Questions about bin Laden family

Monday, May 17, 2004

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Q: Is it true that 15 to 20 members of the Saudi royal family were evacuated from the United States either on Sept. 11, 12 or 13, and taken back to Saudi Arabia? I understand those were the only planes flying during the week after Sept. 11, 2001, and no investigation occurred of the Saudi royal family or the bin Ladens who were in the United States at that time.

A: None of your information is correct as it's written, says Sean McCormack, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

"The second part is false," he said. "There were no planes that took off while the grounding order was in effect." He also pointed me to published quotes from FBI officials indicating they interviewed the departing Saudi citizens.

Conspiracy theories are growing around the official claims, however, inflamed by filmmaker Michael Moore, whose new movie is about the same Sept. 11 questions. Alan Murray, the Washington bureau chief of CNBC and co-host of Capital Report, wrote about the film in the May 11 edition of the Wall Street Journal titled "Fahrenheit 9/11 Isn't to Be Confused With Truth Telling":

"... To be fair, I haven't seen the film -- Miramax hasn't made it available. But I have read a synopsis, provided by Miramax. It says the film explores, among other things, President Bush's 'close personal friendships and business ties with the bin Laden and Saudi royal families' and culminates 'in the decision to allow bin Laden family members to fly out of the country days [after Sept. 11, 2001] without FBI questioning.' Mr. Moore makes the same charge in his book, 'Dude, Where's My Country?' 'While thousands were stranded and could not fly,' he writes, 'if you could prove you were a close relative of the biggest mass murderer in U.S. history, you got a free trip to gay Paree!' This would be a shocking charge ... if it were true. But it isn't.

"The Saudi flights -- including 'Air Laden' -- have been investigated exhaustively by the 9/11 Commission. ... Staffers found that there were indeed six chartered flights, carrying 142 people, most of whom were Saudi nationals, which left the U.S. between Sept. 14, 2001, and Sept. 24, 2001. But contrary to Mr. Moore's claims, not one left until after commercial airspace reopened and normal flights resumed. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation screened all passengers to ensure that no one of interest to various terror investigations was aboard.

"The infamous 'bin Laden' flight left on Sept. 20 with 26 passengers, most of them members of the sprawling bin Laden family. Contrary to Mr. Moore's claim, however, the FBI interviewed 22 of those passengers, and checked all of them against various databases. There was no indication that any of them had been in recent contact with Osama bin Laden, or had been involved in questionable activity. The 9/11 Commission staff ran all 142 names against an updated terror watch list again this spring, and again came up with no matches.

"... Even Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism official turned White House nemesis, agreed the flights were of no particular concern.

"Most of this is public record, readily accessible to Mr. Moore. When I pointed this out to him yesterday, he said: 'I'm going to stick with the FBI agent who speaks on camera in my movie. The normal procedures were not followed.'"

Jon K. Rust is co-president of Rust Communications.

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