Wednesday

November 22nd, 2017

Declassified

When clues nearly led the FBI to America's favorite Saudi

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published July 19, 2016

Bill Clinton chats up Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

For anyone who remembers Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, the Saudi ambassador at the time was something of a legend. Prince Bandar bin Sultan seemed to know everybody. He was close friends with both Bush presidents and enjoyed warm ties with President Bill Clinton. He often dressed in traditional Saudi garb, but he loved America. He even had his private aircraft painted in the colors of his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.

He was also someone the FBI believed for a time had employed people connected to Al-Qaeda. This is an important detail in the new chapter of a long-forgotten 2003 congressional report declassified by the U.S. government on Friday afternoon.

The "28 pages," as this section of the 9/11 report has come to be known, provide no evidence that the Saudi government or Saudi senior officials had planned, financed or even knew ahead of time about 9/11. That remains the conclusion of the 9/11 commission, which examined the leads contained in the 28 pages.

But the declassified chapter does show some connections between Bandar and Al-Qaeda. To start, it says that the personal phone book of Abu Zubaida, a senior Al-Qaeda planner who was captured in 2002, contained an unlisted number for the company that managed Bandar's estate in Aspen, Colorado. The CIA later found that there were no "direct links" between other numbers found in Zubaida's phone book and the U.S. numbers. Another number in Abu Zubaida's phone book belonged to a bodyguard employed by the Saudi embassy.

The report also said that another Saudi's phone number was found in an Osama bin Laden safe house in 2002. This person had provided services to a couple who worked as personal assistants to Bandar.

The final tidbit in the declassified chapter involves Bandar's wife, Princess Haifa bint Faisal. She had made regular payments to the wife of Osama Basnam, who the FBI said may have helped two of the 9/11 hijackers when they first came to San Diego in 2000. Bandar himself also wrote a check for Basnam, but this was in 1998 before the hijackers had arrived in America. 

It turns out that these leads didn't add up. In a statement released Friday, the two co-chairs of the 9/11 commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, said: "Although the Commission expressed concerns about multiple individuals, only one employee of the Saudi government was implicated in the Commission’s plot investigation." That person was Fahad al-Thumairy, who was employed by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The FBI and the commission ended up interviewing him in Saudi Arabia. In the end though, the commission said the FBI found no evidence al-Thumairy provided assistance to the two hijackers.

While the 28 pages do not implicate the Saudi government in the 9/11 plot, they do show how the kingdom played a dangerous game in the 1990s when Al-Qaeda was just getting started. Back then, the small CIA unit that tracked the group observed that the Saudis had stopped cooperating with the agency's monitoring of the group's founder, Osama bin Laden, in 1996 -- in part because he knew too much about the kingdom's involvement with Islamic radicals.

To illustrate Saudi Arabia's non-cooperation, the report says the CIA and FBI for years pressed Riyadh for access to Madani al-Tayyib, who managed bin Laden's finances when he was based in Sudan. But they were persistently rebuffed. As one FBI agent told the Senate investigators, the Saudis would say al-Tayyib was "just a poor man who lost his leg, he doesn't know anything."

Before 9/11, it would have been difficult to see that much was wrong in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. What you saw were Prince Bandar's lavish parties in Washington. What you did not see were the frustrations of the CIA and the FBI, shrouded in the official secrecy of the national security state. You also did not see the few individuals in Bandar's orbit who would come under suspicion after Al-Qaeda took down the World Trade Center. 

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Previously:
07/12/16: General Flynn outlines an all-out war on terror
07/11/16: The Palestinian incentive program for killing Jews
06/28/16: Obama's Iran policy is at odds with Hillary's message
06/22/16: Is Israel a pariah? Not according to its powerful new friends
06/10/16: U.S. taxpayers are funding Iran's military expansion
06/08/16: It's for good reason that aiding Kurds in and around Iraq is among the only bipartisan goals on America's foreign policy agenda
06/07/16: Why the U.S. Needs Russian Rocket Engines to Spy on Russia
06/06/16: Hillary Targets the 'Blame America First' Republicans
06/02/16: Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong-Un
05/25/16: REVEALED: The secret history of the Iran-deal 'echo chamber'
04/27/16: Pakistan has a China connection to nuclear trouble
04/19/16: Obama still not finished reinvigorating Iran
04/08/16: 'Panama Papers' could help go after Assad's wealth
04/05/16: Fascist or con man: The duelling Trump narratives
03/23/16: Hillary's convenient evolution on Israel
03/21/16: Cruz assembles an unlikely team of foreign-policy rivals
03/07/16: Trump turns out to be a politician, and not a good one
02/17/16: As Obama urges Congress, military says it can't send Gitmo detainees to U.S.
02/06/16: Hillary's security clearance is under scrutiny
12/23/15: Iran deal restricts U.S. more than Congress knew
12/11/15: Iranian troops abandoning Assad, Western officials say
12/09/15: Obama team weighs cyberwar options on Islamic State
11/20/15: After the Paris attacks, Bush whiffs on his war speech
11/18/15: What Obama's incoherence and anger at post-Paris press conference reveals
11/17/15: Dems begin to embrace 'regime change' --- again
11/13/15: Hurt feelings, unsafe spaces and other Israeli crimes
11/09/15: Egyptian leader seen as target of jihad
11/04/15: How Ahmad Chalabi survived his war to free Iraq
10/26/15: Now we know: AIPAC and the Dems who supported Iran deal
10/21/15: GOPers at Hilary hearing taking cues from Dems?


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