By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair
Was there a foreign government behind the 9/11 attacks? A decade later, Americans still haven’t been given the whole story, while a key 28-page section of Congress’s Joint Inquiry report remains censored. Gathering years of leaks and leads, in an adaptation from their new book, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan examine the connections between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi), the Bush White House’s decision to ignore or bury evidence, and the frustration of lead investigators–including 9/11-commission staffers, counterterrorism officials, and senators on both sides of the aisle.
Adapted from The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robynn Swan to be published this month by Ballantine Books; copyright 2011 by the authors.
For 10 years now, a major question about 9/11 has remained unresolved. It was, as 9/11-commission chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton recalled, “Had the hijackers received any support from foreign governments?” There was information that pointed to the answer, but the commissioners apparently deemed it too disquieting to share in full with the public.
The idea that al-Qaeda had not acted alone was there from the start. “The terrorists do not function in a vacuum,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the week after 9/11. “I know a lot, and what I have said, as clearly as I know how, is that states are supporting these people.” Pressed to elaborate, Rumsfeld was silent for a long moment. Then, saying it was a sensitive matter, he changed the subject.
Three years later, the commission would consider whether any of three foreign countries in particular might have had a role in the attacks. Two were avowed foes of the United States: Iraq and Iran. The third had long been billed as a close friend: Saudi Arabia.
In its report, the commission stated that it had seen no “evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Iran, the commission found, had long had contacts with al-Qaeda and had allowed its operatives–including a number of the future hijackers–to travel freely through its airports. Though there was no evidence that Iran “was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” the commissioners called on the government to investigate further.
This year, in late May, attorneys for bereaved 9/11 family members said there was revealing new testimony from three Iranian defectors. Former senior commission counsel Dietrich Snell was quoted as saying in an affidavit that there was now “convincing evidence the government of Iran provided material support to al-Qaeda in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack.” That evidence, however, has yet to surface.
As for Saudi Arabia, America’s purported friend, you would have thought from the reaction of the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that the commission had found nothing dubious in his country’s role. “The clear statements by this independent, bipartisan commission,” he declared, “have debunked the myths that have cast fear and doubt over Saudi Arabia.” Yet no finding in the report categorically exonerated Saudi Arabia.
The commission’s decision as to what to say on the subject had been made amid discord and tension. Late one night in 2004, as last-minute changes to the report were being made, investigators who had worked on the Saudi angle received alarming news. Their team leader, Dietrich Snell, was at the office, closeted with executive director Philip Zelikow, making major changes to their material and removing key elements.
The investigators, Michael Jacobson and Rajesh De, hurried to the office to confront Snell. With lawyerly caution, he said he thought there was insufficient substance to their case against the Saudis. They considered the possibility of resigning, then settled for a compromise. Much of the telling information they had collected would survive in the report, but only in tiny print, hidden in the endnotes.
The commissioners did say in the body of the report that the long official friendship of the United States and Saudi Arabia could not be unconditional. The relationship had to be about more than oil, had to include–and this in bold type–“a commitment to fight the violent extremists who foment hatred.”
It had been far from clear, and for the longest time, that the Saudis were thus committed. More than seven years before 9/11, the first secretary at the Saudi mission to the United Nations, Mohammed al-Khilewi, had defected to the United States, bringing with him thousands of pages of documents that, he said, showed the regime’s corruption, abuse of human rights, and support for terrorism. At the same time, he addressed a letter to then crown prince Abdullah, calling for “a move towards democracy.” The Saudi royals, Khilewi said, responded by threatening his life. The U.S. government, for its part, offered him little protection. F.B.I. officials, moreover, declined to accept the documents the defecting diplomat had brought with him.
In support of his claim that Saudi Arabia supported terrorism, Khilewi spoke of an episode relevant to the first, 1993, attempt to bring down the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. “A Saudi citizen carrying a Saudi diplomatic passport,” he said, “gave money to Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center bombing,” when the al-Qaeda terrorist was in the Philippines. The Saudi relationship with Yousef, the defector claimed, “is secret and goes through Saudi intelligence.”
The reference to a Saudi citizen having funded Yousef closely fit the part played by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law Jamal Khalifa. He was active in the Philippines, fronted as a charity organizer at the relevant time, and founded a charity that gave money to Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief al-Qaeda planner of 9/11, during the initial plotting to destroy U.S. airliners.
When Khalifa returned to Saudi Arabia, in 1995–following detention in the United States and subsequent acquittal on terrorism charges in Jordan–he was, according to C.I.A. bin Laden chief Michael Scheuer, met by a limousine and a welcome home from “a high-ranking official.” A Philippine newspaper would suggest that the official had been Prince Sultan, then a deputy prime minister and minister of defense and aviation, today the heir to the Saudi throne.
In June 1996, according to published reports, while in Paris for the biennial international weapons bazaar, a group including a Saudi prince and Saudi financiers gathered at the Royal Monceau hotel, near the Saudi Embassy. The subject was bin Laden and what to do about him. After two recent bombings of American targets in Saudi Arabia, one of them just that month, the fear was that the Saudi elite itself would soon be targeted. At the meeting at the Monceau, French intelligence reportedly learned, it was decided that bin Laden was to be kept at bay by payment of huge sums in protection money.
In sworn statements after 9/11, former Taliban intelligence chief Mohammed Khaksar said that in 1998 Prince Turki, chief of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Department (G.I.D.), sealed a deal under which bin Laden agreed not to attack Saudi targets. In return, Saudi Arabia would provide funds and material assistance to the Taliban, not demand bin Laden’s extradition, and not bring pressure to close down al-Qaeda training camps. Saudi businesses, meanwhile, would ensure that money also flowed directly to bin Laden.
Special Relationships … Read the rest of this excellent article at the source, Vanity Fair.