WASHINGTON - Stung by American criticisms that they've been soft on terrorists, Saudi officials are divulging for the first time several intelligence and diplomatic favors they have provided the United States in the war on terrorism dating to 1997.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Saudi officials said the assistance has ranged from sharing of information identifying a possible leader in the al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998 to intervention with Yemeni officials on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney in the last year.
U.S. officials confirm most of the Saudi accounts, saying the kingdom's cooperation has been uneven at various times but improving steadily.
"Since Sept. 11, 2001, the two countries have exchanged more than 3,500 memorandums dealing with counterterrorism efforts," said Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. "This represents more than six memos per day and is a clear example of the intensive cooperation."
The contributions, they said, previously have gone unacknowledged in part because of concerns that public disclosure might alienate a Saudi citizenry wary of cooperation with America or affect diplomatic relations with other Middle East countries.
Officials said the Saudi desire to counter recent congressional criticisms, along with a heightened alert inside the kingdom after May 12 terrorist bombings in Riyadh killed 35 people, have freed both sides to discuss previously secret cooperation.
U.S. officials and congressional leaders say the flow of Saudi information at times has been halting or incomplete, especially when it comes to questions about the kingdom's own citizens. And they say Saudi attention before Sept. 11 to possible terrorist abuses of Saudi-based charities was lacking.
"While the Saudi government insists that it is cooperating fully with U.S. law enforcement efforts, our officials note the cooperation has been uneven," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Her committee is investigating possible terror financing schemes.
The Saudis counter they initiated the first joint terrorism task force with U.S. intelligence as early as 1997 and say they were, at times, bewildered to receive duplicative requests from multiple U.S. agencies, all unaware that another federal agency already had the information.
"Everyone is smarter after 9-11," said Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington. "Everyone missed the mark prior to 9-11. No one country can be blamed."
Both sides agree the process has improved, particularly with the formation of joint terrorist task forces that have centralized the exchange of time-sensitive intelligence.
The Saudis say that shortly after convicted shoe bomb terrorist Richard Reid was foiled in an attack on a trans-Atlantic flight to Boston in December 2001, Saudi intelligence passed on to the CIA information from several al-Qaida prisoners in Saudi custody.
Saudi and U.S. officials said the prisoners related they had been with Reid in al-Qaida training camps and remembered him as having a bad temper. The prisoners even told how Reid could be calmed with ice cream, Saudi officials said.
In early 2002, Cheney's office called Saudi officials seeking help on the Yemeni extradition of an al-Qaida operative named Abu Mu'az al-Jeddawi. Al-Jeddawi was running a cell believed to be plotting attacks, the officials said, and was mentioned in an FBI terrorism alert Feb. 11, 2002, that warned of possible imminent terror attacks inside Yemen or the United States.
The vice president spoke directly to Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and the Saudis contacted the Yemeni president to broker a deal to have al-Jeddawi extradited to Jordan, where U.S. authorities could interrogate him, according to Saudi and U.S. officials.
To help the transfer, the Saudis waived their right to have him extradited to their kingdom, clearing the way for his release to Jordan, the officials said.
One of the most tantalizing but disputed Saudi claims of assistance occurred before Sept. 11.
Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief said in an AP interview his government determined in late 1999 or early 2000 that eventual Sept. 11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were al-Qaida operatives involved in two terror plots.
Prince Turki al Faisal alleges his intelligence agency told the CIA in late 1999 and early 2000 that the kingdom had placed both men on its own terror watch list after learning from al-Qaida prisoners and intelligence intercepts that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi might be connected to 1998 al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and a 1997 effort to smuggle weapons.
"What we told them was these people were on our watch list from previous activities of al-Qaida, in both the embassy bombings and attempts to smuggle arms into the kingdom in 1997," Turki said.
CIA officials deny receiving such information until after the suicide hijackings occurred.
"There is not a shred of evidence that Saudi intelligence provided CIA any information about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi prior to Sept. 11 as they have described," spokesman Bill Harlow said. "There have been exhaustive examinations of our records, not only by us, but by congressional inquiries, and no such records have surfaced. We have found information similar to that which you cite which the Saudis passed to us a month after Sept. 11."
Saudi and U.S. officials agree they worked closely together since Sept. 11 to disrupt an al-Qaida cell run by a Sudanese who plotted to use shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down a U.S. airplane taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base inside the kingdom.
Some help, they said, dates to well before Sept. 11.
The Saudis took DNA evidence from one of the dead al-Qaida operatives in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and matched it to records showing he was a cousin of al-Qaida's Persian Gulf operations chief, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, officials said.
The DNA match provided early proof that al-Nashiri was involved in the bombings. He would surface again as a mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen before he was captured after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.