Rude Awakening

Major news organizations need to snap out of 9/11 emotionalism and ask impolite financial questions about Saudi elites and President Bush

Still, two things seem to be true: Some apparently authoritative people have directly asserted that Khalid bin Mahfouz has been involved in the funding of al Qaeda. And James R. Bath, friend to and fellow fighter pilot with a man who became president, has helped Khalid bin Mahfouz in some business ventures in the U.S.

As head of a multibillion-dollar bank, bin Mahfouz -- or, as some knew him in Houston, Sheik Khalid -- of course had many business interests. Among other things, bin Mahfouz and his bank held a significant ownership in BCCI, in which he'd acted as chief operating officer and which was widely reputed to be a nest of fraud, corruption, and money laundering for a variety of unsavory interests, including terrorists. In fact, bin Mahfouz agreed in 1993 to pay a $225 million fine to settle felony fraud charges related to the BCCI debacle.

Bin Mahfouz's name has popped up here and there in connection with alleged funding of al Qaeda and/or Osama bin Laden. The most direct such charges came in a lawsuit filed this summer on behalf of survivors of hundreds of people killed in the 9/11 attacks. Three Saudi princes, numerous Islamic financial institutions and "charities," and bin Mahfouz and the National Commercial Bank were named as defendants. Citing the U.S. Senate testimony of a CIA counterterrorism expert, the lawsuit claims "there is little doubt that a financial conduit to bin Laden was handled through the National Commercial Bank," which bin Mahfouz ran and in which he owned a controlling interest. The suit also alleges that bin Mahfouz set up charities around the world that were "linked to al Qaeda and involved in the financing of Osama bin Laden operations."

A report for the French National Assembly titled "The Economic Environment of Osama bin Laden" also lays out a maze of apparent ties between the bin Mahfouz financial empire -- which, the report says, was estimated at $2.4 billion in 2001 and said to control some 70 businesses and charities around the world -- and the finances of Osama bin Laden.

Jim Bath represented bin Mahfouz in regard to some financial investments in Texas, including, according to published reports, an airplane brokering firm and a private airport. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, bin Mahfouz also appeared to have had a significant connection with an institution that was then a central power in Houston finance, and particularly in Republican finance, Texas Commerce Bank. (For the preceding two decades, Texas Commerce had often counted as board members James Baker III, who would become George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, and Robert Mosbacher Sr., a Bush père commerce secretary and campaign fund-raiser extraordinaire.) One former TCB executive explained the relationship this way: "It was a very important relationship for us to have. The bank was profitable, well-regarded and had important ties to the [Saudi] royal family."

So, a decade or so ago, bin Mahfouz was a player in elite Republican circles of Houston, the claimed home of ex-President Bush and a city where large numbers of Saudi petrodollars were recycled regularly. Last fall, a French legislative report said that, in addition to the National Commercial Bank, the bin Mahfouz financial empire is composed of two main holding companies: the Saudi Economic Development Co. Ltd, or SEDCO, a subsidiary of which, the report claimed, has been involved with donations to Osama bin Laden; and Nimir Petroleum Ltd., an international oil exploration firm involved in numerous and massive joint ventures with large American oil companies that are among President Bush's staunchest political supporters and campaign contributors.

Yes, I know: None of the above constitutes evidence of wrongdoing, and to ask questions about Bush family connections to Saudi elites without definitive proof is to invite being labeled a conspiracy freak. Actually, though, I am far from alone in asking about the connections. It's just that, so far, questions about President Bush and Saudi notables have been raised in a sidelong, incoherent, overly polite manner; the issue is never addressed head-on and settled, one way or another.

For example, in a column this summer in the New York Times, Frank Rich broached the Saudi connection while commenting on Harken Energy. Bush has come under fire recently for failing to report a sale of Harken stock in a timely fashion more than a decade ago -- and for failing to fully explain the reporting lapse now.

Here's what Rich ultimately concluded: "What is the president hiding? Clearly the story here is not merely a hard-to-prove case of insider trading. ... Most likely it also involves the mystery first raised by The Wall Street Journal and Time in 1991. Back then, their investigative journalists ... tried to learn what various Saudi money men, some tied to the terrorist-sponsoring Bank of Credit and Commerce International, may have had to do with Harken while the then-president's son was in proximity."

Just last month, meanwhile, the staid and careful Associated Press focused on another connection among Bush-ites and the Saudis, the Carlyle Group, noting that the Bush administration was getting advice on how to deal with Iraq from Republican luminaries with business interests that might be affected by Middle East policy, among them former Bush pèreSecretary of State James Baker III.

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