said Larry Mefford, who retired last year as executive assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI.
Mefford’s comments were echoed by the former head of the FBI’s San Diego office, who last year publicly voiced frustration with the conclusions of the congressional investigators. “I was disappointed before in the joint intelligence committee’s report because the implication was that there was a shoddy investigation done by the FBI in San Diego. And I don’t think its conclusions were supported by the facts,” said Bill Gore, retired special agent in charge of that office.
“The 9/11 commission ... came to the same conclusion we did: that the attack was planned from abroad, that it was funded from abroad and that the contacts with individuals in San Diego were by chance,” Gore said. “The people here had nothing to do with the attacks.”
Times staff writer Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.