04 August 2003
Senate Probes Administration about Saudi Financial Links to Terrorism
FBI, Treasury officials testify before Senate
hearing July 31
By Phil Kurata
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The U.S. Senate has pressed the Bush administration
for information about possible Saudi Arabian financial links to
terrorism following the release of a controversial report about
the causes of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
At a hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee July
31, senators probed two senior administration officials, one from
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the other from the Treasury
Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, on cooperation by
the Saudi government to investigate terrorist acts and to cut off
financing to terrorist groups by Saudi charitable organizations
and non-governmental organizations.
The Senate convened the hearing after the release July 24 of the "Report
of the Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11,
2001" by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and
the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in which the Bush
administration ordered that 28 pages be deleted. The report can
be found at: http://www.access.gpo.gov.
The deleted pages are reported to deal with Saudi Arabia's links
to terrorism. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal visited President
Bush in Washington July 29 and said the deleted pages should be
released to the public so that the Saudi government can address
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were from
Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi government has declared it had no involvement
in the attacks.
President Bush said he ordered the pages deleted in order not
to compromise an investigation into the attacks.
"If people are being investigated, it doesn't make sense for us
to let them know who they are," Bush said July 29.
The chairwoman of the Government Affairs Committee, Susan Collins
(Republican from Maine), said even the published portions of the
inquiry raise serious questions about Saudi Arabia's role in the
September 11 attacks.
"Last month the general counsel of the Treasury Department testified
before the Terrorism Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee that
in many cases Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of terrorist financing," Collins
"The Council on Foreign Relations report [in 2002] found that
for years individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have
been the most important source of funds for al-Qaida, and that
for years Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem," Collins
Senator Carl Levin (Democrat from Michigan) said the former chairman
of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, viewed
the withheld information as merely embarrassing but not endangering
to national security if published.
Collins and Levin pressured the head of the Treasury Department's
Office of Foreign Assets Control, Richard Newcomb, to release the
names of individuals and groups that Newcomb's office had recommended
the U.S. government publicly identify as terrorist financers.
Newcomb said the administration's Policy Coordination Council,
which takes into account multiple views from the State Department,
the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the
Central Intelligence Agency and others, is responsible for accepting
or rejecting the recommendations.
Senator Arlen Specter (Republican from Pennsylvania) said the
Saudi role in providing financing for terrorists has become an
issue of enormous importance following the publication of the joint
inquiry with the missing pages.
"There has been a decision by the Executive Branch not to release
those pages, and I believe that puts a greater responsibility on
Congress in oversight," Specter said.
Specter said individuals and groups in Saudi Arabia reportedly
contribute about $4 billion or $5 billion annually to "so-called
charities, which have dual uses."
"This is a real challenge for the United States government, and
congressional oversight is a very, very important part," Specter
While professing to be cooperative, Specter said, Saudi authorities
in fact have been uncooperative in tracking terrorists. He said
Saudi lack of cooperation was evident in the 1995 car bombing in
Riyadh that killed Americans and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing
that killed 19 U.S. troops.
"Questions linger to this day as to whether some of those who
were involved in the Khobar Towers might have been involved in
9/11," Specter said.
Collins said there is evidence that enormous sums of money flow
from Saudi individuals and charitable organizations to al-Qaida,
the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, and other terrorist organizations.
Collins said that Saudi authorities have announced some changes
in its banking system and charity laws, but it is unclear how effective
those reforms will prove to be.
"The key question now is whether the Saudi government is doing
enough to stop the flow of this money," Collins said. "And if not,
what actions the U.S. government should take to prompt the Saudis
to take more effective action."
Levin said that in addition to obstructing investigations, the
Saudi government was one of the few governments in the world that
supported the Taliban in Afghanistan despite the Taliban's link
to terrorists. He said that while working to strengthen ties with
the United States, Saudi authorities funded extreme Muslim clerics
and Islamic schools in Pakistan that provided recruits for the
Saudi government officials and prominent Saudi citizens routinely
contributed huge sums to Muslim charities, which supported terrorism,
including support for families of terrorists, Levin said. The United
States finally shut down several of those charities, which were
operating in the United States, Levin said.
The Michigan senator said that in terms of rhetoric, the Saudi
authorities have been with the United States in the war against
terrorism, but in actions, they have often been against the United
The FBI acting director for counterterrorism, John Pistole, said
the Saudi government has shifted its attitude dramatically since
the terrorist attacks in Riyadh on May 12, 2003.
"... post-May 12, the Saudis have had a wake-up call and we've
had unprecedented cooperation with them in virtually every area," Pistole
Describing what he meant by "unprecedented," Pistole said the
Saudis have allowed U.S. investigators to interview Saudi citizens
who were eyewitnesses and given the investigators direct access
to evidence and rights to transport it back to the United States
for analysis. Pistole said Saudi cooperation is only lacking in
the issue of terrorist financing.
Pistole attributed the change in attitude to the terrorist attacks
against the Saudi royal family.
"I think that the royal family, in particular, see themselves
as being vulnerable to al Qaida efforts in the kingdom, and that
no longer is this simply an entity that is focusing on Western
interests, but has now turned on the kingdom and the royal family
that represents the kingdom," Pistole said. "[T]hey see themselves
in the struggle for survival at this point."
The Treasury Department's Newcomb said the United States and Saudi
Arabia have achieved a number of successes together in the fight
against terrorism. He cited as an example the joint designation
of two branches of the al-Haramain charitable organization in Bosnia
and Somalia as well as an individual who affiliated with one of
He also noted that the Saudi government has announced the creation
of a ministry specifically for the oversight of the charities,
and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, at the urging of the United
States, has implemented a code of conduct relating to standards
for charitable giving.
Pistole said it is clear that money has flowed to terrorists through
Saudi charitable organizations, but investigators have not found
a verifiable financial link between the Saudi government and a