On my BBC television show, Newsnight, an American journalist confessed that, since the 9/11 attacks, US reporters are simply too afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions that could kill careers: "It's an obscene comparison, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck," Dan Rather said. Without his makeup, Rather looked drawn, old and defeated in confessing that he too had given in. "It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often."
Investigators were ordered to "back off" from any inquiries into Saudi Arabian financing of terror networks.
The reports I did based on this information won the Sonoma State University School of Journalism's Project Censored Award in 2002. It's not the kind of prize you want to win -- it's given to crucial stories that were effectively banned from US airwaves and papers. I don't want any misunderstanding here, so I must emphasize what we did not find: We uncovered no information, none whatsoever, that George W. Bush had any advance knowledge of the plan to attack the World Trade Center on 9/11, nor, heaven forbid, any involvement in the attack.
What we did discover was serious enough. To begin with, from less-than-happy FBI agents we obtained an interesting document, some 30 pages long, marked "SECRET." I've reproduced a couple of pages in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy [recently reissued in a paperback US edition by Plume]. Note the designation "199I" -- that's FBI-speak for "national security matter." According to insiders, FBI agents had wanted to check into two members of the bin Laden family, Abdullah and Omar, but were told to stay away by superiors -- until September 13, 2001. By then, Abdullah and Omar were long gone from the United States.
Why no investigation of the brothers bin Laden? The Bush administration's line is the Binladdins (a more common spelling of the Arabic name) are good folk. Osama's the Black Sheep, supposedly cut off from his Saudi kin. But the official line notwithstanding, some FBI agents believed the family had some gray sheep worth questioning -- especially these two working with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), which the file labels "a suspected terrorist organization." ....
No matter how vile WAMY's indoctrination chats, they are none of the FBI's business. Recruitment for terror, however, is. Before 9/11, the governments of India and the Philippines tied WAMY to groups staging murderous attacks on civilians. Following our broadcast on BBC, the Dutch secret service stated that WAMY, "support(ed) violent activity." In 2002, The Wall Street Journal's Glenn Simpson made public a report by Bosnia's government that a charity with Abdullah bin Laden on its board had channeled money to Chechen guerrillas. Two of the 9/11 hijackers used an address on the same street as WAMY's office in Falls Church, Virginia.
Despite these tantalizing facts, Abdullah and his operations were A-OK with the FBI chiefs, if not their working agents. Just a dumb SNAFU? Not according to a top-level CIA operative who spoke with us on condition of strictest anonymity. After Bush took office, he said, "there was a major policy shift" at the National Security Agency. Investigators were ordered to "back off" from any inquiries into Saudi Arabian financing of terror networks, especially if they touched on Saudi royals and their retainers. That put the bin Ladens, a family worth a reported $12 billion and a virtual arm of the Saudi royal household, off-limits for investigation. Osama was the exception; he remained a wanted man, but agents could not look too closely at how he filled his piggy bank. The key rule of any investigation, "follow the money," was now violated, and investigations -- at least before 9/11 -- began to die.
And there was a lot to investigate -- or in the case of the CIA and FBI under Bush -- a lot to ignore. Through well-known international arms dealers (I'm sorry, but in this business, sinners are better sources than saints) our team was tipped off to a meeting of Saudi billionaires at the Hotel Royale Monceau in Paris in May 1996 with the financial representative of Osama bin Laden's network. The Saudis, including a key Saudi prince joined by Muslim and non-Muslim gun traffickers, met to determine who would pay how much to Osama. This was not so much an act of support but of protection -- a payoff to keep the mad bomber away from Saudi Arabia....
True-blue Democrats may want to skip the next paragraphs. If President Bush put the kibosh on investigations of Saudi funding of terror and nuclear bomb programs, this was merely taking a policy of Bill Clinton one step further.
Following the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, Clinton hunted Osama with a passion -- but a passion circumscribed by the desire to protect the sheikdom sitting atop our oil lifeline. In 1994, a Saudi diplomat defected to the United States with 14,000 pages of documents from the kingdom's sealed file cabinets. This mother lode of intelligence included evidence of plans for the assassination of Saudi opponents living in the West and, tantalizingly, details of the $7 billion the Saudis gave to Saddam Hussein for his nuclear program -- the first attempt to build an Islamic Bomb. The Saudi government, according to the defector, Mohammed Al Khilewi, slipped Saddam the nuclear loot during the Reagan and Bush Sr. years when our own government still thought Saddam too marvelous for words. The thought was that he would only use the bomb to vaporize Iranians....
In 1997, the Canadians caught and extradited to America one of the Khobar Towers attackers. In 1999, Vernon Jordan's law firm stepped in and -- poof! -- the killer was shipped back to Saudi Arabia before he could reveal all he knew about al Qaeda (valuable) and the Saudis (embarrassing). I reviewed, but was not permitted to take notes on, the alleged terrorist's debriefing by the FBI. To my admittedly inexpert eyes, there was enough on al Qaeda to make him a source on terrorists worth holding on to. Not that he was set free -- he's in one of the kingdom's dungeons -- but his info is sealed up with him. The terrorist's extradition was "Clinton's." "Clinton's parting kiss to the Saudis," as one insider put it.
This make-a-sheik-happy policy of Clinton's may seem similar to Bush's, but the difference is significant. Where Clinton said, "Go slow," Bush policymakers said, "No go." The difference is between closing one eye and closing them both.
Still, we are left with the question of why both Bush Jr. and Clinton would hold back disclosure of Saudi funding of terror. I got the first glimpse of an answer from Michael Springmann, who headed up the US State Department's visa bureau in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during the Reagan-Bush Sr. years. "In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high-level State Department officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants. These were, essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own country. I complained bitterly at the time there." That was Springmann's mistake. He was one of those conscientious midlevel bureaucrats who did not realize that when he filed reports about rules violations he was jeopardizing the cover for a huge multicontinental intelligence operation aimed at the Soviets. Springmann assumed petty thievery: someone was taking bribes, selling visas; so he couldn't understand why his complaints about rule-breakers were "met with silence" at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Springmann complained himself right out of a job. Now a lawyer, he has obtained more information on the questionable "engineers" with no engineering knowledge whom he was ordered to permit into the United States. "What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama bin Laden, to the United States for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets."
But then they turned their talents against the post-Soviet power: us. In the parlance of spook-world, this is called "blowback." Bin Laden and his bloody brethren were created in America's own Frankenstein factory. It would not do for the current president nor agency officials to dig back to find that some of the terrorists we are hunting today were trained and armed by the Reagan-Bush administration. And that's one of the problems for agents seeking to investigate groups like WAMY, or Abdullah bin Laden. WAMY literature that talks about that "compassionate young man Osama bin Laden" is likely to have been disseminated, if not written, by our very own government. If Abdullah's Bosnian-operated "charity" was funding Chechen guerrillas, it is only possible because the Clinton CIA gave the wink and nod to WAMY and other groups who were aiding Bosnian guerrillas when they were fighting Serbia, a US-approved enemy. "What we're talking about," says national security expert Joe Trento, "is embarrassing, career-destroying blowback for intelligence officials." And, he could add, for the presidential father.
I still didn't have an answer to all my questions. We knew that Clinton and the Bushes were reluctant to discomfort the Saudis by unearthing their connections to terrorists -- but what made this new president take particular care to protect the Saudis, even to the point of stymying his own intelligence agencies?
The answers kept coming back: "Carlyle" and "Arbusto."
While some people have guardian angels, our president seems to have guardian sheiks. ...
Behind Carlyle is a private, invitation-only investment group whose holdings in the war industry make it effectively one of America's biggest defense contractors. For example, Carlyle owned United Technologies, the maker of our fighter jets. Carlyle has the distinction of claiming both of the presidents Bush as paid retainers. Dubya served on the board of Carlyle's Caterair airplane food company until it went bust. The senior Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia for Carlyle in 1999. The bin Ladens were among Carlyle's select backers until just after the 9/11 attacks, when the connection became impolitic. The company's chairman is Frank Carlucci, Bush Sr.'s former defense secretary. The average Carlyle partner has gained about $25 million in equity. Notably, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz employed Carlyle as his advisor in buying up 10 percent of Citicorp's preferred stock. The choice of Carlyle for the high-fee work was odd, as the group is not an investment bank.
One would almost think the Saudi potentate wanted to enrich Carlyle's members. ...
So who lost the War on Terror? Osama? From his point of view, he's made the celebrity cutthroats' Hall of Fame. Where is he? Don't ask Bush; our leader just changes the subject to Iraq. So we have the 82nd Airborne looking for Osama bin Laden among the camels in Afghanistan when, in all likelihood, the billionaire butcher -- now likely beardless -- is chillin' by the pool at the Ritz Carlton, knocking back a brewsky and laughing at us while two blonde Barbies massage his feet.
Bush failed to get Osama. But we did successfully eliminate the threat of Congresswoman McKinney -- you remember, the one who dared question ChoicePoint, the company that helped Katherine Harris eliminate Black voters.
Following our BBC broadcast and Guardian report in November 2001, McKinney cited our stories on the floor of Congress, calling for an investigation of the intelligence failures and policy prejudices you've just read here. She was labeled a traitor, a freak, a conspiracy nut and "a looney" -- the latter by her state's Democratic senator, who led the mob in the political lynching of the uppity Black woman. The New York Times wrote, "She angered some black voters by suggesting that President Bush might have known in advance about the Sept. 11 attacks but had done nothing so his supporters could make money in war." The fact that she said no such thing doesn't matter; the Times is always more influential than the truth. Dan Rather had warned her, shut up, don't ask questions, and you can avoid the necklacing. She didn't and it cost her her seat in Congress.
McKinney's electoral corpse in the road silenced politicians, the media was mum, but some Americans still would not get in line. For them we have new laws to permit investigating citizens without warrants, and the label of terrorist fellow-traveler attached to groups from civil rights organizations to trade treaty protesters. Yet not one FBI or CIA agent told us, "If only we didn't have that pesky Bill of Rights, we would have nailed bin Laden." Not one said, "What we need is a new bureaucracy for Fatherland Security." Not one said we needed to jail everyone in the Midwest named "Ahmed." They had a single request: for George W. Bush's security henchmen to get their boot heels off agents' necks and remove the shield of immunity from the Saudis.
That leaves one final, impertinent question. Who won?
Greg Palast, a California native, is an award-winning investigative reporter for BBC Television's Newsnight and the Guardian and Observer of London. This article is excerpted from the updated US edition of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy [Plume] and is reprinted with permission. See tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/7310 for a longer article including footnotes and illustration.) See Palast's reports for BBC Television's Newsnight and his columns at www.gregpalast.com.