nthposition online magazine

Did the President spike the investigation of bin Laden?

by Greg Palast

[ politics | opinion - march 03 ]

On the BBC television show, 'Newsnight', an American journalist confessed that since the 9/11 attacks, US reporters are simply too afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions that could kill careers: "It's an obscene comparison, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck," Dan Rather said. Without his makeup, Rather looked drawn, old and defeated in confessing that he too had given in. "It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often."

Silence as patriotism? My producers at 'Newsnight' and editors at the 'Guardian' were not so constrained. So I was assigned to fly home to Ground Zero and ask the necessary question that could not, in the early days after the attack, leave the lips of American reporters: How did it happen that the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and our other extravagantly funded spooks could neither prevent nor learn in advance about the most deadly attack on America since Pearl Harbor? The answer was as unpleasant as the question. If US intelligence agencies did not see the attack coming it was because they were told not to look. Why? From inside the agencies were obtained statements and documents indicating that the Bush administration blocked key investigations into allegations that top Saudi Arabian royals and some members of the bin Laden family, not just Osama, funded and supported Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

The reports I did based on this information won the California State University School of Journalism's Project Censored Award in 2002. It's not the kind of prize you want to win: it's given to crucial stories that were effectively banned from US airwaves and papers. [1] I don't want any misunderstanding here, so I must emphasize what we did not find: We uncovered no information, none whatsoever, that George W Bush had any advance knowledge of the plan to attack the World Trade Center on 9/11, nor, heaven forbid, any involvement in the attack.

FBI document 199I

What we did discover was serious enough. To begin with, from less-than-happy FBI agents we obtained an interesting document, some 30 pages long, marked "SECRET." I've reproduced a couple of pages [2]. Note the designation "199I" - that's FBI-speak for "national security matter." According to insiders, FBI agents had wanted to check into two members of the bin Laden family, Abdullah and Omar, but were told to stay away by superiors - until September 13, 2001. By then, Abdullah and Omar were long gone from the United States.

Why no investigation of the brothers bin Laden? The Bush administration's line is the Binladdins (a more common spelling of the Arabic name) are good folk. Osama's the Black Sheep, supposedly cut off from his Saudi kin. But the official line notwithstanding, some FBI agents believed the family had some gray sheep worth questioning - especially these two working with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), which the file labels "a suspected terrorist organization." Let's be careful here: WAMY may be completely innocent. The FBI targets lots of innocents, too many in fact, but there were plenty of signs that the WAMY crew deserved the organization's scrutiny. WAMY, funded from Riyadh by royal charities, sponsors soccer teams and educational seminars. But in their Florida summer camp, besides the usual arts and crafts for the kiddies, youngsters received a pep talk on what were presented as the good Islamic practices of hostage-taking and suicide killings. (We at BBC obtained a video tape of one of these rap sessions.) WAMY literature was found in the apartment of one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, praising "heroes" who killed unarmed Jews at worship.

No matter how vile WAMY's indoctrination chats, they are none of the FBI's business. Recruitment for terror, however, is. Before 9/11, the governments of India and the Philippines tied WAMY to groups staging murderous attacks on civilians. Following our broadcast on BBC, the Dutch secret service stated that WAMY, "support(ed) violent activity." In 2002, The Wall Street Journal's Glenn Simpson made public a report by Bosnia's government that a charity with Abdullah bin Laden on its board had channeled money to Chechen guerrillas. Two of the 9/11 hijackers used an address on the same street as WAMY's office in Falls Church, Virginia.

The "back-off" directive and the Islamic bomb

Despite these tantalizing facts, Abdullah and his operations were A-OK with the FBI chiefs, if not their working agents. Just a dumb SNAFU? Not according to a top-level CIA operative who spoke with us on condition of strictest anonymity. After Bush took office, he said, "there was a major policy shift" at the National Security Agency. Investigators were ordered to "back off" from any inquiries into Saudi Arabian financing of terror networks, especially if they touched on Saudi royals and their retainers. That put the bin Ladens, a family worth a reported $12 billion and a virtual arm of the Saudi royal household, off-limits for investigation. Osama was the exception; he remained a wanted man, but agents could not look too closely at how he filled his piggy bank. The key rule of any investigation, "follow the money," was now violated, and investigations - at least before 9/11 - began to die.

And there was a lot to investigate - or in the case of the CIA and FBI under Bush - a lot to ignore. Through well-known international arms dealers (I'm sorry, but in this business, sinners are better sources than saints) our team was tipped off to a meeting of Saudi billionaires at the Hotel Royale Monceau in Paris in May 1996 with the financial representative of Osama bin Laden's network. The Saudis, including a key Saudi prince joined by Muslim and non-Muslim gun traffickers, met to determine who would pay how much to Osama. This was not so much an act of support but of protection - a payoff to keep the mad bomber away from Saudi Arabia.

The crucial question here is that, if I could learn about this meeting, how did the CIA miss it? In fact, since the first edition of this book, other sources have disclosed that the meeting was monitored by French intelligence. Since US intelligence was thus likely informed, the question becomes why didn't the government immediately move against the Saudis?

I probed our CIA contact for specifics of investigations that were hampered by orders to back off of the Saudis. He told us that far bigger fish got away than WAMY. The Khan Laboratories investigation had been effectively put on hold.

You may never have heard of Khan Laboratories, but if this planet blows to pieces this year, it will likely be thanks to Khan Labs' creating nuclear warheads for Pakistan's military. Because investigators had been tracking the funding for this so-called "Islamic Bomb" back to Saudi Arabia, under Bush security restrictions, the inquiry was stymied. (The restrictions were lifted, the agent told me without a hint of dark humor, on 9/11.) [3]

Clinton closed an eye

True-blue Democrats may want to skip the next paragraphs. If President Bush put the kibosh on investigations of Saudi funding of terror and nuclear bomb programs, this was merely taking a policy of Bill Clinton one step further.

Following the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, Clinton hunted Osama with a passion - but a passion circumscribed by the desire to protect the sheikdom sitting atop our oil lifeline. In 1994, a Saudi diplomat defected to the United States with 14,000 pages of documents from the kingdom's sealed file cabinets. This mother lode of intelligence included evidence of plans for the assassination of Saudi opponents living in the West and, tantalizingly, details of the $7 billion the Saudis gave to Saddam Hussein for his nuclear program - the first attempt to build an Islamic Bomb. The Saudi government, according to the defector, Mohammed Al Khilewi, slipped Saddam the nuclear loot during the Reagan and Bush Sr years when our own government still thought Saddam too marvelous for words. The thought was that he would only use the bomb to vaporize Iranians.

Clinton granted the Saudi defector asylum, but barred the FBI from looking at the documents. Al Khilewi's New York lawyer, Michael Wildes, told me he was stunned. Wildes handles some of America's most security-sensitive asylum cases. "We said [to the FBI], 'Here, take the documents! Go get some bad guys with them! We'll even pay for the photocopying!'" But the agents who came to his office had been ordered not to accept evidence of Saudi criminal activity, even on U.S. soil.

In 1997, the Canadians caught and extradited to America one of the Khobar Towers attackers. In 1999, Vernon Jordan's law firm stepped in and - poof! - the killer was shipped back to Saudi Arabia before he could reveal all he knew about Al Qaeda (valuable) and the Saudis (embarrassing). I reviewed, but was not permitted to take notes on, the alleged terrorist's debriefing by the FBI. To my admittedly inexpert eyes, there was enough on Al Qaeda to make him a source on terrorists worth holding on to. Not that he was set free - he's in one of the kingdom's dungeons - but his info is sealed up with him. The terrorist's extradition was "Clinton's." "Clinton's parting kiss to the Saudis," as one insider put it.

This make-a-sheik-happy policy of Clinton's may seem similar to Bush's, but the difference is significant. Where Clinton said, "Go slow," Bush policymakers said, "No go." The difference is between closing one eye and closing them both.

Blowback and Bush Sr

Still, we are left with the question of why both Bush Jr and Clinton would hold back disclosure of Saudi funding of terror. I got the first glimpse of an answer from Michael Springmann, who headed up the US State Department's visa bureau in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during the Reagan-Bush Sr years. "In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high-level State Department officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants. These were, essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own country. I complained bitterly at the time there." That was Springmann's mistake. He was one of those conscientious mid-level bureaucrats who did not realize that when he filed reports about rules violations he was jeopardizing the cover for a huge multicontinental intelligence operation aimed at the Soviets. Springmann assumed petty thievery: someone was taking bribes, selling visas; so he couldn't understand why his complaints about rule-breakers were "met with silence" at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Springmann complained himself right out of a job. Now a lawyer, he has obtained more information on the questionable "engineers" with no engineering knowledge whom he was ordered to permit into the United States. "What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama bin Laden, to the United States for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets."

But then they turned their talents against the post-Soviet power: us. In the parlance of spook-world, this is called "blowback." Bin Laden and his bloody brethren were created in America's own Frankenstein factory. It would not do for the current president nor agency officials to dig back to find that some of the terrorists we are hunting today were trained and armed by the Reagan-Bush administration. And that's one of the problems for agents seeking to investigate groups like WAMY, or Abdullah bin Laden. WAMY literature that talks about that "compassionate young man Osama bin Laden" is likely to have been disseminated, if not written, by our very own government. If Abdullah's Bosnian-operated "charity" was funding Chechnyan guerrillas, it is only possible because the Clinton CIA gave the wink and nod to WAMY and other groups who were aiding Bosnian guerrillas when they were fighting Serbia, a US-approved enemy. "What we're talking about," says national security expert Joe Trento, "is embarrassing, career-destroying blowback for intelligence officials." And, he could add, for the presidential father.

The family business

I still didn't have an answer to all my questions. We knew that Clinton and the Bushes were reluctant to discomfort the Saudis by unearthing their connections to terrorists - but what made this new president take particular care to protect the Saudis, even to the point of stymying his own intelligence agencies?

The answers kept coming back: "Carlyle" and "Arbusto."

While some people have guardian angels, our president seems to have guardian sheiks. George W was born with a silver oil well in his mouth; yet, despite the age of his family's money, his share was not anywhere near the pile it is now. This is a Texas oilman who seemed to drill nothing but dry holes. Yet he made the big time, not by striking oil, but by locating a gusher in the pockets of investors tied to Arabia who always seemed to appear to catch him as another one of his goofed-up business ventures was about to keel over. Dubya's Arbusto [Spanish for "shrub"] Oil was funded in 1977 by James R Bath, among others, whose own money came from representing Sheikhs Salim bin Laden and Khalid bin Mahfouz. When Bush's exploration firm was about to give up the ghost in 1981, he was bought out at a suspiciously high premium by Philip Uzielli, a college roommate of James Baker III, who would become Bush Sr's secretary of state, as well as a business associate in a firm called Carlyle. In 1986, the Uzielli operation, Spectrum Oil, with Bush on board, was saved on surprisingly good terms by Harken Oil - which would, within a year, receive a rich cash injection from Saudi Sheik Abdullah Bakhsh. When in 1990 Harken itself started to head south financially, Bahrain's government chose this Texas dry-land driller over Amoco to drill in the Persian Gulf. This surprising coup had nothing to do, we are told, with Dubya's daddy being, at the time, the president of the Free World.

Behind Carlyle is a private, invitation-only investment group whose holdings in the war industry make it effectively one of America's biggest defense contractors. For example, Carlyle owned United Technologies, the maker of our fighter jets. Carlyle has the distinction of claiming both of the presidents Bush as paid retainers. Dubya served on the board of Carlyle's Caterair airplane food company until it went bust. The senior Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia for Carlyle in 1999. The bin Ladens were among Carlyle's select backers until just after the 9/11 attacks, when the connection became impolitic. The company's chairman is Frank Carlucci, Bush Sr's former defense secretary. The average Carlyle partner has gained about $25 million in equity. Notably, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz employed Carlyle as his advisor in buying up 10 per cent of Citicorp's preferred stock. The choice of Carlyle for the high-fee work was odd, as the group is not an investment bank. One would almost think the Saudi potentate wanted to enrich Carlyle's members.

Dan Rather, still in his confessional mode, told BBC, "One finds oneself saying, 'I know the right question, but you know what, this is not exactly the right time to ask it.' "

But I'll ask anyway. "Where does the Bush family business end and policy begin?"

In my opinion, much too much has been made of the bin Ladens's Carlyle connection to the Bushes. It would be absurd to say that President Bush spiked the investigation of the bin Laden family and Saudi funding of terrorists in return for packets of cash. The system is not so crude. Gentlemen of the club do not act that way. Rather, what's created is a prejudice, call it a disposition, to conclude that these smiling Gulf billionaires, whose associates made you and your family wealthy, are unlikely to have funded mass murder of Americans, despite the evidence.

Who lost the War on Terror?

So who lost the War on Terror? Osama? From his point of view, he's made the celebrity cutthroats' Hall of Fame. Where is he? Don't ask Bush; our leader just changes the subject to Iraq. So we have the 82nd Airborne looking for Osama bin Laden among the camels in Afghanistan when, in all likelihood, the billionaire butcher - now likely beardless - is chillin' by the pool at the Ritz Carlton, knocking back a brewsky and laughing at us while two blonde Barbies massage his feet.

Bush failed to get Osama. But we did successfully eliminate the threat of Congresswoman McKinney - you remember, the one who dared question ChoicePoint, the company that helped Katherine Harris eliminate Black voters.

Following our BBC broadcast and 'Guardian' report in November 2001, McKinney cited our stories on the floor of Congress, calling for an investigation of the intelligence failures and policy prejudices you've just read here. She was labeled a traitor, a freak, a conspiracy nut and "a looney" - the latter by her state's Democratic Senator, who led the mob in the political lynching of the uppity Black woman. The 'New York Times' wrote, "She angered some Black voters by suggesting that President Bush might have known in advance about the September 11 attacks but had done nothing so his supporters could make money in war." The fact that she said no such thing doesn't matter; the 'Times' is always more influential than the truth. Dan Rather had warned her, shut up, don't ask questions, and you can avoid the necklacing. She didn't, and it cost her her seat in Congress.

McKinney's electoral corpse in the road silenced politicians, the media was mum, but some Americans still would not get in line. For them we have new laws to permit investigating citizens without warrants, and the label of terrorist fellow-traveler attached to groups from civil rights organizations to trade treaty protestors. Yet not one FBI or CIA agent told us, "If only we didn't have that pesky Bill of Rights, we would have nailed bin Laden." Not one said, "What we need is a new bureaucracy for Fatherland Security." Not one said we needed to jail everyone in the Midwest named "Ahmed." They had a single request: for George W Bush's security henchmen to get their boot heels off agents' necks and remove the shield of immunity from the Saudis.

That leaves one final, impertinent question. Who won? "The war on terror hasn't been decided yet, but a few winners are emerging," business magazine 'Forbes' says cheerily. "Background checking services... are high up on the list of businesses that will benefit from [the] government proposal to beef up security in the world's largest economy... services provided by companies like... ChoicePoint Inc, would increase further when the US Immigration and Naturalization Service steps up immigrant tracking."

On May 30, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft released new Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering and Terrorism. Ashcroft authorizes the mining of private information from commercial databases on citizens even, says the Electronic Privacy Information Center with alarm, "where there is no suspicion of criminal conduct." And who is one of the biggest commercial database firms? ChoicePoint. Forget that FBI agents say this is a big waste and a distraction to their work - ChoicePoint, having chosen our president for us, certainly knows what's best. They also want your blood: The administration is pushing for a national repository of DNA tags for each of us, a job already begun by Bode Technologies, a division of ChoicePoint. And if you have any complaints about this, just remember: they know where you live.

Notes

1 Not surprisingly, our story led the news in Europe. Our team was directed by BBC 'Newsnight' producer Meirion Jones. We were joined by 'Guardian' investigator David Pallister and editor David Leigh with invaluable assistance provided by the National Security News Service of Washington under the direction of spy-tracker Joe Trento. [Back]
2 The designation "199" means "national security matter." This (PDF file, needing Acrobat Reader) is the first of over 30 pages of documentation obtained by BBC and the National Security News Service (Washington) indicating that the FBI was pulled off the trail of "ABL" (Abdullah bin Laden) - until September 13, 2001. Abdullah is reportedly Osama's cousin, and should not be confused with another Abdullah, Osama's brother, a businessman in Boston. [Back]
3 Dr AQ Kahn is the Dr Strangelove of Pakistan, the "father" of their bomb and, says a former associate, a crusader for its testing... on humans. On April 25, 1998, Khan met at the Kushab Research Center with General Jehangir Karamat, then army chief of staff, to plan a possible preemptive nuclear strike on New Delhi, India. The Saudis lit a fuse under this demented scheme by telling Pakistan intelligence that Israel had shipped India warplanes in preparation for a conventional attack on Pakistan. We only know these details because a young researcher who claims he was at the meeting wrote a horrified letter threatening to make the plan to bomb India public, a threat which appears to have halted the scheme. After writing down his objections, the whistle-blower, Iftikhar Khan-Chaudhry, ran for his life to London, then to the USA, seeking asylum. Khan-Chaudry, when questioned, seemed to know too little to be the top nuclear physicist he claimed, and far too much about AQ Khan's bomb factory to be the tile company accountant Pakistan claims. Pakistan police, failing to arrest him, jailed, beat and raped his wife, suggesting they wanted him to keep secret something more interesting than bookkeeping methods. Whether his story was real or bogus, I can't possibly tell. The point is that intelligence agencies under Clinton, based on many other leads as well, were following up on the Saudi connection until the Bush team interfered. [Back]