WASHINGTON – Lawmakers investigating the Sept. 11 attacks believe the FBI has not aggressively pursued the possibility that the Saudi government provided money to students who helped two of the hijackers, aides said Saturday.
The White House denied the assertion as well as claims that the FBI has not done enough to examine fully the financing of the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom came from Saudi Arabia.
"The FBI has been investigating this and I'm not going to prejudge the conclusion of that investigation," said Bush administration spokesman Dan Bartlett.
The debate over a possible Saudi link raises a sensitive political issue for the Bush administration, since Saudi Arabia is one of the United States' closest and most important allies in the Persian Gulf at a time when the administration is considering war with Iraq.
A draft report by a joint congressional committee probing the terrorist attacks says the CIA and FBI ignored the possibility that two of the hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, both Saudis, were given Saudi money from two Saudi men they met in California in the year before the attacks, The New York Times reported in its Saturday editions. Almidhar and Alhazmi were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The committee, whose final classified report will be finished in December, also accused the Saudi government of not fully cooperating with American investigators.
Bartlett disputed congressional critics of the probe.
"As anyone who knows this issue will tell you, it's very difficult to track financing of terrorist networks because most of it is done in cash," he said. "I don't agree with the assessment it's not been aggressively pursued."
The two hijackers met with Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, who were receiving financial support from the Saudi government, the Times said. Officials were not sure what kind of stipends they were receiving, the newspaper said.
Newsweek said, however, the FBI uncovered financial records showing payments to the family of al-Bayoumi from a Washington bank account held in the name of Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States and daughter of the late King Faisal.
Sources said the payments amounted to about $3,500 a month. The money filtered into the al-Bayoumi family's bank account in early 2000, just a few months after Almidhar and Alhazmi arrived in Los Angeles from an Al Qaeda planning summit, Newsweek said in a report posted on its Web site Friday night.
Payments for roughly the same amount began flowing every month to Basnan.
Administration officials told Newsweek they didn't know the purpose of the payments from Princess Haifa's account. They also were uncertain whether the money was given to the hijackers by al-Bayoumi or Basnan.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy said the allegations that the wife of the Saudi ambassador supported terrorists are "untrue and irresponsible."
Nail al-Jubeir, the spokesman, said the princess hasn't given money to al-Bayoumi at all, and that she is fully cooperating with the FBI.
"She wants her name cleared," al-Jubeir said.
The princess did help the Basnan family with a check for $15,000 in April 1998 and regular payments from Dec. 4, 1999 through May, and Saudi officials are trying to find out why they needed assistance, al-Jubeir said.
In a statement, the FBI refused to give details of its investigation but said: "Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the FBI has aggressively pursued investigative leads regarding terrorist support and activity."
It said al-Bayoumi and Basnan face visa fraud charges. Al-Bayoumi was detained on that charge in Britain, but it was not an extraditable offense and he was released. It is not known whether Basnan is in custody.
Basnan was deported to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 17 and they believe his wife was deported to Jordan two weeks earlier, al-Jubeir said.
"There was no linkage found between them and the terrorists," he said. "The only reason he became a person of interest to the FBI was his relation to al-Bayoumi."
In other terrorism news, there has been a preliminary decision in the immigration case of a Lebanese national arrested in Detroit, Mich., in December 2001 for overstaying his visa.
Rabih Haddad was the proprietor of the Global Relief Foundation, and Islamic charity that the U.S. government said provided funds and support to terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. Haddad was detained under "special circumstances" following Sept. 11, 2001, but the immigration court proceedings were closed to the press. An appeals court recently said the case be open to the public.
Although there has been no final resolution to open the hearing portion of Haddad's case, the Executive Office of Immigration Review's Immigration Court in Detroit late Friday denied Haddad's recent request for asylum -- he had claimed he would subject to religious and political persecution if returned to Lebanon -- and ordered him removed to Lebanon. The court also ordered members of his family out.
But the immigration portion of his case could drag out a bit longer, and Haddad will continue to be a guest of the United States government until it's over.
The Justice Department released a statement saying it's "pleased" with the decision to deny Haddad asylum, citing the court's opinion that he presents "a substantial risk to the national security of the United States.'
"The safety and security of the American people are the highest priority of the Justice Department," Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said in the statement. "We will continue to dedicate all efforts to using every constitutional tool available to protect our citizens."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.