Despite Saudi Arabia's assurances that terror groups were not being bankrolled by Saudi charities, two key senators are urging the Bush administration to investigate possible financial links to the desert kingdom's royal family.
Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel Al-Jubeir Tuesday said his country had frozen $5.5 million, questioned 2,000 suspects and begun auditing charities in its crackdown on terrorist cash, CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss reports.
That came a week after revelations that checks signed by the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States may have gone to two men suspected of aiding two Sept. 11 hijackers.
The Saudis said they had set up a commission to oversee charitable groups and had barred transfer between banks of assets in cash. In all the investigations, al-Jubeir said, "We have not found a direct link between charity groups and terrorism."
Immediately after al-Jubeir's appearance, the State and Treasury Departments issued statements praising Saudi Arabia's efforts and muting demands last week by the White House for the Saudis to do more.
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., was not impressed. "The Bush administration and the Saudis have done a masterful job of turning attention away from … the trail that leads to the possibility that a foreign government provided support to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers," Graham said.
"If, in fact, there is such a trail, it leads to some very significant questions," Graham said.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the committee's senior Republican, said he believed "there is a lot to the story — a lot more than a mere denial."
Shelby, in an interview, said U.S. authorities should pursue whether the royal family financed terrorists "either directly or indirectly."
"Obviously, they have cooperated some, but probably begrudgingly," Shelby said. "And I'm not sure how thoroughly."
The senators referred to an investigation by the FBI into reports that contributions by a Saudi princess, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Princess Haifa al-Faisal sent monthly checks to a Saudi woman living in the United States, apparently to assist with medical expenses. Saudi officials said the recipient was the wife of Osama Basnan, who along with Omar al-Bayoumi is believed to have lent financial support to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalif al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, while they lived in the United States. The FBI is investigating.
Saudi officials confirmed that some of the princess' donations ended up with al-Bayoumi's family. But they defended the charitable giving, saying it is the habit of Saudis in the United States to support each other.
The revelations about Princess Haifa compounded Saudi Arabia's already significant public relations problems. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, and a group of family members of Sept. 11 victims is suing the Saudi government for its alleged support of terror.
Al-Jubeir complained bitterly that Saudi Arabia has been maligned and lied about, said he thought Osama bin Laden recruited Saudi hijackers just to hurt the kingdom's relations with the United States, and feels "hatred" from some Americans. Together, those complaints led his government to break its usual policy of secrecy and invite reporters into the embassy to receive this report.
"We're in this together," he said. "We are the two countries that are most threatened by this organization and we are the two countries against whom this organization has taken action."
Saudi Arabia's problems have created diplomatic difficulties for the Bush administration, which needs the oil-rich country's support in the Middle East, particularly ahead of a possible war with Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to reporters Tuesday en route to Colombia, said his initial impression of the Saudi presentation was that "it was a serious effort to deal with our concerns."
"I have always said the Saudis have done a lot," Powell said. "They have done a number of things that were responsible. Could they do more? Yes. Now they have responded in what seems like a forthright way."
Last week, the Bush administration disclosed that working groups throughout the U.S. government were considering ways to tighten controls on the flow of money to terrorists worldwide.
On Tuesday, Treasury Department spokeswoman Michele Davis said about the Saudi oversight of donations to charities: "We are really very happy with the effort."
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, roughly $121 million in assets have been frozen worldwide, the Treasury Department said Tuesday. Of that, $36 million has been blocked within the United States and $85 million by other countries.