© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2002
WASHINGTON -- White House officials on Saturday defended the FBI's handling of a diplomatically sensitive investigation into reports that Saudi Arabia provided money that helped support two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Embassy spokesman Nail al-Jubeir said the allegations that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington supported terrorists are "untrue and irresponsible."
Princess Haifa al-Faisal is fully cooperating with the FBI, Jubeir said. "She wants her name cleared."
The princess, wife of ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, provided tens of thousands of dollars in what she believed were charitable gifts to the family of a Saudi man in San Diego who befriended and assisted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, the Saudi government said Saturday.
Saudi officials and American friends of the Saudi government said the payments began more than four years ago, and that they were typical of the charitable gifts she provided to Saudis and others in distress, many of them strangers, who wrote her for help, the New York Times reported.
They said medical records showed that much of the tens of thousands of dollars given to the family of the Saudi man, Osama Basnan, went for medical care for his ailing Jordanian wife.
Federal law enforcement officials said Saturday that the FBI had investigated the payments, and that it had found no evidence to undermine Haifa's account of the gifts, nor any evidence to suggest that money was redirected to hijackers.
In its defense of the FBI, the Bush administration also denied another contention of some lawmakers -- that the bureau has not done enough to examine fully the financing of the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens.
Questions about the investigation could become troublesome for the Bush administration, which is seeking the Saudis' help for a possible military campaign against their neighbor, Iraq. Saudi Arabia has been noncommittal, torn between its friendship with the United States and antiwar sentiment among Arabs.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are conducting a joint inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, expressed misgivings about the FBI investigation. Lawmakers say the bureau has not examined vigorously the prospect that the Saudi government might have given money to two men who provided financial help to hijackers Khalif al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
Dan Bartlett, an administration spokesman, said the FBI has been investigating the Saudi link, "and I'm not going to prejudge the conclusion of that investigation."
"As anyone who knows this issue will tell you, it's very difficult to track financing of terrorist networks, because most of it is done in cash," he said.
Basnan and a Saudi neighbor in San Diego, Omar al-Bayoumi, came under scrutiny by the FBI shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when it was learned that they had befriended al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, when they lived in San Diego in the months before the attacks.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were among the hijackers on the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Officials have said that al-Bayoumi met the two hijackers in 1999 in Los Angeles and he paid their rent for two months after they moved to San Diego.
A Saudi government spokesman said Saturday that Haifa, daughter of the late King Faisal, decided in 1998 to begin donating $2,000 a month to Basnan's family after receiving a letter from the Jordanian wife pleading for assistance.
Earlier that year, the government said, Haifa provided the family with $15,000 to cover medical bills for his wife, Magda Ibrahim Ahmed. Details of the payments by the princess were first reported by Newsweek's Web site.
Law enforcement officials said they believe al-Bayoumi received some sort of stipend from the Saudi government.
In a statement, the FBI refused to give details of its investigation but said al-Bayoumi and Basnan face visa fraud charges. Al-Bayoumi was detained on that charge in Britain, but it was not an extraditable offense and he was released. It is not known whether Basnan is in custody.
Embassy spokesman al-Jubeir said Basnan was deported to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 17 and they believe his wife was deported to Jordan two weeks earlier.
"There was no linkage found between them and the terrorists," he said. "The only reason he became a person of interest to the FBI was his relation to al-Bayoumi."
Saudi Arabia has said it is cooperating with the United States in fighting terrorism and considers Osama bin Laden a threat to the kingdom. The alleged terrorist mastermind was born in Saudi Arabia to a wealthy family, but the government has taken away his citizenship.
-- Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.