A Twist of the Arm

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CHRISTOPHER MORRIS/VII FOR TIME

INSIDER: Bandar, left, at a 2001 White House meeting, has charmed a long line of U.S. Presidents

As Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan takes White House hospitality for granted. For 30 years, the Cohiba-chomping Bandar has traded on his personal charm and his country's oil wealth to seduce Presidents and preserve his nation's alliance with the U.S. But when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met Bandar at the White House last Tuesday, the ambassador had reason to be concerned. Revelations that charitable donations by Bandar's wife Princess Haifa al-Faisal were sent to associates of two Sept. 11 hijackers had some Congressmen questioning Saudi Arabia's commitment to the war on terrorism. And Administration hard-liners were leaking word to the Washington Post of a White House staff proposal to deliver an ultimatum to Riyadh about Saudi financing of terrorists. As soon as Bandar arrived at the West Wing, though, the hard line vanished. President Bush stopped by and insisted that Bandar stay for dinner. After meeting with Rice, the prince headed upstairs for a leisurely meal with the President and First Lady. Just like old times.

Not everyone is smiling. Few aspects of U.S. foreign policy bewilder Americans more than the marriage of convenience the U.S. maintains with Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Osama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers and a ruling royal family that, according to some counterterrorism officials, seems unable or unwilling to choke off the flow of Saudi largesse to terrorists. These officials believe that prominent Saudis, including members of the 5,000-person royal family, "continue to provide funding and resources to al-Qaeda," in the words of one official, and that Riyadh has in some cases been slow to share intelligence and freeze suspect bank accounts. "They're more helpful than they were before," says a senior U.S. intelligence official, "but not as helpful as we'd like them to be."

The Saudis are worried that the U.S. is losing patience. They tried last week to play up their terrorism-fighting credentials. Saudi diplomatic sources told Time that the capture last April of Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda officials in U.S. custody, came after a detainee interrogated by Saudi authorities revealed Abu Zubaydah's whereabouts. The sources also said the U.S. Hellfire missile-equipped drones hunting terrorists in the region are operating from Saudi territory. But sources on Capitol Hill say that unless Riyadh takes further steps to crack down on Saudis believed to be financing terrorists, Congress may move to slash U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia and restrict visas granted to Saudi citizens.

The White House is working to defend the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Bush aides spent last week pouring cold water on the Washington Post report that outlined a National Security Council task-force proposal to give the Saudis a 90-day deadline for cracking down on terrorism financiers. Senior aides insisted that Bush had no plans to issue an ultimatum, and Rice and CIA Director George Tenet demanded that the fbi launch a criminal investigation to find out who leaked the report. Meanwhile, every Administration heavy from Donald Rumsfeld to Colin Powell rushed to defend Bandar and the Saudis.

Why the special treatment? Critics of the Administration point to the Bush family's chumminess with the House of Saud and the array of lucrative business deals the Saudis have struck with the Republican power elite. (George Bush Sr. serves as an adviser to the Carlyle Group, a Washington buyout firm with ties to the Saudi government.) But at least some of the reasons for the Administration's softness on the Saudis are strategic. The U.S. hopes to use Saudi bases in the event of a war against Iraq and may need the Saudis to boost oil production should a war rattle the global economy. The Saudis, who were slow to back the war in Afghanistan, have not yet signed on to this one?and the White House frets that they will refuse outright if criticism of their antiterrorism efforts heats up. So the Administration is using self-interest as an argument with the Saudis. Counterterrorism investigators have tracked members of active al-Qaeda cells in Yemen who have slipped across the border to set up operations in Saudi Arabia. U.S. intelligence officials told TIME that the CIA is showing the Saudis evidence that al-Qaeda is planning attacks inside the kingdom. High on the list of potential targets are petroleum facilities and oil-pumping stations that, if struck, would disrupt Saudi oil output; the CIA thinks al-Qaeda may also target housing compounds and shopping malls frequented by Westerners.