Published on Thursday, September 4, 2003 by the New York Times
White House Approved Departure of Saudis After Sept. 11, Ex-Aide Says
by Eric Lichtblau
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 — Top White House officials personally approved the evacuation of dozens of influential Saudis, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, from the United States in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when most flights were still grounded, a former White House adviser said today.
The adviser, Richard Clarke, who ran the White House crisis team after the attacks but has since left the Bush administration, said he agreed to the extraordinary plan because the Federal Bureau of Investigation assured him that the departing Saudis were not linked to terrorism. The White House feared that the Saudis could face "retribution" for the hijackings if they remained in the United States, Mr. Clarke said.
The fact that relatives of Mr. bin Laden and other Saudis had been rushed out of the country became public soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. But questions have lingered about the circumstances of their departure, and Mr. Clarke's statements provided the first acknowledgment that the White House had any direct involvement in the plan and that senior administration officials personally signed off on it.
Mr. Clarke first made his remarks about the plan in an article in Vanity Fair due out Thursday, and he expanded on those remarks today in an interview and in Congressional testimony. The White House said today that it had no comment on Mr. Clarke's statements.
The disclosure came just weeks after the classified part of a Congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks suggested that Saudi Arabia had financial links to the hijackers, and Mr. Clarke's comments are likely to fuel accusations that the United States has gone soft on the Saudis because of diplomatic concerns.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, seized on Mr. Clarke's comments to call on the White House to conduct an investigation into the hasty departures of about 140 Saudis from the United States in the days after the attacks.
Mr. Schumer said in an interview that he suspected that some of the Saudis who were allowed to leave, particularly two relatives of Mr. bin Laden who he said had links to terrorist groups themselves, could have shed light on the events of Sept. 11.
"This is just another example of our country coddling the Saudis and giving them special privileges that others would never get," Mr. Schumer said. "It's almost as if we didn't want to find out what links existed."
Saudi officials could not be reached for comment today, but in the past they have denied accusations linking them to the 19 hijackers, 15 of them from Saudi Arabia.
While F.B.I. officials would not discuss details of the case, they said that in the days immediately after Sept. 11 bureau agents interviewed the adult relatives of Mr. bin Laden, members of one of Saudi Arabia's richest families, before the White House cleared them to leave the country. Mr. bin Laden is said to be estranged from his family, and many of his relatives have renounced his campaign against the United States.
"We did everything that needed to be done," said John Iannarelli, a bureau spokesman. "There's nothing to indicate that any of these people had any information that could have assisted us, and no one was accorded any additional courtesies that wouldn't have been accorded anyone else."
But the Vanity Fair investigation quotes Dale Watson, the former head of counterterrorism at the F.B.I., as saying that the departing Saudis "were not subject to serious interviews or interrogations."
Mr. Watson could not be reached for comment today.
The article depicts an elaborate but hurried evacuation carried out within a week of the hijackings in which private planes picked up Saudis from 10 cities. Some aviation and bureau officials said they were upset by the operation because the government had not lifted flight restrictions for the general public, but those officials said they lacked the power to stop the evacuation, the article says.
Mr. Clarke, who left the White House in February, said in an interview that he was driven by concern that the Saudis "would be targeted for retribution" by Americans after the hijackings.
Mr. Clarke said he told the bureau to hold anyone it had suspicions about, and the F.B.I. said it did not hold anyone.
Mr. Schumer said he doubted the thoroughness of a rushed review by the bureau, and in a letter to the White House today he said the Saudis appeared to have gotten "a free pass" despite their possible knowledge about the attacks.
New Sentences Ordered for Somalis RICHMOND, Va., Sept. 3 (AP) — Jail terms for two Somali men linked to the Qaeda network were too light, an appeals court ruled today.
The three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered new sentencing for the men, who were convicted of evading financial reporting laws while transferring more than $6 million to the United Arab Emirates.
One of the men, Abdirahman Sheikh-ali Isse, was sentenced last year to 18 months in prison; the other, Abdillah S. Abdi, was sentenced to 10 months. Prosecutors have argued for sentences of three to five years.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company