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US wants to probe Saudi linked to Sep.11 attack
( 2003-07-30 10:56) (Agencies)

President Bush refused on Tuesday to release classified passages from a congressional report on possible links between Saudi Arabian government officials and the Sept. 11 hijackers. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal agreed to let US investigators question a suspected Saudi agent who befriended the hijackers.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal walks out of the West Wing after meeting with President Bush at the White House in Washington Tuesday, July 29, 2003. [AP]
Bush said he would not comply with a Saudi request to declassify 28 pages from the 850-page report because it could compromise national security. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disagreed, reiterating Tuesday his view that "90, 95 per cent of it would not compromise, in my judgment, anything in national security." Bush ignored a reporter's question on Shelby's assessment.

The Saudis saw publication of the 28 pages as a chance to clear their kingdom's name after suggestions by some US officials of an official Saudi connection to the attacks.

"Saudi Arabia is indicted by insinuation," Prince Saud told reporters at the White House. "It is an outrage to any sense of fairness that 28 blank pages are now considered substantial evidence to proclaim the guilt of a country that has been a true friend and partner to the United States for over 60 years."

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been wrongfully and morbidly accused of complicity," he said. "This accusation is based on misguided speculation and it is borne of poorly disguised, malicious intent."

After the White House meeting, Prince Saud spoke for about an hour with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. He said later she told him US authorities want to question Omar al-Bayoumi, an employee of the Saudi aviation authority who befriended two of the Saudi hijackers on their arrival in California.

Unclassified sections of the report released last week said that al-Bayoumi paid many of the expenses of two hijackers, "had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia" and was suspected of being an agent for Saudi Arabia "or another foreign power."

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have urged Bush to request that al-Bayoumi be returned from Saudi Arabia for questioning.

Prince Saud said he replied to Rice that FBI and CIA agents in Saudi Arabia could freely question al-Bayoumi, who has been questioned already by American, British and Saudi investigators.

"We are glad that the president has asked Saudi Arabia to let the FBI question Omar al-Bayoumi, but the devil will be in the details," Schumer said. "Saudi Arabia needs to allow the FBI to interrogate al-Bayoumi here in the United States and without any Saudi officials present."

The White House did not immediately return a call for comment on the request to question al-Bayoumi.

Prince Saud met with Bush for about 40 minutes. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rice and Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council were present, he said. Afterward, Saud met with Rice.

"He made a strong case for not publishing it," Saud said of Bush's refusal to release the 28-page segment. But, he added, "we have nothing to hide."

Bush said disclosure of the 28 pages "would help the enemy" by revealing intelligence sources and methods.

"There's an ongoing investigation into the 9-11 attacks, and we don't want to compromise that investigation," Bush said during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "If people are being investigated, it doesn't make sense for us to let them know who they are."

Senior intelligence and law enforcement officials recommended keeping the 28 pages classified, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

A chorus of Democratic lawmakers demanded that Bush declassify the material, charging that Bush was trying to shield the Saudi royal family from possible embarrassing revelations.

"Classification should protect sources and methods, ongoing investigations and our national security interests," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat on the congressional investigation. "It is not intended to protect reputations of people or countries."

"This administration has an obsession with secrecy, and this report is over-classified," she said.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a presidential candidate and the co-chairman of the congressional committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks also called for declassification, as did fellow presidential contenders Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

Graham said he thought Bush was motivated more by politics than by national security in refusing to declassify the material. He said he plans to press for release of the 28 pages through a law that would allow the Senate to vote to publicize the material despite the opposition of the president.

Shelby said on CNN, "I think we ought to try to do it the easier way," by persuading the Bush administration to declassify it.

The White House took pains to keep Bush's meeting with the Saudis as low-profile as possible. It did not list the session on Bush's schedule for Tuesday, acknowledging it only after news reports disclosed it. The White House refused to allow reporters or photographers into the meeting and rejected requests for an official photo shot by Bush's photographers.

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