WASHINGTON – Some key senators have expressed skepticism about Saudi Arabia's claim it is redoubling its effort to prevent charity funds from ending up in the hands of terrorists, and suggest that the Saudis' latest public relations campaign belies their true feelings about the United States and the war on terror.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Fox News on Wednesday that he doubts comments made by Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel Al-Jubeir about Saudi cooperation in the war against terror financing would stand up to the congressional sniff test.
"Ask Jubeir if he'd be willing to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which is investigating funds going to terrorists," Specter said.
Al-Jubeir said he would not be willing to speak before a committee.
"We will not submit to questioning in terms of hearings because of diplomatic privilege we don't do that," he said.
But he did offer to have the Saudi diplomats call the senator next Monday after the Ramadan holiday to schedule a meeting in which they can sit down and talk about issues of concern.
The verbal exchange over Fox News' airwaves follows a press conference by Al-Jubeir on Tuesday in which he acknowledged that the kingdom has been lax about auditing the funds of Islamic charities, many of whom are accused of financing terrorist groups.
"Are all the funds accounted for? I believe in some of the charities they're not. Do we have any evidence that those funds went to terror groups? No, we don't. Does that mean none went? I can't answer that question," Al-Jubeir said.
He added that the Saudi government is beginning audits on domestic charities and that charities that donate to international causes will be required to register with the foreign ministry. He said a newly-organized commission will track donations to and from charities.
Money laundering experts say these steps are important, but will be exposed as a public relations sham unless the Saudi royal family enforces them.
"What's critical in a money laundering regime is enforcement mechanisms; you can write all the law you want but if you don't enforce those laws, then you have done nothing but write law," said former Justice Department official Michael Zeldin.
The Saudis are concerned that the whole terror financing issue has driven a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which have other issues on the agenda, including a possible war with Iraq and stable oil supplies. They say that destabilizing the relationship plays right into the hands of the Al Qaeda terror network.
But lawmakers say the Saudis are destabilizing the relationship through their own actions and words, including those by influential Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, who was quoted last week blaming Jews for the attacks on Sept. 11.
"Who committed the events of Sept. 11? . . . I think [the Zionists] are behind these events," Prince Naif was quoted in a Nov. 29 interview by Kuwait's Al Siyasa newspaper.
"It is impossible that 19 youths, including 15 Saudis, carried out the operation of Sept. 11," Naif said, according to a translation distributed by the Middle East Media Research Institute. The transcription also revealed that Naif accused the "Zionist-controlled media" in the United States of manipulating the terror war to create a backlash against Muslims.
Naif is one of the defendants in a lawsuit brought by families of Sept. 11 victims charging the Saudi royal family with funneling dollars through charities to terrorist leader Usama bin Laden in an effort to keep his Al Qaeda network out of the Saudi nation.
Al-Jubeir, 40, said that the 15 Saudis chosen for the Sept. 11 attack were deliberately chosen by bin Laden to "give the operation a Saudi face and drive a wedge between our two countries."
"In a way he almost succeeded," Al-Jubeir said.
The White House has repeatedly said that the Saudis have been "good partners" in the war on terrorism. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Al-Jubeir for making a "serious effort" to address U.S. concerns about terror financing.
"I have always said the Saudis have done a lot," Powell said. "They have done a number of things that were responsible. Could they do more? Yes. Now they have responded in what seems like a forthright way."
But lawmakers say the White House is deflecting criticism that is rightly directed toward the Saudis.
"The Bush administration and the Saudis have done a masterful job of turning attention away from ... the trail that leads to the possibility that a foreign government provided support to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
U.S.-Saudi relations are also diminishing over issues unrelated to the war on terror. Capitol Hill has turned a cold shoulder toward the Saudis because of alleged kidnapping of American children to Saudi Arabia.
The House Government Reform Committee is discussing how Saudi lobbyists have refused to provide them with subpoenaed records regarding the abduction of American children, mostly by their Saudi fathers, who have taken the kids back to Saudi Arabia in defiance of custody agreements.
Two mothers of kidnapped children were testifying on Wednesday about their missing children and the committee was discussing its failure to serve subpoenas to three lobbying firms — Qorvis Communications, Patton Boggs and the Gallagher Group.
"When the U.S. Marshals went to serve the subpoenas they were not at their homes, they were not at their offices, they were nowhere to be found," said committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind. "They've been hiding. I think that says a lot about the Saudi government and their openness."
Burton suggested that the lobbying firm representatives may have been kept overnight within the Saudi embassy so they could not be subpoenaed. The lobbyists claimed that because they work for the government, their documents qualify under protections stated in the Vienna Convention and they cannot be subpoenaed by the U.S. government.
Before the hearing, Al-Jubeir defended the Saudi effort to resolve international child custody cases and suggested Burton was "engaging in a publicity stunt."
Fox News' Collins Spencer and Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.