In the most extensive comments by a public official to date, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke describes the events surrounding the evacuation of dozens of Saudis days after 9/11 when all commercial and private flights were grounded. [Includes transcript]
In September last year, Clarke revealed that top White House officials approved the evacuation of 140 influential Saudis, including relatives of Osama Bin Laden, days after the Sept. 11 attacks at a time when all commercial and private flights were grounded.
We covered this story in detail last week when we spoke with Craig Unger who broke the story to Vanity Fair in September and is author of the new book "House of Bush, House of Saud." Commission member Tim Roemer yesterday asked Clarke about the controversial flight. His testimony represents the most extensive comments made by a public official on the subject to date. TRANSCRIPT
TIMONTHY ROEMER, COMMISSION MEMBER: There’s a great deal of unanimity that the Saudis were not doing everything they could before 9/11 to help us in a host of different areas; 15 of the 19 hijackers came from there. We had trouble tracking some of the financing for terrorist operations. But we still have too many of the madrassas and the teachings of hatred of Christians and Jews and others coming out of some of these madrassas.
We need to broaden and deepen this relationship. I will ask you a part A and a part B.
Part A is where do we go in this difficult relationship? And part B is to further look at the difficulty here. You made a decision after 9/11 to, I think — and I’d like to ask you more about this — to allow a plane of Saudis to fly out of the country. And when most other planes were grounded, this plane flew from the United States back to Saudi Arabia. I’d like to know why you made that decision, who was on this plane, and if the FBI ever had the opportunity to interview those people.
RICHARD CLARKE: You’re absolutely right that the Saudi Arabian government did not cooperate with us significantly in the fight against terrorism prior to 9/11. Indeed, it didn’t really cooperate until after bombs blew up in Riyadh.
Now, as to this controversy about the Saudi evacuation aircraft, let me tell you everything I know, which is that in the days following 9/11 — whether it was on 9/12 or 9/15, I can’t tell you — we were in a constant crisis management meeting that had started the morning of 9/11 and ran for days on end. We were making lots of decisions, but we were coordinating them with all the agencies through the video teleconference procedure.
CLARKE: Someone — and I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know who — someone brought to that group a proposal that we authorize a request from the Saudi embassy. The Saudi embassy had apparently said that they feared for the lives of Saudi citizens because they thought there would be retribution against Saudis in the United States as it became obvious to Americans that this attack was essentially done by Saudis, and that there were even Saudi citizens in the United States who were part of the bin Laden family, which is a very large family, very large family.
The Saudi embassy therefore asked for these people to be evacuated; the same sort of thing that we do all the time in similar crises, evacuating Americans.
The request came to me and I refused to approve it. I suggested that it be routed to the FBI and that the FBI look at the names of the individuals who were going to be on the passenger manifest and that they approve it — or not.
I spoke with at that time the number two person in the FBI, Dale Watson, and asked him to deal with this issue.
The FBI then approved — after some period of time, and I can’t tell you how long — approved the flight.
Now, what degree of review the FBI did of those names, I cannot tell you. How many people there are on the plane, I cannot tell you.
But I have asked since: Were there any individuals on that flight that in retrospect the FBI wishes they could have interviewed in this country. And the answer I’ve been given is no, that there was no one who left on that flight who the FBI now wants to interview.
ROEMER: Despite the fact that we don’t know if Dale Watson interviewed them in the first place.
CLARKE: I don’t think they were ever interviewed in this country.
ROEMER: So they were not interviewed here. We have all their names. We don’t know if there has been any follow up to interview those people that were here and flown out of the country.
CLARKE: The last time I asked that question, I was informed that the FBI still had no desire to interview any of these people.
ROEMER: Would you have a desire to interview some of these people that...
CLARKE: I don’t know who they are.
ROEMER: We don’t know who they are...
CLARKE: I don’t know who they are. The FBI knew who they were because they...
ROEMER: Given your confidence in your statements on the FBI, what’s your level of comfort with this?
CLARKE: Well, I will tell you in particular about the ones that get the most attention here in the press, and they are members of the bin Laden family.
CLARKE: I was aware, for some time, that there were members of the bin Laden family living in the United States.
And, let’s see, in open session I can say that I was very well aware of the members of the bin Laden family and what they were doing in the United States. And the FBI was extraordinarily well aware of what they were doing in the United States. And I was informed by the FBI that none of the members of the bin Laden family, this large clan, were doing anything in this country that was illegal or that raised their suspicions.
And I believe the FBI had very good information and good sources of information on what the members of the bin Laden family were doing.
ROEMER: I’ve been very impressed with your memory, sitting through all these interviews the 9/11 commission has conducted with you. I press you, again, to try to recall how this request originated. Who might have passed this on to you at the White House situation room? Or who might have originated that request for the United States government to fly out — how many people in this plane?
CLARKE: I don’t know.
ROEMER: We don’t know how many people were on a plane that flew out of this country. Who gave the final approval, then, to say yes, you’re clear to go, it’s all right with the United States government to go to Saudi Arabia?
CLARKE: I believe, after the FBI came back and said it was all right with them, we ran it through the decision process for all of these decisions we were making in those hours, which was the Interagency Crisis Management Group on the video conference.
I was making or coordinating a lot of decisions on 9/11 and the days immediately after. And I would love to be able to tell you who did it, who brought this proposal to me, but I don’t know. Since you pressed me, the two possibilities that are most likely are either the Department of State, or the White House Chief of Staff’s Office. But I don’t know.