For most of the past decade, two countries have enjoyed virtual immunity from close scrutiny by the U.S. Intelligence Community. By the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration had adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy on China. No matter how badly China behaved, domestically or abroad, the Clinton White House just didn’t want to know about it. China’s leaders knew they could count on Clinton and his aides to minimize, justify, or simply ignore their misdeeds. Intelligence analysts who refused to go along with the cover-up soon found themselves looking for a new line of work. Nothing much has changed on the China front; for example, China wasn’t even among the nominated topics for discussion panels on national security for an upcoming major national conference.
The other country is Saudi Arabia. Like Iran in the 1970s, collecting and reporting on developments within the kingdom seems to have become taboo. During the 1970s, we relied almost exclusively on the Iranian intelligence services to inform us of developments inside Iran; no wonder Khomeini’s victory over the Shah was such a surprise. Now we seem to be equally gun-shy about Saudi Arabia. During the late 1990s, the intelligence information that did become available was jealously guarded and tightly controlled. It was released to few even inside the intelligence community. Legitimate inquiry into regime stability, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or possible links to terrorism were actively discouraged.
But these issues have become a hot topic since 9/11. Saudi authorities confirmed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but beyond that, Saudi “cooperation” has followed a pattern established after the Khobar Towers bombing, most commonly characterized as “balky.” The FBI and CIA have uncovered the paths by which the 9/11 plotters obtained their financial support, but a persistent question that has gone unanswered is where did the cash originate. Officials have pointed to Osama bin Laden’s own financial networks, but Congressional investigators have uncovered another potential source, the Saudi royal family.
Equally disturbing is their suspicion that neither the FBI nor the CIA has tried very hard to follow this trail. “Follow the money” is supposed to be the first law of any investigation, but it seems to have been honored more in the breach by government investigators. Or were they blocked from pursuing potential leads and, if so, by whom? Speaking on the Sunday political talk shows, senators from both parties pointed directly at the Bush White House. That seems justified in light of FBI and Justice Department statements to reporters that “disclosing even a possible Saudi link to the terrorists would further damage U.S.-Saudi relations.”
The CIA had two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi, on a list of persons barred from entering the U.S. This list was circulated months after January 2001 when they flew in from an al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur and settled down in San Diego. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who knows the importance of the money trail, has reported that they were met at the San Diego airport by a Saudi national, Omar al-Bayoumi, who got them a place to live and paid two-months rent in advance. He also got a Yemeni student to help them open bank accounts, get social security cards and contact flight schools to help arrange their flying lessons. Newsweek reported that the FBI questioned al-Bayoumi and charged him with visa fraud, but he fled to the U.K. before he was arrested. He is presumed to be in Saudi Arabia now.
Newsweek says that Al-Bayoumi was the recipient of “charity” from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan. It says Al-Bayoumi’s wife got about $2000 a month from Princess Haifa, routed through the wife of Osama Bassnan, who also befriended al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. Congressional investigators have charged that the FBI and CIA didn’t pursue this money trail with much zeal, an allegation that both agencies bitterly dispute. Saudi officials denounced the reports as “untrue and irresponsible.”
Agence France-Presse reports that another Saudi suspected of links to a Michigan al-Qaeda terrorist cell lived in a Washington apartment owned by Princess Haifa in 1997. That suspect, Mansour Majid, was also in Sarasota, Florida, while several 9/11 hijackers were taking flight lessons there. These revelations have increased suspicions of the Saudis and the quality and integrity of the FBI’s investigation of 9/11.