USA Today | 15 July 2016
WASHINGTON — The 28 pages of newly declassified material from the 9/11 Commission released Friday by Congress show multiple links to associates of Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar, the former longtime ambassador to the United States.
The details in the newly released documents are a mix of tantalizing, but often unconfirmed, tidbits about the Saudi Arabian ties of some of the 9/11 hijackers. They show possible conduits of money from the Saudi royal family to Saudis living in the United States and two of the hijackers in San Diego. The documents also indicate substantial support to California mosques with a high degree of radical Islamist sentiment.
The pages, sent to Congress by the Obama administration, have been the subject of much speculation over what they might reveal about the Saudi government’s involvement in the attacks masterminded by terrorist Osama bin Laden when he led al-Qaeda. The pages were used by the 9/11 Commission as part of its investigation into the intelligence failures leading up to the attacks.
A telephone number found in the phone book of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, was for an Aspen, Colo., corporation that managed the “affairs of the Colorado residence of the Saudi Ambassador Bandar,” the documents show. Another phone number found in Abu Zubaydah’s effects was traced to a bodyguard at the Saudi embassy in Washington, according to the FBI.
Osama Bassnan, who the documents identify as a financial supporter of two of the 9/11 hijackers in San Diego, received money from Bandar, and Bassnan’s wife also got money from Bandar’s wife.
“On at least one occasion,” the documents show, “Bassnan received a check directly from Prince Bandar’s account. According to the FBI, on May 14, 1998, Bassnan cashed a check from Bandar in the amount of $15,000. Bassnan’s wife also received at least one check directly from Bandar.”
Bassnan and Omar al-Bayoumi, another Saudi living in San Diego, “provided substantial assistance” to two of the hijackers — Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — the documents said.
In another case, an unidentified Saudi man was on a State Department watch list but was able to evade scrutiny by both the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service because he was traveling with a Saudi prince named Khalid al-Bandar, the documents show. “The FBI only learned of the trip after the fact.”
The top two members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees cautioned that much of the information in the newly released pages consists of unconfirmed allegations.
“It’s important to note that this section does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the Intelligence Community,” said House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s senior Democrat, said he hopes the newly released pages will reduce the continued speculation over Saudi involvement.
“The Intelligence Community and the 9/11 Commission…investigated the questions they raised and was never able to find sufficient evidence to support them,” Schiff said. “I know that the release of these pages will not end debate over the issue, but it will quiet rumors over their contents — as is often the case, the reality is less damaging than the uncertainty.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said investigations by the CIA and FBI debunk many of the allegations in the declassified pages.
“We need to put an end to conspiracy theories and idle speculation that do nothing to shed light on the 9/11 attacks,” they said in a joint statement.
Then-FBI director Robert Mueller said in a closed Oct. 9, 2002, hearing that he would not invest too much meaning in the documents.
“If I have one preliminary note of caution,” Mueller said, “it is that at this point there are more questions than answers, and I would caution against jumping to conclusions before we know a lot more.”
Saudi Ambassador to the United States Abdullah Al-Saud said Friday that Saudi Arabia welcomes the release of the documents, which he said confirm that no senior Saudi officials were involved in the 9/11 attacks.
“Since 2002, the 9/11 Commission and several government agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have investigated the contents of the ‘28 Pages’ and have confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government provided any support or encouragement for these attacks,” the ambassador said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that the pages would show no evidence of Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
“It will confirm what we have been saying for quite some time,” he said before the documents were released.
The 9/11 Commission did not actually write the newly released pages. Instead, the pages were part of the material the panel reviewed. The commission’s chairmen have described the pages in the past as information based almost entirely on raw, unvetted material received by the FBI and handed over to House and Senate intelligence committees in 2002 as part of an earlier investigation of 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission concluded in its report that senior Saudi officials did not knowingly support the terrorist plot to attack the United States. The panel also found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaeda.
Only one Saudi government employee was implicated in the commissions’s investigation of the 9/11 plot, Commission Chairman and former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean said in a statement issued Friday with Vice Chairman and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
“A few other such people are mentioned in various leads but only one turned out to be of continuing interest — a man named Fahad al Thumairy,” they said. “He was employed by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs and was working as an imam at a mosque in Los Angeles. He became a controversial figure within the mosque and, in May 2003, after Thumairy went home to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government refused to let him back in the United States. He is still a person of interest.”
While the 9/11 Commission found no evidence that senior Saudi officials were involved in the 9/11 attack, the report did criticize the Saudi government for tolerating and sometimes fanning the flames of radical Islam by funding schools and mosques around the world that spread extreme ideology. The report also noted that some rich Saudis gave money to charities with terrorist links.
Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who hijacked planes on 9/11 were Saudi nationals.
In the pages released Friday, the FBI complained that Saudi officials were uncooperative as far back as 1996 in providing background information or other intelligence about Bin Laden to the U.S. because Bin Laden “had too much information about official Saudi dealings with Islamic extremists in the 1980s for Riyadh to deliver him into U.S. hands.”
Current and former members of Congress and the families of the terrorists’ victims have been calling for the pages to be declassified and released for years. The Senate passed a bill in May that would allow 9/11 victims and their families to sue Saudi Arabia for the attacks. The House has not voted on the legislation.
President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Critics say it would set a precedent that could open the U.S. to lawsuits from foreigners accusing the U.S. government of supporting terrorism.
Saudi officials have reportedly threatened to sell off billions of dollars of their assets in the U.S. if Congress passes the bill.