The White House came under fresh pressure last night to launch an aggressive investigation into claims that Saudi Arabia thwarted American efforts to investigate al-Qa'ida before the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001. Democrats also called for a inquiry into allegations that the kingdom might have, wittingly or unwittingly, channelled money to the hijackers.
The Democrats want President George Bush to declassify 28 pages of a congressional report on the failures of US intelligence in the run-up to the attacks. The censored pages reportedly detail possible Saudi culpability.
Officials who have knowledge of the full report say the missing pages, withheld at the insistence of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for "national security reasons", specifically examine whether one of America's allies was implicated in the attacks. One declassified section reveals that the investigation found "information suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the 11 September hijackers while they were in the United States". The officials were quoted as confirming that one source was Saudi Arabia.
But there still seemed to be no incontrovertible evidence that officials of the kingdom knowingly supported the hijackers. Indeed, the report suggests further investigation of these allegations "could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations".
Even without the missing pages becoming public, the report, which contains the findings of a seven-month inquiry by the Senate and House of Representatives, is critical of Riyadh for failing to help in probing al-Qa'ida. "It was clear from about 1996 that the Saudi government would not co-operate with the United States on matters related to Osama bin Laden," it said.
The CIA reportedly insisted that the 28 pages be kept secret out of fear of damaging relations with Saudi Arabia. Senator Bob Graham, the Democrat presidential hopeful, who was chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said: "I remain deeply disturbed by the amount of material censored from this report."
The report paints a bleak picture of missed opportunities by US intelligence agencies and breakdowns in communications between them. But it does not uncover any "smoking gun" event that would have given US authorities the date and place of the attacks before they happened. The document will be examined by an independent commission charged by Congress to continue investigating what went wrong in the intelligence community that allowed the plot to take its course.
The renewed focus on the alleged link between Saudi Arabia and the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi-born, has prompted a furious response from its government. The allegations were "malicious and blatantly false", the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said, adding that Riyadh had been trying to investigate al-Qa'ida in co-operation with the US.
That co-operation was stepped up in May this year when Saudi Arabia suffered its own suicide bombings, that left 34 dead.
The Prince said: "Rumours, innuendoes and untruths have become, when it comes to the kingdom, the order of the day. Twenty-eight blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people. Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages."
Richard Clarke, a US counter-terrorism expert, said: "I think the Saudi government was throwing around a lot of money to dubious organisations without trying to determine who was asking for it, and that a lot of the money got to al-Qa'ida."Reuse content