By ERIC LICHTBLAU, The New York Times, June 23, 2009
WASHINGTON — Documents gathered by lawyers for the families of Sept. 11 victims provide new evidence of extensive financial support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups by members of the Saudi royal family, but the material may never find its way into court because of legal and diplomatic obstacles.
The case has put the Obama administration in the middle of a political and legal dispute, with the Justice Department siding with the Saudis in court last month in seeking to kill further legal action. Adding to the intrigue, classified American intelligence documents related to Saudi finances were leaked anonymously to lawyers for the families. The Justice Department had the lawyers’ copies destroyed and now wants to prevent a judge from even looking at the material.
The Saudis and their defenders in Washington have long denied links to terrorists, and they have mounted an aggressive and, so far, successful campaign to beat back the allegations in federal court based on a claim of sovereign immunity.
Allegations of Saudi links to terrorism have been the subject of years of government investigations and furious debate. Critics have said that some members of the Saudi ruling class pay off terrorist groups in part to keep them from being more active in their own country.
But the thousands of pages of previously undisclosed documents compiled by lawyers for the Sept. 11 families and their insurers represented an unusually detailed look at some of the evidence.
Internal Treasury Department documents obtained by the lawyers under the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, said that a prominent Saudi charity, the International Islamic Relief Organization, heavily supported by members of the Saudi royal family, showed “support for terrorist organizations” at least through 2006.
A self-described Qaeda operative in Bosnia said in an interview with lawyers in the lawsuit that another charity largely controlled by members of the royal family, the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia, provided money and supplies to the terrorist group in the 1990s and hired militant operatives like himself.
Another witness in Afghanistan said in a sworn statement that in 1998 he had witnessed an emissary for a leading Saudi prince, Turki al-Faisal, hand a check for one billion Saudi riyals (now worth about $267 million) to a top Taliban leader.
And a confidential German intelligence report gave a line-by-line description of tens of millions of dollars in bank transfers, with dates and dollar amounts, made in the early 1990s by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz and other members of the Saudi royal family to another charity that was suspected of financing militants’ activities in Pakistan and Bosnia.
The new documents, provided to The New York Times by the lawyers, are among several hundred thousand pages of investigative material obtained by the Sept. 11 families and their insurers as part of a long-running civil lawsuit seeking to hold Saudi Arabia and its royal family liable for financing Al Qaeda.
Only a fraction of the documents have been entered into the court record, and much of the new material is unknown even to the Saudi lawyers in the case.
The documents provide no smoking gun connecting the royal family to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And the broader links rely at times on a circumstantial, connect-the-dots approach to tie together Saudi princes, Middle Eastern charities, suspicious transactions and terrorist groups.
Saudi lawyers and supporters say that the links are flimsy and exploit stereotypes about terrorism, and that the country is being sued because it has deep pockets and was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers.
“In looking at all the evidence the families brought together, I have not seen one iota of evidence that Saudi Arabia had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks,” Michael Kellogg, a Washington lawyer representing Prince Muhammad al-Faisal al-Saud in the lawsuit, said in an interview.
He and other defense lawyers said that rather than supporting Al Qaeda, the Saudis were sworn enemies of its leader, Osama bin Laden, who was exiled from Saudi Arabia, his native country, in 1996. “It’s an absolute tragedy what happened to them, and I understand their anger,” Mr. Kellogg said of the victims’ families. “They want to find those responsible, but I think they’ve been disserved by their lawyers by bringing claims without any merit against the wrong people.”
The Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Two federal judges and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals have already ruled against the 7,630 people represented in the lawsuit, made up of survivors of the attacks and family members of those killed, throwing out the suit on the ground that the families cannot bring legal action in the United States against a sovereign nation and its leaders.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide this week whether to hear an appeal, but the families’ prospects dimmed last month when the Justice Department sided with the Saudis in their immunity claim and urged the court not to consider the appeal.
The Justice Department said a 1976 law on sovereign immunity protected the Saudis from liability and noted that “potentially significant foreign relations consequences” would arise if such suits were allowed to proceed.
“Cases like this put the U.S. government in an extremely difficult position when it has to make legal arguments, even when they are the better view of the law, that run counter to those of terrorist victims,” said John Bellinger, a former State Department lawyer who was involved in the Saudi litigation.
Senior Obama administration officials held a private meeting on Monday with 9/11 family members to speak about progress in cracking down on terrorist financing. Administration officials at the meeting largely sidestepped questions about the lawsuit, according to participants. But the official who helped lead the meeting, Stuart A. Levey, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has been outspoken in his criticism of wealthy Saudis, saying they have helped to finance terrorism.
Even if the 9/11 families were to get their trial in the lawsuit, they might have difficulty getting some of their new material into evidence. Some would most likely be challenged on grounds it was irrelevant or uncorroborated hearsay, or that it related to Saudis who were clearly covered by sovereign immunity.
And if the families were to clear those hurdles, two intriguing pieces of evidence in the Saudi puzzle might still remain off limits.
One is a 28-page, classified section of the 2003 joint Congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks. The secret section is believed to discuss intelligence on Saudi financial links to two hijackers, and the Saudis themselves urged at the time that it be made public. President George W. Bush declined to do so.
Kristen Breitweiser, an advocate for Sept. 11 families, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center, said in an interview that during a White House meeting in February between President Obama and victims’ families, the president told her that he was willing to make the pages public.
But she said she had not heard from the White House since then.
The other evidence that may not be admissible consists of classified documents leaked to one of the law firms representing the families, Motley Rice of South Carolina, which is headed by Ronald Motley, a well-known trial lawyer who won lucrative lawsuits involving asbestos and tobacco.
Lawyers for the firm say someone anonymously slipped them 55 documents that contained classified government material relating to the Saudi lawsuit.
Though she declined to describe the records, Jodi Flowers, a lawyer for Motley Rice, said she was pushing to have them placed in the court file.
“We wouldn’t be fighting this hard, and we wouldn’t have turned the material over to the judge, if we didn’t think it was really important to the case,” she said.