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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Democrats Debate; Saudis Evacuated From United States After 9/11?

Aired September 4, 2003 - 20:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And the Democrats are off and running for president. They're hoping to make inroads with Latino voters tonight. You are looking at live pictures of their debate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they are being introduced. We're going to come back to that in a moment.
But let's go to Candy Crowley, who is on duty there, to give us a bird's-eye view of what could be expected -- hi, Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula.

What can be expected is a cautious performance by most everyone. What you don't want to do at this point -- there are six debates -- is make some huge mistake that comes back to haunt you for the next couple of debate, a la Jerry Ford and Poland. What you would like to do is stand out in this crowd of nine, because that's really been the most difficult thing for these nine candidates. They overshadow one another and they talk over one another. That had to deal with the Iraq war, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California recall.

So it's been difficult for them to actually get their message out. And tonight is a chance for them to do it.

ZAHN: It appears that the real goal here is to stop the momentum of John Dean (sic)?

CROWLEY: Sure.

I mean, everybody wants the top guy. It's a tricky proposition, however, because you want his voters, too, so you can't be too mean to him. You have to do this in sort of an issue-oriented way: Well, he wants this and I know most Democrats don't want that that way. Now, having said that, anybody will tell you that the dynamics of a debate like this really depend on the questions. You could see some fireworks depending on what comes up, as we did in a previous debate in South Carolina. So it really just depends on what questions come up.

ZAHN: We are going be moving along now. I know that you will be monitoring the debate. And if anything surprising happens, we'll be coming back to you. Candy, thanks so much.

CROWLEY: OK.

And right now, we're going turn our attention to two other people who know an awful lot about the art of debating. A couple of guests join me to talk strategy right now. Victoria Clarke is the former spokeswoman for the Defense Department. She joins me from Washington. And in Watertown, Massachusetts, is Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. He was a national spokesman for Al Gore's presidential campaign.

Welcome to both of you.

DOUG HATTAWAY, FORMER GORE SPOKESMAN: Thank you.

VICTORIA CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: Thank you.

ZAHN: All right, Torie, let's talk a little strategy here. First of all, polls show that most Americans can't even name one single Democratic candidate.

CLARKE: Right.

ZAHN: So is it really too early for the stakes to be high here tonight?

CLARKE: Well, I think it probably is.

Think about what the average American is focused on right now: getting their kids back to school. I forgot to buy the cleats for my kid's first soccer game this weekend. That's what most people are focused on. The ones who are focused on the debate tonight I think are the candidates, their staff, the families, the media who are tasked with covering them. So I think it's a long way to go.

What's interesting is, different players out there tonight have to have different strategies. Somebody will take a shot or two at Howard Dean, I think. I agree with Candy. They've got to be careful. But there's a concern now that his train might really be building some steam. Others will be looking to break themselves out from the pack. But, again, there, you have to be careful. You're going to go too far to the left, too far to the right. So it's interesting how there will be several different strategies under way this evening.

ZAHN: So, in your judgment, Doug, is it Howard Dean who has the most potentially to lose here this evening?

HATTAWAY: He currently has the most momentum, so people are paying a lot of attention to him.

I agree with Torie that this is really the beginning, very beginnings, of the campaign, where your average voter starts to take notice. I know, with my experience in the New Hampshire primary there, your average folks who aren't political activists only start to pay attention to these guys after Labor Day. And that said, I don't think there's tons at stake in tonight's debate in itself, although I do agree, nobody wants to make any mistakes that will come back to haunt them.

They do face the challenge of differentiating themselves from the other candidates, which has been a challenge with such a broad field, without turning off voters. So there's going to be a lot of eyes on Howard Dean, because he's really done a good job building up a head of steam. But I think the others have to be careful if they're trying to take him down a notch or two.

ZAHN: So, Torie, given what both you and Doug have had to say tonight, how would you end up defining a win?

CLARKE: I don't think you have a clear winner tonight.

You might have a clear loser. You might have somebody who makes a big mistake that will come back to haunt him. I don't think you have a clear winner. I think, at the end of the day, next year, it is going be the guy who plays the slow and steady race.

ZAHN: And, Doug, by the end of the week or maybe by the beginning of next week, do you see one additional Democratic candidate entering the ring in the name of Wesley Clark?

(CROSSTALK)

HATTAWAY: It's possible. He has not ruled it out. There's a lot of enthusiasm building, certainly among the core group of people who are behind this draft-Clark movement. That's -- one lesson we know in politics is not to make predictions. Since he hasn't ruled it out, I just have to wait and see.

It would add an interesting dynamic to this race. Conventional wisdom is, it's a bit late to get into this game, with all these candidates who have very strong organizations, who have been raising a lot of money. That said, I think somebody getting in late like Clark would have to bet that there is untapped resources out there, in terms of donors who still have money to give, activists who are waiting for a candidate like that. So I think it's anybody's guess at this point.

ZAHN: Torie, I wanted to move on to one last subject area for you.

CLARKE: Sure.

ZAHN: You no doubt know that there's an article that's broken in the new issue of "Vanity Fair" suggesting that the Bush administration signed off on letting a large number of bin Laden family members leave the country after 9/11. You were at the Pentagon at that time. What can you tell us about that?

CLARKE: Well, I can't tell you anything about the article because I haven't seen it.

That sort of allegation has swirled around for awhile. I just don't know that much about it. I know, in the wake of 9/11, one of our top priorities was and remains identifying members of al Qaeda and those who are supporting and financing them. It's very hard. There are thousands and thousands of them in dozens and dozens of countries.

ZAHN: Torie Clarke, Doug Hattaway, thank you both for joining us tonight.

CLARKE: Thank you.

HATTAWAY: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

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.

Welcome.

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?

UNGER: No.

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.

NAIL AL-JUBEIR, DIRECTOR, SAUDI INFORMATION OFFICE: Thank you for having me.

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.

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After 9/11?>


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