NYT : Report on 9/11 Suggests a Role By Saudi Spies

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Report on 9/11 Suggests a Role By Saudi Spies

By JAMES RISEN and DAVID JOHNSTON | August 2, 2003

The classified part of a Congressional report on the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, says that two Saudi citizens who had at least indirect links with two hijackers were probably Saudi intelligence agents and may have reported to Saudi government officials, according to people who have seen the report.

These findings, according to several people who have read the report, help to explain why the classified part of the report has become so politically charged, causing strains between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Senior Saudi officials have denied any links between their government and the attacks and have asked that the section be declassified, but President Bush has refused.

People familiar with the report and who spoke on condition of not being named said that the two Saudi citizens, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, operated in a complex web of financial relationships with officials of the Saudi government. The sections that focus on them draw connections between the two men, two hijackers, and Saudi officials.

The report urges further investigation of the two men and their contacts with the hijackers, because of unresolved questions about their relationship and whether they had any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

The edited 28-page section of the report, produced by a joint panel of the House and Senate intelligence committees, also says that a Muslim cleric in San Diego was a central figure in a support network that aided the same two hijackers. Most connections drawn in the report between the men, Saudi intelligence and the attacks are circumstantial, several people who have read the report said.

The unclassified parts of the report also suggest a connection between Mr. al-Bayoumi and Saudi intelligence. The report says that ''one of the F.B.I.'s best sources in San Diego informed the F.B.I. that he thought that al-Bayoumi must be an intelligence officer.'' The report also says that ''despite the fact that he was a student, al-Bayoumi had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia.''

The joint inquiry's investigation of Mr. al-Bayoumi and Mr. Bassnan centered on their activities three years ago when they were living in San Diego. The report concluded that the two men were crucial to understanding the events leading up to the plot, largely because of Mr. al-Bayoumi's extensive contacts with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, after they settled in San Diego in early 2000. There is no definitive evidence that Mr. Bassnan knew the hijackers, but the report describes him as a close associate of Mr. al-Bayoumi.

One unresolved issue in the classified part of the report concerned Mr. Bassnan's visit to Houston after the attacks. While Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush, Mr. Bassnan met with a Saudi in his entourage, according to the report. It is not known what they discussed.

In San Diego, Mr. al-Bayoumi was employed by a contractor to the Saudi civil aviation authority, and received payments authorized by a Saudi official. But Congressional officials believe he was a ''ghost employee'' of the contractor who did no actual work. The payments authorized by the Saudi official increased significantly after Mr. al-Bayoumi came in contact with the two hijackers in early 2000, the classified part of the report states.

According to the unclassified parts of the report, Mr. al-Bayoumi first befriended Mr. al-Mihdhar and Mr. al-Hazmi in January 2000 when they arrived in Los Angeles from Bangkok, after attending a meeting in Malaysia with other operatives of al Qaeda. The two men stayed in Mr. al-Bayoumi's apartment for several days. He helped them find their own apartment, paid their first month's rent and security deposit, and threw a party to help them get settled in the local Arabic community.

Law enforcement officials have said, though, that Mr. Almidhar repaid Mr. al-Bayoumi and added that there was no evidence Mr. al-Bayoumi or Mr. Bassnan ever provided any other money to Mr. Almidhar or Mr. Hazmi. That point, the officials said, helps to explain why Mr. al-Bayoumi has not been accused of any crime, like providing material support to terrorists.

Law enforcement officials have played down the significance of the connection between Mr. al-Bayoumi and the two hijackers, saying there is no evidence that Mr. al-Bayoumi knew of the 9/11 plot. They dismissed the tone of the report, which they say portrays the possible links between the plot and Saudi Arabian officials as clearer and more direct than is actually known.

F.B.I. and C.I.A. officials have also said that they are not certain why Mr. al-Bayoumi was in San Diego, and that they are not certain of his exact relationship with the Saudi government. Some officials said that even if he was not a professional Saudi intelligence officer, he may have had some informal role. It is possible, they believe, that he was assigned to monitor the activities of Saudi students and other expatriates in the United States.

Investigators said that the role of the Muslim cleric who the report says served as a ''spiritual adviser'' to the two hijackers is central to an understanding of what happened in San Diego. The cleric is not named in the declassified section of the report, but officials identified him as Anwar Aulaqi. He is said to have held meetings with the two hijackers, and when he moved to Falls Church, Va., in 2001, the two hijackers moved as well and began to attend the mosque with which the cleric was now associated. Officials said that the report made clear that the cleric's role needs to be investigated further.

Today, 46 Democratic senators asked that the deleted material be released, saying the national security issues Mr. Bush cited as the reason the material was classified could be addressed by careful editing. Republicans, including Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a former Intelligence Committee chairman, have also called for its release.

Several Congressional officials familiar with the report say that only a small part of the classified section dealing with the specifics of F.B.I. counterintelligence and counterterrorism activities should remain classified. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said, ''Keeping this material classified only strengthens the theory that some in the U.S. government are hellbent on covering up for the Saudis.''

National Security Council officials are leading an interagency delegation to Saudi Arabia this weekend to discuss with Saudi officials investigations into the financing of terrorism. The Americans may also ask Saudi permission to interview Mr. al-Bayoumi, who is reportedly now in Saudi Arabia, officials said.

After 9/11, Mr. al-Bayoumi was briefly interviewed in Britain, but has never returned to the United States to face in-depth questioning.