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New questions about FBI probe of Saudis' post-9/11 exodus

Gerard Burkhart / AFP-Getty Images file

An arrival board at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, shows canceled flights from around the nation following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The FBI mishandled its investigation of the travel of a Saudi prince and his companions out of Florida within days of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, new interviews, 9/11 Commission documents and FBI files reveal. And its detailed report on the matter, drawn up for members of Congress and President George W. Bush, was inaccurate.

The new reporting springs from suspicions that a well-connected Saudi living in Sarasota, Fla., may have associated with the 9/11 hijackers. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, has suggested that the FBI’s investigation of the Sarasota matter “was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI. An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as fact.”

These concerns have led to a re-examination of the efforts to get out of the U.S. immediately following the 9/11 attacks by a Saudi royal, Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and several companions.  Their travel began in Tampa, a short drive from Sarasota.


The review of how the FBI dealt with and reported on the travel of the Florida-based Saudis, and their subsequent departure from the United States with other Saudis, shows that the FBI failed to interview principal witnesses; relied on erroneous second-hand information; misinterpreted the orders under which the FAA managed the closure and subsequent reopening of U.S. airspace after the 9/11 attacks; misreported the means of travel; and even got Prince Sultan’s identity wrong.

The FAA grounded all flights less than an hour after the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center, and reopened U.S. airspace to commercial and charter air traffic only at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13. By then, with Saudi-born Osama bin Laden fingered as the principal suspect in the attacks and 15 of the 19 hijackers identified as Saudi citizens, panicked Saudis were doing their utmost to get out of the country.

A decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, former Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska have filed affidavits saying they believe the Saudi government may have played a role in the plot. Morning Joe panelists – including financier Steven Rattner and Donny Deutsch – discuss.

Sometime on the day following the attacks, Prince Sultan, a grandnephew of the late King Fahd and a student at the University of Tampa’s American Language Academy, began trying to leave Florida, according to 9/11 Commission files. He did so on the instructions of his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi media baron and fabulously wealthy racehorse owner who was in Lexington, Ky. for the annual yearling sales. According to a Lexington police officer – his name is redacted in FBI documents –  who coordinated security for the younger prince’s travel from Tampa, Ahmed told Sultan to get to Lexington and join him on a flight out of the U.S. 

Reportedly scared by what he considered a hostile atmosphere in the wake of the attacks, Sultan requested and received a guard detail from the Tampa Police Department. A Tampa police officer, John Solomon, later told the 9/11 Commission that he contacted Dan Grossi, a former policeman turned private investigator, to accompany the Saudis on the planned flight to Lexington. Grossi, in turn, contracted retired FBI agent Emanuel “Manny” Perez, to partner with him on the assignment.

The closure of U.S. airspace, meanwhile, led briefly to talk of Prince Sultan and his companions instead making the 700-mile journey to Lexington by car. But an FAA Notice to Airmen – a “NOTAM” – that U.S. airspace would reopen to domestic commercial and charter flights at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13, cleared them to fly, FAA records show.

At about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, Grossi met the prince and his party of four – later named as Fahad al-Zied, Ahmed al-Hazmi (the fact that this is the same last name as two of the 9-11 hijackers may well be mere coincidence) and Talal al-Mejrad, son of a Saudi army officer – at Raytheon Services, away from the main Tampa airport terminal. With the Saudis and the security men on board, a cream-colored Lear Jet supplied by the Fort Lauderdale charter company Hop-A-Jet lifted off at 4:37, FAA records and Tampa Airport data show.

Prince looked 'like a kid who was scared'
Perez, the security man, said that only on landing around 6 p.m. at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport did he realize the flight had been very sensitive – that one of his passengers was a Saudi royal. They were greeted, he recalled in an interview, by a phalanx of security men and a flurry of hand-kissing for young Prince Sultan, who was then in his early 20s.

Lt. Mark Barnard of the Lexington Police Department, who worked liaison at the Kentucky end, would later tell the 9/11 Commission that the prince seemed to him just  “like a kid who was scared,” escorted the young Saudi and his companions to his uncle Prince Ahmed’s hotel, and the two princes and twelve companions left three days later aboard a chartered Boeing 727 en route to Saudi Arabia. 

Two years after 9/11, in a Vanity Fair story titled “Saving the Saudis,” author Craig Unger raised numerous questions about the role the FBI had played in facilitating that and various other flights involved in the panicky Saudi exodus from the United States. The article obscured the facts on the travel from Tampa, unfortunately, with a claim that the flight had been allowed to take place “when U.S. citizens were still restricted from flying.” In fact, as the FAA record makes clear, the flight took place several hours after the FAA had opened airspace to charter flights. 

In the wake of the Vanity Fair story, when U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John Kyl raised questions, the FBI prepared a 40-page response for the senators and the White House addressing all Saudi travel out of the U.S. after 9/11. What it reported on the Tampa-Lexington flight, however, was not true.

Instead of just noting that the FAA record showed the travel occurred after U.S. airspace was reopened, the FBI said Sultan and his three companions “had arrived in Lexington from Tampa by car.”

“The four individuals,” the report went on, “had disobeyed the Prince [Ahmed] by traveling by car instead of by jet as the Prince had instructed them.” 

FBI insistent: 'No flights arrived'
The FBI insisted that “No flights arrived” in Lexington on the day in question. The assertion that there had been an incoming flight from Tampa, the FBI claimed, had been “perpetuated” by “hired security personnel” – a clear reference to the Saudis’ escorts, former policeman Grossi and former FBI agent Perez. “One of the members of the private protection detail,” the bureau’s response claimed, “had confidentially told FBI agents in Kentucky the truth about how they arrived in Lexington.” 

A 9/11 Commission analysis and FBI documents, however, show  that the FBI’s inquiry into the Tampa flight had relied on a lone source, a  Lexington police officer whose name is also redacted in the released documents. He had merely “hemmed and hawed” when an FBI agent doubted his belief that the Saudis had traveled by air – then suggested the men had in reality traveled by car. The police officer, however, had no first-hand knowledge of the event. The FBI did not at the time interview Grossi or Perez, the security escorts who had flown with the Saudis from Tampa. It interviewed Perez only years later and has never interviewed Grossi.

An FBI departmental memo dated 2003, meanwhile, shows why the bureau was reluctant to believe there had been a flight from Tampa. Having failed to check aviation records that would have shown when exactly the men had flown, it believed “such a flight on 9/13/2001 would have been in violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight ban.”

As early as four days after the flight, however, the bureau had had good reason to realize that the flight had occurred. Other FBI documents, obtained by the public interest group Judicial Watch, make clear that one of the bureau’s own agents in Lexington had the information as early as Sept. 17. That fact, it seems, was filed and forgotten. 

The now-retired FBI special agent-in-charge in Tampa, Robert Chiaradio, did not respond to a request for an interview. His counterpart in Lexington, retired Supervisor Robert Foster, agreed last month to discuss these events by email. Of Prince Sultan and his party’s travel from Tampa, Foster said, “We didn’t question the passengers about how they arrived in Lexington.” His agents’ assignment, Foster said, was to identify each passenger leaving the U.S. and “determine if they were on any watch or no fly list prior to their boarding.” 

Andy Lyons / Getty Images file

Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman celebrates in the winner's circle after his horse, War Emblem, won the 128th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 4, 2002.

Watch lists aside, the security check was complicated, Foster wrote, because Prince Ahmed had “given an interview to a local TV station attesting to the fact that he was a cousin of Osama bin Laden.” There is no known evidence that Ahmed was in any way related to bin Laden, and no such interview has ever surfaced. If he did make that comment, however, one would have expected it to have alerted the FBI at both local and headquarters level. Apparently it did not. “We did not interview him,” Foster said in his email last month, “I did not investigate his claim to be related to bin Laden. … I did furnish this information to FBI HQ. I do not recall having discussions with FBI HQ regarding not allowing him to leave the U.S.” 

The 9/11 Commission later established that none of the 14 Saudis who left for home from Kentucky was interviewed by the FBI before they were allowed to depart. According to the files, moreover, the bureau did not even figure out who Prince Sultan actually was. A Tampa police document had his name correctly as “Sultan bin Fahd,” which  translates as “Sultan son of Fahd,” one of the king’s nephews. Yet FBI documents repeatedly described Sultan as the son of Prince Ahmed, who was his uncle.

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Asked to comment on the catalog of apparent errors and omissions reported in this article, FBI spokesperson Kathleen Wright said on Tuesday that the matter was complex and “would be reviewed  for consideration of a response.”

A senior bin Laden aide now in Guantanamo, Abu Zubaydah, is said by sources – including John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who led his capture, who said he got his information from CIA documents and colleagues –  to have stated under questioning that al-Qaida had been in contact with Prince Ahmed before 9/11. The prisoner, Kiriakou said, raised the names of Ahmed and two other royals as if to indicate “he had the support of the Saudi government.”

(Kiriakou was indicted in January, accused of disclosing classified information about Zubaydah to reporters. The complaint against Kiriakou also alleged that, when submitting the manuscript for his memoir, he lied to the CIA's Publication Review Board.)

There is a link, too, between Prince Sultan and the post-9/11 investigation in Sarasota. Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime adviser to Sultan’s father, Prince Fahd, owned the Sarasota home suspected of having been visited on multiple occasions by hijack leader Mohamed Atta and several of his accomplices. 

Prince Ahmed died aged 43 in July, 2002, in circumstances that remain unclear. Prince Fahd, 46, had pre-deceased him, dying seven weeks before 9/11. A 2009 report described Prince Sultan as having become chairman of Eirad, a Saudi holding company.

Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of "The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden."