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Declassified Documents Provide Insight Into Saudi Support For 9/11 Attackers

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama has said that the intelligence community will soon decide on whether to release 28 controversial pages of a congressional report into 9/11. There are calls to make those pages public by people who say that they point, to some degree, of Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers. There are also calls to keep them classified from people who say that these are raw intelligence files, not credible conclusions. Very few people have actually read those 28 pages. That were ordered declassified by President George W. Bush. But here's an interesting twist - reporter Philip Shenon writes in The Guardian today that you can learn about what's mostly likely in them by looking at some other pages. Welcome to the program.

PHILIP SHENON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Let's begin by distinguishing between two investigations into 9/11 - the congressional investigation and the 9/11 Commission.

SHENON: Immediately after 9/11, Congress went to work with its own investigation of pre-9/11 intelligence blunders. This was a joint committee of both the House and Senate. And they produced a long document about these intelligence blunders. And within that were 28 pages involving ties between the Saudi government and 9/11, and those 28 pages were immediately classified, and we've not seen them since. Although, they were provided to a later investigation that was done by the independent 9/11 Commission.

SIEGEL: So members of that commission got to see those 28 pages?

SHENON: Yes.

SIEGEL: You write that there are very similar accounts to what's in those 28 pages, we think, from the 9/11 Commission's papers that have been released over the past year and a half.

SHENON: Right. So the 9/11 Commission gets the famous 28 pages from the congressional investigation and then pursues the evidence within those 28 pages. And we now know they took those 28 pages as a roadmap to conduct their own investigation, identifying many of the same suspects and actually interrogating some of the Saudi suspects who were believed to have assisted the two hijackers in San Diego.

SIEGEL: Well, we hardly have enough time for everything that's in these pages, but what are the main things that you discovered from reading these documents?

SHENON: Well, the big discovery of the investigators in Congress was that there appeared to have been some sort of Saudi network in Southern California who went out of its way to provide food and shelter and other assistance to two of the hijackers, who lived pretty openly in San Diego in the year before the attacks. And the question became whether or not this network of Saudis was linked somehow to the Saudi government. The congressional investigators found there did appear to be links. The 9/11 Commission continued to pursue that.

SIEGEL: In addition to the two hijackers who were in Southern California, the names of three Saudis figure in your story. I want you to describe them a bit. First, Fahad al-Thumairy.

SHENON: Thumairy was a credited diplomats at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles who was also affiliated with the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs. He was also an imam at a large mosque nearby, who was known there apparently for spouting extremist views. The 9/11 Commission and, before that, the congressional investigation - they were quite suspicious that Thumairy was somehow tied into a support network for the two hijackers.

SIEGEL: And they went and interrogated him in Saudi Arabia.

SHENON: They did indeed.

SIEGEL: Omar Bayoumi.

SHENON: Omar Bayoumi has been described by former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida - the head of the Congressional investigation - as a low-level Saudi government spy who had been dispatched to Southern California to keep a watch on the Saudi community there and who was apparently tasked by someone - someone else in the Saudi government - to help out the two hijackers after they showed up in southern California.

SIEGEL: And Osama Basnan.

SHENON: Osama Basnan is a San Diego resident - another Saudi expatriate who's described as the informal mayor of the Islamic community in San Diego, who also appears to have been part of this support network. And he came under investigation in particular because his wife had received enormous payments before 9/11, apparently for medical care. There was a lot of concern on the part of both the congressional investigation and the 9/11 Commission that some of that money ended up in the hands of the hijackers.

SIEGEL: Money from?

SHENON: Money from the charitable fund maintained by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Princess Haifa - a rather prominent member of the Saudi royal family.

SIEGEL: Having written about this subject for quite a few years, having written a book about the 9/11 commission and now seeing all these documents, what does it suggest? I mean, does it suggest a Saudi plot to hijack planes and fly them into the twin towers?

SHENON: Well, again, I don't think anybody's arguing strongly that the Saudi government writ large was involved in this, but they are saying - and I think there's a lot of evidence to suggest - that lower-level Saudi government workers - people on the Saudi government payroll - were involved in assisting two of the hijackers. Now, who tasked them to do that is very much a mystery. But I think the evidence suggests that there were people working for the Saudi government who went out of their way to assist some of the hijackers after they came to the United States.

SIEGEL: Journalist and author Philip Shenon's article about this is in The Guardian today. Phil Shenon, thanks for talking with us.

SHENON: Many thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.