WASHINGTON — In early November 1998, Louis Freeh sent an FBI team off to observe Saudi secret police officials interviewing eight Shi’a detainees from behind a one-way mirror at the Riyadh detention center. He planned to use the Shi’a testimony to show that Iran was behind the bombing.
As expected, the stories told by the detainees recapitulated the outlines of the Shi’a plot that had already been described by the Saudis two years earlier. Now there were even more tantalizing details of direct Iranian involvement.
One of the detainees said Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Ahmad Sherifi had personally selected the Khobar barracks as a target. Another said the Saudi Hezbollah members had been not only trained but paid by the Iranians.
“We came away with solid evidence that Iran was behind it,” says a former FBI agent.
There was one problem with the evidence the FBI team collected: the Saudi secret police had already had two and half years to coach the Saudi Hezbollah detainees on what to say about the case, with the ever-present threat of more torture to provide the incentive.
But Freeh was not about to let the torture issue interfere with his mission. “For Louis, if they would let us in the room, that was the important thing,” one former high-ranking FBI official told Inter Press Service (IPS). “We would have gone over there and gotten the answers even if they had been propped up.”
When Freeh took the accounts from the Shi’a detainees in interrogations witnessed by the FBI team, however, the Justice Department didn’t buy them as valid testimony. The department refused to go ahead with an indictment as Freeh had desired, evidently based on the same objection that had been raised two years earlier: the Shi’a had been subject to torture.
But in January 2001, President George W. Bush kept Freeh on as FBI director. Freeh told the new president that Iran had masterminded the Khobar bombing, according to his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, and the Justice Department then began collaborating with Freeh on an indictment of the Saudi Hezbollah which implicated Iran in the Khobar bombing.
The indictment was announced on Jun. 21, 2001 — Freeh’s last day as FBI director.
Highly credible evidence soon showed, however, that the Mabahith, the Saudi secret police, did indeed use torture and coercion to get detainees to tell the stories demanded by the Saudi regime — even in front of foreign observers — and that they did so to protect al Qaeda from investigation by the United States.
Three car bombings in Riyadh in November 2000 that had resulted in the death of a British citizen were generally believed to have been the work of al Qaeda. But four British citizens, one Canadian and one Belgian had confessed to the bombings, and their confessions had been broadcast on Saudi television.
After being released in 2003, however, the Canadian citizen, William Sampson, made public his dramatic account of beatings administered by the Mabahith while being hung upside down, including blows that made his testicles swell to the size of oranges. Sampson said the Saudis told him from the beginning what they wanted him to confess to, repeating it over and over while the beatings continued, and refined the story over time, constantly adding new details.
Six weeks into the interrogation, after Sampson began to tell them what they wanted, they started videotaping his confession, using a wall chart to help him remember in detail the movements he was supposed to have made.
The Saudis even coached Sampson on what to say when he was visited by Canadian embassy personnel, threatening him with further torture if he told the embassy officials the truth. When the embassy personnel came to talk with him, Sampson’s two torturers were present for the entire interview, just as they were presumably present at the questioning of the Shi’a detainees observed by the FBI team.
The other foreigners told similar stories of coerced confessions under torture. Sampson and the five foreigners were released only after a May 2003 suicide bombing by al Qaeda on a Riyadh compound housing 900 expatriates forced Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef to acknowledge al Qaeda as a terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, once out of office, Freeh became virtually a defense lawyer for the Saudi regime on the Khobar Towers bombing.
Testifying before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees on Oct. 9, 2002, he whitewashed the Saudi policy toward the FBI investigation. Omitting any mention of the Saudi deception over the explosives smuggling incident and refusal to allow the FBI to pursue essential investigatory tasks, Freeh suggested that the Saudis had done everything that could be expected of them.
“Fortunately, the FBI was able to forge an effective working relationship with the Saudi police and interior ministry,” he said. Any “roadblock or legal obstacle” that “would occur,” Freeh asserted, was because of the “marked difference between our legal and procedural systems.”
Freeh paid tribute to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador, as “critical in achieving the FBI’s investigative objectives in the Khobar case” and suggested that any such temporary problems “were always solved” by Bandar’s “personal intervention.”
Freeh misrepresented the arrangement under which the FBI team had observed the interrogation as “making these witnesses directly available.”
In an interview for a fawning biography of Prince Bandar, Freeh even went so far as to call the Saudi beheading of four jihadists who confessed to the OPM SANG bombing after refusing to allow the FBI to question them as “swift justice” on a “Saudi domestic matter.”
The final chapter of Freeh’s connection with Bandar and the Saudis, however, was still to come. In April 2009, Freeh appeared as Bandar’s defense lawyer in a British court case in which Bandar is accused of illegally taking two billion dollars in graft on a Saudi-British arms deal.
In the context of Freeh’s straightened financial situation and his very close relationship with Prince Bandar, this sequence of developments in Freeh’s relationship with the Saudis, culminating in being put on Bandar’s payroll, should have raised eyebrows in Washington.
With a wife and six children to support, Freeh had been far more vulnerable to Saudi blandishments than most senior administration officials. And Bandar had made no secret that he was willing to use the promise of financial benefits to influence U.S. officials while they were still in office.
He once told an associate, according to a February 2002 article by Robert G. Kaiser and David Ottaway of the Washington Post, “If the reputation . . . builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.”
Freeh declined to be interview for this series.
In light of the history of Freeh’s relations with Bandar, his conduct of the investigation of Khobar Towers deserves new scrutiny. Freeh effectively shut down a probe of a terror bombing in which bin Laden was clearly implicated when the Saudis had refused to cooperate; he refused to pursue any investigation of a bin Laden role in the bombing; and he pushed a seriously flawed Saudi account of the bombing despite the fact that it was tainted by the likelihood of torture.
The result of Freeh’s blatant pro-Saudi bias was that Osama bin Laden was allowed more years of unhindered freedom in which to plan terrorist actions against the United States. Had Freeh not become an advocate of the interests of the regime whose representative in Washington eventually put him on his payroll, U.S. policy would presumably have been focused like a laser on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda two years earlier.
And perhaps the disinterest of the George W. Bush administration’s national security team toward al Qaeda before 9/11 would have been impossible.
* (This is the final installment of a five-part series, “Khobar Towers Investigated: How a Saudi Deception Protected Osama bin Laden.” The work on this series was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.)