- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

President Bush yesterday rejected calls by Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress to declassify part of a congressional report on September 11, saying such a move “would help the enemy” and jeopardize national security.

“There’s an ongoing investigation into the 9/11 attacks, and we don’t want to compromise that investigation,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden. “If people are being investigated, it doesn’t make sense for us to let them know who they are.”

The president made his remarks just hours before meeting in the White House with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had hoped to convince Mr. Bush to disclose the information so that Saudi Arabia could defend itself against charges of complicity with al Qaeda.

“We are disappointed,” Prince Saud told reporters after the two-hour meeting with Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “But we understand the reasons.”

One of those reasons, according to Mr. Bush, was that national security might be compromised by declassification of the information, which takes up about 28 pages of a nearly 900-page report by a joint congressional committee.

“We have an ongoing war against al Qaeda and terrorists, and the declassification of that part of a 900-page document would reveal sources and methods that will make it harder for us to win the war on terror,” he said.

Mr. Bush said he might be able to declassify the information “at some point in time down the road, after the investigations are fully complete and if it doesn’t jeopardize our national security.”

“But it makes no sense to declassify when we’ve got an ongoing investigation that could jeopardize that investigation,” he added. “And it made no sense to declassify … during the war on terror, because it would help the enemy if they knew our sources and methods.”

Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint committee inquiry, said she expects some of the 28-page section to be released in the future.

“I’m not even sure every page should be released,” Mrs. Hill said. “What I felt is that we should have been able to release portions of it. There are pieces of this report that do need to be classified.”

Another congressional aide said the two intelligence oversight committees could release some of the missing pages of the report through its declassification procedures. Under congressional rules, classified information can be released by Congress through a majority vote.

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, criticized the president for yesterday’s decision to withhold the information. He and other Democratic presidential hopefuls have accused Mr. Bush of trying to shield Saudi Arabia from evidence that it supported the September 11 hijackers.

“The motivations here are more political than they are national security,” Mr. Graham told reporters yesterday.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, chairman of the banking committee, said the information was withheld because it “might be embarrassing to some international relations.”

“I think they’ve classified for the wrong reasons,” the Alabama Republican told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “My judgment is 95 percent of that information could be declassified, become uncovered so the American people would know.”

Yesterday, Rep. Jerold Nadler, New York Democrat, called the withholding of the information a “cover-up” during an appearance on Fox News.

Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who also attended yesterday’s White House meeting, issued a statement when the congressional report was released on Thursday that “28 blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people.”

“Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide,” he said. “We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Prince Saud yesterday.

“We have nothing to hide and we do not seek nor do we need to be shielded,” he said. “In that report, Saudi Arabia is indicted by insinuation.

“It is an outrage to any sense of fairness that 28 blank pages are now considered substantial evidence to proclaim the guilt of a country that has been a true friend and partner to the United States for over 60 years,” he added.

The prince accused the joint committee of “wrongly and morbidly” smearing Saudi Arabia in connection with September 11. He said declassification would allow the Saudi royal family to rebut the charges in a “clear and credible manner, and remove any doubts about the kingdom’s true role in the war against terrorism and its commitment to fight it.”

For years prior to September 11, the Saudi government was less than forthcoming with U.S. authorities who were investigating Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of many attacks against American interests. The Saudis became more cooperative after September 11 and their cooperation accelerated after their capital of Riyadh was bombed by Islamic militants in mid-May.

Following those attacks, the Saudis cracked down on terrorists, staging raids almost every week. The latest raid took place on Monday, when six militants and two Saudi soldiers were killed.

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister confirmed that the militants had been trained in al Qaeda camps.

Prince Saud yesterday also gave U.S. authorities permission to question Omar Bayoumi, an employee of the Saudi aviation authority who befriended two of the Saudi hijackers on their arrival in California. He did so in a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Prince Saud said FBI and CIA agents in Saudi Arabia could freely question Mr. Bayoumi, who was questioned already by American, British and Saudi investigators. They found “no proof” of a connection to the terror attacks, Prince Saud told the Associated Press at the Saudi Embassy.

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