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Periodically, I get a phone call from some journalist or other, wanting to know what I know, from a prior journalistic lifetime, about George W. Bush's possible financial connections to this or that member of the Saudi Arabian elite. I enjoy the conversations, but usually offer the reporters rehashes of what's already been published on this score. Why would I give away information? Am I some kind of journalistic Santa Claus?
But it's become clear in the 53 weeks since the World Trade Center was made rubble that a globe-spanning investigative foray into Bush-Saudi links, such as they may be, is needed. It's also clear I am in no position to make it. Good reporters with long lead times and fat expense accounts really should be looking at the appearance of financial connection between Bush and his supporters and certain Saudi "persons of interest" (to use the current federal patois).
These apparent connections may, when run to ground, prove trivial. But national media organizations spent untold millions of dollars on an orgy of grief-mongering to commemorate the one-year anniversary of 9/11; it would be heartening, now, if some of those organizations redirected resources from the easy journalism of the boohoo beat to the less comfortable task of putting rude questions to powerful people.
The questions I am talking about really boil down to one. Although the query is fundamentally impolite, I'll try to state it in a respectful way:
Saudi Arabia is widely acknowledged as a source of significant financing for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden; Saudi lack of cooperation in terror investigations is similarly well-known. Do the apparent financial connections of George W. Bush, his father, and his and his father's friends and associates to important Saudi figures, in and out of that country's government, in any way compromise our government's ability to investigate al Qaeda?
Here is part of a framework within which enterprising reporters might start looking for answers.
People sometimes ask me about Saudis and President Bush because a little more than a decade ago, when I was a daily newspaper reporter in Houston, I looked at possible connections between Houston business and political figures and the engagingly corrupt and corrupting Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Some BCCI figures have drawn new interest as investigators examine the worldwide financing of terror, in which BCCI is known to have played a role.
Shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, I wrote a column that borrowed from my earlier research into a Houston airplane broker named James Bath. Bath has represented, as a sort of business agent, at least four prominent and wealthy Saudi Arabian citizens, including Salem bin Laden, the favored son of the founder of a great Saudi construction empire and one of dozens of brothers of a man named Osama bin Laden. Among other things, I wrote, Bath also counted as a friend and minor business partner a man who, except for his family connections, was not then well known to the wider public: George W. Bush.
More than a decade ago, Bush said he met Bath in the 1970s when both were fighter pilots at an Air National Guard base near Houston and acknowledged they were friends, but insisted they had never been in business together. Subsequent stories disputed that contention. "Tax documents and personal financial records show that Bath personally had a 5 percent interest in Arbusto '79 Ltd., and Arbusto '80 Ltd., limited partnerships controlled by George W. Bush, [then-]President Bush's eldest son," the Houston Chroniclereported, adding, "Bath invested $50,000 in the limited partnerships, according to the documents. There is no available evidence to show whether the money came from Saudi interests."
Timemagazine, meanwhile, wrote that Bath "enjoyed unusual carte blanche to direct the U.S. investments of several wealthy Middle Easterners. Associates confirm that Bath has brokered more than $150 million in private plane deals in recent years, concentrated in sales and leases to Middle Eastern royalty and other influential figures."
My column last September described a poignant coincidence: Bath, friend of President Bush, represented financial interests of some members of the bin Laden family (but not, to my knowledge, Osama). My point, then, involved the importance of acting not on appearance, but on facts.
A year later, it's clear that some facts need to be established:
According to many news reports, Bush's financial fortunes rose as his drilling partnerships and firms foundered. At every fateful turn, it seemed, more investors or companies moved in to rescue Bush from financial disaster. Was the $50,000 Bath invested in George W. Bush's oil partnerships Bath's money, or was he a representative of another financial interest? Who were all the investors in Bush's various oil firms? How much, if any, Saudi investment was involved in this string of failure that ultimately proved so profitable for Bush?
It's also clear, now, that reporters ought to take a serious look at another prominent Saudi whose U.S. financial interests involved Jim Bath, friend and business partner of George W. Bush: Khalid bin Mahfouz, the wealthy former head of the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia.
Khalid bin Mahfouz headed the National Commercial Bank -- an institution that has been quite close to the Saudi royal family for decades -- for many years, and then, late in the 1990s, he no longer did so. Some news outlets reported that an audit had been performed, and that suspicions of money being diverted from the bank to the support of al Qaeda had led to bin Mahfouz's ouster. A few news reports contended bin Mahfouz had been placed under detention at a Saudi military facility. This year, a representative of bin Mahfouz denied these contentions.