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Saudi Arabia and the Fight Against Terrorism Financing - Hearing of the Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


Federal News Service

March 29, 2004 Monday

HEADLINE: HEARING OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS ON SAUDI ARABIA AND THE FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM FINANCING (RAYBURN HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, WASHINGTON, DC, MARCH 24, 2004)

BODY:

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REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you.

Our vice chair of the Subcommittee, Mr. Chabot.

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R-OH): Thank you, Madam Chair.

Let me ask you first of all and Mr. Harrington or any of you could respond. There was a recent report that in the days immediately following September 11, that former White House Counterterrorism Director, Richard Clarke authorized 140 Saudis be allowed to be flown out of the United States out of fear of retribution. What kind of investigation was each of these Saudis put through by the FBI and can you comment on what the retribution might have been that they were concerned about? We would also like to get a list of the 140 people if at all possible. So if anyone, Mr. Harrington or whoever would like to respond.

MR. HARRINGTON: Yes, I'll try to answer that to some degree. Obviously that was part of the 9/11 investigation which I think some of the details have come out. I don't have that list. We will try to put together for you and I'll try to get that for you at a later date. The retribution-clearly there was some concern about 9/11 about backlash against Middle Eastern groups and the Saudis were quick to try to remove some of their folks from the country.

My understanding is, and again I wasn't in the counterterrorism program at that time, was that each of these folks were screened and interviewed by FBI agents prior to their departure. And I would have to, for the record, go back and verify it for you though. But we did look at them and we did try to validate who they were, what their purpose was in the United States.

REP. CHABOT: Any, either of you gentlemen would like to respond in any way? Right, next.

In November, 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that as part of the government's case against the International Relief Organization in Virginia on charges of financing terrorist causes, information surfaced that the Saudi Embassy in Washington had supplied at least $400,000 to the charity. What can you tell us about this and other kinds of funding for these so-called charities that has been funneled through the Saudi Embassy? And who knew about these transfers? Whoever would like to respond.

MR. HARRINGTON: Again, in an open hearing like this I'm not comfortable that I would be able to give you the answers you probably would like to hear. We certainly have taken a look at that. Obviously there is a pending case, there's court filings in Northern Virginia on that particular issue.

The Saudi Embassy has been very cooperative with us. There are lines of communication that have been open. They have provided the FBI directly information over the last year. The result of some of that information has been the genesis of new investigations for us. So there is cooperation there, there are discussions and, again, in a more private session I think I would provide you with some further detail.

REP. CHABOT: There are numerous reports of vast Saudi funding of educational and religious institutions here in the United States. There is some worry that the network could be serving as a support base for potential future attacks. How cooperative are the Saudis being in revealing information on their funding of schools, mosques and other religious centers here in the United States?

MR. HARRINGTON: Again, the Saudis have been very open with us. They have provided information directly to the FBI. Again, the lines of communication are open, they are willing to answer any questions we have. And, again, I really can't go any further than that right at the moment.

REP. CHABOT: Finally, I have yet one minute left. So could you comment on how extensively U.S. banks maybe unwittingly used to transfer funds between Saudi donors and al Qaeda through corporate, private or other types of account?

MR. ZARATE: Congressman, it is always a risk that financial institutions whether in the U.S. or worldwide can be used as a conduit for the financing of terrorism or other financial crimes. That's in part why, given the powers granted to us in the PATRIOT Act thanks to the Congress, we have increased the measures we've taken with the formal financial system and expanded the regulatory scope and deepened the regulatory scope of the anti-money laundering system here in the U.S., putting us on the cutting edge worldwide.

I would daresay we have some of the finest compliance systems in the world with respect to our banks. There are certainly certain banks that need to improve their efforts and we are engaged with our functional regulators on a daily basis to make sure the banks are compliant with relevant anti-money laundering systems and laws.

REP. CHABOT: Thank you.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you, Mr. Chabot and Mr. Ackerman. We'll try to schedule that classified briefing so that we can get those questions answered.

Mr. Berman.

REP. BERMAN: Thank you, Madam Chair.

So in their leaving out there hanging the notion that Richard Clark, presumably unbeknownst to the president, Dr. Rice, other people in the White House, the Department of Transportation, decided to sneak the family members of Osama bin Laden out. Mr. Harrington responds to the question without referencing the assumption, AMD Ambassador Black has nothing to add. Are you, by your silence or by your failure to direct yourself to the unsubstantiated character smear, indicating this is why Osama bin Laden's family was let out of the United States and a special waiver allowing aircraft to take the family back to Saudi Arabia? Are you attempting to confirm by accepting that assumption that that is what happened?

MR. BLACK: What I will tell you, sir, is that the Department of State was not involved in this process. So I will tell you that.

REP. BERMAN: So you have no reason to know whether what Mr. Chabot has said has any truth whatsoever?

MR. BLACK: I do not know.

REP. BERMAN: And you, Mr. Harrington?

MR. HARRINGTON: All I can add is I have no knowledge of Mr. Clark's role in any of that effort. Again, I was not present at the time in the Counterterrorism Division. I would have to go back and review our findings on that. I'm not prepared to go any further than that.

REP. BERMAN: I wouldn't want to think that high-minded public servants, when asked a question prefaced by that kind of a smear, would make it clear that in no sense were they accepting that validity of that, if they had no reason to know the validity of it.

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REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you so much, Mr. Simon. Before I recognize Mr. Baer, I'd like to point out that in the audience we have our esteemed colleague, the former chair of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Ben Gilman of New York.

Ben, it's always a delight to see you. And I congratulate you for the wonderful work you're doing on U.S. interests in the United Nations. So we thank you for all of your efforts.

And, Mr. Baer, if you could just bear with us for one minute. There was a question that had arisen regarding Mr. Chabot's line of questioning, and I think a lot was read into the way he had phrased the question. And I'd like to recognize him now so that he could cite the source which his question related to Mr. Clark was based.

REP. CHABOT: Thank you, Madam Chair, and I'll be relatively brief here.

I had asked a question-I wish Mr. Berman was here right now. But I asked a question early on saying, and I'll quote what I said, "There was a recent report that in the days immediately following 9/11 that former White House counter terrorism director Richard Clark authorized that nearly 140 Saudis be allowed to be flown out of the United States out of fear of retribution." So that's what I said.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: So you were referring to an article?

REP. CHABOT: Yes.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: You did not say that you had knowledge of it, but you had report of an article. So I had asked Mr. Chabot to share with us the source of that questioning.

REP. CHABOT: Well, there was indeed a report and I'd ask unanimous consent that the --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Without objection.

REP. CHABOT: -- International Herald Tribune, dated September 4, 2003, be included in the record. If I could just read two paragraphs here: "Top White House officials personally approve the evacuation of dozens of influential Saudis, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, from the United States in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when most flights were still grounded, according to a former White House advisor. Richard Clark, who ran the White House crisis team after the attacks but has since left the Bush administration, said he agreed to the extraordinary plan because the Federal Bureau of Investigation assured him that the departing Saudis were not linked to terrorism. The White House feared that the Saudis could face retribution for the hijackings, Clark said." And the article goes on.

There's also a second article in National Review which goes into even more detail along the same lines. There's also a reference to a Vanity Fair magazine article, again along those same lines. So I'd ask that these articles be included.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you, without objection. And once again, as Mr. Chabot has pointed out, he is not saying that he has any knowledge himself of this, but just was pointing out that there were some reports. We know that Mr. Clark has denied that and said that he had not approved the request but that other agencies had.

REP. CHABOT: Thank you, Madam Chair.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: We thank you so much, Mr. Chabot, for sharing that with us.

Mr. Baer?

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REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you very much, Mr. Royce.

Mr. Ackerman.

REP. ACKERMAN: Thank you, Madam Chair. And I'd like to get a few things on the record myself.

I find the statements that Mr. Chabot has hopped in and out making to be very, very troubling, that somebody in the committee would continue the harangue of joining with a political campaign and using the forum of this committee to constantly try to discredit former member of the administration, much in the news today, and by inference and innuendo, accuse him of various things, is indeed a sad moment for this subcommittee. But if this subcommittee is going to be used as a platform to discredit one political party or another, I find that both sad-it may improve the attendance here at our sessions, but it certainly demeans the process considerably.

To expand on the selective record that Mr. Chabot tried to establish, he put certain things by unanimous consent in the record.

Mr. Berman asked several questions of the first panel that was before us at that time, and Ambassador Black said that the State Department had no knowledge of Mr. Clark's activity vis-?-vis putting the Saudis on the plane after September 11th, and cited an article in Vanity Fair and placed an article in the record from the Herald Tribune. Mr. Clark said that he signed off on it, on the plan. Didn't say that this was his plan. In fact, he said that it was higher ups in the White House.

I don't think that the vice president and the president of the United States can have it both ways, first to say that this guy was out of the loop, not in a real decision making position after appointing him the terrorism czar for the United States, and then claiming, well, he was out of the loop. We'll just ignore him because that's not an important position, someone who serves four administrations in a nonpartisan fashion. But, indeed, in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Clark said-and I would ask unanimous consent to put his remarks --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Without objection.

REP. ACKERMAN: -- from that session-thank you, Madam Chair-he said that he couldn't cite the specific at the open hearing, but assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that the decision to send those Saudis out of the country on the plane was sent down to him by the highest levels in the State Department, the FBI and the White House. And that what he did is what any prudent person in that position would do, he asked for the names of the people that were being put on the plane, and to have them vetted, which he believed the FBI did in a cursory fashion.

That's the record as we know it. But to try to use this committee to further a campaign to shaft this guy, to discredit him and his credibility is something that, beneath the dignity of this committee, Madam Chair, and the way that you have always respectfully handled the committee --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: If the gentleman would yield.

REP. ACKERMAN: I'd be delighted to yield to the chair.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: And I think that if we would read back Mr. Chabot's words, I don't think that there would be any even insinuation that he was saying anything disparaging of the character-this is literally what he said. There was a recent report, which is true, it's right here-doesn't mean the report is true, but listen to what he said, and he read it just like that. There was a recent report that in the days immediately following 9/11 that former White House-so he didn't say that he was an evil man, he didn't say that he's personally responsible, and he alluded to the article, as you had pointed out, in Vanity Fair-and I'll read just this quote, and this is Mr. Clark's quote. Not saying he didn't use any characterization of it.

My role was to say that it can't happen until the FBI approves it. And so the FBI was asked. We had a live connection to the FBI, we asked the FBI to make sure that they were satisfied that everyone getting on that plane was someone okay to leave. And they came back and said, yes, it was fine with them. So we said, fine, let it happen. But if we read back --

REP. ACKERMAN: So Mr. Clark did everything that --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: -- Mr. Chabot's words, I don't think he was doing any character assassination or anything of that-he wanted to ask the witnesses what they knew of that, and I think that is something that this subcommittee is directly asking about, the Saudi involvement in this problem.

REP. ACKERMAN: I happen to be very fond of Mr. Chabot. I don't agree with a lot of things he says, and he certainly says them in a rather laid back kind of way. But I know that he said a lot of things that he deeply regrets. The fact that he said it in a kind and offering way, brought it up here at this hearing at a time that was intended, I believe, to just lay out in a matter of-perfunctory way until Mr. Berman called him on it, to try to be discrediting of somebody's reputation, which is very much a part of a campaign on the national level now.

The vice president was very soft-spoken too when he tried to roast a guy on national TV and said, "Well, you know, we don't even know who this guy is. He's only a national terrorism czar, he's not in the loop." But he didn't say it with all the undertones that I'm saying it with, but that's how the American people read it. And despite the fact that Mr. Chabot's tone might be a lot warmer than mine at the moment, still there is no doubt in the minds of anybody who was listening carefully to what he said, and more importantly, what he was doing, that this was intended to be damage control for the administration and roughing up Mr. Clark a bit further in yet another forum and you can turn any dial and you'll see the spinmeisters doing this all over the lot.

That's what I'm sad about, that it would be done here. But if he chooses to do that in even the kind and gentlemanly way he does it, he should expect that this side will be ready for the fight.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you. And just to either continue or end this, I think that if we would read back without any tone what Mr. Chabot's actual words were, it was asking a legitimate question of the State Department, FBI, Department of the Treasury officials, who might have also had a hand in allowing these flights to take off. And there were those press reports. And I literally read what Mr. Chabot said, and if we could read back his comments after that, and I don't think there was any character classification, positive, negative. It was neutral. What about these reports? Are they true?

REP. ACKERMAN: But did he ask that of anybody or did he just lay that out there?

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: He asked --

REP. ACKERMAN: It was Mr. Berman that put the question.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: He said, "What kind of investigation was each of these Saudis put through by the FBI?" Like he wanted a list of the folks who were allowed to travel. And the folks indicated that they had no knowledge of it. I think in the 9/11 investigation --

REP. ACKERMAN: State Department guy didn't know anything, the FBI didn't know anything, and yet this guy is running the country, Mr. Baer. He's deciding to send 140 Saudis out on a special flight when all the airports are closed and no flight could get in and out, and you and I were taking the railroad to get to Washington because we couldn't get airborne. But this guy was running the country and the air control system and everything, despite the fact that the vice president said he's out of the loop. It's just a matter of his putting it out there, Madam Chair, that was --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: I know. But I think it was a --

REP. ACKERMAN: Didn't say it in a --

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: -- legitimate question and that's what the-when the reports were cited, his name was linked. And, you know, I think it was a legitimate question on Mr. Chabot's part. But that's what the 9/11 hearings --

REP. ACKERMAN: I'm sure it was, and I'm legitimately trying to de-link it.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Okay. Good deal. All right.

REP. ROYCE: Madam Chair, excuse me.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you.

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