Published November 26, 2002
WASHINGTON – A New York congressman expressed anger Tuesday at Washington's special treatment of Saudi immigrants while the White House continued to call the Saudis partners in fighting terror.
The increased attention on the Persian Gulf kingdom comes days after several lawmakers questioned how donations by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States ended up in the hands of supporters of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"The terrorists have gone underground. They are hiding. They are doing better at trying to hide their money ... No matter where they hide and no matter how hard they try to hide, this government will work with other governments to bring them to justice," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The Bush administration has sent U.S. teams to Saudi Arabia to look for groups that may be identified as terror fund sources, and the Bush administration has urged Saudi Arabia to do its own monitoring of Islamic charities.
"We are working continually to find ways to help nations to do more and are exploring concrete ways to do it," Fleischer said.
In Mexico City for talks, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Saudis understand U.S. concern, considering most of the Sept. 11 terror suspects came from the Arab kingdom.
"But we should not in our concern and our desire to protect ourselves go to the point where we rupture relations with a country that has been a good friend of the United States," Powell said at a news conference.
"It is because we have good relations with Saudi Arabia and can raise these issues with them that I believe we can work our way through them without issuing ultimatums or threats," he said.
No action against Saudi Arabia was being considered, he said, but the Bush administration has told Saudi Arabia of U.S. misgivings about financing of charitable organizations that result in money going to suspect individuals.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., complained that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is creating a double standard for Saudis and other Arab nationals who enter the country.
"The Bush administration has been listening to the Saudi Arabian rhetoric and not watching Saudi Arabian actions," Weiner told reporters. "We have to realize that Saudi Arabian publicity campaigns, PR campaigns, advertising campaigns should not be dictating our immigration policy. It should be their record, which is abysmal."
Weiner wants to know why the Justice Department has not included Saudi Arabian men in an expanded list of visitors who must be fingerprinted and registered while they live here.
Just last week, the Justice Department expanded that program — which began last summer — to 13 nations whose male visitors must be thoroughly documented, including those visitors already in the country.
It cited recent events and intelligence information for the decision to expand the program, which Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations said is merely a means to single out Arabs and Muslims instead of following up real leads.
Weiner said that Saudi Arabia, the country from which 15 of the 19 hijackers came and a place of major fundraising for Hamas, should be included, even though he concedes that the problem in Saudi Arabia appears limited to a dangerous minority.
"That nation has a very, very troubled history of allowing its people to come here and do harm to our people. There is a Saudi Arabian loophole in the immigration laws and it needs to be closed and it needs to be closed now," he said.
Senior Justice Department officials told Fox News that just because Saudi nationals aren't on the list now doesn't mean they won't show up later.
Congressional leaders are also concerned that good-intentioned Saudi money is ending up in the hands of terrorists.
Over the weekend, news reports revealed that portions of a monthly charitable contribution by Princess Haifa al-Faisal to a Saudi woman in the United States may have been redirected to her husband, one of two men who are suspected of aiding two of the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Publicly, the administration says that Saudi Arabia has been a good partner in the war against terrorism, but could do more.
"I think we have seen the Saudi government do a lot,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. "We have had a very strong response. I think we are satisfied with the cooperation we have gotten so far ... More needs to be done. We have not done everything we can. We want to be working more with the Saudis.''
In the meantime, the FBI is looking into the alleged funding mix-up.
Powell said it was highly unlikely that the ambassador or his wife "would do anything knowingly to support terrorist activity."
In Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, one of the men at the center of the controversy involving Princess Haifa said in a newspaper interview that he used the money for medical care for his wife, not for terrorists. Osama Basnan told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, based in London, that he had not met the terrorists, who were among the hijackers who flew a plane into the Pentagon.
Fleischer said the Bush administration is also looking for more help from U.S. allies in the war against terrorism and a working-level group is considering ideas to accomplish that.
Fox News has confirmed that some members of a National Security Council task force are thinking of developing an action plan to crack down on the Saudi money trail. If they don't get cooperation from the Saudis, they will find unilateral means of bringing alleged terror money providers to justice.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.