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Jim March 11th 04 06:12 AM

( OT ) The great escape

The great escape
Immediately after 9/11, dozens of Saudi royals and members of the bin
Laden family fled the U.S. in a secret airlift authorized by the Bush
White House. One passenger was an alleged al-Qaida go-between, who may
have known about the terror attacks in advance. Our first excerpt from
"House of Bush, House of Saud."

Editor's note: President Bush is campaigning for reelection as the
Western world's leader in the war against terrorism. But the president's
family has long been closely tied -- through a complex web of oil, money
and power -- to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which has maintained
its despotic grip on the petroleum-rich kingdom through an alliance with
the most militant strain of Islamic fundamentalism. Journalist Craig
Unger has been covering the alliance between the Bush family and the
House of Saud for years. His reporting raises crucial questions about
the consequences of this personal, political and financial partnership
for U.S. foreign policy, democracy and the future of the world. Salon is
proud to present a series of excerpts from Unger's book "House of Bush,
House of Saud," to be published on March 16 by Scribner.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Craig Unger (Salon)

March 11, 2004 | Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi
Arabian ambassador to the United States, had long been the most
recognizable figure from his country in America. Widely known as the
Arab Gatsby, with his trimmed goatee and tailored double-breasted suits,
the 52-year-old Bandar was the very embodiment of the contradictions
inherent in being a modern, jet-setting, Western-leaning member of the
royal House of Saud.

Profane, flamboyant and cocksure, Bandar entertained lavishly at his
spectacular estates all over the world. Whenever he was safely out of
Saudi Arabia and beyond the reach of the puritanical form of Islam it
espoused, he puckishly flouted Islamic tenets by sipping brandy and
smoking Cohiba cigars. And when it came to embracing the culture of the
infidel West, Bandar outdid even the most ardent admirers of Western
civilization -- that was him patrolling the sidelines of Dallas Cowboys
football games with his friend Jerry Jones, the team's owner. To
militant Islamic fundamentalists who loathed pro-West multibillionaire
Saudi royals, no one fit the bill better than Bandar.

And yet, his guise as Playboy of the Western World notwithstanding, deep
in his bones, Prince Bandar was a key figure in the world of Islam. His
father, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, was second in line to the Saudi
crown. Bandar was the nephew of King Fahd, the aging Saudi monarch, and
the grandson of the late king Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi
Arabia, who initiated his country's historic oil-for-security
relationship with the United States when he met Franklin D. Roosevelt on
the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14, 1945. The enormous royal
family in which Bandar played such an important role oversaw two of the
most sacred places of Islamic worship, the holy mosques in Medina and Mecca.

As a wily international diplomat, Bandar also knew full well just how
precarious his family's position was. For decades, the House of Saud had
somehow maintained control of Saudi Arabia and the world's richest oil
reserves by performing a seemingly untenable balancing act with two
parties who had vowed to destroy each other.

On the one hand, the House of Saud was an Islamic theocracy whose power
grew out of the royal family's alliance with Wahhabi fundamentalism, a
strident and puritanical Islamic sect that provided a fertile breeding
ground for a global network of terrorists urging a violent jihad against
the United States.

On the other hand, the House of Saud's most important ally was the Great
Satan itself, the United States. Even a cursory examination of the
relationship revealed astonishing contradictions: America, the beacon of
democracy, was to arm and protect a brutal theocratic monarchy. The
United States, sworn defender of Israel, was also the guarantor of
security to the guardians of Wahhabi Islam, the fundamentalist religious
sect that was one of Israel's and America's mortal enemies.

Astoundingly, this fragile relationship had not only endured but in many
ways had been spectacularly successful. In the nearly three decades
since the oil embargo of 1973, the United States had bought hundreds of
billions of dollars of oil at reasonable prices. During that same
period, the Saudis had purchased hundreds of billions of dollars of
weapons from the U.S. The Saudis had supported the U.S. on regional
security matters in Iran and Iraq and refrained from playing an
aggressive role against Israel. Members of the Saudi royal family,
including Bandar, became billionaires many times over, in the process
quietly turning into some of the most powerful players in the American
market, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in equities in the
United States. And the price of oil, the eternal bellwether of economic,
political and cultural anxiety in America, had remained low enough that
enormous gas-guzzling SUVs had become ubiquitous on U.S. highways.
During the Reagan and Clinton eras the economy boomed.

The relationship was a coarse weave of money, power and trust. It had
lasted because two foes, militant Islamic fundamentalists and the United
States, turned a blind eye to each other. The U.S. military might have
called the policy "Don't ask, don't tell." The Koran had its own
version: "Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause
you trouble."

But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the ugly seams of the
relationship had been laid bare. Because thousands of innocent people
had been killed and most of the killers were said to be Saudi, it was up
to Bandar, ever the master illusionist, to assure Americans that
everything was just fine between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Bandar had always been a smooth operator, but now he and his unflappable
demeanor would be tested as never before.

Bandar desperately hoped that early reports of the Saudi role had been
exaggerated -- after all, al-Qaida terrorist operatives were known to
use false passports. But at 10 P.M. on the evening of Sept. 12, 2001,
about 36 hours after the attack, a high-ranking CIA official --
according to Newsweek, it was probably CIA director George Tenet --
phoned Bandar at his home and gave him the bad news: Fifteen of the 19
hijackers were Saudis. Afterward, Bandar said, "I felt as if the Twin
Towers had just fallen on my head."

Public relations had never been more crucial for the Saudis. Bandar
swiftly retained PR giant Burson-Marsteller to place newspaper ads all
over the country condemning the attacks and dissociating Saudi Arabia
from them. He went on CNN, the BBC and the major TV networks and
hammered home the same points again and again: The alliance with the
United States was still strong. Saudi Arabia would support America in
its fight against terrorism.

Prince Bandar also protested media reports that referred to those
involved in terrorism as "Saudis." Asserting that no terrorists could
ever be described as Saudi citizens, he urged the media and politicians
to refrain from casting arbitrary accusations against Arabs and Muslims.
"We in the kingdom, the government and the people of Saudi Arabia,
refuse to have any person affiliated with terrorism to be connected to
our country," Bandar said. That included Osama bin Laden, the
perpetrator of the attacks, who had even been disowned by his family. He
was not really a Saudi, Bandar asserted, for the government had taken
away his passport because of his terrorist activities.

But Osama bin Laden was Saudi, of course, and he was not just any Saudi.
The bin Ladens were one of a handful of extremely wealthy families that
were so close to the House of Saud that they effectively acted as
extensions of the royal family. Over five decades, they had built their
multibillion-dollar construction empire thanks to their intimate
relationship with the royal family. Bandar himself knew them well.
"They're really lovely human beings," he told CNN. "[Osama] is the only
one ... I met him only once. The rest of them are well-educated,
successful businessmen, involved in a lot of charities. It is -- it is
tragic. I feel pain for them, because he's caused them a lot of pain."

Like Bandar, the bin Laden family epitomized the marriage between the
United States and Saudi Arabia. Their huge construction company, the
Saudi Binladin Group, banked with Citigroup and invested with Goldman
Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Over time, the bin Ladens did business with
such icons of Western culture as Disney, the Hard Rock Café, Snapple and
Porsche. In the mid-1990s, they joined various members of the House of
Saud in becoming business associates with former secretary of state
James Baker and former president George H.W. Bush by investing in the
Carlyle Group, a gigantic Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm. As
Charles Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the
Wall Street Journal, "If there were ever any company closely connected
to the U.S. and its presence in Saudi Arabia, it's the Saudi Binladin

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, members of the Saudi royal family were
scattered all over the United States. Some had gone to Lexington, Ky.,
for the annual September yearling auctions. The sale of the finest
racehorses in the world had been suspended after the terrorist attacks
on Sept. 11, but resumed the very next day. Saudi prince Ahmed bin
Salman bought two horses for $1.2 million on Sept. 12.

Shortly after the attack, one of the bin Ladens, an unnamed brother of
Osama's, frantically called the Saudi embassy in Washington seeking
protection. He was given a room at the Watergate Hotel and told not to
open the door. King Fahd, the aging and infirm Saudi monarch, sent a
message to his emissaries in Washington. "Take measures to protect the
innocents," he said.

Meanwhile, a Saudi prince sent a directive to the Tampa Police
Department in Florida that young Saudis who were close to the royal
family and went to school in the area were in potential danger.

Bandar went to work immediately. If any foreign official had the clout
to pull strings at the White House in the midst of a grave national
security crisis, it was he. A senior member of the Washington diplomatic
corps, Bandar had played racquetball with Secretary of State Colin
Powell in the late '70s. He had run covert operations for the late CIA
director Bill Casey that were so hush-hush they were kept secret even
from President Ronald Reagan. He was the man who had stashed away 30
locked attaché cases that held some of the deepest secrets in the
intelligence world. And for two decades, Bandar had built an intimate
personal relationship with the Bush family that went far beyond a mere
political friendship.

First, Bandar set up a hotline at the Saudi embassy in Washington for
all Saudi nationals in the United States. For the 48 hours after the
attacks, he stayed in constant contact with Secretary of State Colin
Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Before the attacks, Bandar had been invited to come to the White House
to meet with President George W. Bush on Sept. 13 to discuss the Middle
East peace process. Even though the 55-year-old president and he were,
roughly speaking, contemporaries, Bandar had not yet developed the same
rapport with the younger Bush that he'd enjoyed for decades with his
father. Bandar and the elder Bush had participated in the shared rituals
of manhood -- hunting trips, vacations together, and the like. Bandar
and the younger Bush were well known to each other, but not nearly as close.

On the 13th, the meeting went ahead as scheduled. But in the wake of the
attacks two days earlier, the political landscape of the Middle East had
drastically changed. A spokesman for the Saudi embassy later said he did
not know whether repatriation was a topic of discussion.

But the job had been started nonetheless. Earlier that same day, a
49-year-old former policeman turned private investigator named Dan
Grossi got a call from the Tampa Police Department. Grossi had worked
with the Tampa force for 20 years before retiring, and it was not
particularly unusual for the police to recommend former officers for
special security jobs. But Grossi's new assignment was very much out of
the ordinary.

"The police had been giving Saudi students protection since Sept. 11,"
Grossi recalls. "They asked if I was interested in escorting these
students from Tampa to Lexington, Ky., because the police department
couldn't do it."

Grossi was told to go to the airport, where a small charter jet would be
available to take him and the Saudis on their flight. He was not given a
specific time of departure, and he was dubious about the prospects of
accomplishing his task. "Quite frankly, I knew that everything was
grounded," he says. "I never thought this was going to happen." Even so,
Grossi, who'd been asked to bring a colleague, phoned Manuel Perez, a
former FBI agent, to put him on alert. Perez was equally unconvinced. "I
said, 'Forget about it,'" Perez recalls. "Nobody is flying today."

The two men had good reason to be skeptical. Within minutes of the
terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration had sent
out a special notification called a NOTAM -- a notice to airmen -- to
airports all across the country, ordering every airborne plane in the
United States to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible, and
prohibiting planes on the ground from taking off. Initially, there were
no exceptions whatsoever. Later, when the situation stabilized, several
airports accepted flights for emergency medical and military operations
-- but those were few and far between.

Nevertheless, at 1:30 or 2 P.M. on Sept. 13, Dan Grossi received his
phone call. He was told the Saudis would be delivered to Raytheon
Airport Services, a private hangar at Tampa International Airport. When
he arrived, Manny Perez was there to meet him.

At the terminal a woman laughed at Grossi for even thinking he would be
flying that day. Commercial flights had slowly begun to resume, but at
10:57 A.M., the FAA had issued another NOTAM, a reminder that private
aviation was still prohibited. Three private planes violated the ban
that day, in Maryland, West Virginia and Texas, and in each case a pair
of jet fighters quickly forced the aircraft down. As far as private
planes were concerned, America was still grounded.

Then one of the pilots arrived. "Here's your plane," he told Grossi.
"Whenever you're ready to go."

What happened next was first reported by Kathy Steele, Brenna Kelly and
Elizabeth Lee Brown in the Tampa Tribune in October 2001. Not a single
other American paper seemed to think the subject was newsworthy.

Grossi and Perez say they waited until three young Saudi men, all
apparently in their early 20s, arrived. Then the pilot took Grossi,
Perez and the Saudis to a well-appointed 10-passenger Learjet. They
departed for Lexington at about 4:30.

"They got the approval somewhere," said Perez. "It must have come from
the highest levels of government."

"Flight restrictions had not been lifted yet," Grossi said. "I was told
it would take White House approval. I thought [the flight] was not going
to happen."

Grossi said he did not get the names of the Saudi students he was
escorting. "It happened so fast," Grossi says. "I just knew they were
Saudis. They were well connected. One of them told me his father or his
uncle was good friends with George Bush senior."

How did the Saudis go about getting approval? According to the Federal
Aviation Administration, they didn't and the Tampa flight never took
place. "It's not in our logs," Chris White, a spokesman for the FAA,
told the Tampa Tribune. "It didn't occur." The White House also said
that the flights to evacuate the Saudis did not take place.

According to Grossi, about one hour and 45 minutes after takeoff they
landed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, a frequent destination for
Saudi horse-racing enthusiasts such as Prince Ahmed bin Salman. When
they arrived, the Saudis were greeted by an American who took custody of
them and helped them with their baggage. On the tarmac was a 747 with
Arabic writing on the fuselage, apparently ready to take them back to
Saudi Arabia. "My understanding is that there were other Saudis in
Kentucky buying racehorses at that time, and they were going to fly back
together," said Grossi.

In addition to the Tampa-Lexington flight, at least seven other planes
were made available for the operation. According to itineraries,
passenger lists and interviews with sources who had firsthand knowledge
of the flights, members of the extended bin Laden family, the House of
Saud and their associates also assembled in Los Angeles, Las Vegas,
Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Orlando, Washington, D.C, Boston, Newark,
N.J., and New York.

Arrangements for the flights were made with lightning speed. One flight,
a Boeing 727 that left Los Angeles late on the night of Sept. 14 or
early in the morning of Sept. 15, required FAA approval, which came
through in less than half an hour. "By bureaucratic standards, that's a
nanosecond," said a source close to the flight.

Payments for the charter flights were made in advance through wire
transfer from the Saudi embassy. A source close to the evacuation said
such procedures were an indication that the entire operation had
high-level approval from the U.S. government. "That's a totally
traceable transaction," he said. "So I inferred that what they were
doing had U.S. government approval. Otherwise, they would have done it
in cash."

According to the same source, a young female member of the bin Laden
family was the sole passenger on the first leg of the flight, from Los
Angeles to Orlando. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, boarding any
airplane was cause for anxiety. But now that the name Osama bin Laden
had become synonymous with mass murder, boarding a plane with his family
members was another story entirely. To avoid unnecessary dramas, the
flight's operators made certain that the cockpit crew was briefed about
who the passengers were -- the bin Ladens -- and the highly sensitive
nature of their mission.

However, they neglected to brief the flight attendants.

On the flight from Los Angeles, the bin Laden girl began talking to an
attendant about the horrid events of 9/11. "I feel so bad about it," she

"Well, it's not your fault," replied the attendant, who had no idea who
the passenger really was.

"Yeah," said the passenger. "But he was my brother."

"The flight attendant just lost it," the source said.

When the 727 landed in Orlando, Khalil Binladin, whose estate in Winter
Garden, Fla., was nearby, boarded the plane. After a delay of several
hours, it continued to Washington.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the Saudis had chartered a customized DC 8 that
belonged to the president of Gabon and was equipped with two staterooms
(bedrooms) and 67 seats. According to a source who participated in the
operation, the Saudis had hoped to leave Las Vegas on Sept. 14, but were
not able to get permission for two days. "This was a nightmare," said a
source. "The manifest was submitted the day before. It was obvious that
someone in Washington had said OK, but the FBI didn't want to say they
could go, so it was really tense. In the end, nobody was interrogated."
According to the passenger list, among the 46 passengers were several
high-level Saudi royals with diplomatic passports. On Sunday, Sept. 16,
the flight finally left for Geneva, Switzerland. The FBI did not even
get the manifest until about two hours before departure. Even if it had
wanted to interview the passengers -- and the Bureau had shown little
inclination to do so -- there would not have been enough time.

At the same time, an even more lavish Boeing 727 was being readied for
Prince Ahmed bin Salman and about 14 other passengers who were
assembling in Lexington. If they felt they had to leave the country, at
least it could be said that they were leaving in luxury. The plane,
which was customized to hold just 26 passengers, had a master bedroom
suite furnished with a large upholstered double bed, a couch, night
stand and credenza. Its master bathroom had a gold-plated sink, double
illuminated mirrors and a bidet. There were brass, gold and crystal
fixtures. The main lounge had a 52-inch projection TV. The plane boasted
a six-place conference room and dining room with a mahogany table that
had controls for up and down movement. The plane left Lexington at 4
P.M. on Sunday, Sept. 16, and stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, en route
to London.

And so they flew, one by one, mostly to Europe, where some of the
passengers later returned home to Saudi Arabia. On Sept. 17, a flight
left Dallas for Newark at 10:30 P.M. On Sept. 18 and 19, two flights
left Boston, including the 727 that had originated in Los Angeles.
According to a person with firsthand knowledge of the flights, there is
no question that they took place with the knowledge and approval of the
State Department, the FBI, the FAA and many other government agencies.
"When we left Boston every governmental authority that could be there
was there," says the source. "There were FBI agents at every departure
point. In Boston alone, there was the FBI, the Department of
Transportation, the FAA, Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization
Service, the Massachusetts state police, the Massachusetts Port
Authority and probably the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
There were more federal law-enforcement officials than passengers by far."

In Boston, airport authorities were horrified that they were being told
to let the bin Ladens go. On Sept. 22, a flight went from New York to
Paris, and on Sept. 24, another flight from Las Vegas to Paris.
According to passenger lists for many but not all of the flights, the
vast majority of passengers were Saudis, but there were also passengers
from Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria,
Norway, the Philippines, Sudan and Syria. "Not many Saudis like to do
menial work," said a source, explaining the other nationalities.

Passengers ranged in age from 7 years old to 62. The vast majority were
adults. There were roughly two dozen bin Ladens.

The full ramifications of allowing all these members of the Saudi royal
family and the bin Laden family to leave the country would only become
clear several months later, when the war in Afghanistan was in full
swing. On March 28, 2002, acting on electronic intercepts of telephone
calls, heavily armed Pakistani commando units, accompanied by American
Special Forces and FBI SWAT teams, raided a two-story house in the
suburbs of Faisalabad, in western Pakistan. They had received tips that
one of the people in the house was Abu Zubaydah, the 30-year-old chief
of operations for al-Qaida who had been head of field operations for the
USS Cole bombing and who was a close confidant of Osama bin Laden's.

On Sunday, March 31, three days after the raid, the interrogation of
Zubaydah began. For the particulars of this episode there is one
definitive source, Gerald Posner's "Why America Slept," and according to
it, the CIA used two rather unusual methods for the interrogation.
First, they administered thiopental sodium, better known under its
trademarked name, Sodium Pentothal, through an IV drip, to make Zubaydah
more talkative. Since the prisoner had been shot three times during the
capture, he was already hooked up to a drip to treat his wounds and it
was possible to administer the drug without his knowledge. Second, as a
variation on the good cop-bad cop routine, the CIA used two teams of
debriefers. One consisted of undisguised Americans who were at least
willing to treat Zubaydah's injuries while they interrogated him. The
other team consisted of Arab-Americans posing as Saudi security agents,
who were known for their brutal interrogation techniques. The thinking
was that Zubaydah would be so scared of being turned over to the Saudis,
infamous for their public executions in Riyadh's Chop-Chop Square, that
he would try to win over the American interrogators by talking to them.

In fact, exactly the opposite happened. "When Zubaydah was confronted
with men passing themselves off as Saudi security officers, his reaction
was not fear, but instead relief," Posner writes. "The prisoner, who had
been reluctant even to confirm his identity to his American captors,
suddenly started talking animatedly. He was happy to see them, he said,
because he feared the Americans would torture and then kill him.
Zubaydah asked his interrogators to call a senior member of the ruling
Saudi family. He then provided a private home number and cell phone
number from memory. 'He will tell you what to do,' Zubaydah promised them."

The name Zubaydah gave came as a complete surprise to the CIA. It was
Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the owner of so many legendary
racehorses and one of the most westernized members of the royal family.

Zubaydah spoke to his faux Saudi interrogators as if they, not he, were
the ones in trouble. He said that several years earlier the royal family
had made a deal with al-Qaida in which the House of Saud would aid the
Taliban so long as al-Qaida kept terrorism out of Saudi Arabia. Zubaydah
added that as part of this arrangement, he dealt with Prince Ahmed and
two other members of the House of Saud as intermediaries, Prince Sultan
bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, a nephew of King Fahd's, and Prince Fahd
bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, a 25-year-old distant relative of the
king's. Again, he furnished phone numbers from memory.

According to Posner, the interrogators responded by telling Zubaydah
that 9/11 changed everything. The House of Saud certainly would not
stand behind him after that. It was then that Zubaydah dropped his real
bombshell. "Zubaydah said that 9/11 changed nothing because Ahmed ...
knew beforehand that an attack was scheduled for American soil that
day," Posner writes. "They just didn't know what it would be, nor did
they want to know more than that. The information had been passed to
them, said Zubaydah, because bin Laden knew they could not stop it
without knowing the specifics, but later they would be hard-pressed to
turn on him if he could disclose their foreknowledge."

Two weeks later, Zubaydah was moved to an undisclosed location. When he
figured out that the interrogators were really Americans, not Saudis,
Posner writes, he tried to strangle himself, and later recanted his
entire tale.

As for Prince Ahmed, on July 22, 2002, he died mysteriously of a heart
attack at the age of 43, so he was never interviewed about his
connections to al-Qaida and his alleged foreknowledge of the events of
9/11. Not that the FBI didn't have its chance at him. On Sept. 16, 2001,
after the Bush administration had approved the Saudi evacuation, Prince
Ahmed had boarded that 727 in Lexington, Ky. He had been identified by
FBI officials, but not seriously interrogated. It was an inauspicious
start to the just-declared war on terror. "What happened on Sept. 11 was
a horrific crime," says John Martin, a former official in the Criminal
Division of the Justice Department. "It was an act of war. And the
answer is no, this is not any way to go about investigating it."

Coming Friday -- "The Number": How much money has flowed from the House
of Saud to individuals and entities closely tied to the House of Bush?
At least $1,477,100,000.

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