In a new book, "Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth," two French intelligence analysts allege the Clinton and Bush administrations put diplomacy before law enforcement in dealing with the al-Qaida threat before Sept. 11, in order to maintain smooth relations with Saudi Arabia and to avoid disrupting the oil market. The book, which has become a bestseller in France but has received little press attention here, also alleges that the Bush administration was bargaining with the Taliban, over a Central Asian oil pipeline and Osama bin Laden, just five weeks before the September attacks. The authors, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, see a link between the negotiations and Vice President Dick Cheney's energy policy task force, with its conclusions that Central Asian oil was going to become critical to the U.S. economy. Brisard and Dasquie also claim former FBI deputy director John O'Neill (who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he was the chief of security) resigned in July to protest the policy of giving U.S. oil interests a higher priority than bringing al-Qaida leaders to justice. Brisard claims O'Neill told him that "the main obstacles to investigating Islamic terrorism were U.S. oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia."
The authors also allege that the Sept. 11 attacks were a calculated response to Western pressure on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and permit the return of the long-exiled Afghan leader, King Shah. They say the terror attacks were aimed at sparking a widespread war in Central Asia and thereby reinforcing the Islamic extremists' grip on power.
Brisard, a private intelligence analyst who once worked for the French conglomerate Vivendi, compiled a report in 1997 on the financing behind the al-Qaida network. Dasquie is a journalist and editor of Intelligence Online. The authors are negotiating with American publishers now to get the book translated and published in England. They recently discussed their book with Salon.
How did you meet John O'Neill, and how often and where? Did you ever tape your discussions with him?
Brisard: I met him twice. The first time was in Paris in June 2001 and then in July in New York. I met him because I wrote some years ago a report about the bin Laden family and its financial connections with Osama bin Laden. Our meeting was in the process of the French sharing information with the FBI. He wanted to meet me again a month after our first meeting to discuss the points of my report, and so we met at the end of July 2001. I never taped him and that's why I only quote him directly three or four times. That's all I have and the rest is paraphrase. The discussion of O'Neill is only 10 pages in the book. It is the first 10 pages of the book. What he said is a synthesis of what we say in the book, and that's why we decided to put it on the first pages. That is, the role of Saudi Arabia, the role of oil and the way the investigation worked in the United States before Sept. 11.
Did O'Neill indicate that the FBI expected more attacks on the United States?
Brisard: No. Not even implicitly. We didn't talk about the threat itself. We focused on the sources and roots of the problems and the way to deter further action.
How much did Mr. O'Neill know about al-Qaida that the public didn't know until after Sept. 11, such as the extent of the training, the network and the hatred?
Brisard: John O'Neill clearly knew extensively about the threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. He told me the FBI had identified for years the financial supports of bin Laden. For instance, in the Yemen investigation [of the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole], he said everything pointed at Osama bin Laden but there was an unwillingness among U.S. diplomats to act and to put any kind of pressure against the governments. His investigation was made difficult because of this unwillingness, and in his mind it was especially because of the economic interests of the United States. I quote him saying that everything about bin Laden and al-Qaida can be explainable through Saudi Arabia. And when I asked why the U.S. was unwilling to go after the states that host bin Laden, he said because of oil.
In what sense was Saudia Arabia supporting bin Laden? He had been exiled.
Brisard: Yes, the official stance is he was banned in 1994 and his assets were frozen. This is the official position of the Saudi government. But we prove in our book that until 1998 he was able to use economic and financial structures in Saudi Arabia. He could have linked working bank accounts in Sudan with companies registered in Saudi. He had various contacts with Saudi officials. And remember, the Saudis were supporting the Taliban regime, which was hosting him. In Saudi Arabia, the left hand ignores the right hand. And the FBI was fully aware of the situation.
Other than the U.S. ambassador in Yemen sending O'Neill home because of his alleged insensitivity to the culture, exactly how did the State Department hinder the FBI investigation?
Brisard: O'Neill said the State Department has had an overwhelming role on these investigations. He was explicitly blocked in Yemen from further investigation. We now know from different files that the FBI was starting investigations on different aspects of Saudi Arabian support [of bin Laden], and those investigations were all stopped, even under Clinton. What John O'Neill said is that for him, there was a clear [conflict] between the FBI's goal, which was to go fast and to implicate members of the networks and eventually to implicate states that gave them support, and the State Department's goal, which was to move in a more diplomatic way to negotiate with those states and to some extent accommodate them. And what he said was that the diplomatic way was chosen over the security or law enforcement policy, and of course he was very angry about what happened to him in Yemen.
In your book, you allege that the Bush administration was negotiating with the Taliban last year over a proposed Central Asian oil pipeline through Afghanistan. Which Bush official conducted those talks?
Brisard: [Assistant Secretary of State] Christina Rocca, in August 2001 in Pakistan, explicitly discussed the oil interest, not the pipeline.
Did you ever speak with Rocca?
Dasquie: I tried to, but when you are a foreign journalist you must ask the U.S. embassy in France before an interview. My correspondent in Washington also made requests. Since March or April 2001 we had tracked this story, because just after the United Nations' decision against the Taliban, it was crazy to see Taliban leaders coming into Washington and having meetings. Christina Rocca arrived at the State Department in June, and we knew her background at the CIA; she had managed all the relations between the agency and Islamic groups in Central Asia. Since around June I have been focused on Rocca. We made requests. The embassy said it was impossible. With no explanation.
Do you allege that she mentioned oil explicitly?
Dasquie: Madeleine Albright was the first to refuse to negotiate with the Taliban in 1997. Before that, from 1994 to '97, Clinton did negotiate with the Taliban. We describe the meeting of Rocca and some Taliban leaders in Islamabad in August 2001. There are documents to support it. And at the same time in Washington there are lots of meetings of the energy policy task force and lots of oil company representatives around Dick Cheney. The task force's conclusion is that Central Asia oil is a very important goal. And at the same time people are negotiating with the Taliban for the first time since 1994.
Brisard: We believe that when [Rocca] went to Pakistan in 2001 she was there to speak about oil, and unfortunately the Osama bin Laden case was just a technical part of the negotiations. I'm not sure about the pipeline specifically, but we make it clear she was there to speak about oil. There are witnesses, including the Pakistani foreign minister.
Are you saying that the Central Asian oil and pipelines were not an issue under Clinton, or just more of an issue for the Bush administration? And what are you basing that on?
Brisard: Oil was also an issue for the Clinton administration, but the difference between Clinton and Bush is, under Bush the economic argument became predominant and the U.S. thought they could pursue the Taliban to accept a deal on economics.
Dasquie: The area was of enormous strategic concern to many nations. The U.N. "six plus two" group [made up of the six countries that border Afghanistan, plus the United States and Russia] had tried to persuade the Taliban to take back the Afghan king in exchange for recognition. The biggest mistake of the U.N. and the U.S. was to consider the Taliban as independent and able to negotiate. Nobody saw the reality of the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. So when the U.N.'s six-plus-two group and the U.S. said accept the king and give us Osama, it was incredible; it was like asking them to kill themselves. It was the very wrong way to negotiate. People say the only reason 9-11 happened is that Osama is a bad boy and the Muslims hate the U.S., but that is not enough. It is a pity to see that all our policies are built on that. It is very, very much more complex. They knew that if they did nothing they would lose. Everyone wanted to give power to the former king. When you think you are going to lose, the easy reaction is to be the first to attack. So 9-11 was not just a mad act, it was a political act meant to create a good ground for a big war in all Central Asia. Mullah Omar and bin Laden wanted to rally Muslims in Central Asia. In the last 10 years, the focal point of Islamists has taken off from the Middle East and gone into Central Asia.
The first President Bush has lots of connections with the Saudis and has made visits there as a private businessman with the merchant banking firm the Carlyle Group. Did you find any trace of the Carlyle Group on the financial trail?
Brisard: No. Carlyle has connections to the bin Laden family. Also, [Saudi banker and alleged terrorist financer] Khaleed bin Mahfooz financed the Bush oil companies in Texas in the late '70s and we discovered that he is also the primary financial support of Osama bin Laden. For years he was the personal banker of King Fahd, but now Mahfooz is under house arrest in Saudi Arabia for allegedly financing terrorist groups. He was arrested in 1999, but he is still a shareholder of the Saudi Bank National Commercial. He had charities around the world and one of them, International Development Foundation in London, has just been banned by the charity commission in London because of our book. We also make lots of connections with BCCI [Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the foreign bank closed 10 years ago after a huge scandal connected it to fraud, secret weapons deals, money laundering and the financing of terrorist groups]. We say the system financing bin Laden was more or less the revival of the BCCI. Even the associates of the BCCI are now involved in those networks. And bin Mahfooz was the operational director of BCCI.
Exactly how have the Saudis promoted Islamic terrorism?
Brisard: It's a political question for them. They have to support those religious fundamentalists because they are a large part of the regime of the kingdom and they need them to survive politically. Wahhabism, the Saudi form of Islam, is one of the harshest forms, and bin Laden is a product of his country.
Is there anything in the American press about your book you would like to correct?
Brisard: The main error is to say that the U.S. preferred oil to fighting against al-Qaida. That oversimplifies it. And it is also wrong to say John O'Neill told me that George Bush blocked inquiries into al-Qaida because of oil. It was not personally Bush [that O'Neill complained about]; it was a policy of putting diplomacy ahead of law enforcement going back to Clinton.
Why is the book so popular in France?
Brisard: Because there have been a lot of books about Sept. 11 and what happened and bios of bin Laden, but it's the first time that two investigators put facts on the table, documents, interviews and nothing else. We don't say it could have been stopped. If any government had known what was going to happen it wouldn't have happened. But we point out the role of the Western countries that led to Sept.11 -- back to 50 years ago, when we agreed to make an alliance with Saudi Arabia, and then by closing our eyes to the support they were giving fundamentalists around the world for the last 20 years.