2003 Transcript

Nail Al-Jubeir discusses "Vanity Fair" article with CNN'S Paula Zahn

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR:  And now we're going to go on to talk a little bit more about that article. Let's talk a little bit about some of the details now, turning the page to the war on terror. An article in the latest issue of "Vanity Fair" details the exodus of Saudis from the U.S. in the days following the September 11 attacks. According to the article, among those who left were members of the Saudi ruling family, as well as relatives of Osama bin Laden.

Those people may have been of interest to U.S. investigators, but sources tell "Vanity Fair" the Saudis weren't even interviewed by the FBI.

I am joined now by Craig Unger, "Vanity Fair"'s reporter on this story.


CRAIG UNGER, "VANITY FAIR": It's good to be here, Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you.

First of all, is there any evidence that you can point to that any of these families who ultimately left the country either were aware of the 9/11 plot or were involved in any alleged financing of the organization at this point?


I was unable to get the manifest of the actual passenger list of the people who did leave. The real point is that, in any investigation, whether it's the most commonplace murder or an assassination, one talks to people who are innocent, who are friends and relatives of the perpetrator. In this case, we knew from the start that it was Osama bin Laden. And there were roughly two dozen members of the bin Laden family who were among those who left.

ZAHN: And your allegation, according to your sources, is that they were allowed to leave the country without being questioned.

UNGER: That's correct.

ZAHN: Now, according to our sources at the State Department and some of our own reporters working on this story, the FBI did question, if not all of them, most of these family members.

UNGER: I talked to several people who were with the FBI during the actual repatriation.

And they told me there was a lot of back-and-forth between the FBI and the Saudi Embassy. And the Saudi Embassy tried to get people to leave without even identifying them. The FBI succeeded in identifying people and going through their passports. But, in many cases, you had the FBI meeting people for the first time on the tarmac or on the planes themselves as they were departing. That was not time for a serious interview or a serious interrogation.

ZAHN: Are you aware of any useful information being turned over through this process? Were there any other periods of questioning that you thought actually yielded something significant?

UNGER: None whatsoever.

The point is that, to do a serious investigation, in any murder -- in even most commonplace murder, one would talks to friends of the perpetrator, to relatives. In this case, they were spirited out of the country. And they were also given an extraordinary privilege, that is, this was a time in which American airspace was locked down. This required White House approval. This was a time in which the skies were as empty as they had been in 100 years since the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

FBI counterintelligence agents were not allowed to fly during this period, yet the Saudis were.

ZAHN: Well, help me with the timeline here, because it was on September 18, was one of the first flights out of the country, right?

UNGER: Right.

ZAHN: And we are told that there were other private planes that took off that day and there was other commercial traffic.

UNGER: Oh, they did.

But the key is not when they left the country. The key is when they got into American airspace, which was locked down. And the first flight I was able to document was on September 13. At 10:57 a.m. on that day, the FAA put out a notice saying all private planes could not fly. And yet a Learjet took off from Tampa just a couple hours later and landed in Lexington, Kentucky. I spoke to two people who were on that plane.

ZAHN: But, once again, you don't have as big of a problem with the flight on September 18, when these family members finally left the country.

UNGER: The point isn't really when they left the country. It was that the entire process required White House approval and that there was in fact, according to Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar, who was in the White House at the time, was in the White House Situation Room, there was a White House approval, pending, he said, being vetted by the FBI.

Now, I did talk to various people in the FBI. And they said there was not a serious vetting process, that they identified people, but they did not interrogate or interview them.

ZAHN: Getting a lot of attention with this article. Have you heard from the Bush administration yet?

UNGER: No, I haven't.

ZAHN: Thank you so much for dropping by, Craig Unger, fascinating read in this month's "Vanity Fair."

My next guest says the numbers involved in the Saudi exodus were actually much lower than alleged in the "Vanity Fair" article and that everyone who left was questioned by the FBI before departing.

Nail Al-Jubeir is the director of the Saudi Information Office. He joins me from Washington tonight.

Welcome, sir.


ZAHN: First of all, can you confirm for us tonight that the Saudi government did, in fact, lobby with the Bush administration to allow for some of these Saudi family members to leave the country?

AL-JUBEIR: What we did was, we raised it with the appropriate authorities in this country, the FBI, and brought them a list of every person of the bin Laden that needs to get out, simply because of their own security.

The name was given, their place of birth, their address, their phone number. Everything was provide to them beforehand. When the approval for them to depart, that happened on the 19th. The plane went around, picked them up in L.A., picked them up in Dallas, picked them up in -- I'm sorry. -- L.A. I'm sorry. Let me -- I think it's Los Angeles, Orlando, Washington and Boston.

At every single point, my understanding is, they were taken off the plane, they were questioned, they were searched, and then were put back on. Where Mr. Unger said that some of them weren't questioned is simply not the case. I'm staying here. The FBI knows about that. And if there are any concerns, there's a joint Saudi-American task force in Saudi Arabia that could have raised the issue there right now, if they want.

ZAHN: But as you heard, Mr. Unger's greater concern was that these questions that were asked were pretty cursory. He said some of these interviews that took place, took place on the tarmac, not what he would describe as an appropriate place for an interrogation to take place.

AL-JUBEIR: Most of these people were children. Let's start out with that. So you take that issue, unless he thinks underage kids are supposed to be interrogated.

So when we come to the question of who they are, there's some adults in there. And they are in Saudi Arabia. If they want to question them, by all means, they can go through the task force in Saudi Arabia. As of today -- as a matter of fact, right now it's about quarter to -- quarter past 8:00. Until about 7:00, 6:30, we have not received a request to reinterview them. So I don't think there's anything serious. I think Mr. Unger is making a story of something that happened two years ago that is a nonstory.

ZAHN: Well, can you tell us unequivocally tonight that no one on board this plane had anything to do with either the planning or the execution of the September 11 plot?

AL-JUBEIR: There are only two things that I'm sure about, that there is existence of God and then we will die at the end of the world. Everything else, we don't know.

The question is, if there's concern, bring it up to us. We have no qualms. That is why we have a joint task force. If anybody has any concerns, let us know. They are available. They are going to clear their name. It's matter of trying to rehash, trying to bring an idea that there was a secret way to get them out of the country, which is absolutely not the case.

ZAHN: But, once again, you didn't directly answer that question. You cannot say, then, tonight with 100 percent certainly that any of these folks on board this plane that left the country about a week after September 11 had anything to do with the financing of the plot or the execution of the plot?

AL-JUBEIR: Am I going to sit there and say I know? I won't say that, because, to be honest with you, it is not for me. It is for the intelligence community to find out.

I am not clearing anybody. I'm not accusing anybody. I think Mr. Unger needs to admit he's basically accusing and sort of bringing the idea that, yes, there might be some people on that plane. If the U.S. intelligence community, if the FBI has any concerns, there is a task force in Saudi Arabia. Let them take it up there. For him to come up here, write a story based on charges that are simply not there -- and in the article, there are also even accusations of a plane that the U.S. government doesn't know anything about.

How can you hide a 747, for God's sake? This is the United States. Based on this article, this is like a banana republic. Planes take off and land and nobody knows anything about it.

ZAHN: Mr. Al-Jubeir, I'm going let Mr. Unger quickly step in here.

Just answer his allegation, basically that there's a bunch of bunk in this story that is in the latest issue of "Vanity Fair."

UNGER: Well, it's simply -- I spoke to people who were on the plane who left on September 13. So we know that this required some White House approval. Not to interrogate them, not to interview them for the worst crime in American history is inexcusable.

ZAHN: Mr. Al-Jubeir, you get the last word tonight.

AL-JUBEIR: Well, again, he's basically saying that the White House, the FBI, the intelligence are in cahoots to hide the biggest mass murder in U.S. history.

I can't believe he actually sat there and said that with a straight face, that the U.S. government is covering up for the mass murder. That is insulting to the U.S. government, to the U.S. president, and the law enforcement agents.

ZAHN: Well, gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. Your article certainly sparking a lot of controversy tonight.

Craig Unger, Nail Al-Jubeir, thank you both for joining us tonight. We appreciate your time.