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9/11: the Saudi Connection

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In his New Yorker article, posted on the magazine’s web site last week, Lawrence Wright tells how the Bush administration deleted 28 pages in the 2002 report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 911 probably because they describe in detail the Saudi connection to the Al Qaeda attack and Saudi financing of its operatives in the United States—people who knew two of the hijackers, and may well have been used as conduits for Saudi cash. Some of the money may have come from the royal family through a charity.

In removing the 28 pages Bush said the publication of the information would damage American intelligence operations. The Saudis deny all this.

In fact no one would be talking about it now were it not for families of victims of the attack and insurers, who are suing the Saudis.

Wright goes on to report:

“There’s nothing in it about national security,” Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who has read the missing pages, contends. “It’s about the Bush Administration and its relationship with the Saudis.” Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, told me that the document is “stunning in its clarity,” and that it offers direct evidence of complicity on the part of certain Saudi individuals and entities in Al Qaeda’s attack on America.   “Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report,” Lynch maintains. Another congressman who has read the document said that the evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is “very disturbing,” and that “the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.” Now, in a rare example of bipartisanship, Jones and Lynch have co-sponsored a resolution requesting that the Obama Administration declassify the pages.

But there are other questions here, and they involve the story of how the Bush administration sought to suppress evidence that would reveal how much it knew of the attack plot —and didn’t do anything to stop it.

To resume the story briefly:

Two of the flight 77 hijackers—Khalid al-Mihdhar, a Saudi who fought for al-Qaeda in Bosnia and Chechyna, and Nawaf al Hazmi, another Saudi with battle experience in Bosnia, Chechyna and Afghanistan, met at an al-Qaeda  strategy meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January, 2000. The CIA had asked the Malaysian intelligence service to conduct surveillance, but it proved not to be very effective. The two left that meeting, went to the airport and boarded a commercial flight to Bankok on January 8, and subsequently took a United Airlines flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles, landing without incident and passing through US immigration.

By that time, according to the Joint Inquiry Report, “the CIA and NSA had sufficient information available concerning future hijackers al-Midhar and al-Hamzi to connect them to Usama Bin Laden, the East Africa embassy bombing and the USS Cole attack…and they should have been placed on the State Department TIPOFF watch-list and the INS and Customs watch-list.’’

By July 2001, analysts operating on their own confirmed the two had landed in the US and notified the FBI. The Bureau alerted its offices in New York, but not in Los Angeles or San Diego. And no one thought to tell the FAA, INS or Customs Service not to let these men fly on planes.

Once in the US, the two hijackers passed unnoticed beneath noses of the CIA and FBI. They went from Los Angeles to San Diego, where they rented an apartment, got Social Security cards, drivers licenses, credit cards and a car. They soon began flight training.

The two had contact with a radical iman, who the FBI was watching and with a leader in the local Saudi community who was believed to be a Saudi financial conduit to the hijackers.

Perhaps most significant they had contact with a local FBI informant, in fact, living in his house. This man was charged by the FBI with keeping tabs on the local Saudi community. “He stayed at the home of a source of ours,’’ an FBI counterterrorism official later told James Bamford, author of the book A Pretext for War.  “Had we known about them we would have followed them and said, ‘Hey,these guys are going to aviation school.’’’

The Joint Inquiry concluded that the informants contacts with the hijackers, had they been followed up, would have given the FBI’s San Diego office the best chance to unravel the plot. Later efforts by the Joint Inquiry to interview the informant were thwarted by the FBI and Justice Department.

According to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, in his book Intelligence Matters, when the Joint Inquiry asked the FBI for all its files on the informer, the members were denied access to him and when the Joint Inquiry subpoened him, the FBI stalled. Graham called a meeting with CIA director George Tenet, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft. They suggested Graham question the informant in writing. But by the time the FBI sent out their questions, the informant had retained a top lawyer, a former employee of the Justice Department. The lawyer demanded immunity for the informant before testifying. Graham writes in his book, “It seemed strange that an individual who claimed to have done nothing wrong and who the FBI argued continued to be a valuable source of information would request immunity.’’

The committee turned down the request.

Graham wrote, the FBI  ”insisted that we could not even in the most sanitized manner, tell the American people that an FBI informant had a relationship with two of the hijackers.” The Bureau opposed public hearings, deleted any reference to the situation from the Joint Inquiry’s unclassified report. Only a year later did the FBI allow a heavily-redacted version of the story in the public report.

Finally in his book Graham describes a letter from a member of the FBI’s congressional staff explaining the Bureau had been uncooperative on orders of the administration.  “We were seeing in writing what we had suspected for some time. The White House was directing the coverup.

“Later, when the 911 Commission conducted its own investigation, both Bush and Cheney met with them in a private, off-the-record conversation.”

This story and the new piece by Wright strongly suggest the President, Vice President and head of the FBI were engaged in obstruction of justice. If so, that would call for the convening of a federal grand jury. Would the Justice Department, which runs the FBI, do that? Probably not.

So it is left to the families suing the Saudis to find and publish the truth.

James Ridgeway is an investigative reporter in Washington, DC. He co-edits Solitary Watch.

James Ridgeway is an investigative reporter in Washington, DC. He co-edits Solitary Watch.

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