Release of 9/11 report could strain US relationship with Saudi Arabia

The ‘28 pages’ suggest larger connection between al-Qaida and Saudi royal family than previously reported as $89,000 was deposited to family of suspected spy.

The release Friday of a long-classified congressional report on possible ties between Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 terrorist plot has the potential to do lasting damage to the US relationship with the oil-rich Arab kingdom.

The so-called “28 pages” suggest a much larger web of connections between al-Qaida and the Saudi royal family than had previously been known.

Even as the White House – and the Saudi ambassador to the US – insisted that the 13-year-old report did not implicate senior Saudi officials in supporting al-Qaida, family members of the 9/11 victims who have long demanded the report’s release, as well as some of their congressional allies, said they believed the report demonstrated the need for a new investigation of a possible Saudi government role in the 2001 terror attacks.

The report – classified in December 2002 on orders of then president George W Bush – is almost certain to feed public suspicions that the Saudi government gave extensive support to Osama bin Laden before 9/11, and perhaps even directly to the 9/11 plotters themselves, as the US government looked the other way.

Perhaps the most explosive passages in the 28 pages, part of a larger, otherwise unclassified congressional report on American intelligence blunders before 9/11, offer previously unknown information about the actions of a powerful figure in the Saudi royal family. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was his country’s ambassador to Washington for several years before and after 9/11 and was a close friend of Bush.

According to the report, at least $15,000 went directly from Prince Bandar’s bank account in Washington to the family of a Saudi expatriate, suspected of being a Saudi government spy, who organized a support network in California for two of the 9/11 hijackers while they were living in San Diego in the year before the attacks.

The report also reveals that a phone log maintained by Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaida operative captured in 2002 in Pakistan, included the unlisted phone number for a Colorado company that managed affairs at Prince Bandar’s home in the mountain resort city of Aspen, as well as the phone number for a bodyguard who worked under Bandar at the Saudi embassy in Washington.

It had previously been reported that Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa bin Sultan, who was born into royalty like her husband, had paid out tens of thousands of dollars to the wife of the same Saudi expatriate in California, Osama Basnan.

For the first time in the public record, the 28 pages identify exactly how much money went from Princess Haifa to Basnan’s family: $74,000 in cashier’s checks from February 1999 to May 2002.

Investigators for both the congressional investigation and the 9/11 commission suspected, but were never able to prove, that much of that money ended up in the hands of the two hijackers in San Diego: Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

The Saudi government has repeatedly denied that Prince Bandar and Princess Haifa had any suspicion that money from the family’s accounts might have been used in a support network for 9/11 hijackers. Over the years, Princess Haifa has said through spokesmen that she understood her checks were meant to pay for medical care for Basnan’s ailing wife.

Although much of the evidence in the report is described as preliminary and was later discounted or dismissed by the independent 9/11 commission, the congressional report will raise new concern that US officials, determined to preserve Washington’s diplomatic and financial ties to the Saudi Arabia, attempted to cover up evidence that might have implicated the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s current ambassador to the US, Abdullah al-Saud, welcomed the publication of the 28 pages, saying: “We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States.”

John Lehman, navy secretary in the Reagan administration and a Republican member of the 9/11 commission, said in an interview on Friday that the 28 pages, which he had not read for several years, demonstrated why there needed to be additional investigation of the possible ties between Saudi government officials and the 9/11 plot.

He has said previously that he regretted that the 9/11 commission report, which was based in part on evidence gathered by the earlier congressional investigation, was read as an exoneration of the Saudis.

“The trail of evidence may be a little cold, but it’s time for a complete reappraisal of our relationship with the Saudis,” said Lehman, who said the Bush and Obama administrations had both failed to pressure the Saudi government to cut its ties to a fanatical, violent branch of Islam known as Wahhabism. “This is going to be a matter for the next president.”

Author: Philip Shenon



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