Long-Suppressed Interview Exposes 9/11 Commission’s Saudi Intel Inquiries Shortcomings

In mid-October 2003, two weeks before sitting down with Commission staff, Prince Turki had spoken publicly on a matter that troubles researchers to this day. Who in U.S. intelligence had known what, and when, about Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, the first two 9/11 hijackers to arrive in the U.S.?

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Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, former chief of intelligence [Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images]

Release of the long-hidden notes of the 9/11 Commission’s interview of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal points to a curious failure of the staff to ask the Prince key questions about possible links among the 9/11 plotters, members of the Saudi royal family and the intelligence service he ran.

The disclosure by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) late last week marks the end of a 15-year effort to get them declassified. For years, the notes were deemed so sensitive that even their existence was not acknowledged.

Turki first emphasized that the 9/11 hijackers had been recruited and indoctrinated “outside” the Kingdom, then sought empathy by contrasting “the memories that the families of the 9/11 victims still cherish of their loved one with the Saudis own horrible memory of having produced 15 murderers.”  

Prince Turki was arguably the most senior member of the Saudi Royal family questioned about 9/11. The meeting with the Prince, by then his country’s ambassador to the United KIngdom, took place over two days in London at the end of October 2003. 9/11 Commission staff had just returned from Saudi Arabia, where they had interviewed other Saudis named in post-9/11 investigations.

The notes of Turki’s interview, “Memorandum for the Record,” are the only known record of the session. The Commission did not record or transcribe its interviews, typically relying on notes taken by a staff member. In this case only Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, and Dieter Snell, who led the team examining the evolution of the 9/11 plot, took part. Snell wrote the notes.

The Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington killed almost 3,000 Americans in 2001. Of the 19 young men who hijacked commercial airliners and used them to strike the United States that day, 15 were Saudi citizens. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been born and raised in the Saudi capital, the 18th son of a fabulously wealthy and well-connected businessman. Those facts alone focused U.S. attention on the Kingdom. Had Saudi Arabia been a partner in the war on terror, or a party to the crime?

PRINCE TURKI AND SAUDI INTELLIGENCE

Prince Turki is the youngest son of the late King Faisal and nephew of the present Saudi King, Salman Al Saud. In the words of author Steve Coll, who has studied him closely, he “embodied Saudi Arabia’s cascading contradictions.” He is a multimillionaire and intellectual, a promoter of Islam (who favors banana daiquiris), a friend of America (and a supporter of anti-American causes). Turki also headed his country’s intelligence service, known in English as the General Intelligence Presidency, or GIP, for almost a quarter of a century – until he was abruptly fired just 10 days before 9/11.

Press reports after Sept. 11 and leaks from Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks repeatedly raised questions about Prince Turki and his brother-in-law, Saudi Arabia’s veteran Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The leaks related to investigative material allegedly contained in a 28-page portion of the Joint Inquiry’s Report withheld from the public at the time at the insistence of the Bush administration.

In August 2003, only weeks before his interview with 9/11 Commission staff, Prince Turki had given a series of press interviews denouncing the leaks. “We are accused of something and they will not tell what we are accused of,” he told the London Telegraph. “Those who have seen those 28 pages have come out and issued statements about Saudi Arabia that are vicious and, from our point of view, completely untrue.” To the Independent, he complained of not having been given “a chance to answer” the allegations.

At the outset of the interview, director Zelikow emphasized to Prince Turki that unlike the earlier congressional Inquiry, the Commission was “speaking with Saudis to get their side of the story.” There is, though, nothing in the record to indicate that Zelikow or Snell ever asked Turki about the most personally sensitive or troubling issues that the Inquiry had raised.

The Inquiry, co-chaired by Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, reported that two of the 9/11 hijackers who had spent time  in California, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, had received support from two men alleged to have been Saudi intelligence officers. Although Turki had been head of Saudi intelligence at the time, nothing in the Commission’s notes of his interview indicate that he was asked about that. (According to FBI reports in 2017 and 2021, the Bureau later concluded that one of the Saudi men, Omar al Bayoumi, had indeed been “a co-optee” of Saudi intelligence, that he was paid by and reported to Ambassador Prince Bandar. According to the Bureau reports, Bandar in turn passed Bayoumi’s intelligence up the chain of command within Saudi intelligence – the organization Turki then headed.)

AN ISSUE NOT RAISED WITH TURKI

Congress’ Inquiry had reported information that one of the alleged Saudi intelligence officers was an extremist and supporter of Osama bin Laden. In addition, that he and his wife had received substantial financial assistance – some $74,000 –  from Prince Turki’s sister, Princess Haifa, and her husband, Ambassador Bandar. Turki had previously publicly defended his sister’s actions. Again, though, nothing in the notes released last week indicate that he was questioned about this.

The Inquiry, for its part, had reported testimony from U.S. intelligence officials that relations between the U.S. and Saudi intelligence services were “very troubled” that the Saudis had been “useless and obstructionist” in pursuing terrorism investigations. By 1996, according to the Inquiry’s Report, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden Station had concluded that the “Saudi government would not cooperate with the United States on matters relating to bin Laden.” Though Turki had headed the Saudi intelligence agency at the heart of these allegations, the Commission apparently did not raise them with him.

Zelikow and Snell did raise one issue relevant to the Joint Inquiry’s work – veteran jihadi Abu Zubaydah’s alleged links to members of the royal family, including Ahmed bin Salman, a son of the current king. The allegation had emerged in Why America Slepta book by Miami Beach author Gerald Posner, and had made news. Turki carefully told the Commission that “as far as he knows, Posner’s account is an invention.” (Posner, contacted last week, stood by his reporting.)

Posner’s accont aside, however, the Commission’s released notes suggest Turki was not asked about evidence seen by the Joint Inquiry connecting Zubaydah, through intermediaries, to another member of the royal family. Among Zubaydah’s possessions when he was captured were phone numbers linked to associates of – that name again – Turki’s brother-in-law, Prince Bandar.

The 9/11 Commission Report contains no reference to its interview with Prince Turki. This reporter first became aware of its possible existence in 2009, during the course of research for my book with co-author Anthony Summers, The Eleventh Day. On finding no reference to any Turki contact in listings of Commission documents – even if only referred to as withheld – we sent an inquiry to the National Archives. The response was remarkable, one that the experienced archivist with whom we dealt said she had never had to send before.

“I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a Prince Turki Memorandum for the Record,” the archivist wrote in early 2011, “I’m not allowed to be any clearer…I can’t tell you…” The umbrella nature of the withholding – under which the public is not allowed to know whether a document on a subject even exists – is rare.

THE PATH TO OBTAINING TURKI INTERVIEW

In 2016, long after our book was published, I renewed my request for the notes of any interview with Turki. Though the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) then admitted it did have a record, it was denied to me in full.  When I appealed the decision to NARA’s Freedom of Information Act section, access was again denied. Those denials were issued at the behest of the Department of State – the agency which had originally designated the notes as “sensitive national security” information “the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security.’’

Finally, in 2019, I appealed that decision to ISCAP, the final recourse in the process.

ISCAP consists of representatives from the departments of State, Defense and Justice as well as the National Archives, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Advisor. It exists to provide the public with a forum for further review of classification decisions, while safeguarding critical material of which the release might jeopardize national security.

Mark Zaid, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in national security law, is baffledby the National Archives’ early decisions in this case. The document, he said, had apparently been “classified at the lowest level possible – CONFIDENTIAL – which raises real questions as to why it was withheld for so long.”

“At its heart,” Zaid said, “I view this document as an example of how broken the classification system is and how over classification harms democratic transparency. Even the Prince himself wanted this information released, yet our government kept it hidden for 20 years. That’s embarrassing.” 

With the exception of four short paragraphs and a subject heading that remains classified under a clause meant to shield “intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology,” the interview has now been released in full.  

‘SOMETIMES THE SOUL VEERS TOWARD EVIL’

Reading the 12-page summary of the Commission’s meeting with Prince Turki – whom one Saudi watcher described last week as a “a savvy veteran who knew how to play very well in intelligence, politics, and the rough-and-tumble world of the Saudi royals” – it seems fair to suggest that he played his encounter with the Commission to his best advantage.

Asked for his views on bin Laden’s success in recruiting men like the 15 young Saudi hijackers, Turki quoted from the Koran: “Sometimes the soul veers toward evil.” He likened bin Laden to the 15th century Italian ascetic and preacher Girolamo Savonarola, “an ‘illiterate priest’ who evolved into a charismatic demagogue.”

Nine pages of the interview are devoted to a discussion of the “aftermath of the Afghan-Soviet War,” “Osama bin Laden in the Sudan” and the evolving bin Laden threat prior to 1998.  It is about this period that Turki offers the most detail. 

Turki had assumed control of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service in 1979, just as the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. Partnering with the CIA, Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan mujahideen, Saudi intelligence began an effort to drive out the Soviets. Osama bin Laden, Turki said, was one of the thousands of young men from the Muslim world who flocked to the Afghan cause during the coming decade.

Bin Laden had been on the periphery of Turki’s family circle for years. His father Mohammed had run Saudi Arabia’s leading construction company, and Turki’s father King Faisal considered him a political ally and friend. When Mohammed bin Laden died in a plane crash when Osama was a boy, King Faisal stepped in to stabilize the family’s business operations, declaring he would henceforth act as a father to the bin Laden children.

Nevertheless, Turki told the Commission that he did not meet bin Laden for the first time until 1985 or 1986, at a reception at the Saudi embassy in Islamabad, that he subsequently met with him a total of only three or four times – the last time before 1990 – and that he had never had a “working relationship” with bin Laden.  He described the young Osama as having been “amiable” and “courteous.” Bin Laden’s “distinguishing feature” at the time, he said, was the “amount of money he had at his disposal.” His successes in the Afghan War made bin Laden a “celebrity” in much of the Muslim world, Turki recalled. “All doors would be open to him.”

From left to right: Vice President Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and President George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

‘A MEASURE OF NAIVETE’

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and bin Laden offered his own forces to help liberate the country, he was rebuffed by the Saudi leadership. Turki learned of the offer after the fact, he said, but had not been personally involved. Soon after this, bin Laden began expounding on “the need for Muslims to fight against U.S. hegemonic interests,’’ speeches which Turki claimed earned him a rebuke from Saudi officials, but also “put him on everyone’s radar.”

By 1994, Turki said, bin Laden had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship and financially cut off by his family. After that, Turki suggested, bin Laden’s money was kept outside the Kingdom. Turki said he had always been concerned about the possible misuse of charitable donations, and that more needed to be done by Saudi authorities to regulate them. There had been, Turki claimed, “a measure of naivete” by donors as to how these funds were spent.

Turki denied reports that Saudi Arabia refused to accept bin Laden in 1996, when Sudan offered to extradite him. He claimed that the Sudanese had made a similar offer to the Clinton White House but that, at the time, U.S. authorities did not think they had sufficient evidence to indict him. On this, Turki contradicted the recollection of President Clinton, who told the Commission that Sudan never offered to extradite bin Laden.

Almost a page of the released notes cover Prince Turki’s version of his part in 1998 efforts to extradite bin Laden from Afghanistan, after the Al Qaeda leader had declared war on the U.S. and settled there under the protection of the Taliban. At the behest of his own government and the United States, Prince Turki said, he had met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar to attempt to secure bin Laden’s expulsion from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar, who died in 2013, did not oblige. On his advice, Turki claimed, Saudi Arabia then suspended relations with the Taliban. 

(The Prince may have been keen to get these points on the record. By the time he talked with the Commission, he had been named in a trillion-dollar lawsuit by 9/11 victims and families as having made a deal with the Taliban not to extradite bin Laden. In exchange, the families charged, “Turki promised to provide oil and generous financial assistance” to the Taliban. The case against Prince Turki was dismissed by a U.S. court in 2005.)

In spite of the opportunities the Commission apparently missed, much in the Turki interview was germane to their inquiries. It is puzzling that none of Turki’s recollections made it into the Commission’s Report.

The answer may lie in the fact that from the outset of the interview Turki required the Commission to clear any statements they intended to attribute to him. In the event, perhaps, that process became too onerous, or Turki withheld his permission. (Neither Zelikow nor Prince Turki has responded to questions about the Commission’s interview with the Saudi intelligence chief.)

WHO KNEW WHAT, AND WHEN?

In mid-October 2003, two weeks before sitting down with Commission staff, Prince Turki had spoken publicly on a matter that troubles researchers to this day. Who in U.S. intelligence had known what, and when, about Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, the first two 9/11 hijackers to arrive in the U.S.?

In late 1999, Turki said, Saudi intelligence had told the CIA that Hazmi and Mihdhar, then on their way to a planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur, were terrorists. “What we told them,” he said, “was these people were on our watchlist from previous activities of al Qaeda, in both the [East African] embassy bombings and attempts to smuggle arms into the Kingdom in 1997.”

The CIA immediately denied Turki’s claim about the two hijackers, and the Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a correction. In his Commission interview, Turki reiterated that he had been “incorrect” about those particular contacts with the CIA – but acknowledged having known about the Kuala Lumpur meeting at the time.

These are critical elements of the 9/11 story. The CIA did learn about Hazmi and Mihdhar’s terrorist links, their travel to Malaysia and their visas to travel on to the United States – but it neither put them on the State Department’s watchlist nor passed the information on to the FBI. These lapses have fueled speculation that the CIA intentionally withheld the information from the FBI  because it was engaged in a joint operation with Saudi intelligence – either to track the hijackers on arrival in the U.S. or to recruit them as double agents. Although not asked about this speculation, Turki told the Commission by contrast that he faulted the Kingdom for its failure to infiltrate Al Qaeda.

As the end of his two-day session with the Commission, the Prince stressed that the Kingdom “was prepared to accept its share of any blame that may be assigned, but fairness dictates that it know the questions and accusations directed against it.” Neither Zelikow nor Snell, however – the record of the meeting now released indicates –  took the opportunity to ask any of the questions that they had missed.

The following year, when the Commission’s Report was published, the Saudi embassy posted quotations favorable to the Kingdom on its website. “The clear statements by this independent, bipartisan commission,” Turki’s brother-in-law, Prince Bandar said, “have debunked the myths that have cast fear and doubt over Saudi Arabia.”

In light of the questions that apparently remained unasked of the Saudis, that is a stretch.

Robbyn Swan

Robbyn Swan is an American journalist and author. Her book, The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, co-authored by her husband Anthony Summers, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

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