Report: Saudi Royals May Have Financed Militants

Documents obtained by The New York Times suggest members of the Saudi royal family may have provided financial support to extremists, including al-Qaida, in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The documents are part of an ongoing legal effort by Sept. 11 families to hold Saudi Arabia and the royal family accountable for the attacks. New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau offers his insight.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Do classified documents show that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaida operatives, including some of the 9/11 hijackers? Well, The New York Times reports today on documents that purport to show just that. Those documents are at issue in both judicial and diplomatic disputes. Lawyers representing the families of 9/11 victims want the documents released, the Justice Department and the Saudis don't.

Times reporter Eric Lichtblau reports on this, and he joins us now. Welcome, once again to the program.

Mr. ERIC LICHTBLAU (Reporter, The New York Times): Well, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What kind of documents are you writing about, and what have you seen of them?

Mr. LICHTBLAU: Well, these are hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that have been collected over the last few years by lawyers for the families of 9/11 victims and also their insurance companies, who have been trying for the last six years to sue the Saudi government and individual members of the royal family and hold them liable for what they think are events that they contribute to financially.

That lawsuit has been stalled in the courts. In fact, this week, the Supreme Court is likely to decide, one way or another, whether or not they will hear the appeal. But in the meantime, these documents have attracted a little attention. Most of them, in fact, haven't even been entered into the court record. But they present an interesting case study of the evidence that the lawyers purport tie the members of the Saudi royal family to extremist groups, in some cases, to al-Qaida itself over the last 10, 15, 20 years.

SIEGEL: By giving money to people.

Mr. LICHTBLAU: By giving money, yes. What the theory is that these documents lay out, with some persuasiveness, is that the roots of the financial operation were seen in Bosnia in the early 1990s, with the civil war and genocide against Muslims there. And that the Saudi royal family, through relief organizations serving a legitimate humanitarian purpose, was also funding and knowingly funding extremist groups in really the genesis of al-Qaida, militant Muslim groups. And that there were tens of millions of dollars that came in this pipeline from Saudi Arabia to groups around the world.

SIEGEL: There's an intriguing twist to your story in today's paper. You write that lawyers for the 9/11 families received leaked classified American, I assume American, intelligence documents, they say from an anonymous leaker.

Mr. LICHTBLAU: Yeah. Yeah, this is a fascinating little twist, as you say. And what happened was that sometime last year, one of the main law firms for the families, a law firm in South Carolina called Motley Rice, gave word to the judge in the case that they had been given anonymously a large packet of documents, about 55 documents in all, that were directly related to the issue of the Saudis' finances and terrorism. These were clearly classified documents. Presumably, whoever leaked them was someone either within the U.S. government or someone at access to classified materials within the U.S. government.

The Justice Department was so taken aback by this that they said not only did the law firm have to destroy all the records, but the judge should not lay eyes on these documents.

SIEGEL: The person who leaked these documents, we might infer, was sympathetic to the cause of the 9/11 families and leaked them to their lawyers.

Mr. LICHTBLAU: We don't know for sure, but I think that's a good bet, yes.

SIEGEL: But the Justice Department is not sympathetic to the lawsuit brought by the 9/11 families.

Mr. LICHTBLAU: They are not sympathetic. This has become quite a legal and diplomatic mess. The Justice Department angered a lot of the 9/11 families just a month ago by weighing in in favor of the Saudis before the Supreme Court. The solicitor general's office, the appellate arm of the Justice Department, said that the Saudis should be given sovereign immunity and that there was no reason for the Supreme Court to hear the appeal.

A lot of the families were upset because they had hoped that, at the least, the government might not weigh in one way or the other. Instead, they not only took an active role, but said that the Saudis were immune from liability.

SIEGEL: Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times, thank you very much.

Mr. LICHTBLAU: Thanks for having me.

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