[WASHINGTON] Saudi nationals connected to the government in Riyadh may have aided some of the Sept 11 hijackers in the US before they carried out their attacks, according to a long-classified portion of a congressional inquiry.
"While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government," according to the section releasedFriday by the House Intelligence Committee with some portions blacked out .
But top US intelligence officials who approved releasing the report, as families of some of the 3,000 victims of the attacks have long demanded, emphasised that they didn't consider it accurate or reliable. Saudi officials have long said the 28 pages provide no evidence that the US ally was involved in the attacks, and that conclusion was echoed by the lawmakers who released the document.
The 28 pages do "not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the intelligence committee," Representative Devin Nunes of California, the committee's Republican chairman, said in a statement.
The intelligence agency that took part in declassifying the 28 pages also released a previously secret follow-up report based on further inquiries by the FBI and the CIA.
"There is no evidence that either the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family knowingly provided support for the attacks of 11 September 2001 or that they had foreknowledge of terrorist operations in the Kingdom or elsewhere," according to a summary issued Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The 28 pages were released as complaints have re-emerged in recent months from some Americans, including relatives of Sept 11 victims, that Saudi Arabia or organisations and wealthy individuals based there have financed groups linked to terrorism or failed to crack down on militants. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were identified as Saudi nationals.
The US commission that investigated the 2001 attacks said in its 2004 report that it "found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al-Qaeda."
But some current and former members of Congress have said that formulation left room for less direct involvement and pressed for the release of the 28 classified pages. A CBS "60 Minutes" report in April suggested a Saudi diplomat "known to hold extremist views" may have helped the hijackers after they traveled to the US to prepare for the attacks.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that "we do not think" the 28 pages shed any new light on a Saudi role in the Sept 11 attacks.
He said release of the "investigative material" is in keeping with the Obama administration's commitment to transparency even though he acknowledged that "it did take quite some time for the decision to be made."
Abdullah al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, said the kingdom has long called for the release of the document. "We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia's actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States," he said in an e-mailed statement.
"Since 2002, the 9/11 Commission and several government agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have investigated the contents of the '28 Pages' and have confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government provided any support or encouragement for these attacks," he said.
The 28 pages set out possible leads connecting various Saudi individuals, organizations, government officials and extremist figures. The congressional aides that wrote it said it was based on a review of FBI and CIA documents, though they "did not attempt to investigate and assess the accuracy and significance of this information independently."
Saudi officials have pointed to statements from US officials supporting their position, including an interview CIA Director John Brennan did with the Saudi-owned Arabic news channel Al Arabiya on June 12 in which he said the 28 pages were part of "a very preliminary review." "People shouldn't take them as evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks," Mr Brennan said.
"Indeed, subsequently the assessments that have been done have shown it was very unfortunate that these attacks took place but this was the work of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri, and others of that ilk."
But Mr Brennan also has addressed the underlying concern about the kingdom's embrace, since its founding more than eight decades ago, of Wahhabism, a deeply conservative branch of Sunni Muslim theology that has proved fertile ground for terrorists.
"The Saudi government and leadership today has inherited a history whereby there have been a number of individuals both inside of Saudi Arabia as well as outside who have embraced a rather fundamentalist - extremist in some areas - version of the Islamic faith, which has allowed individuals who then move toward violence and terrorism to exploit that and capitalise on that," Mr Brennan said in a speech in Washington on July 13.
While the US and Saudis are longtime allies, relations have been roiled by the Obama administration's participation in a nuclear deal with Iran and by Senate legislation passed in May that would let American victims and their families sue other countries over alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks.
In an interview with the Atlantic magazine published in April, President Barack Obama called the US relationship with Saudi Arabia "complicated" and said the Sunni-led kingdom should "share" the Middle East with Shiite Iran, its chief rival.