Sunday, December 01, 2002

Snopes is a site that considers and debunks urban legends. One of the questions they have considered is the story that the members of the bin Laden family were allowed to fly out of the United States home to Saudi Arabia before they were interrogated by the FBI, and at a time in the few days after September 11 that no other plane was allowed to fly in U. S. airspace. Snopes points out that this story is not true, as the bin Laden family members living in the United States were interrogated by the FBI, and their planes only left after the ban on flying in U. S. airspace was lifted. What bothers me about this is that this debunking is highly selective, as it ignores: 1) the basis for the original rumor, the fact that a plane did leave the United States carrying important Saudis at a time when U. S. airspace was closed; and 2) the fact that the bin Laden family interrogation was amazingly superficial considering the importance of learning as much as possible about bin Laden. Consider the following:

  1. An airplane carrying the son of Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan and the son of a Saudi army commander did leave the United States on September 13, at a time when U. S. airspace was still closed to new flights. This plane apparently took a route from a private hangar at Tampa International Airport run by Raytheon Corporation (Prince Sultan is a very good customer for military hardware) to Kentucky, where it met a privately-owned Saudi 747 which took the passengers to Saudi Arabia.

  2. The bin Laden family left the United States after U. S. airspace had been opened. Before they left, the members of the family were interrogated by the FBI, but, considering the months (even years) of detention and interrogation given to innocent Arabs who aren't rich and aren't personal friends of the President (and aren't closely related to the most important terrorist in the world), it is amazing that all the family members of the person held to be most responsible for the September attacks were allowed to leave with what must have been only a perfuntory interrogation (an interrogation only sufficient to be able to say that one was done). Abdullah, the only bin Laden family member who had temporarily remained in the United States, said that he was never questioned in person by the FBI, but just by a brief telephone call. Here is an interesting quote from the same article on the bin Laden family and their complicated allegiances: "United States officials apparently needed little persuasion from the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that the extended bin Laden family included no material witnesses. The Saudi Embassy says that the family cooperated with the F.B.I." Another good line: "When I asked a senior United States intelligence officer whether anyone had considered detaining members of the family, he replied, 'That's called taking hostages. We don't do that.'" The whole article is worth reading to get the flavor of the bin Laden family's relationships to bin Laden and the U. S. government.

Snopes criticizes Michael Moore for using the rumors about the bin Laden family as part of his general criticism of the double standards of the Bush Administration towards its Saudi friends. Thousands of ordinary Arabs were starting to be rounded up, but Bush's pals were treated differently. While the details of the Moore comments are incorrect, the gist of his criticism is accurate. The relatives of some of Bush's oily pals did receive treatment better than that afforded to anyone else in the country, including any American citizens. It is extremely telling that a supposedly iron-clad rule against flying would be lifted for anybody. While the members of the bin Laden family were interviewed by the FBI, they were still allowed to leave relatively quickly, and considering the importance of any information they might have had, at a time when the authorities were still doing their preliminary investigation and would not have been in a position to ask all the necessary questions. The one member of the family who stayed behind was merely given a quick telephone interview. Sometimes debunking can be technically accurate but still be highly misleading (to see the clear Snopes bias, read the tone of their last paragraph on this matter). I wonder who funds Snopes (they claim they have no sponsors)?