Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Who let all the Binladens out after 9/11??....Skippy?

Who let bin Ladens leave U.S.?
By Alexander Bolton

The Bush administration has refused to answer repeated requests from the Sept. 11 commission about who authorized flights of Saudi Arabian citizens, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family, from the United States immediately after the attacks of 2001.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), vice chairman of the independent, bipartisan commission, disclosed the administration’s refusal to answer questions on the sensitive subject during a recent closed-door meeting with a group of Democratic senators, according to several Democratic sources.

However, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican appointee who also attended the meeting, said in an e-mail to The Hill that he told the senators the White House has been fully cooperative.

Democrats suspect President Bush, who met privately with the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, on the morning of Sept. 13, 2001, may have personally authorized the controversial flights, several of which took place when all other U.S. commercial air travel had been halted.

The White House communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If Bush or members of his inner circle are shown to have approved the flight of the prominent Saudi Arabian citizens, it could be damaging to Bush, who has staked his re-election campaign in large measure to his carefully built image as the steady leader of the war against terrorism.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she asked Hamilton and Lehman if they were able to find out who in the administration authorized the Saudi Arabian flights.
“Who did this? Why would the Saudis want to get out of the country? They said [those questions have] been part of their inquiry and they haven’t received satisfactory answers yet and they were pushing,” Boxer said.

Another Democrat in the meeting who confirmed Boxer’s account reported that Hamilton said, “We don’t know who authorized it. We’ve asked that question 50 times.”

Boxer said she obtained a commitment from Hamilton that the commission will state in its final report if the White House refused to answer questions about who authorized the Saudi flights after the 2001 attacks.

Hamilton, who was traveling to New York for commission hearings scheduled for today and tomorrow, could not be reached for comment.

Al Felzenberg, the commission’s spokesman, declined to comment because he said he was not familiar with the discussions with the Democratic senators.

Last month, the Sept. 11 commission released a statement declaring that six chartered flights that rushed the Saudi citizens out of the country were handled properly by the Bush administration.

In a recent interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Prince Bandar said he did not discuss with Bush the need to evacuate Saudi citizens from the U.S. after Sept. 11. He said he asked the FBI for permission.

However, John Iannarelli, the FBI’s spokesman on counterterrorism activities, has denied the FBI had any “role in facilitating these flights one way or another.”

Bill Harvey, a member of the Families Steering Committee, which represents the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, said the lack of White House cooperation on identifying who authorized the Saudi flights, fit into a pattern.

Pressure from the Families Steering Committee was one of several factors that prompted the White House to agree to the creation of the Sept. 11 commission.

“I stopped being surprised about this a long time ago,” said Harvey, whose wife died in the attack on the World Trade Center. “They’ve not been cooperative. There’s cooperation and then there’s cooperation. Are they doing things under possible threat of subpoena? Yes. Are they actively fulfilling the spirit of the commission’s requests? No.”

“The White House was opposed to the formation of this commission in the first place,” said Harvey. “They did everything to neuter it. Earlier this spring when we tried to get more time for [the commission to complete its report], the White House was an obstacle.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 13, 2001, three Saudi men in their early 20s flew in a Lear jet from Tampa, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., where they boarded a Boeing 747 with Arabic writing on it waiting to take them out of the country. The flight from Tampa to Lexington was first reported in the Tampa Tribune in October 2001.

Earlier that day, the FAA had issued a notice that private aviation was banned and that three private planes that had violated the ban had been forced to land by military aircraft, according to an article late last year in Vanity Fair.

The flight from Tampa to Lexington was one of several flights that Saudi Arabian citizens took in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when the rest of the country was prohibited from flying. Many of the Saudis were members of the Saudi royal family or the bin Laden family.

The New York Times has reported that bin Laden family members were driven or flown under FBI supervision to a secret meeting in Texas and then to Washington, from where they left the country when airports were allowed to open Sept. 14, 2001.
Overall, close to 140 Saudis left the U.S. days after the attacks, even though 15 of the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi Arabian.

By contrast, prominent Americans such as former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore were stranded overseas during the crisis because of the freeze on air travel, Craig Unger wrote in his 2004 book, House of Bush, House of Saud.

Bin Laden’s family has long disassociated itself from Osama bin Laden, head of the al Qaeda terrorist network, which was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The family has condemned the attacks.

Nevertheless, many critics believe that law enforcement officials should have questioned the family members for any leads they might have been able to provide about bin Laden’s whereabouts, his connection to the attacks, or about possible future attacks.

The commission is scheduled to deliver its final report at the end of July.

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