- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

From combined dispatches

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said yesterday that U.S. agents in Saudi Arabia are welcome to question a Saudi citizen who knew two of the September 11 hijackers — but with Saudi officials present.

The foreign minister portrayed the offer as an attempt to clear his kingdom’s name.

He reiterated that Saudi Arabia is determined to fight terrorism because it is also a target of groups such as al Qaeda.

The prince, a high-ranking member of the royal family, speaking on U.S. television networks, said U.S. and British officials already have questioned the man, Omar al-Bayoumi, and released him after finding no evidence linking him to the hijacking plot.

Prince Saud said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told him Tuesday the United States wanted to question Mr. al-Bayoumi.

“If you want to question him, you are welcome,” Prince Saud said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“We have a task force in Saudi Arabia who is working together on this, including Americans and Saudis, and you are welcome to question him anytime,” he said.

He rejected suggestions that U.S. officials be allowed to question Mr. al-Bayoumi without Saudi officials present.

“Why are Saudi officials not allowed to be present? This is a task force between two people. We want to catch these people as much as the Americans. And we are doing that,” Prince Saud said on CNN.

Asked if Saudi Arabia would extradite Mr. al-Bayoumi, Prince Saud replied, “If there is any proof. … If he is indicted, then if there is a request for extradition, then we can look at it.”

On NBC’s “Today” show, Prince Saud said Mr. al-Bayoumi was “absolutely not” an agent for the Saudi government.

A congressional report on the September 11 hijackings raised suspicions but reached no conclusion about whether Mr. al-Bayoumi was connected to the Saudi government.

A 28-page section of the 900-page report has been classified. Prince Saud met President Bush on Tuesday to plead with him to declassify the section so Riyadh could defend itself against charges of complicity with al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush rejected the request, saying it would compromise intelligence linked to the war on terrorism.

A Saudi diplomat in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said Riyadh has shown it has nothing to hide by asking Washington to declassify the report despite a U.S. refusal to do so.

“The important factor to us is that we needed to make our point, that we have nothing to hide. It was better to make our point than do nothing,” the diplomat told Reuters news agency.

Mr. Bush stood his ground at a news conference yesterday, saying that releasing even a summary could compromise U.S. intelligence methods and tip off suspects.

“There’s a threat to the United States,” Mr. Bush said. If the threat diminishes, he said, he may release the classified material.

Meanwhile, several senators persisted in calling for declassification of the withheld sections.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that “90, 95 percent of it would not compromise, in my judgment, anything in national security.”

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, called on the committee to ignore Mr. Bush’s objections and push for declassification of the part of the report that has fueled charges against Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Graham said that if the committee approves the request to declassify the 28 pages, Mr. Bush will have five days to tell the committee why he wants to keep the segment secret. The committee then could overrule Mr. Bush.

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