If you missed Meet the Press on Sunday, Tim Russert tried and failed -- to get Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States and good friend of President Bush, to reveal who in the administration gave the go-ahead to flights that took prominent Saudis, including Osama bin Laden family members, out of the United States in the days after 9/11 when Americans were not allowed such privileges. You can read this transcript below as many times as you'd like, but there's still no good answer although Prince Bandar does finger the "FBI" and cite Bush administration critic Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 commission. A choice quote from Bandar, near the bottom: "Do you think--where are we, in a Banana Republic?"
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about September 13. This is the way Craig Unger wrote about it in The Boston Globe and now his book. "...what may be the single most egregious security lapse related to the attacks: the evacuation of approximately 140 Saudis just two days after 9/11. ... Let's go back to Sept. 13, 2001. ... American air space was locked down. ... But some people desperately wanted to fly out of the country. That same day, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, long-time friend of the Bush family, dropped by the White House. He and President Bush went out to the Truman Balcony for a private conversation. ...the Saudis themselves say that Prince Bandar was trying to orchestrate the evacuation of scores of Saudis from the United States despite the lockdown on air travel." There was a flight from Tampa to Lexington. A former Tampa cop, a former FBI agent were on board providing security. The passengers included three young Saudis. "The planes took off from Tampa with the first of eight aircraft that began flying around the country, stopping in at least 12 American cities, carrying 140 passengers out of the country over the next week," "24 of whom were members of the bin Laden family." Did you talk to President Bush about allowing those Saudi citizens to go home?
PRINCE BANDAR: No.
MR. RUSSERT: You never brought it up.
PRINCE BANDAR: Period. But if you allow me, Tim, my only comment about this--the book and this quote you just read to me, in French, it's hogwash, number one. Number two, 9-11 Commission just declared--let me read to you what they declared. 9-11 Commission released a statement that says that "The FBI has concluded that nobody--nobody was allowed to depart on these six flights who the FBI wanted to interview in connection with 9/11 attacks or who the FBI later concluded had any involvement in the attack. The statement also says that the Saudi flights were screened by law enforcement officials, primarily FBI, to ensure that people on these flights did not pose a threat to the national security and that nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave the country." Now, the tragedy here, Tim, is that there are people who don't know how to take yes for an answer. If the 9-11 Commission says this, if the FBI says this and you still get people coming up with books saying, but they smuggled them.
MR. RUSSERT: But, Prince, here's the question. This is a photograph of you with the president down at his Crawford ranch. He brought his family. Alison Walsh of The New Yorker wrote you are almost a member of the Bush family. That was her interpretation after doing an enormous amount of research. And 140 Saudis did leave the United States when Americans couldn't fly. The FBI agent--the FBI spokesman, John Inurelli, said, "I can say unequivocally that the FBI had no role in facilitating these flights." Jim Thompson on the 9-11 Commission asked Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, "Did you, the State Department authorize this?" "No, sir." I asked the vice president of the United States on this program, did he know anything about it? "No, sir." Hundred and forty Saudis leave the country two days after September 11, and nobody knows who gave permission. You don't know anything about it. You didn't ask anyone for permission.
PRINCE BANDAR: No, no, no, no.
MR. RUSSERT: You didn't facilitate it in any way. The planes were just allowed to...
PRINCE BANDAR: No, Tim. No, no, no. no. This is becoming exotic now. We had those people in the country, and a lot of them were relatives of the bin Laden family going to school, from teen-agers to some people in college. And we told--asked the FBI that those people are scattered all over America and with tempers high at that time, rightly so, we were worried that somebody and emotions will hurt them.
MR. RUSSERT: So who did you call for permission?
PRINCE BANDAR: We didn't call for--we asked them...
MR. RUSSERT: Who?
PRINCE BANDAR: ...is it possible? The FBI.
MR. RUSSERT: You called the FBI?
PRINCE BANDAR: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And they gave permission?
PRINCE BANDAR: And the FBI, according to Richard Clarke in his testimony, called him and he said, "I have no problem if the FBI has no problem." So we gathered them all in here, and then once they were here, they left. Now, the other airplanes were for Saudi officials who were here on vacation. And after this disaster took place, they all had to go back home to official positions. But it is not true that they were flying when Americans were not flying, Tim. Americans were flying and restrictions were lifted, but there were--I mean, the stoppage was lifted but there were restrictions. But think about it logically. Do you think--where are we, in a Banana Republic? I would take 148 Saudis, put them on aircraft and smuggle them out and nobody will know? Look, people have to take yes for an answer and read what 9-11 Commission said on this.