Ever since Sept. 11, 2001 many Americans were suspicious that Saudi Arabian interests might have financed the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks in New York and Washington. Fifteen of the men who died in the attack carried Saudi citizenship. But in the past week, doubts are being voiced at a higher level. Members of the Senate intelligence committee are going public with their concerns and even official Bush administration expressions of confidence in Riyadh are conditioned with the word "but."
A Washington Post news report, quoting unidentified administration sources, said earlier this week that a National Security Council task force was about to recommend the Bush administration issue an ultimatum to Riyadh -- crack down on people in the country that finance terrorism or face unspecified U.S. unilateral action against the culprits.
The White House, in what appeared to be a message within a message, would not explicitly deny nor confirm the report.
An interagency working group was looking at ways other countries could help stem the flow of money to terrorists, a spokesman said, and no decisions yet had been reached.
The unidentified source, according to Spokesman Ari Fleischer, was not speaking for the administration and may have just put forward one of his or her own ideas.
"The National Security Council, at a working group level, which has not even yet risen to the point of making recommendations even to a deputy level, has been meeting and working on different ideas that individuals may have about how to continue the war on terrorism, including the financial front," he said. "I'm not going to characterize any of the work that they are doing in terms of specific recommendations or not.
"The president believes that Saudi Arabia has been a good partner in the war against terrorism," he added. "But even a good partner like Saudi Arabia can do more in the war on terrorism ... ."
President Bush apparently believes that so forcefully, that Fleischer repeated the phase -- with only slight variation -- more than a half-dozen times at a news briefing Tuesday whenever he was asked about Gulf Kingdom, which supplies the United States with about 10 percent of its oil requirements.
The latest flap with Saudi Arabia erupted in newspaper headlines over the weekend when it was reported money from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington and daughter of the late King Faisal, may have indirectly benefited two of the 19 terrorists who last year crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Saudi authorities denied the princess knowingly sent funds to Khalif al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. She had, however, sent money to a Saudi woman on her charity list who endorsed at least one check to the wife of a man who gave the two cash to rent an apartment prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Senior U.S. government authorities also said they doubted the princess' complicity, but the report coincided with a congressional panel raising questions over whether the FBI and CIA had done enough to probe possible Saudi financing for the attacks.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabians. So was al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before Saudi authorities stripped him of his citizenship.
A group composed of families of some of the Sept. 11 victims claim to have proof that certain members of the Saudi royal family have had financial dealings with al Qaida and are suing for $116 trillion.
"...There are disturbing issues being raised about just what is the Saudi government's relationship with terrorists," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in the 107th Congress said Tuesday. "It would substantially ratchet up the potential of terrorist groups in the United States if they were being given the support and infrastructure and facilitation of a foreign government. And there are at least some evidences out there that that has been the case."
The latest incidents have scratched the scab of unease and resentment on Capital Hill over the kingdom and its relationship with the United States, which sent troops to the Gulf in 1991 to protect the country and free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation forces.
About 5,000 U.S. military forces are still in the kingdom, but Saudi Arabia denied their use in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and has indicated it may not allow U.S. troops and aircraft there to be used in any war with Iraq.
"I wouldn't look at Saudi Arabia as an ally like the British, or the French, or Canadians or anybody like that," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on Meet the Press. "I think the relationship with them is totally transactional.
"I think they have a lot of oil, we need the oil, we've done a lot of things for them. But at the same time, you look at their support of the Wahabi religion (a strict, fundamentalist strain of Islam), you look at their overall support of the so-called charities that fund a lot of terrorist groups -- they've got a lot of answering to do in my judgment."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, echoed the sentiment.
"Facts are facts. And that is that the Saudis have been engaged in a Faustian bargain with the radical Islamic fundamentalists for many, many years in order to stay on the throne," he said.
"And it is clear that huge amounts of money have gone to these organizations that run the Madrases, that take the kids off the street, teach them to hate and destroy us. And you know, like any other Faustian bargain, it comes time to pay up."
Unease over Saudi Arabia is not new. Following the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen, then FBI Director Louis Freeh threw a public slap at the kingdom, complaining it was not turning over "some important information" about the bombing apparently garnered from suspects in its custody.
The criticism by Freeh, who had made three trips to Saudi Arabia to demand information, was joined by then Attorney General Janet Reno.
"We have not gotten everything which we have asked for, and sure, that has affected our ability to make findings or conclusions or to channel the investigation into different directions," Freeh had said
Stirring the waters also have been occasional news stories -- usually written from abroad since Western journalists are rarely given permission to enter the country -- about Saudi Arabia's promotion of Islamic fundamentalist schools in other countries and its xenophobic religious and social practices, which include the ban on the practice of any other religion in the country other than Islam.
The Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan had special police from the Ministry for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue to enforce strict religious social strictures. Saudi Arabia has its Mutaween police, from its Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, for the same purpose.
In the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings, a Saudi prince ruffled, perhaps innocently, American feathers. After touring the rubble of the Trade Center, Prince Al-Walid bin Talil bin Abdul Aziz, nephew of King Fahd, offered $10 million to New York to care for the families of policemen and firefighters killed trying to rescue victims of the terrorist attack.
The check was turned down in no uncertain terms by then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after it was disclosed the prince had earlier implied the United States brought the attacks on itself by its support for Israel.
According to the Washington Post this week, the NSC working group would recommend that the U.S. administration present the Saudis with a list of nine individuals in the country who the U.S. believes are core financiers for al Qaida and other Islamist radical organizations and insist they be shut down.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States and its allies have frozen some $113 million in assets of terrorist organizations and individuals or those supporting them.
The administration wants more done by other countries in choking off the financial pipeline for terrorism.
It is unlikely, however, push is coming to shove in U.S.-Saudi relations. Riyadh is still a relatively stable regime, it also leans towards the West when it suits its leaders, and then there is the oil ...