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Saudi links uninvestigated { November 23 2002 }

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November 23, 2002
9/11 Report Says Saudi Arabia Links Went Unexamined

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22 A draft report by the joint Congressional committee looking into the Sept. 11 attacks has concluded that the F.B.I. and the C.I.A, in their investigations, did not aggressively pursue leads that might have linked the terrorists to Saudi Arabia, senior government officials said today.

The report charged among other things that the authorities had failed to investigate the possibility that two of the hijackers, Saudis named Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, received Saudi money from two Saudi men they met with in California in the year before the attacks.

The committee's preliminary findings, which also accuse the Saudi government of a lack of cooperation with American investigators, have caused a bitter behind-the-scenes dispute between the panel's staff and officials at the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. At each agency, officials have disagreed with the draft findings, saying investigators vigorously pursued all available information related to Saudi Arabia.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, but little is known about their backgrounds and how they were recruited for the attacks. Most of the Saudis were part of a group that investigators refer to as the "muscle." These were men recruited late in the planning for the operation, not as pilots, but as an unskilled security force for the hijacking operation. Their job was to keep passengers at bay as the planes were commandeered and flown to their intended targets.

In a rebuttal report sent to the committee in recent days, the F.B.I. has tried to disprove several specific allegations by the committee. One of them was about Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi, who lived in San Diego a year before the attacks.

While in California, the two met with Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, each of whom was receiving financial support from the Saudi government. The men were receiving stipends, although officials said it was not exactly clear what kind. The committee staff concluded in its draft findings that investigators should have followed up on the meetings of the four men to determine whether there might have been a Saudi link to the hijacking plot.

The F.B.I. is still investigating how much financial support, if any, was provided by Mr. Bayoumi and Mr. Bassnan to the two men who later turned out to be hijackers. The bureau is also looking into whether senior Saudi officials in the United States may have played some role in distributing funds to Mr. Bayoumi and Mr. Bassnan.

Today, the F.B.I. said in a statement that it had "aggressively pursued investigative leads regarding terrorist support and activity." It added that Mr. Bayoumi and Mr. Bassnan had both been charged with visa fraud after the attacks.

But by that time, Mr. Bayoumi was already in Britain, where he was temporarily detained and then released because visa fraud was not an extraditable offense. The F.B.I. statement did not say where the two men were now or clarify the status of the cases against them.

Although the disagreement has not been publicly disclosed until now, the debate over possible Saudi connections raises a very sensitive political issue for the Bush administration. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world and one of the United States' closest and most important allies in the Persian Gulf at a time when the administration is preparing for a possible war with Iraq.

In its report to the committee, the F.B.I. said that it was not uncommon for Saudis in the United States to receive financial support from their government and that an inquiry into the two men after the attacks had failed to produce evidence that they had any link to the Sept. 11 plot. A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment about the joint inquiry's investigation of the Saudi matter.

Counterterrorism officials have said Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi had paid for most of their expenses with cash, which has made the investigation more difficult. They have also denied finding any evidence that funds for the attacks were channeled through Saudi Arabia or that the Riyadh government had any connection to the hijackers.

It remains unclear whether the draft conclusions about Saudi Arabia will be included in the joint committee's final report, which is to be completed in December in classified form. An edited version is not expected to be made public until early next year, officials said.

The Bush administration has sought to maintain close ties with Riyadh even as investigators examining the backgrounds of the hijackers have complained that they have received little cooperation from the Saudi government.

Investigators have yet to determine how the Saudi hijackers were selected for the plot, who chose them or whether they had help inside Saudi Arabia. Some American officials have theorized that Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi may have returned to Saudi Arabia from the United States to pick the Saudi hijackers, but investigators have no firm conclusions.

For their part, Saudi officials have said they have assisted in important aspects of the investigation for instance, providing confirmation of the identities of the Saudi hijackers. The officials have also said the hijackers' anti-American extremism did not represent mainstream thinking in the kingdom, even though some American officials have long regarded Islamic militancy as a serious problem that could destabilize the authoritarian government.

The tension between the joint inquiry staff and the F.B.I. and C.I.A. is the latest to evolve from the inquiry into lapses by intelligence and law enforcement agencies related to the Sept. 11 attacks. In a series of interim reports released during committee hearings in recent months, the joint panel has repeatedly criticized the performance of the two agencies.

Those sometimes scathing reports prompted officials at both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., including the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, to criticize the joint panel's methods. Officials have complained that it reached conclusions based on scant evidence and that it took evidence out of context.

The joint committee has already held at least one closed hearing on the F.B.I.'s relationship with a San Diego informer, the landlord of Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi a year before the attacks. The informer's role has become important because his former tenants are the hijackers who have come under the most intense scrutiny in the joint inquiry.

Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi, who were aboard the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon, were identified as Qaeda operatives by the C.I.A. in January 2001. But the C.I.A. did not ask the State Department to place their names on a watch list intended to prevent entry into the United States until late August. By then, they were both in the country. The C.I.A. sent information about the two men to the F.B.I. in late August, but by then there was little time left for the bureau to track them down.

The committee investigating the hijackers was also told by a retired F.B.I. agent who was the bureau's contact with the San Diego informer that he might have uncovered a hint of the plot through his informer network if the C.I.A. had provided the F.B.I. with more information earlier about the two men.

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