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In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks while U.S. airspace was restricted,

planes sanctioned by the Bush administration flew about the country gathering some 140

high-ranking Saudi Arabians – including several relatives of al-Qaida chief Osama bin

Laden – who were then spirited out of the country within a week of the terror, according to

a senior official.

While the Saudis have long denied involvement in the massacre that claimed the

lives of some 3,000 people, 15 of the 19 hijackers came from the kingdom.

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke described the Saudi

exodus in an interview for the current issue of Vanity Fair on newsstands today. Clarke,

who left the White House in February, lends confirmation to reports of the evacuation

which first surfaced in September 2001, but have been dispelled as rumor and urban

legend.

Citing Clarke, the magazine reports that within a week of the hijackings private planes

picked up individuals from 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston

and Boston. Aviation officials complained the flights took place before the government had

lifted flight restrictions for the general public.

“We were in the midst of the worst terrorist act in history and here we were seeing an

evacuation of the bin Ladens. … I wanted to go the highest levels in Washington,” Tom

Kinton, director of aviation at Boston’s Logan International Airport, told the magazine.

Kinton said it was clear the operation had the blessings of federal authorities.

Once the flight ban was lifted, two jumbo jets transported the Saudis out of the

country. The Boston Globe reported at the time that two flights bound for Saudi Arabia

with members of the bin Laden clan on board left Logan on Sept. 18 and 19. Other

reports put the departure date at Sept. 14.

Clarke said the Saudis feared they “would be targeted for retribution” by Americans

after the hijackings. According to the Globe, a Saudi diplomat said the relatives of bin

Laden had been advised by both the Saudi government and the Federal Bureau of

Investigation to return to Saudi Arabia at least temporarily for their own safety.

Bin Laden is said to be estranged from his family.

“Somebody brought to us for approval the decision to let an airplane filled with Saudis,

including members of the bin Laden family, leave the country,” Clarke, who headed the

Counterrorism Security Group of the National Security Council, told Vanity Fair. He said

he did not recall who requested approval for the flight, but believes it was either the FBI or

the State Department. He said he, in turn, checked with FBI officials, who gave the go

ahead.

“So I said, ‘Fine, let it happen,’” Clarke told the magazine, adding that he asked the

bureau to make sure no one “inappropriate” was leaving the country.

“I have no idea if they did a good job. I’m not in any position to second guess the FBI,”

he said.

The FBI role in the Saudi evacuation operation is in contention.

The Tampa Tribune and New York Times reported at the time that FBI agents

supervised the shepherding of young members of the bin Laden family by car and plane

to secret assembly points in Texas and elsewhere prior to their ultimate departure out of

the country.

FBI officials deny this.

“I can say unequivocally that the FBI had no role in facilitating these flights one way or

another,” Special Agent John Iannarelli, the FBI’s spokesman on counterterrorism

activities, told Vanity Fair.

Iannarelli told the New York Times bureau agents interviewed the adult relatives of bin

Laden in the days following Sept. 11 before the White House cleared them to leave the

country.

“We did everything that needed to be done,” the Times quotes him as saying.

“There’s nothing to indicate that any of these people had any information that could have

assisted us, and no one was accorded any additional courtesies that wouldn’t have been

accorded anyone else.”

Dale Watson, the FBI’s former head of counterterrorism, offered contradictory

statements to Vanity Fair. He said that while the bureau identified the Saudis who were on

the plane, “they were not subject to serious interviews or interrogations.”

According to Clarke, top White House officials personally approved the repatriation

plan, which is thought to have been organized by Saudi ambassador to the United States

Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Vanity Fair reports Prince Bandar met with President George

W. Bush on Sept. 13, 2001, but it is not known whether the plan was discussed.

WorldNetDaily has reported

the Saudi envoy donated millions of dollars to bin Laden’s favorite charity, the International

Islamic Relief Organization, or IIRO. And tens of thousands of dollars in donations made

by Princess Haifa bint Faisal, the daughter of the late King Faisal and wife of Bandar,

wound up in the hands of two al-Qaida operatives who later became 9-11 hijackers.

The recently released congressional report on the 9-11 attacks accused the Saudi

government of financing al-Qaida operations through Saudi-based charities.

Twenty-eight pages of the 800-page report the Bush administration refused to

declassify is said to detail suspected ties between the hijackers and agents of the Saudi

government. Congressional sources

claim the report was delayed for months over arguments with the Bush

administration on details of Saudi involvement with al-Qaida.

Saudi officials have reportedly urged the president to release the missing pages.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who last month

href="/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33870">demanded Riyadh remove a powerful

member of the Saudi royal family from public office over a failure to police terrorist

funding, seized on Clarke’s information to call on the White House to investigate the

post-9-11 Saudi evacuation.

In an interview with the New York Times, Schumer said he suspected that some of

the Saudis who were allowed to leave could have shed light on the events of Sept. 11.

Particularly valuable, he said, would have been information gleaned from two relatives of

bin Laden who he said had links to terrorist groups.

“This is just another example of our country coddling the Saudis and giving them

special privileges that others would never get,” Schumer told the Times. “It’s almost as if

we didn’t want to find out what links existed.”

Reuters reported Bandar had lunch last Wednesday with former President Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the family has long had a vacation home. The next day, he met with Vice President Dick Cheney in Wyoming.

The news agency noted the meetings coincide with efforts by Saudi Arabia to halt a slide in relations amid reported links between some Saudis and attacks on the United States.

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