Joe Conason's Journal

The truth about how the White House helped the bin Laden family flee the U.S. finally comes out. Will the "liberal" press pay attention?

By Salon Staff

Published September 4, 2003 4:32PM (EDT)

Up, up, and away with Prince Bandar
Americans who want to understand an important aspect of what has gone wrong with the Bush "war on terrorism" must read Craig Unger's stunning investigative story in the October issue of Vanity Fair. He provides a definitive account of how members of the bin Laden family and relatives of the House of Saud were spirited out of the country on private aircraft during the days following the Sept. 11 attacks -- when almost all aviation was prohibited.

Boarding a series of flights that crisscrossed the country, from Florida to Kentucky to Los Angeles, Washington and Boston, they were permitted to leave on orders from the "highest level" of the United States government -- without any real interrogation or investigation by the FBI. As Unger points out, at least two bin Laden male kinsmen had been probed for connections with the U.S. branch of the World Association of Muslim Youth, a suspected terrorist front group.

Why were individuals connected with the prime suspect in the worst crime in American history allowed to leave the country so abruptly? Unger examines the role of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the suave Saudi ambassador and longtime crony of the Bush family, who apparently used his influence to win the release of as many as 140 of his compatriots, including the bin Ladens.

Former National Security Council counterterror chief Richard Clarke says that the decision to let the Saudis leave was made with FBI approval. "I asked [the FBI] to make sure that no one inappropriate was leaving. I asked them if they had any objection to the entire event -- to Saudis leaving the country at a time when aircraft were banned from flying." But the FBI's spokesman on counterterrorism issues told Unger: "I can say unequivocally that the F.B.I. had no role in facilitating these flights one way or another."

Determining who is telling the truth about the fleeing Saudis isn't easy. With the sort of candor that has become its hallmark, the White House is still denying that any such flights ever occurred. That denial is simply exploded by Unger, who interviewed a former police officer hired to work security on the private jet that took several Saudis from Tampa, Fla., to Lexington, Ky. (where another group of Saudi royals had been buying horses).

With outrage that any American can share, Allan Gerson, an attorney for the 9/11 victim families who are suing the Saudi government and the bin Laden interests, wonders why some obvious questions weren't put to the passengers on those planes before they were released.

"They should have been asked whether they had contacts or knew of any other Saudi contacts with Osama bin Laden," said Gerson. "What did they know about the financing of al-Qaeda? What did they know about the use of charitable institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere as conduits for terrorism financing? Why was the Saudi government not responsive to U.S. pleas in 1999 and 2000 that they stop turning a blind eye to terrorist financing through Saudi banks and charities?" Yet as Dale Watson, the FBI's former counterterrorism chief admits, "They were identified, but they were not subject to serious interviews or interrogations."

Among the various explanations for this undue leniency, Unger examines certain ties that bind the Bush family to the bin Laden clan and the Saudi hierarchy. He writes: "Vanity Fair has learned that as senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, the gigantic private-equity firm, former president George H. W. Bush, who has long been a close friend of Prince Bandar, has played a key role in raising millions of dollars from Saudis for a Carlyle investment fund."

While Unger acknowledges that there may have been valid reasons of state to allow the Saudis to exit unmolested by law enforcement, he leaves the final comment to John L. Martin, former national security chief in the Justice Department. "What happened on September 11 was a horrific crime. It was an act of war. And the answer is no, this is not any way to go about investigating it."

Unger reveals much, much more -- and we shall see whether the "liberal" American media arouses itself to expand on his findings. So far, the first media outlet to pay any serious attention to the Vanity Fair article was the Edinburgh Evening News. (Yes, the city in Scotland.) But this morning, the New York Times suddenly appears interested, too.

This hectic life
As promised, here are a few of the events on my current schedule, but please remember that change remains the only constant. On Friday afternoon I will appear on WNYC radio's "Leonard Lopate Show" (93.9 FM, 820 AM in the New York metropolitan area or, at around noon Eastern. That evening I will be signing books at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, located on Broadway and 82nd Street, at 7:30 p.m. And later still, at 10 p.m. Pacific time, I'll be on the Bernie Ward Show (KGO, 810 AM in San Francisco or Next Monday evening at 7 p.m., I will return to Olsson's, my favorite Washington bookstore, at 1200 F Street N.W., to read and sign copies of "Big Lies."

[9:26 a.m. PDT, Sept. 4, 2003]

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