WASHINGTON – President Bush's spokesman praised Saudi Arabia on Monday as a "good partner in the war on terrorism," despite accusations that the wife of the Saudi U.S. ambassador might have financially supported Sept. 11 terrorists.
"He believes the Saudi government is a good partner," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. The accusations are complicating White House efforts to win Saudi support for potential war against Iraq.
Fleischer refused to discuss the merits of an FBI investigation into the financial doings of Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Saltan.
In contrast, a parade of senators, including some who doubted the princess meant to help terrorists, upbraided the Saudi government on Sunday's television talk shows for what they saw as years of complicity in anti-American radicalism.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saudis have a history of "buying off extremism," even if only by averting their gaze from it.
Saudi officials, stung by the criticism, said they are checking records to see how money from the princess might have eventually gone to supporters of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In trying to calm the latest strain in their alliance with the United States, they called "crazy" any suggestion she intended to support the hijackers.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef said Monday that charitable giving shouldn't be a crime. He called accusations that Saudis helped finance two Sept. 11 terror suspects "baseless fabrications."
Embassy officials spent the weekend having bankers pore over the princess' records to figure out how thousands of dollars in monthly payments from her account apparently ended up in the wrong hands, said Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir.
Some of the money apparently went into the accounts of two men who U.S. officials think provided financial support to hijackers.
Biden said the situation is "part of a saga where the Saudis don't know, have not checked, are not nearly conscientious enough in determining whether or not a 'charity' is genuinely a charity or a front for, or a back door for, terrorists or terrorist-sympathizing organizations or individuals."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Fox News Sunday: "It's not news that the Saudis are on all sides of every issue. We know that in some ways we've had a good relationship with them over the years, in others ways it appears that they're funding our enemies. It's a very mixed picture when you look at the Saudi regime."
Bush's aides did not join in the recriminations.
"The president does believe the Saudis have been a good partner in the war on terrorism," Fleischer said. He said Bush is "constantly pushing nations to do more," but the spokesman did not single out the Saudi government as a target of such lobbying.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there might be a legitimate explanation for the payments.
The official credited the Saudis with helping in the anti-terror war, in quiet ways that bring them no credit in the West but also do not attract the attention of fundamentalist elements at home.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York saw that balancing act differently.
Saudis "have played a duplicitous game, and that is they say to the terrorists, 'We'll do everything you want, just leave us alone,"' he said on ABC's "This Week." "That game has got to stop."
Still, the lawmakers did not know whether the princess had meant for the money to go to Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan. U.S. officials believe those men provided financial support to two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers while the terrorists lived in the United States.
Saudi adviser al-Jubeir said the princess sent monthly checks to a Saudi woman living in this country who sought help paying for medical treatment. It came out only now that the woman was Basnan's wife and that some of the money ended up with al-Bayoumi's family as well, he said.
Basnan is believed to be back in Saudi Arabia after his deportation and al-Bayoumi is either there or in Britain, al-Jubeir said. Saudi officials will probably question them, he said, but he noted pointedly that U.S. and British officials already interrogated them months ago.
Al-Jubeir said Saudis had bank officials in Washington, starting at 3 a.m. Saturday, begin going through the princess' electronic transactions, which include hundreds or thousands of payments to expatriate Saudi charities and citizens.
"That's when we discovered that some of the checks were endorsed to third parties," he said.
"To think that Princess Haifa, whose father was murdered by a terrorist in 1995, who's a mother, who's a grandmother, would write checks to people who give it to terrorists is crazy," he added.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who together set up an independent commission that will investigate the terror attacks, joined Biden in criticizing Saudi conduct.
Saudi leaders "have to decide which side they're on," Lieberman said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"For too many generations they have pacified and accommodated themselves to the most extreme, fanatical, violent elements of Islam, and those elements have now turned on us and the rest of the world."
Added McCain: "The Saudi royal family has been engaged in a Faustian bargain for years to keep themselves in power."
Al-Jubeir said the princess sent the woman $2,000 a month; other accounts have put the figure higher. The FBI is investigating the bank transactions.
U.S. officials suspect al-Bayoumi and Basnan helped Khalif al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi after they came to the United States from a planning conference in Malaysia of the al-Qaida terror network.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, killing 189 people.