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Two Panelists Detail Allies' Al Qaeda Ties

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan paid 'a kind of blackmail' to the group before Sept. 11, one commissioner says.

June 21, 2004|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The chairman and another member of the Sept. 11 commission said Sunday that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two key U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, had turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda operations and operatives in their countries for years before the terrorist group struck the United States in 2001.

Republican commissioner John F. Lehman said on the NBC program "Meet the Press" that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had before Sept. 11 "been paying a kind of blackmail by allowing a kind of free operations" to Islamic radicals affiliated with Al Qaeda, which protected the two nations from attacks within their borders.

Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former GOP governor of New Jersey, made similar remarks on the ABC program "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

"There's no question the intelligence services in Pakistan were very much for the Taliban and worked with the Taliban very, very strongly, because they thought that was a help for them in their war with India and then their problems with Iran," Kean said. "The Taliban and Al Qaeda became almost the same organization, Al Qaeda being the military arm, in some ways, of the Taliban."

The comments from Lehman and Kean came in reaction to a Times story published Sunday.

The article said senior members of the Sept. 11 commission and U.S. counterterrorism officials had come to think that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had helped set the stage for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by cutting deals with the Taliban in Afghanistan that allowed Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization to flourish and become a global network. Those deals appeared to have shielded Pakistan and Saudi Arabia from Al Qaeda attacks, the officials said in the story.

The independent commission was created by Congress to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The bipartisan panel is expected to produce a final report in July, including recommendations to guard against similar attacks.

Saudi Arabia's foreign policy advisor, Adel Jubeir, disputed some of the story's assertions on another talk show, CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer."

"We see these charges or these myths being perpetrated about Saudi Arabia in order to malign our country," Jubeir said. "I believe this myth will also be dispelled when the [Sept. 11 commission] report comes out."

Jubeir said that Saudi officials had initiated negotiations with the Taliban after Bin Laden went to Afghanistan in 1996, but said it was done to persuade the Taliban to extradite the Saudi exile.

"When that failed, we reduced our ties with the Taliban, as well as our assistance to the Taliban," Jubeir said.

The Sept. 11 commission staff concluded in a report that the Saudi government didn't want Bin Laden extradited to their country. And it said it found indications that the Taliban tried to extort money from the Saudi government, with some success.

In recent interviews, a senior Saudi official said that although Riyadh withdrew some of its diplomatic corps from Afghanistan by early 1999, it never cut off funding completely and never severed diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

Commission members Sunday repeated that they did not see evidence of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The Bush administration has cited links between terrorists and Saddam Hussein's former regime in Iraq as one reason for invading the country last year.

Kean said the commission concluded that Al Qaeda had stronger ties to other nations than it did to Iraq.

"There were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq," he said.

The commission did find contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq, but concluded that there was "no evidence that we can find whatsoever that Iraq or Saddam Hussein participated in any way in attacks on the United States, in other words, on 9/11."

But Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said there were no serious conflicts between the commission and the Bush administration on the issue.

Hamilton said there were contacts between Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda, but "there was no collaborative relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, with regard to the 9/11 attacks.... I've looked at these statements quite carefully from the administration -- they are not claiming that there was a collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, with regard to the attacks on the United States."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) took a sharply more critical approach on CNN's "Late Edition." He said he found it "shocking that the exaggerations of the administration before the war relative to that connection continue to this day," he said.

Meanwhile, Newsweek reported that an early draft of a report by the commission conveyed skepticism about the White House account of how the order was given to military aircraft on Sept. 11 to shoot down hijacked U.S. airliners.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have testified that Bush told Cheney in a phone call to give the order, but the newsweekly said some commission staff members thought that call did not take place, suggesting that Cheney acted alone.

The White House reviewed an early draft of the commission's report and "vigorously lobbied the commission" to change some of the language, the magazine said. The story quoted one commission staffer as saying that the report "was watered down" by the time it was released last week.

Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste disputed the account. He said on "Meet the Press" that the administration had reviewed commission reports to ensure that any classified information was deleted, and said that in at least one case it had taken "issue with some of what the staff concluded. We did not change our conclusions."


Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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