Accuracy in Media

After 9/11, allegations surfaced that the Bush administration had permitted members of the Saudi royal family and relatives of Osama bin Laden to surreptitiously fly out of the U.S. without being questioned by the FBI. That story was debunked, but it got new life with the publication of an article in September’s Vanity Fair.

Written by Craig Unger, the article claims the Saudis were whisked out of the country just days after the 9/11 disaster. Unger reported that the FBI did not question the Saudis, including bin Laden’s relatives. Consequently, he said the Bureau missed a chance to gather important information on the terrorist attack on America. This story was picked up by several media outlets and was embellished somewhat in the retelling.

For example, a UPI wire story, run by the Washington Times, claimed that the Saudis were flown out of the country while U.S. airspace was still restricted. The New York Times ran a similar story claiming that the departures took place “when most flights were still grounded.” Tim Russert, questioning Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC’s Meet the Press, had the Saudis leaving the day after 9/11. All these reports repeated the allegation that the Saudis were not interrogated by the FBI prior to their departure.

Sensational as these allegations may be, they appear to be only about half right. Nowhere in Unger’s article does he actually state that the Saudi party departed while all other flights were still grounded. All flights were banned by the Federal Aviation Administration from 9/11 until 9/13. Some flights were permitted on the 13th, mostly for logistical purposes, and passenger flights resumed on September 14th. Unger cites a Tampa Tribune October 2001 report that has a group of Saudis taking a charter jet from Tampa to Lexington, KY, late on the afternoon of the 13th. But the first international flight ferrying the Saudis out of the U.S. did not take place until September 18th?five days after the ban was lifted.

What about allegations that the FBI did not interrogate the departing Saudis? That does not appear to be true. A Bureau spokesman told Unger, “We did everything that needed to be done.” Most of the reporting on the incident portrays the FBI as being heavily involved in roundup and relocation of the group. The Times, for example, cited a source claiming that the FBI was “all over the planes” prior to a departure from Boston’s Logan airport.

But the questioning of the Saudis does not appear to be extensive. Some agents questioned the thoroughness of any Bureau examination of the departing Saudis. Former Bureau counter-intelligence chief Dale Watson told Unger that the group was “not subject to serious interrogation.” Among the passengers, Unger writes, were two bin Laden relatives under investigation by the FBI. Writing in National Review, Byron York says the Bush administration still refuses to answer some basic questions, such as who in the White House allowed the bin Ladens to leave the country?

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