Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz was interviewed by Tim Russert on NBC's 'Meet the Press' on Sunday, April 25, 2004, concerning aspects arising from Bob Woodward's book
MR. RUSSERT: Prince Bandar, welcome to ‘Meet the Press’.
PRINCE BANDAR: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: As I showed, Bob Woodward's book, January 11, 2003, you are briefed by Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, about the war in Iraq. That's two months before the American people were told. Do you think that's strange?
PRINCE BANDAR: Not at all, because at that time the options were either the United Nations resolution will work and Saddam would respond to it, or that will mean serious consequences, which definitely meant ultimately war. And you don't make plans the night before you go to war. It's time to plan. And my country is next door with 500 miles of border with Iraq, and we were interested to know what's going on.
MR. RUSSERT: Is Bob Woodward correct that you advised the President to take $200 million and buy off in effect the Iraqi army, pay them for their service, buy their loyalty, and then they could be a security force right now in Iraq?
PRINCE BANDAR: I don't talk about my conversations with the President, or - - but I believe that would have been the right way to go. There's no point of Monday-morning quarterbacking now. What we need now to do is to make things work.
MR. RUSSERT: In terms of oil supplies, this is the exact quotation from Bob Woodward's book: "'I'm worried about the adequacy of the oil market,' the President stated, expressing concern for the world market's ability to absorb temporary shortfalls during a war in the Middle East. The ripple effect in the U.S. economy could be gigantic, and he asked about the excess capability of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil policy could be the saving grace. According to Prince Bandar, the Saudis hoped to fine-tune oil prices over 10 months to prime the economy for 2004. What was key, Bandar knew, was the economic conditions before a presidential election -- not at the moment of the election." Senator Charles Schumer of New York has called on the president to revoke your diplomatic visa for interfering in the presidential election of 2004 by promising the President that you might lower prices before the November election to help his cause.
PRINCE BANDAR: So what's the question, Tim?
MR. RUSSERT: Did you in fact make such a promise to the President?
PRINCE BANDAR: I did not -- the President talked with me for months about the high oil prices, and how that could be damaging to the American economy and the world economy as it's recovering. And I informed him of my government's policy, which is to maintain oil prices between $22 to $28. And we prefer $25 as sort of medium. And that's the extent of that. There was no deal, no election - no connection to the election. And this is not the first time. In the year 2000 President Clinton asked us to do the same thing, because the prices were getting too high above $30 --
MR. RUSSERT: But in October of 2000, crude oil was $35 a barrel. So you didn't keep your end of the deal.
PRINCE BANDAR: Well, there is a reason -- because it's not a matter of crude. The reason you have high prices in the United States is the refineries -- not enough to refine. There's a one million barrel shortage of refined product. So even if tomorrow we send you all the oil we have as crude, it will not change the facts here. Do you know, Tim, that the United States has not built a refinery for about 15 years? And like our oil minister said the other day in Dallas, we're willing to invest in refineries in the United States of America and get it -- that would be really the best route to go.
MR. RUSSERT: What do you think the price of Saudi oil will be in October of 2004?
PRINCE BANDAR: I wish I know. But I can assure you now we've been working very diligently to make sure that the prices will go down below $28. And this is a public position we have taken. We convinced OPEC to agree with us on that. And I don't understand what's so wrong with oil prices going low? I thought that is good for America, American economy, for the American people, and it's definitely good for us and my country.
MR. RUSSERT: And it may be good for George Bush's reelection?
PRINCE BANDAR: It may be good for anybody in the White House and the American people, and we don't see the difference.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Saudi Arabia. Here's a photograph of 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 -- all members of your country. Two years -- more than a year, November of 2002, after the September 11 hijackings, this is what your interior minister said: "We put big question marks and asked who committed the events of September 11 and who benefited from them? Who benefited from the events of 9/11? I think they the Zionists are behind these events." Is that the position of your government?
PRINCE BANDAR: No, but I don't know what circumstances this quote was made. But I can tell you the position of my government -- that includes Prince Nayef. Nine-eleven was an earthquake. It shook us to the roots. It's an evil work done by evil people who were targeting your country, but also targeting the relationship between our two countries. Otherwise is it accidental that they would choose 15 misguided young people to be out of 19 that when they had the pool of so many people from so many different countries? So it as intentional in my judgment to do it that way, to hurt our relationship.
MR. RUSSERT: So the Zionists were not behind it?
PRINCE BANDAR: The Zionists were not behind it, but there is a reason why people were skeptical. If you watch the commission of 9/11, people just could not believe that those young people who were trained in caves in Afghanistan could do something so spectacular and evil and sophisticated. The truth is we all were. So there was doubt: Is it true that those people are the ones who planned it and executed it? -- well, we discovered later that it is true.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about September 13. This is the way Craig Unger wrote about it in the Boston Globe, and now his book: "What may be the single most egregious security lapse related to the attacks: the evacuation of approximately 140 Saudis just two days after 9/11." Let's go back to September 13, 2001: American airspace was locked down, but some people desperately wanted to fly out of the country. That same day Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, long-time friend of the Bush family, dropped by the White House. He and President Bush go onto the Truman balcony for a private conversation. The Saudis themselves say that Prince Bandar was trying to orchestrate the evacuation of scores of Saudis from the United States, despite the lockdown of air travel. There was a flight from Tampa to Lexington. A former Tampa cop, a former FBI agent, were on board providing security. The passengers included three young Saudis. The planes took off from Tampa -- it was the first of eight aircraft that began flying around the country, stopping in at least 12 American cities, carrying 140 passengers out of the country over the next week, 24 of whom were members of the bin Laden family.
Did you talk to President Bush about allowing those Saudi citizens to go home?
PRINCE BANDAR: No.
MR. RUSSERT: You never brought it up?
PRINCE BANDAR: Serious. But see allow me, Tim, my only comment about this -- the book and this quote you just read to me, in French it's hogwash, number one. Number two, 9/11 Commission just declared -- let me read to you what they declared. The 9/11 Commission released a statement that says that the FBI has concluded that nobody -- nobody was allowed to depart on these six flights who the FBI wanted to interview in connection with 9/11 attacks, or who the FBI later concluded had any involvement in the attack. The statement also says that the Saudi flights were screened by law enforcement officials, primarily FBI, to ensure that people on these flights did not pose a threat to the national security and that nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to the 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave the country.
Now, the tragedy here, Tim, is that there are people who don't know how to take yes for an answer.
If the 9/11 Commission says this, if I say this, and you still get people coming up with books saying but they smuggled them.
MR. RUSSERT: But, prince, here's the question: This is a photograph of you with the President down at his Crawford Ranch. He brought his family. Elsa Walsh of the New Yorker wrote that you are almost a member of the Bush family -- that was her interpretation of it after doing an enormous amount of research. And 140 Saudis did leave the United States when Americans couldn't fly. The FBI agent, the FBI spokesman, John Iannarelli said: "I can say unequivocally that the FBI had no role facilitating these flights." Jim Thompson, on the 9/11 Commission, asked Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of State, Did you, the State Department, authorize this? "No, sir." I asked the vice president of the United States on this program did he know anything about it: "No, sir." One hundred and forty Saudis leave the country two days after September 11, and nobody knows who gave permission. You don't know anything about it? You didn't ask anyone for permission? You didn't facilitate it in any way? The planes were just allowed to --
PRINCE BANDAR: No, no, no, no -- No, Tim -- no, no, no. This is becoming exotic now. We had those people in the country, and a lot of them were relatives of the bin Laden family going to school, from teenagers through people in college. And we told the FBI that those people are scattered all over America, and with tempers high at that time, rightly so, we were worried that somebody's emotions will hurt them.
MR. RUSSERT: So who did you call for permission?
PRINCE BANDAR: We didn't call for -- we asked them: Is it possible -- the FBI.
MR. RUSSERT: You called the FBI?
PRINCE BANDAR: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: And they gave permission?
PRINCE BANDAR: And the FBI, according to Richard Clarke in his testimony, called him, and he said, "I have no problem if the FBI has no problem." So we gathered them all in here, and then once they were here they left.
Now the other airplanes were for Saudi officials who were here on vacation. And after this disaster took place they all had to go back home to official positions. But it is not true that they were flying when Americans were not flying, Tim. Americans were flying, and the restrictions were lifted. But there were -- I mean, the stoppage was lifted, but there were restrictions. So -- but think about it logically: Do you think -- where are we, in a banana republic? I would pick 140 Saudis, put them in aircraft and smuggle them out and nobody will know? Look, people have to take yes for an answer and read what the 9/11 Commission said on this.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the whole issue of terrorism and the funding of it. This is Newsweek magazine headline: "New Questions About Saudi Money and Bandar. A federal investigation into the bank accounts of the Saudi Embassy in Washington has identified more than $27 million in 'suspicious' transactions, including hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to Muslim charities, and to clerics and Saudi students who are being scrutinized for possible links to terrorist activity, according to government documents. The probe also has uncovered large wire transfers overseas by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The transactions recently prompted the Saudi Embassy's long-time bank, the Riggs Bank, to drop the Saudis as a client after embassy officials were unable to provide an explanation that was satisfying, says a source familiar with the discussions."
PRINCE BANDAR: Tim, if that was true, I think it would make a great movie. But it is not true. We terminated -- the Riggs Bank problem is a regulation problem that has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. However, Riggs Bank and us came to a mutual agreement to terminate our relationship.
As far as the Embassy's accounts or my wife's account or my account, there is not question that we had from the U.S. government of concern about what happened to these accounts.
But here is the problem: When a story like this that has a prince, a princess, money, terrorism -- it is exotic. The tragedy that I find -- I like this country, and I like the American people -- they are fair people. But one thing that is done in this country that really disappoints me -- and I could say something stronger -- is when somebody puts a story like that, like Newsweek did, it's a big story. When the two people who started all of this, Mr. Basnan and Mr. Bayoumi -- a month ago the FBI came and said after two years of investigation, there is no connection, there is no foul play. Guess what? How many times have you had a special program about it -- or Newsweek have an announcement? They didn't.
MR. RUSSERT: Prince, the former general counsel of the Department of Treasury, David Aufhauser, a professional, a lawyer, testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
QUESTION: "With regard to the trail of money and whether it leads in some cases to Saudi Arabia?"
AUFHAUSER: "In many cases, it is at the epicenter."
QUESTION: "And does that trail of money also show money going to al Qaeda?"
QUESTION: "Is the money from Saudi Arabia a significant source of funding for terrorism generally?"
AUFHAUSER: "Yes, for principally al Qaeda, but many other recipients as well."
This was the scene in April 2002, when your King, a state-sponsored telethon -- and look at these pictures -- raised over $92 million, and the money was for, quote, "Palestinian martyrs -- suicide bombers who blew up Israeli children, school buses, restaurants." Here's the Treasury Department of the United States saying that Saudi money is funding al-Qaeda. You're having telethons raising money for Palestine's suicide bombers and you sit here and say, How could people say these terrible things about us?
PRINCE BANDAR: Yes, I say that very easily, because nothing stands still. If you are saying before 9/11 we didn't have our things together, yes, but not with you. Look what 9/11 is showing. However --
MR. RUSSERT: This was April of 2002.
PRINCE BANDAR: I understand. Since then -- since 9/11, when after we recovered from the shock, we looked at all our procedures, and we have come through in -- and we are proud of it. And listen to -- you read to me a quote. Let me read to you -- the same man you quoted, in a hearing afterward, said exactly the opposite to this. Secretary Snow in public in Saudi Arabia and in a briefing here says the opposite to that. And the financial action task force of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, just came out with a report in March that says in the area of charitable giving, new regulations to crack down on abuses of Saudi Arabian-based charities probably go further than any country in the world. This is done by the G-7.
MR. RUSSERT: Here's the perception amongst many Americans: that the Saudis and many members in Congress -- and you've talked to them as well as I have --
PRINCE BANDAR: Correct.
MR. RUSSERT: -- the Saudis play a double game. They open up the spigot and say it's all right to vent your hostility towards the United States. Just leave us and the monarchy alone. But now the genie is out of the bottle. But the problem is how did people develop such hostile attitudes towards the United States? A commission was created by Congress, and here's the report from May of 2003, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: "Independent studies conducted in recent months indicated that official government textbooks published by the Saudi Ministry of Education include offensive and discriminatory language -- in some cases promote intolerance, hatred of other religious groups.
Major findings: One, Islam, specifically the Wahhabi interpretation, is presented as the only true religion and all others are considered invalid and misguided. Christians and Jews repeatedly labeled as infidels, enemies of Islam, who should not be befriended or emulated and referred in eighth-grade textbooks as apes and pigs. Jews are regularly referred to as a wicked nation, characterized by bribery, deception, betrayal. And those who abandon Islam for another religion deserve to be killed, or at least imprisoned." If you teach your kids that in Saudi Arabia, and in the madrassas around the world, of course they're going to hate the United States and Israel.
In January, 16 employees of your Embassy had their diplomatic visas revoked. Why? Because they were teaching at the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Services over in Virginia, and our government said that we had to protect our homeland and remove them from our country. That's the reality.
PRINCE BANDAR: That's not true. That's not true, Tim. If it was the reality, I don't blame the American people to hate us, but that is not the reality! Those people you are talking about, the 14 people, were teachers in this institute. They were on the diplomatic list of the embassy for about 15 years. The law has changed, so all the State Department said, "Change their visas." So we had to send them home so they could change their visa and come on different visa. That's all what happened there. But --
MR. RUSSERT: Here's your own newspaper, the Arab News editorial.
PRINCE BANDAR: But let me --
MR. RUSSERT: This is terribly important.
PRINCE BANDAR: I agree with you. Let me comment on -- you said -- you read to me a long charge or comments from Congress and the reports. If that was true, then of course our people should hate America. But go to the Zogby poll he did. And if you look at that polling, you will find how different the reality there from what the congressional report says. And as far as our education is concerned, we went and looked. Look, Tim, after 9/11, we were shaken to our roots. It was an earthquake for us. And it took us a long time to come out of that shock and say to ourselves, What happened? What happened? So when we looked at our educational system, here is the statistics. We found 85 percent of the material was acceptable. We found 10 percent was questionable, meaning it could go either way depending on the teacher. And we found five percent was objectionable. What did we do? We cleared the five percent and we made sure the 10 percent that's questionable becomes much less prone to be misused, and action was taken. It is difficult for people to keep repeating things that happened and a corrective action was taken in this.
MR. RUSSERT: The Arab newspaper in your country, editorial -- "So, too, has the chattering, malicious, vindictive hate propaganda that has provided a fertile ground for ignorance and hatred to grow."
PRINCE BANDAR: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Here's The Washington Post, not from before September 11.
PRINCE BANDAR: What is the point of this Arab newspaper, though?
MR. RUSSERT: This is this past Wednesday. Headline: "U.S.-Saudi relations show signs of stress; reformers labeled agents of America." This is last Wednesday.
PRINCE BANDAR: Yeah?
MR. RUSSERT: Reformers in your government, according to Prince Nayef, were agents of America, and they were arrested. Three are still in prison.
PRINCE BANDAR: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: What does that tell us about your country?
PRINCE BANDAR: Well, if you'll let me answer, I will tell you. Number one, when you talk about the one before, the Arabic paper, you were saying that they were saying bad things about Americans, Christians, and so on. Look, have you heard some of the evangelical priests here, what they say about Islam and our Prophet? And we all have our own cuckoos and they all sometimes say the wrong thing.
MR. RUSSERT: This is the minister of interior.
PRINCE BANDAR: No, no, I'm talking about -- the item before, where you said people were saying these bad things about Christians, pigs, et cetera, et cetera. There is a rabbi in Israel who said, "Those Arabs are snakes and they should be gotten rid of." Now, I cannot speak for everybody in my country, nor can you speak for anybody in your country. And if you want to take what the papers said, by golly, I wish you get half of what we get -- in your news media that we get in our news media. Now, the minister of interior, Prince Nayef, with the statements you made, I don't know what context it is. If I knew, I could answer you.
But Jim Zogby made the polling that showed 91 percent of Saudis said they like America; 95 percent said that they're against bin Laden and they don't think what he did is right.
MR. RUSSERT: All right. We're out of time. One simple question: Who's more popular in your country, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush?
PRINCE BANDAR: We never put those -- this polling there. But --
MR. RUSSERT: President Mubarak of Egypt said the hatred towards America is unprecedented in the Arab world. Do you agree with that?
PRINCE BANDAR: I made the habit not to comment on heads of state's comments. But I'm telling you about Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, a majority of the people, over 90 percent, don't hate Americans. Now, if you insist that they hate America, that I cannot help you with that.
Finally, I would like to make a comment about Senator Schumer. Senator Schumer is really a much, much nicer person in private when I meet with him than he is on TV. And, second, I have an advice for him. Make your words soft and sweet. You never know when you have to eat them. But Saudi Arabia is a friend of yours for 80 years, 60 years, and it will continue to be. And we are targets for the same enemy. The bombing in Riyadh two days ago was not done by Irish people. It was done by the same people who blew up 9/11. So you cannot tell us that we made a deal with the devil. We didn't. We declared war on those bad people and we are going to get them.
MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. I hope you'll come back again and share your views.
PRINCE BANDAR: Look forward to it, Tim.