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Who let Saudis flee after 9/11?

CIVIL LIBERTIES in an age of terrorism require a careful balance between preserving important rights cherished by all Americans and the need for law enforcement to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks. The importance of a balanced standard is particularly evident in President Bush's request to Congress for additional law-enforcement powers to investigate terrorist suspects while questions persist about why the White House and FBI permitted 140 Saudis (including two-dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden) to leave hurriedly from the United States for Saudi Arabia.

In the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, while the airways were still closed to all other flights, Americans couldn't fly into the country but relatives of bin Laden were able to fly out. The Justice Department and the FBI inspector general should investigate why these obvious "persons of interest" were permitted to leave the country without being seriously interrogated.

Why should the American people trust the Bush administration with greater police powers when it refuses to answer questions about the bin Laden family's escape? As Senator Charles Schumer of New York has said, it was too soon after 9/11 for the FBI even to know what questions to ask, much less to decide conclusively that each Saudi and bin Laden relative deserved an "all clear," never to be available for questions again.

The American people deserve answers to these questions:

* Whom did the Saudis call to request government approval of the flights?

* Who in the government coordinated approval of the flights?

* Did the FBI receive any communications from the White House about the urgency of permitting these individuals to leave the country?

* Did any Justice Department or FBI officials express reservations or objections to the decisions?

* Did any Americans contact the US government to urge approval of the flights?

In stark contrast to the special treatment given to these Saudis, President Bush and the Justice Department have repeatedly challenged Congress and the federal courts to permit law enforcement maximum leeway in moving against terrorism suspects. In the aftermath of the attacks, hundreds of Arabs were jailed for months without access to counsel. The Justice Department has asserted that not even the federal courts can tell it that American citizens have a right to counsel or to compel witnesses under the Constitution if they have been deemed unilaterally to be "enemy combatants."

Attorney General John Ashcroft has had to defend himself from the left and the right against charges the Justice Department has implemented the Patriot Act abusively. Most recently, Bush called on Congress to allow administrative subpoenas without judicial approval, block bail for terrorism suspects, and expand the federal death penalty to convicted terrorists.

FBI officials say that agents had interviewed the bin Laden relatives before the White House cleared them to leave the country. But Dale Watson, the former head of counter-terrorism at the FBI, has said the departing Saudis "were not subject to serious interviews or interrogations."

Secretary of State Colin Powell has admitted that the flights were "coordinated within the government" but has offered no details about the FBI's involvement. For his part, Vice President Cheney claimed no knowledge of the flights, "but a lot of folks from that part of the world left in the aftermath of 9/11 because they were worried about public reaction here in the United States or that somehow they might be discriminated against."

This double standard flies in the face of common sense. If the post-9/11 Saudi flights had happened during President Clinton's term in office, Republicans and Democrats alike would have been outraged and undoubtedly would have called for congressional investigations. Some Republicans would have done all they could to charge Clinton with treason.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have changed this country, and we need to provide law enforcement with the support and tools it needs to combat terrorism effectively. But two years of silence by the Bush administration on the Saudi flights is enough.

Congress should refuse to consider whether to grant the administration with greater police powers until the Justice Department agrees to conduct a searching investigation of the circumstances surrounding government approval of the bin Laden family departure.

Jeffrey J. Connaughton was special assistant to the counsel to the president 1994-95.

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