The Bush administration is under pressure to allow publication of a secret part of a congressional report on the September 2001 terrorist attacks, which is said to point to large-scale financial backing for the hijackers from Saudi Arabia.
The 28-page section, dealing with the role foreign governments may have played in the attacks, was kept out of the 900-page document issued last week by a joint House and Senate intelligence committee. But it is said to dwell almost exclusively on Saudi Arabia, 15 of whose citizens were among the 19 men who carried out the suicide strikes.
According to The New York Times, it suggests that senior officials from the kingdom channelled hundreds of millions of dollars to Islamic charities and other front organisations. The funds were then passed on to terrorist groups, including al-Qa'ida.
The published part of the report identifies a Saudi student called Omar al-Bayoumi who provided money and other help to two men in California that turned out to be among the hijackers. Mr al-Bayoumi, who also worked for the Saudi civil aviation authority, had access to "seemingly limitless funding from Saudi Arabia", the report said.
Last night Charles Schumer, the senior Democratic senator from New York, demanded that the White House ask the Saudi authorities to turn over Mr al-Bayoumi, who is believed to be living in the kingdom. Other Democrats want the entire classified section to be made public, accusing the Bush administration of a cover-up to avoid embarrassing an ally.
The Congressional report was the work of a joint committee set up in December 2001 to investigate the background to the attacks and whether they could have been prevented. It identifies serious lapses by the CIA and FBI, including a failure properly to communicate with each other, and to heed warnings that al-Qa'ida was planning a major strike in the US.
However, it concludes that the evidence available beforehand was not enough to predict exactly when and where an attack would come. In the absence of such a "smoking gun" it is the Saudi issue that has caused the most controversy.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, dismissed the suggestion that Riyadh funded or knew about 11 September as "malicious and blatantly false". He said: "Al-Qa'ida is a cult that is seeking to destroy Saudi Arabia as well as the US. By what logic would we support a cult that is trying to kill us?"
However, the affair will impose new strain on the delicate relationship between Washington and the world's biggest oil producer. Some critics here maintain that because of its links with radical Islam and its long history of dragging its feet over terrorist investigations, the kingdom should be regarded as basically hostile to the US.
But Saudi Arabia's defenders say its ambiguous attitude to terrorism has been transformed by the suicide bombings there on 12 May this year which left 34 people dead. The pull-out of US forces from Saudi Arabia will also remove a visible source of friction between the two countries.Reuse content