Former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke says he is solely responsible for allowing members of Osama bin Laden’s family to flee the United States immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Richard Clarke

“I take responsibility for it. I don’t think it was a mistake, and I’d do it again,” Clarke told The Hill newspaper yesterday.

The Hill said a political controversy has been brewing over who approved the six controversial flights that carried 140 Saudi citizens.

At the time the members of the Saudi elite were allowed to leave, the Bush administration was preparing to detain Muslims in the U.S. as material witnesses to the attacks.

Democrat leaders, including Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, had been pressing members of the 9-11 Commission to find out, “Who authorized the flight[s] and why?”

A Democrat who attended a May 6 closed-door meeting of the panel quoted a panel member, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., as saying: “We don’t know who authorized it. We’ve asked that question 50 times.”

Most of the 26 passengers aboard a Sept. 20, 2001, fight were relatives of Osama bin Laden, whom intelligence officials blamed for the attacks almost immediately after they happened, The Hill said.

Clarke told the paper responsibility for the Saudis’ departure “didn’t get any higher than me.”

“On 9-11, 9-12 and 9-13, many things didn’t get any higher than me,” he said. “I decided it in consultation with the FBI.”

But this new account of the events seemed to contradict Clarke’s sworn testimony before the Sept. 11 commission at the end of March, The Hill said.

“The request came to me, and I refused to approve it,” Clarke testified. “I suggested that it be routed to the FBI and that the FBI look at the names of the individuals who were going to be on the passenger manifest and that they approve it or not. I spoke with the – at the time – No. 2 person in the FBI, Dale Watson, and asked him to deal with this issue. The FBI then approved … the flight.”

Panel member Tim Roemer said yesterday in response: “That’s a little different than saying, ‘I claim sole responsibility for it now.'”

Moreover, the FBI has denied approving the flight, according to the Capitol Hill paper.

FBI spokeswoman Donna Spiser said, “We haven’t had anything to do with arranging and clearing the flights.”

“We did know who was on the flights and interviewed anyone we thought we needed to,” she said. “We didn’t interview 100 percent of the [passengers on the] flight. We didn’t think anyone on the flight was of investigative interest.”

The Hill said when Roemer asked Clarke during the commission’s March hearing, “Who gave the final approval, then, to say, ‘Yes, you’re clear to go, it’s all right with the United States government,'” Clarke seemed to suggest it came from the White House.

“I believe after the FBI came back and said it was all right with them, we ran it through the decision process for all these decisions that we were making in those hours, which was the interagency Crisis Management Group on the video conference,” Clarke testified. “I was making or coordinating a lot of the decisions on 9-11 in the days immediately after. And I would love to be able to tell you who did it, who brought this proposal to me, but I don’t know. The two – since you press me, the two possibilities that are most likely are either the Department of State or the White House chief of staff’s office.”

Clarke told the Washington newspaper yesterday the furor over the flights is a “tempest in a teapot,” arguing that since the attacks the FBI has never said any of the passengers should not have left.

“It’s very funny that people on the Hill are now trying to second-guess the FBI investigation,” Clarke said.

The 9-11 commission released a statement last month declaring the chartered flights were handled properly by the Bush administration, the Hill reported.

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