Whatever Happened to Bin Laden? While US Storms Baghdad, Saudi
Ties to Al Qaeda Are Unprobed
The Progressive Populist
Saturday, March 8, 2003
On my BBC television show, Newsnight, an American journalist confessed
that, since the 9/11 attacks, US reporters are simply too afraid to ask the
uncomfortable questions that could kill careers: "It's an obscene
comparison, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put
flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the
fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack
of patriotism put around your neck," Dan Rather said. Without his
makeup, Rather looked drawn, old and defeated in confessing that he too
had given in. "It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest
of the tough questions and to continue to bore in on the tough questions
Investigators were ordered to "back off" from any inquiries into Saudi
Arabian financing of terror networks.
The reports I did based on this information won the Sonoma State
University School of Journalism's Project Censored Award in 2002. It's
not the kind of prize you want to win -- it's given to crucial stories that
were effectively banned from US airwaves and papers. I don't want any
misunderstanding here, so I must emphasize what we did not find: We
uncovered no information, none whatsoever, that George W. Bush had
any advance knowledge of the plan to attack the World Trade Center on
9/11, nor, heaven forbid, any involvement in the attack.
FBI Document 199I
What we did discover was serious enough. To begin with, from
less-than-happy FBI agents we obtained an interesting document, some 30
pages long, marked "SECRET." I've reproduced a couple of pages in The
Best Democracy Money Can Buy [recently reissued in a paperback US
edition by Plume]. Note the designation "199I" -- that's FBI-speak for
"national security matter." According to insiders, FBI agents had wanted
to check into two members of the bin Laden family, Abdullah and Omar,
but were told to stay away by superiors -- until September 13, 2001. By
then, Abdullah and Omar were long gone from the United States.
Why no investigation of the brothers bin Laden? The Bush
administration's line is the Binladdins (a more common spelling of the
Arabic name) are good folk. Osama's the Black Sheep, supposedly cut off
from his Saudi kin. But the official line notwithstanding, some FBI agents
believed the family had some gray sheep worth questioning -- especially
these two working with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY),
which the file labels "a suspected terrorist organization." ....
No matter how vile WAMY's indoctrination chats, they are none of the
FBI's business. Recruitment for terror, however, is. Before 9/11, the
governments of India and the Philippines tied WAMY to groups staging
murderous attacks on civilians. Following our broadcast on BBC, the
Dutch secret service stated that WAMY, "support(ed) violent activity."
In 2002, The Wall Street Journal's Glenn Simpson made public a report by
Bosnia's government that a charity with Abdullah bin Laden on its board
had channeled money to Chechen guerrillas. Two of the 9/11 hijackers
used an address on the same street as WAMY's office in Falls Church,
"Back-Off" Directive and Islamic Bomb
Despite these tantalizing facts, Abdullah and his operations were A-OK
with the FBI chiefs, if not their working agents. Just a dumb SNAFU? Not
according to a top-level CIA operative who spoke with us on condition of
strictest anonymity. After Bush took office, he said, "there was a major
policy shift" at the National Security Agency. Investigators were ordered
to "back off" from any inquiries into Saudi Arabian financing of terror
networks, especially if they touched on Saudi royals and their retainers.
That put the bin Ladens, a family worth a reported $12 billion and a
virtual arm of the Saudi royal household, off-limits for investigation.
Osama was the exception; he remained a wanted man, but agents could not
look too closely at how he filled his piggy bank. The key rule of any
investigation, "follow the money," was now violated, and investigations --
at least before 9/11 -- began to die.
And there was a lot to investigate -- or in the case of the CIA and FBI
under Bush -- a lot to ignore. Through well-known international arms
dealers (I'm sorry, but in this business, sinners are better sources than
saints) our team was tipped off to a meeting of Saudi billionaires at the
Hotel Royale Monceau in Paris in May 1996 with the financial
representative of Osama bin Laden's network. The Saudis, including a key
Saudi prince joined by Muslim and non-Muslim gun traffickers, met to
determine who would pay how much to Osama. This was not so much an
act of support but of protection -- a payoff to keep the mad bomber away
from Saudi Arabia....
Clinton Closed an Eye
True-blue Democrats may want to skip the next paragraphs. If President
Bush put the kibosh on investigations of Saudi funding of terror and
nuclear bomb programs, this was merely taking a policy of Bill Clinton
one step further.
Following the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, Clinton
hunted Osama with a passion -- but a passion circumscribed by the desire
to protect the sheikdom sitting atop our oil lifeline. In 1994, a Saudi
diplomat defected to the United States with 14,000 pages of documents
from the kingdom's sealed file cabinets. This mother lode of intelligence
included evidence of plans for the assassination of Saudi opponents living
in the West and, tantalizingly, details of the $7 billion the Saudis gave to
Saddam Hussein for his nuclear program -- the first attempt to build an
Islamic Bomb. The Saudi government, according to the defector,
Mohammed Al Khilewi, slipped Saddam the nuclear loot during the Reagan
and Bush Sr. years when our own government still thought Saddam too
marvelous for words. The thought was that he would only use the bomb to
In 1997, the Canadians caught and extradited to America one of the
Khobar Towers attackers. In 1999, Vernon Jordan's law firm stepped in
and -- poof! -- the killer was shipped back to Saudi Arabia before he could
reveal all he knew about al Qaeda (valuable) and the Saudis (embarrassing).
I reviewed, but was not permitted to take notes on, the alleged terrorist's
debriefing by the FBI. To my admittedly inexpert eyes, there was enough
on al Qaeda to make him a source on terrorists worth holding on to. Not
that he was set free -- he's in one of the kingdom's dungeons -- but his info
is sealed up with him. The terrorist's extradition was "Clinton's."
"Clinton's parting kiss to the Saudis," as one insider put it.
This make-a-sheik-happy policy of Clinton's may seem similar to Bush's,
but the difference is significant. Where Clinton said, "Go slow," Bush
policymakers said, "No go." The difference is between closing one eye and
closing them both.
Blowback and Bush Sr.
Still, we are left with the question of why both Bush Jr. and Clinton would
hold back disclosure of Saudi funding of terror. I got the first glimpse of an
answer from Michael Springmann, who headed up the US State
Department's visa bureau in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during the Reagan-Bush
Sr. years. "In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high-level State
Department officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants. These were,
essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own
country. I complained bitterly at the time there." That was Springmann's
mistake. He was one of those conscientious midlevel bureaucrats who did
not realize that when he filed reports about rules violations he was
jeopardizing the cover for a huge multicontinental intelligence operation
aimed at the Soviets. Springmann assumed petty thievery: someone was
taking bribes, selling visas; so he couldn't understand why his complaints
about rule-breakers were "met with silence" at the Bureau of Diplomatic
Springmann complained himself right out of a job. Now a lawyer, he has
obtained more information on the questionable "engineers" with no
engineering knowledge whom he was ordered to permit into the United
States. "What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits,
rounded up by Osama bin Laden, to the United States for terrorist training
by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against
But then they turned their talents against the post-Soviet power: us. In
the parlance of spook-world, this is called "blowback." Bin Laden and his
bloody brethren were created in America's own Frankenstein factory. It
would not do for the current president nor agency officials to dig back to
find that some of the terrorists we are hunting today were trained and
armed by the Reagan-Bush administration. And that's one of the problems
for agents seeking to investigate groups like WAMY, or Abdullah bin
Laden. WAMY literature that talks about that "compassionate young man
Osama bin Laden" is likely to have been disseminated, if not written, by
our very own government. If Abdullah's Bosnian-operated "charity" was
funding Chechen guerrillas, it is only possible because the Clinton CIA
gave the wink and nod to WAMY and other groups who were aiding
Bosnian guerrillas when they were fighting Serbia, a US-approved enemy.
"What we're talking about," says national security expert Joe Trento, "is
embarrassing, career-destroying blowback for intelligence officials." And,
he could add, for the presidential father.
The Family Business
I still didn't have an answer to all my questions. We knew that Clinton and
the Bushes were reluctant to discomfort the Saudis by unearthing their
connections to terrorists -- but what made this new president take
particular care to protect the Saudis, even to the point of stymying his
own intelligence agencies?
The answers kept coming back: "Carlyle" and "Arbusto."
While some people have guardian angels, our president seems to have
guardian sheiks. ...
Behind Carlyle is a private, invitation-only investment group whose
holdings in the war industry make it effectively one of America's biggest
defense contractors. For example, Carlyle owned United Technologies,
the maker of our fighter jets. Carlyle has the distinction of claiming both
of the presidents Bush as paid retainers. Dubya served on the board of
Carlyle's Caterair airplane food company until it went bust. The senior
Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia for Carlyle in 1999. The bin Ladens were
among Carlyle's select backers until just after the 9/11 attacks, when the
connection became impolitic. The company's chairman is Frank Carlucci,
Bush Sr.'s former defense secretary. The average Carlyle partner has
gained about $25 million in equity. Notably, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin
Talal bin Abdul Aziz employed Carlyle as his advisor in buying up 10
percent of Citicorp's preferred stock. The choice of Carlyle for the
high-fee work was odd, as the group is not an investment bank.
One would almost think the Saudi potentate wanted to enrich Carlyle's
Who Lost the War on Terror?
So who lost the War on Terror? Osama? From his point of view, he's
made the celebrity cutthroats' Hall of Fame. Where is he? Don't ask Bush;
our leader just changes the subject to Iraq. So we have the 82nd Airborne
looking for Osama bin Laden among the camels in Afghanistan when, in
all likelihood, the billionaire butcher -- now likely beardless -- is chillin' by
the pool at the Ritz Carlton, knocking back a brewsky and laughing at us
while two blonde Barbies massage his feet.
Bush failed to get Osama. But we did successfully eliminate the threat of
Congresswoman McKinney -- you remember, the one who dared question
ChoicePoint, the company that helped Katherine Harris eliminate Black
Following our BBC broadcast and Guardian report in November 2001,
McKinney cited our stories on the floor of Congress, calling for an
investigation of the intelligence failures and policy prejudices you've just
read here. She was labeled a traitor, a freak, a Conspiracy
nut and "a
looney" -- the latter by her state's Democratic senator, who led the mob
in the political lynching of the uppity Black woman. The New York Times
wrote, "She angered some black voters by suggesting that President Bush
might have known in advance about the Sept. 11 attacks but had done
nothing so his supporters could make money in war." The fact that she
said no such thing doesn't matter; the Times is always more influential
than the truth. Dan Rather had warned her, shut up, don't ask questions,
and you can avoid the necklacing. She didn't and it cost her her seat in
McKinney's electoral corpse in the road silenced politicians, the media
was mum, but some Americans still would not get in line. For them we
have new laws to permit investigating citizens without warrants, and the
label of terrorist fellow-traveler attached to groups from civil rights
organizations to trade treaty protesters. Yet not one FBI or CIA agent
told us, "If only we didn't have that pesky Bill of Rights, we would have
nailed bin Laden." Not one said, "What we need is a new bureaucracy for
Fatherland Security." Not one said we needed to jail everyone in the
Midwest named "Ahmed." They had a single request: for George W. Bush's
security henchmen to get their boot heels off agents' necks and remove
the shield of immunity from the Saudis.
That leaves one final, impertinent question. Who won?