The FAA ordered all planes to land shortly after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, and US airspace remained closed until September 13, and wasn't fully reopen until the 14th. So it's hardly surprising that stories like the following grabbed people's attention:
However, it was later revealed that the "bin Laden flight" left the US more than a week after the attacks, on September 20th, and Richard Clarke (hardly someone you'd expect to be covering for the White House) said he took responsibility for the move:
The same article still questioned whether this could be true, however Clarke dismissed the issue as "a tempest in a teapot":
This new account of the events seemed to contradict Clarke’s sworn testimony before the Sept. 11 commission at the end of March about who approved the flights.
“The request came to me, and I refused to approve it,” Clarke testified. “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 the — at the time — No. 2 person in the FBI, Dale Watson, and asked him to deal with this issue. The FBI then approved … the flight.”
“That’s a little different than saying, ‘I claim sole responsibility for it now,’” Roemer said yesterday.
However, the FBI has denied approving the flight.
FBI spokeswoman Donna Spiser said, “We haven’t had anything to do with arranging and clearing the flights.”
“We did know who was on the flights and interviewed anyone we thought we needed to,” she said. “We didn’t interview 100 percent of the [passengers on the] flight. We didn’t think anyone on the flight was of investigative interest.”
When Roemer asked Clarke during the commission’s March hearing, “Who gave the final approval, then, to say, ‘Yes, you’re clear to go, it’s all right with the United States government,’” Clarke seemed to suggest it came from the White House.
“I believe after the FBI came back and said it was all right with them, we ran it through the decision process for all these decisions that we were making in those hours, which was the interagency Crisis Management Group on the video conference,” Clarke testified. “I was making or coordinating a lot of the decisions on 9-11 in 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. The two — since you press me, the two possibilities that are most likely are either the Department of State or the White House chief of staff’s office.”
Instead of putting the issue to rest, Clarke’s testimony fueled speculation among Democrats that someone higher up in the administration, perhaps White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, approved the flights.
“It couldn’t have come from Clarke. It should have come from someone further up the chain,” said a Democratic Senate aide who watched Clarke’s testimony.
Clarke’s testimony did not settle the issue for Roemer, either.
“It doesn’t seem that Richard Clarke had enough information to clear it,” Roemer said Monday.
“I just don’t think that the questions are resolved, and we need to dig deeper,” Roemer added. “Clarke sure didn’t seem to say that he was the final decisionmaker. I believe we need to continue to look for some more answers.”
Roemer said there are important policy issues to address, such as the need to develop a flight-departure control system.
Several Democrats on and off the Hill say that bin Laden’s family should have been detained as material witnesses to the attacks. They note that after the attacks, the Bush administration lowered the threshold for detaining potential witnesses. The Department of Justice is estimated to have detained more than 50 material witnesses since Sept. 11.
Clarke said yesterday that the furor over the flights of Saudi citizens is much ado about nothing.
“This is a tempest in a teapot,” he said, adding that, since the attacks, the FBI has never said that any of the passengers aboard the flight shouldn’t have been allowed to leave or were wanted for further investigation.
He said that many members of the bin Laden family had been subjects of FBI surveillance for years before the attacks and were well-known to law-enforcement officials.
“It’s very funny that people on the Hill are now trying to second-guess the FBI investigation.”
The Sept. 11 commission released a statement last month declaring that six chartered flights that evacuated close to 140 Saudi citizens were handled properly by the Bush administration.http://web.archive.org/web/20040529013533/http://www.hillnews.com/news/052604/clarke.aspx
And ultimately the 9/11 Commission would offer the following commentary on the issue:
Flights of Saudi Nationals Leaving the United States
Three questions have arisen with respect to the departure of Saudi nationals from the United States in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:
(1) Did any flights of Saudi nationals take place before national airspace reopened on September 13, 2001?
(2) Was there any political intervention to facilitate the departure of Saudi nationals?
(3) Did the FBI screen Saudi nationals thoroughly before their departure?
First, we found no evidence that any flights of Saudi nationals, domestic or international, took place before the reopening of national airspace on the morning of September 13, 2001.24 To the contrary, every flight we have identified occurred after national airspace reopened.
Second, we found no evidence of political intervention. We found no evidence that anyone at theWhite House above the level of Richard Clarke participated in a decision on the departure of Saudi nationals. The issue came up in one of the many video teleconferences of the interagency group Clarke chaired, and Clarke said he approved of how the FBI was dealing with the matter when it came up for interagency discussion at his level. Clarke told us,“I asked the FBI, Dale Watson . . . to handle that, to check to see if that was all right with them, to see if they wanted access to any of these people, and to get back to me. And if they had no objections, it would be fine with me.” Clarke added,“I have no recollection of clearing it with anybody at the White House.”
Although White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card remembered someone telling him about the Saudi request shortly after 9/11, he said he had not talked to the Saudis and did not ask anyone to do anything about it. The President andVice President told us they were not aware of the issue at all until it surfaced much later in the media. None of the officials we interviewed recalled any intervention or direction on this matter from any political appointee.
Third, we believe that the FBI conducted a satisfactory screening of Saudi nationals who left the United States on charter flights. The Saudi government was advised of and agreed to the FBI’s requirements that passengers be identified and checked against various databases before the flights departed. The Federal Aviation Administration representative working in the FBI operations center made sure that the FBI was aware of the flights of Saudi nationals and was able to screen the passengers before they were allowed to depart.
The FBI interviewed all persons of interest on these flights prior to their departures.They concluded that none of the passengers was connected to the 9/11 attacks and have since found no evidence to change that conclusion. Our own independent review of the Saudi nationals involved confirms that no one with known links to terrorism departed on these flights.Chapter 10, 9/11 Commission Report
(Check the footnotes for more details)
Judicial Watch then obtained FBI documents also talking of the bin Laden flight, showing them beginning their trip on the 19th, and leaving on the 20th, making it clear that they flew out only after US airspace was reopened. And it's difficult to see why Clarke, hardly a Bush loyalist, would claim responsibility if that wasn't the case.
The issue about whether those on the flight were questioned sufficiently is an open one, and difficult to judge without knowing who they were, and seeing the text of any interview. However, if these individuals wanted to leave, and there was no evidence whatsoever against them, then how much more could be done?
In a related claim, Craig Unger has said that internal flights within the US were used by Saudi VIPs on September 13th, when restrictions on air travel still applied, and in this case one of those on a later flight (Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz) may indeed have known about the attacks, at least according to a later account. Read more about that here.
The FBI documents obtained by Judicial Watch contained nothing of substance on the interrogation of passengers. However they did include material denying that any flights took place on September 13 that were contrary to FAA regulations, and in fact contained passages revealing the difficulties various Saudi groups, including that of Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, had in trying to leave the country:
Beginning on 9/14/2001 SSRA [redacted] SA [redacted] and the Lexington RA became aware that a group of Saudi Arabian nationals who had come to Lexington, Kentucky for purposes of attending the Keeneland horse auctions. In light of the 09/11/2001 terrorist events, this group desperately wanted to depart the US for Saudi Arabia. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to obtain authorization for the usual Saudian Arabian government airplane (Gulfstream 4) to enter the US, the group made arrangements for a chartered luxury Boeing 727 from Florida to fly to Lexington, Kentucky. After several delays this plane arrived in Lexington, Kentucky at 4:30 p.m. on 09/16/2001.
One aspect of the documents that gained particular attention was a note that the bin Laden family flight may have been chartered by Osama bin Laden himself:
However, no evidence was provided to show why the author believed this, and FBI spokesman would later deny it:
Some will, of course, say the FBI are just covering up the truth. However, without more information it's difficult to see how these stories prove anything of real significance, and in time we suspect they'll be become just a footnote in the overall account of 9/11.