The FBI still has “ongoing and serious concerns” about lack of Saudi cooperation in the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. military housing complex, nearly three weeks after the attorney general and FBI director publicly complained about the problem, a senior FBI official told Congress Wednesday.
Providing the most detailed public account so far of the FBI’s frustrations in probing the blast at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Assistant FBI Director Robert M. Bryant said the Saudi Arabian government has prevented FBI investigators from interviewing any civilians who witnessed or may have been involved in the bombing.
Bryant told the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime that the FBI is particularly dissatisfied with the Saudi government’s failure to turn over key evidence or allow the FBI to collect direct testimony about the bombing, which killed 19 Air Force service members.
The FBI needs “precise facts that are first hand and not hearsay,” Bryant said, in remarks that amplified public criticism levelled against the Saudi government last month by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno. Bryant said that without sufficient data in hand, the question of whether another nation was responsible for the blast - as opposed to a group of Saudi dissidents - is “still an open question.”
Bryant said the FBI is now involved in sensitive negotiations with Saudi officials about the case and expressed confidence that eventually it will collect enough information to learn what happened and who was responsible. He said two FBI agents will go to Riyadh this week to open a permanent office at the U.S. embassy there.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Defense Secretary William Cohen told the House National Security Committee that “the director of the FBI has requested further cooperation” and that the process of getting it was “now under way.”
Bryant took pains to temper his criticism of the Saudis with praise for what he called “exceptional” Saudi cooperation in certain portions of the probe. The Saudis allowed as many as 125 agents into the country after the blast, and also released blast debris for FBI testing, he said.
Saudi investigators have also provided the “identities” of those believed responsible for the blast, and explained “why they think (these suspects) … are involved,” Bryant said. He was apparently alluding to a group of roughly 40 Saudi Shiites that the Saudi government has detained.
But Bryant added that while FBI officials want to see various pieces of evidence themselves, “what we’ve gotten is (Saudi) conclusions.” Other knowledgeable sources said that senior Saudi officials have advised Freeh that they believe those involved were trained in Lebanon and acted with Iranian government support, which is denied by Iran.
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