IN ITS TOUGH QUESTIONING of Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice, the 9/11 commission has already shown itself to be more resolute than some skeptics predicted. Many Americans now realize that multiple warnings of an Al Qaeda attack on American soil crossed the desks of Bush administration officials in the months leading up to 9/11. The administration's previously unchallenged narrative has begun to unravel.
But when hearings resume on Tuesday, we may learn exactly how tough the commission is prepared to be. This time the stars will be Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, among others. When they testify -- especially Mueller -- we will see whether or not the commission has the stomach to address what may be the single most egregious security lapse related to the attacks: the evacuation of approximately 140 Saudis just two days after 9/11.
This episode raises particularly sensitive questions for the administration. Never before in history has a president of the United States had such a close relationship with another foreign power as President Bush and his father have had with the Saudi royal family, the House of Saud. I have traced more than $1.4 billion in investments and contracts that went from the House of Saud over the past 20 years to companies in which the Bushes and their allies have had prominent positions -- Harken Energy, Halliburton, and the Carlyle Group among them. Is it possible that President Bush himself played a role in authorizing the evacuation of the Saudis after 9/11? What did he know and when did he know it?
Let's go back to Sept. 13, 2001, and look at several scenes that were taking place simultaneously. Three thousand people had just been killed. The toxic rubble of the World Trade Center was still ablaze. American airspace was locked down. Not even Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who were out of the country, were allowed to fly home. And a plane bearing a replacement heart for a desperately ill Seattle man was forced down short of its destination by military aircraft. Not since the days of the Wright Brothers had American skies been so empty.
But some people desperately wanted to fly out of the country. That same day, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States and a long-time friend of the Bush family, dropped by the White House. He and President George W. Bush went out to the Truman Balcony for a private conversation. We do not know everything they discussed, but the Saudis themselves say that Prince Bandar was trying to orchestrate the evacuation of scores of Saudis from the United States despite the lockdown on air travel.
Meanwhile, a small plane in Tampa, Fla. took off for Lexington, Ky. According to former Tampa cop Dan Grossi and former FBI agent Manny Perez, who were on the flight to provide security, the passengers included three young Saudis. Given the national security crisis, both Grossi and Perez were astonished that they were allowed to take off. The flight could not have taken place without White House approval.
The plane taking off from Tampa was the first of at least eight aircraft that began flying across the country, stopping in at least 12 American cities and carrying at least 140 passengers out of the country over the next week or so. The planes included a lavishly customized Boeing 727 airliner that was equipped with a master bedroom suite, huge flat-screen TVs, and a bathroom with gold-plated fixtures. Many of the passengers were high-ranking members of the royal House of Saud. About 24 of them were members of the bin Laden family, which owned the Saudi Binladin Group, a multibillion-dollar construction conglomerate.
All this occurred at a time when intelligence analysts knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, that Saudi money was one of the major forces behind Al Qaeda, and that the prime suspect -- Osama bin Laden -- was Saudi as well.
For its part, the Bush administration has erected the proverbial stone wall on the topic of the Saudi evacuation. The White House told me that it is "absolutely confident" the Sept. 13 flight from Tampa did not take place. The FBI said "unequivocally" it played no role in facilitating any flights. The Federal Aviation Administration said that the Tampa-to-Lexington flight was not in the logs and did not take place.
But they are all wrong.
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How can I be sure? I have interviewed not only Dan Grossi and Manny Perez, but also sources who helped orchestrate the flights. I tracked down photos of the interior of one of the planes. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke told me, and later the 9/11 commission, about discussions in the White House that allowed the flights to begin.
Clarke says his advice was that the Saudis should be able to leave only after they had been vetted by the FBI. A basic procedure in any crime investigation is to interview friends and relatives of the primary suspect. When I talked to FBI special agents who participated in the Saudi evacuation, however, they said that they identified the passengers boarding the flights but did not have lengthy interviews with them.
"Here you have an attack with substantial links to Saudi Arabia," says John L. Martin, a former Justice Department official who supervised investigation and prosecution of national security offenses for 18 years. "You would want to talk to people in the Saudi royal family and the Saudi government, particularly since they have pledged cooperation."
Robert Mueller had taken over at the FBI just one week before 9/11 and cannot be held responsible for the bureau's shortcomings before the attacks. But he should be asked about the departure of the Saudis. How is it possible that this could have happened? Did the White House order the evacuation -- and thereby interfere in an investigation into the murder of nearly 3,000 people?
If such interviews had taken place, investigators might have uncovered a trove of intelligence. During the summer of 2001, just a few months before 9/11, several of the bin Ladens attended the wedding of Osama's son in Afghanistan, where Osama himself was present. Carmen bin Laden, an estranged sister-in-law of the Al Qaeda leader, has said she suspects many family members have continued to aid and abet him. Could the bin Ladens have shed light on these assertions? Two relatives, Abdullah and Omar bin Laden, had been investigated by the FBI as recently as September 2001 for their ties to the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, which has allegedly funded terrorism. The 9/11 commission should ask Mueller if they were on board. I have also obtained documents showing that Abdullah and Omar were being investigated by the FBI in September 2001. Mueller should be asked about the status of that investigation.
The Clinton administration had attempted to crack down on the Saudi funding of Islamic charities that funneled money to terrorists. More recently we have since had one revelation after another about Saudi royals who "inadvertently" funded terrorists. The Commission should ask Mueller if the Saudis who were allowed to leave were involved in financing terrorism. How could the FBI be sure without seriously interrogating them?
In addition, I have obtained passenger lists for four of the Saudi evacuation flights. (The documents can be seen at my website, www.houseofbush.com.) Out of several dozen names on those lists, the most astonishing is that of the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman.
A prominent figure in the Saudi royal family, Prince Ahmed is best known in this country as the owner of War Emblem, winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby. But his name is of interest for another reason. As reported last year by Gerald Posner in "Why America Slept," Prince Ahmed not only had alleged ties to Al Qaeda, but may also have known in advance that there would be attacks on 9/11. According to Posner, Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative who was part of Osama bin Laden's inner circle and was captured in 2002, made these assertions when he was interrogated by the CIA. The commission should ask Mueller about Zubaydah's interrogation. They should also ask whether the FBI interrogated Prince Ahmed before his departure.
But Prince Ahmed will never be able to answer any questions because not long after the CIA interrogation, he died of a heart attack at the age of 43. Yet we do know that he was on one of the flights.
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That leaves the question of the White House's participation in expediting the departure of so many Saudis who may have been able to shed light on the greatest crime in American history.
Is it possible that the long relationship between President Bush's family and the House of Saud led Bush to turn a blind eye to the Saudi role in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism? Rather than aggressively seeking justice for the victims of 9/11, did the president instead authorize the departure of rich Saudi royals without even subjecting them to interrogation?
That may be the most difficult question of all for the commission to tackle. If the commission dares to confront this issue, it will undoubtedly be accused of politicizing the most important national security investigations in American history -- in an election year, no less. If it does not, it risks something far worse -- the betrayal of the thousands who lost their lives that day, and of the living who want answers.
Craig Unger, the former editor of Boston Magazine, is the author of "House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties" (Scribner, March 2004).
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