WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he won't declassify a 28-page section of a congressional report investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, despite mounting pressure from Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress to make the information public.
Bush said declassifying the pages, which detail possible links between Saudi officials and the hijackers, would harm national security and reveal intelligence sources and methods.
"There's an ongoing investigation into the 9/11 attacks, and we don't want to compromise that investigation," he told reporters, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the White House Rose Garden.
"If people are being investigated," Bush said, "it doesn't make sense for us to let them know who they are. It would help the enemy if they knew our sources and methods."
Bush's announcement came just hours before a hastily called meeting between Bush and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who asked Bush to release the pages publicly. The meeting did not change Bush's mind.
After the meeting, Saud said the Saudi government would agree to a U.S. government request and allow the U.S. officials to question a man linked to some of the hijackers. The man, Omar al-Bayoumi, is believed to be in Saudi Arabia.
Bayoumi, a Saudi who was employed by the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority, helped two of the hijackers find and pay for an apartment in San Diego.
Saud told reporters that "we understand" Bush's reasons for not declassifying the disputed section of the 850-page report but felt that the secrecy was defaming his people.
`Nothing to hide'
"We have nothing to hide," Saud said. "We do not seek nor do we need to be shielded.
"We believe that releasing the missing 28 pages would allow us to respond to any allegations in a clear and credible manner and remove any doubts about the kingdom's true role in the war against terrorism and its commitment to fight."
The last-minute nature of the meeting highlighted the sensitivity of the subject for both sides. Saudi officials have tried to portray the Saudi royal family as a partner in the war against terrorism, while the administration has needed Saudi cooperation in trying to track down al-Qaida, most recently in investigating the car bomb blasts that killed 34 people, including eight Americans, in Riyadh in May.
The report, produced by a joint panel of the House and Senate intelligence committees and released Thursday, outlines repeated failures of U.S. intelligence to pick up clues and signals pointing to a terrorist attack. Though the public version of the report does not name any country specifically, the report cites a CIA memorandum that points to "incontrovertible evidence" the terrorists were helped by a "foreign power."
Several people who have seen the classified section say that term refers to Saudi Arabia. The pages, congressional sources say, point to financial and political links between the hijackers and the Saudi government.
The redacted section, sources say, also describes Bayoumi's activities in more detail. The unclassified version of the report links Bayoumi to al-Qaida and says he met the two hijackers after leaving a meeting at the Saudi consulate.
Yesterday at the Saudi Embassy, after conferring with the president, Saud told reporters that Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, asked the Saudi government to allow U.S. officials to question Bayoumi. Saud said FBI and CIA agents from the local Saudi offices would be permitted to question him if he can be found.
Bayoumi, he said, is "at large" because he has not been accused of any crime.
Bush did not share the contents of the 28-page section during their meeting, Saud said, but he conveyed that releasing the report could "jeopardize the lives of many people."
Adel Al-Jubeir, a Saudi adviser to the crown prince, said Saudi officials had asked for a meeting with the co-chairmen of the commission, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, and Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, last year while the inquiry was under way, but it was not granted.
After his meeting at the White House, Saud said Saudi Arabia was being "indicted by insinuation," and keeping the report secret was "an outrage to any sense of fairness."
Several senators, including Shelby and Graham, have said the pages should be declassified. Shelby said he believes 95 percent of the information could be declassified without hurting national security.
Call for override
Yesterday Graham, who is running for president, called on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which he no longer serves, to override the president and send the question of whether to release the material to the Senate floor for a vote.
If a member of the intelligence committee takes up the issue after the August recess as Graham has requested, the panel will have five days to send it to the Senate floor for a full vote under congressional rules.
If the Senate does so, it will be the first time Congress will have voted to override a president on a classification issue. It was unclear yesterday whether any members of the committee were willing to press the issue.
Graham accused the administration of attempting to hide behind the cloak of national security to avoid embarrassing the Saudis and itself. He said the classified section reveals further missteps and clues the intelligence community missed.
"The motivations here are more political than national security," Graham said. "Maybe there is a sentence or a paragraph [that should remain classified], but not all 28 pages."
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.