By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, FloridaBulldog.org
“In Saudi Arabia they chose not to see these radical fundamentalists….We allow them to flourish, and have no reason to believe that their way of life would do anyone harm.”
That is an astounding statement. It came from the lips of Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a long-hidden interview with the 9/11 Commission. Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Commission staff, it appears, did not question Bandar further on his statement that radical fundamentalists would not do anyone any harm.
Restricted on national security grounds, the commission’s summary notes of the October 7, 2003 interview with Bandar were released to the authors by the National Archives only a month ago. We had been trying to obtain them for almost a decade. The interview was conducted at Bandar’s home in McLean, Virginia, by Commission Director Philip Zelikow and three members of his staff. The Commission did not routinely record its interviews, according to Zelikow. No transcript is available.
Bandar, who served as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, is a grandson of his country’s founder, King Ibn Saud. The interview took place as the Commission prepared for a trip to Saudi Arabia to interview witnesses and government officials.
Terry Strada, whose husband Tom died in the World Trade Center attacks, is today National Chair of 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism. She reacted angrily when we told her what Bandar had said. “Saying they “chose not to see” the extremists in their midst is an admission that they knew they were there and did nothing to stop them. But even that is too generous…Their government-built, government-funded, government-staffed mosques all over the world were filled with their government-approved extremists spewing hate, death and destruction to America.”
“Of course they knew about the problem, “said Strada, whose group is one of the plaintiffs in the long-running New York lawsuit against Saudi Arabia by 9/11 victims’ families and survivors. “They were at the center of it,” she added, “They created the Frankenstein…and pointed it at us.”
The summary of the Bandar interview covers just two-and-a-half single-spaced typed pages. Much of it is taken up with the Ambassador’s attempts to shift the burden for difficult relations between the countries on to the United States – criticizing the US for having created a breeding ground for extremists in Afghanistan, by failing to help it recover from the wars of the 1980s; for insufficiently sharing intelligence; for poor coordination between the CIA, the NSA and FBI; for hostility toward Saudi Arabia expressed in Congress; and for curtailing Saudi travel to the U.S. after 9/11.
Early in the meeting, Prince Bandar expressed dismay at the treatment the Saudi government received from Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11. The Inquiry’s December 2002 Report had repeatedly criticized the Saudi regime for lack of cooperation on terrorism. Bandar described the Saudis as “struggling to remove the shadow of 9/11 from their relationship with the United States.”
Prince Bandar implicated
Bandar had a very personal reason to be sensitive to the Inquiry’s work. The unclassified version of the Inquiry Report, and press leaks of the content of 28 then still classified pages, implicated Prince Bandar himself, and his wife, in payments made to Osama Basnan, a U.S.-based Saudi suspected of being part of the hijackers’ support system.
Basnan was close to another Saudi, Omar al-Bayoumi, who had befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi when they arrived in the U.S. in early 2000. According to FBI files, Bayoumi provided the pair with substantial assistance – helping with their move to San Diego, allowing them to stay in his home, and co-signing the lease on their apartment. He even threw them a welcome party.
Bayoumi also had extensive contacts with Saudi government entities in the U.S. including at least three individuals at his country’s embassy in Washington. He received a salary as an employee of the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority, but did no work for it. His income reportedly increased substantially when the future hijackers arrived in California – and dropped when they left.
The money trail also led to Basnan, who caught the attention of investigators after having bragged to an FBI source that he “did more for the hijackers than Bayoumi did.” In a search of the Basnan residence, Bureau agents discovered thirty-one canceled checks totalling more than $70,000, made out to Basnan’s wife and drawn on the account of Prince Bandar’s wife Princess Haifa.
Other records revealed that Basnan and his wife each received at least one check from Ambassador Bandar himself. Several of the checks made out to Mrs. Basnan found their way to Bayoumi’s wife, who tried to deposit them in her own bank account.
Though the 9/11 Commission knew all this when it interviewed Bandar, it did not question the Ambassador about it.
On Thursday, September 12, U.S. Attorney General William Barr is to announce whether he will invoke the state secrets privilege to hide the identity of the person who, the FBI has said, “tasked” Bayoumi and Saudi diplomat Fahad al-Thumairy with helping Hazmi and Mihdhar.
The name of that person, believed to be a Saudi official, is contained in a heavily-censored October 2012 FBI summary report. That details how federal prosecutors and FBI agents actively explored filing charges against a suspect for providing material support to the 9/11 hijackers. The report, obtained by Florida Bulldog in 2016 in Freedom of Information Act litigation that is still ongoing, is now at the center of the 9/11 families’ civil lawsuit.
Bandar was close to President George W. Bush and his family, so close that he earned the nickname “Bandar Bush”. Just two days after the 9/11 attacks, he was photographed relaxing on a White House balcony with the President, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.
Disquietingly, Bandar’s name and those of of members of his staff had also emerged elsewhere in the work of 9/11 investigators. No questions relating to any of that intelligence was raised with Prince Bandar in the Commission’s 2003 interview.
On September 13, for instance, the night of Bandar’s White House visit, his deputy called the FBI to seek assistance in getting bin Laden “family members” and other Saudis out of the country.
The Saudi exodus, which took place the moment U.S. airspace reopened, was the subject of an extensive FBI investigation. In a recent email exchange with us, Zelikow said that other Commission staff had probed the matter of the post 9/11 flights, but he himself had no direct part in that investigation.
Then there was Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah, another Saudi citizen believed by U.S. investigators to have been a senior al Qaeda figure, an aide to bin Laden himself. According to the FBI, an address book confiscated when Zubaydah was captured contained the unlisted phone number of the company that managed the affairs of Ambassador Bandar’s home in Colorado. He also had the phone number of an individual who at that time worked as a bodyguard at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Issues not addressed
“Information about all of those issues was undoubtedly in the hands of the Commission,” said Terry Strada of Families United, “and nothing at all about those issues is addressed in the released interview notes…When I learned I was going to see the Bandar interview for the first time, I immediately thought it would be pages and pages, and that the Ambassador would be grilled…” It makes no sense, she said, that it is so short.
“Our investigation did not confirm a number of the allegations,” Commission Director Zelikow said when queried about the Bandar interview, “so those would not necessarily have been valid factual premises for questions posed to Saudi officials.”
The record, however, shows that Zelikow did discuss the checks sent by Bandar and his wife to the Basnans with at least one Saudi official. On October 15, 2003, when Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Madani was being interviewed, he “expressed disbelief about the allegations regarding Princess Haifa, noting that it was preposterous [to suggest] that she was involved in terrorism.” Zelikow stressed to Madani that the Commission was striving to understand what Basnan’s role had been at the time the future hijackers were in California.
In its Report, the 9/11 Commission concluded that it had found no evidence that Prince Bandar’s wife supplied funds to the 9/11 conspirators either directly or indirectly. The sole source for that conclusion, a May 2004 interview with FBI agent Adam Drucker, has not yet been released in full. A redacted version of the interview contains no mention of either Bandar or of his wife.
Near the end of the Commission’s interview with Prince Bandar, it was noted, Zelikow “stressed the importance of a ‘full exposure of the facts.’ ” He then “alluded to a need to interview the Ambassador again on some particular issue.” In our email exchange this week, Zelikow could not recall what issue he had been referring to. He said, moreover, that he did not recall conducting a further interview with Bandar or other exchanges in writing.
A further conversation with Bandar did apparently occur on May 5, 2004. Though cited in the endnotes of the Commission’s Report, it does not appear on the National Archives list of Commission interviews. Relocated and supplied to the authors this week, it is an email reporting a phone call by Zelikow to Prince Bandar about the post 9/11 Saudi flights out of the United States.
The 2003 Bandar interview does contain one further, perhaps telling, admission. “For each instance where the U.S. government might have dropped the ball somehow,” the Ambassador said, “the Saudi government also dropped the ball, whether it is in the law enforcement or intelligence areas.”
During their post 9/11 investigations, the FBI received reports alleging that both Basnan and Bayoumi were in fact Saudi intelligence agents. The allegations have never been proven. The Commission staff interview of Basnan, senior Commission counsel Dietrich Snell wrote afterwards, established only “the witness’ utter lack of credibility on virtually every material subject.” Bayoumi fared a bit better. Zelikow, who was present during the interview, did not think Bayoumi had been a Saudi agent.
Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), who led the Joint Inquiry, has – by contrast – repeatedly expressed his conviction that both men were low-level Saudi government intelligence officers.
Prince Bandar himself has hinted that Saudi intelligence knew more about the hijackers in advance than they publicly admitted. “Saudi security,” Bandar said in 2007, had been “actively following the movements of most of the terrorists with precision…If U.S. security authorities had engaged their Saudi counterparts in a serious and credible manner, in my opinion, we would have avoided what happened.”
A secret interview
As head of Saudi intelligence (G.I.D. or General Intelligence Directorate) from 1977 to September 1, 2001, Prince Turki al Faisal could perhaps have resolved the questions about Bayoumi and Basnan. From around 1996, Turki said in 2002, “At the instruction of the senior Saudi leadership, I shared all the intelligence we had collected on bin Laden and al Qaeda with the CIA.”
A year after that initial comment, by which time he had become ambassador to the United Kingdom, Turki spoke out specifically about two of the 9/11 hijackers, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. In late 1999 and early 2000, he said – when Mihdhar and Hazmi were headed for a key terrorist meeting in Malaysia – his G.I.D. had told the CIA that both men were terrorists. “What we told them,” he said, “was these people were on our watchlist from previous activities of al Qaeda”.
No reference to a Turki interview appears in the Archives’ listings of 9/11 Commission documents. In 2011, while researching our book The Eleventh Day, the authors queried the omission with the Archives. “I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a Prince Turki Memorandum for the Record,” an archivist wrote then, “I can’t tell you, or I’d be revealing more than I’m allowed to…If we have an MFR for Prince Turki, it would also be withheld in full.” The umbrella nature of the withholding – under which the public is not allowed to know whether a document on a subject even exists – is rare, usually invoked only in cases of national security.
Our appeal of the Archives’ response led – just weeks ago – to a communication revealing at last that a record of a Turki interview does exist. We are now told, though, that the State Department has determined that – because disclosure could “reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security” as well as to “confidential sources” – the interview “remains properly exempt from disclosure”. We intend to file a final appeal to the Information Security Oversight Office.
Commission Director Zelikow believes that he might himself have conducted the interview with former G.I.D. chief Turki. If he did, he said, “it would have significantly concerned CIA liaison work…I don’t know what’s going on in the declassification process,” he concluded, “We did our part to try and help folks access our records.”
Information about what contacts Saudi officials had with the CIA before 9/11 may be what remains so very sensitive.
Anthony Summers’ & Robbyn Swan’s book on 9/11 – THE ELEVENTH DAY – was a Finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.