St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

TIA now verifies flight of Saudis

The government has long denied that two days after the 9/11 attacks, the three were allowed to fly.

JEAN HELLER
Published June 9, 2004

TAMPA - Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, with most of the nation's air traffic still grounded, a small jet landed at Tampa International Airport, picked up three young Saudi men and left.

The men, one of them thought to be a member of the Saudi royal family, were accompanied by a former FBI agent and a former Tampa police officer on the flight to Lexington, Ky.

The Saudis then took another flight out of the country. The two ex-officers returned to TIA a few hours later on the same plane.

For nearly three years, White House, aviation and law enforcement officials have insisted the flight never took place and have denied published reports and widespread Internet speculation about its purpose.

But now, at the request of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, TIA officials have confirmed that the flight did take place and have supplied details.

The odyssey of the small LearJet 35 is part of a larger controversy over the hasty exodus from the United States in the days immediately after 9/11 of members of the Saudi royal family and relatives of Osama bin Laden.

The terrorism panel, better known as the 9/11 Commission, said in April that it knew of six chartered flights with 142 people aboard, mostly Saudis, that left the United States between Sept. 14 and 24, 2001. But it has said nothing about the Tampa flight.

The commission's general counsel, Daniel Marcus, asked TIA in a letter dated May 25 for any information about "a chartered flight with six people, including a Saudi prince, that flew from Tampa, Florida on or about Sept. 13, 2001." He asked for the information no later than June 8.

TIA officials said they sent their reply on Monday.

The airport used aircraft tracking equipment normally assigned to a noise abatement program to determine the identity of all aircraft entering TIA airspace on Sept. 13, and found four records for the LearJet 35.

The plane first entered the airspace from the south, possibly from the Fort Lauderdale area, sometime after 3 p.m. and landed for the first time at 3:34 p.m. It took off at 4:37 p.m., headed north. It returned to Tampa at 8:23 p.m. and took off again at 8:48 p.m., headed south.

Author Craig Unger, who first disclosed the possibility of a post-9/11 Saudi airlift in his book House of Bush, House of Saud, said in an interview that he believes the jet came to Tampa a second time to drop off two former law enforcement agents from Tampa who accompanied three young Saudis to Lexington for security purposes.

The Saudis asked the Tampa Police Department to escort the flight, but the department handed off the assignment to Dan Grossi, a former member of the force, Unger said. Grossi recruited Manuel Perez, a retired FBI agent, to accompany him. Both described the flight to Unger as somewhat surreal.

"They got the approval somewhere," Perez is quoted as telling Unger. "It must have come from the highest levels of government."

While there is no manifest for those aboard the Lear flight to Kentucky, Unger says the foreign nationals left Lexington for London aboard a Boeing 727. That manifest lists eight Saudis, two Sudan nationals, one Tunisian, one Philippine citizen, one Egyptian and two British subjects.

Of those, three listed residences on Normandy Trace Drive in Tampa, and all of them held Florida drivers' licenses. They are Ahmad Al Hazmi, then 19, Fahad Al Zeid, then 20, and Talal M. Al Mejrad, then 18, all male Saudis.

It is not known which, if any, is a Saudi prince.

Perez, the former FBI agent on the flight, could not be located this week, and Grossi declined to talk about the experience.

"I'm over it," he said in a telephone interview. "The White House, the FAA and the FBI all said the flight didn't happen. Those are three agencies that are way over my head, and that's why I'm done talking about it."

Grossi did say that Unger's account of his participation in the flight is accurate.

The FAA is still not talking about the flights, referring all questions to the FBI, which isn't answering anything, either. Nor is the 9/11 Commission.

Unger's book criticizes the Bush administration for allowing so many Saudis, including the relatives of bin Laden, to leave the country without being questioned thoroughly about the terrorist attacks.

Fifteen of the 19 men who hijacked four airlines on Sept. 11 were Saudi, as is bin Laden.

The 9/11 Commission, which has said the flights out of the United States were handled appropriately by the FBI, appears concerned with the handling of the Tampa flight.

"What information, if any, do you have about the screening by law enforcement personnel - including law enforcement personnel affiliated with the airport facility - of individuals on this flight?" the commission asked TIA.

The TIA Police Department said a check of its records indicated no member of its force screened the Lear's passengers.

Despite evidence that the flight occurred, several new questions have arisen.

Raytheon Aircraft is the only facility at TIA that services general aviation, which includes charter flights. When appropriate, Raytheon collects landing fees from those aircraft for TIA and reports to TIA on the flights.

According to airport records, Raytheon collected landing fees from only two aircraft on Sept. 13, one of them a Lear 35. But according to the record, the registration on the Lear is 505RP, a tail number which, according to the latest federal records, is assigned to a Cessna Citation based in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Oskar Rene Poch.

Poch confirmed Tuesday that he owns a Citation with that tail number and did before the terrorist attacks.

"Somebody must have gotten the registration number wrong in Tampa," he said.

TIA spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said it is believed the Lear's Sept. 13 journey began in Fort Lauderdale, possibly at a charter company called Hop-a-Jet Inc. The fact that the four trips in and out of Tampa all carried the flight designation "HPJ32" lends support to that idea.

But an official of Hop-a-Jet who wouldn't identify himself said the company does not own an aircraft with the registration number 505RP. Furthermore, he said, if that tail number is assigned to a Cessna Citation, the company doesn't own any Citations, either.

Most of the aircraft allowed to fly in U.S. airspace on Sept. 13 were empty airliners being ferried from the airports where they made quick landings on Sept. 11. The reopening of the airspace included paid charter flights, but not private, nonrevenue flights.

"Whether such a (LearJet) flight would have been legal hinges on whether somebody paid for it," said FAA spokesman William Shumann. "That's the key."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.