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Will Saudi Arabia Cooperate With U.S. Indictments?

Aired June 21, 2001 - 12:30   ET



CAPT. TOM EDMAN, U.S. AIR FORCE: I was just so surprised and shocked, you know, the amount of force that I was just subjected to. I was -- I really didn't know what to think other than, you know, trying to get out of the building.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Indictments are handed down five years after a truck ripped through a U.S. military complex in Saudi Arabia.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Will there be justice in an American court and will Saudi investigators cooperate?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

According to The Associated Press, indictments have been handed down in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The timing is crucial, as the five-year statute of limitations for charging someone in the case expires on Monday.

On June 25, 1996 a truck loaded with explosives was set off outside the U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran. The blast killed 19 U.S. airmen and injured about 500 others.

Since the act of terrorism, the FBI says it has been hampered by investigators in Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.S. federal investigators were eventually allowed to compile questions and watch their Saudi counterparts interrogate suspects.

Joining us today from New York is former FBI investigator, Bill Daley. From New Haven, Connecticut, international law professor, Ruth Wedgwood. From Chicago, we're joined by former federal prosecutor Scott Mendeloff. And here in Washington, Trent Brewer (ph), Marina Chase (ph) and Betsy Korona (ph). And in the back row, Laura Dyer (ph) and Trent Thompson (ph).

Let me go first to you, Ruth. This happened not on American soil. Under what theory can you prosecute people for a crime for something that occurred overseas and prosecute them here in American soil?

RUTH WEDGWOOD, INTERNATIONAL LAW PROFESSOR: It's a classical theory. There were American victims. It's called passive personality, if you're a law student. And it's perfectly kosher.

VAN SUSTEREN: And there's no problem that this -- you know, why aren't the Saudis doing it instead of Americans?

WEDGWOOD: Well, we have the greatest interest in the case. Everybody has an interest in protecting the sanctity of security facilities. But it -- they were American victims.

It's -- I think it's -- we're insulated from retaliation a bit better than the Saudis are. So I think it's easier for us to go forward. And we -- I think we have the desire to know where the case is going.

VAN SUSTEREN: Scott, as we understand, the indictments have been brought -- were given in the Eastern District of Virginia. Why would indictments be brought there as opposed to some other federal jurisdiction here in the United States?

SCOTT MENDELOFF, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: You know, it's probably the result of the decision by the Justice Department. And when you have extra territorial events like this, they can base the prosecution anywhere there's a meaningful connection. And obviously, they've chosen the Eastern District of Virginia and also note the proximity to Washington, D.C.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bill, this has obviously been a very difficult investigation. This has been ongoing for a number of years. You were with the FBI. What's the difficulty in investigating terrorism overseas?

BILL DALEY, FORMER FBI INVESTIGATOR: Well, certainly, Greta, I mean, you know, this is not involved in the 50 United States. You just can't go in and look up individuals -- go and interview them. You don't have access to database or intelligence information that other governments do. And you're also dealing with, you know, diplomacy and politics.

You're dealing with issues that deal with a kind of religious and political -- local issues and neighboring countries. And even though we have a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, they have relationships with other countries that we don't have close relationship with.

So it becomes much more difficult and much more of -- some symmetry with regard to getting to the people, getting the information -- getting accurate information, and -- for FBI agents to conduct their investigations.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, Bill raises some interesting questions, sort of the marriage of policy and law and such an important thing as when a crime occurs overseas with members of the U.S. military.

What is the -- sort of the relationship, big picture, between the United States and Saudi Arabia right now? And how does Iran sort of fold into this?

WEDGWOOD: Well, the Saudi regime, I think, is quite concerned about its own stability. It has its Shiite problem. So the case is a very delicate one for them.

With Iran, we've had a significance warming of relations as you know, under -- with Khatami. And indeed President Clinton had invited civil lawsuits against various Iranian-backed terrorist defendants and then had blocked them after having invited the statute. So the decision of the Justice Department apparently, not to name any particular Iranian officials, has to do with that warming.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, I mean it must be -- so I mean sort of extraordinary. We had to get the cooperation of these countries, at least in Saudi Arabia and it doesn't seem like an overwhelming amount of cooperation -- that we had to submit written questions. It wasn't our FBI.

Is this sort of standard -- I mean does that surprise you?

WEDGWOOD: Not particularly. The Saudis, again, want to appear to be in control. They don't want to appear to be a creature of the Americans. That's exactly Osama bin Laden's complaint there -- against the regime there. They have -- they're suspicious of our culture.

Some of the same problems of coordination were incurred in Kenya when we were examining the embassy bombing there.

So, also you have to distinguish perhaps between what was publicly presented as facade of Saudi control and what may have been private cooperation. I know Louis Freeh was not very happy at the early steps in the investigation. But there may have been more than meets the eye.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bill, going back to the difficulty of investigating. How do you -- as a member of the FBI, how do you get a foreign sovereignty to sort of cooperate, especially one like Saudi Arabia where -- I mean Ruth seems to think that's it's a bigger level of cooperation than I do. But what are the problems you have?

DALEY: Well, I mean, sometimes on a grassroots level, investigator-to-investigator, they can, you know, work things out and with a wink and a nod kind of help each other along.

But you know, in a case like this where we do have, you know, some political issues at hand, it sometimes supersedes the law enforcement. It goes right up to the highest levels of government whether at the White House, State Department -- where they need to go and exert some type of pressure and get some kind of quid pro quo for cooperation.

And we saw during the investigation in Africa, for example, the FBI had more latitude. They were able be a part of the interrogation of some of the suspects. And in fact, we saw a fairly quick resolve of that investigation with regard to getting some suspects and stopping people before they were able to cross the borders in Pakistan. It was much more of a free flowing type of investigation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Scott, it's one thing to convince a grand jury to issue an indictment; it's another thing to get your defendants. How -- what does a prosecutor do at this point to arrest defendants in a situation like this?

MENDELOFF: Well, Greta, that's obviously a major concern. And there has been, written in the press repeatedly, statements to the effect that it's -- it may be possible that a number of these people are at large and they don't know where they are. Even if they do know, if they find themselves with people, for example, in countries that aren't cooperating with the United States, it's very hard to get those people to return -- and even for countries that are, for example, Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is going to be concerned about what kind of reaction Iran is going to have if, in the indictment, there are statements that are critical of Iran, but -- the Revolutionary Guard or even veiled statements about the government itself.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, Ruth, so where does the policy come? We've got this problem with -- we've got law and policy. I mean, how do we get the State Department to help secure these people so they can come and answer the charges here in the United States?

WEDGWOOD: Well, there's no bilateral extradition treaty that I'm aware of with Saudi Arabia directly. But U.S. courts can receive defendants no matter how they are delivered, so long as it's humane -- relatively humane.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does that mean kidnapping, going overseas and nabbing these people?

WEDGWOOD: Well, it might mean assigning a personal, federal travel agent to each of these guys and watching their movements around the globe and having planes that develop engine problems and have to land in funny places. Really, one has to basically play a kind of hounds and hares for a period of a year or two to catch folks.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. We'll be right back. We're talking about the indictments having to do with the death of some U.S. airmen. Stay with us.


A special three-judge panel in Peru found American Lori Berenson guilty on terrorism collaboration charges Wednesday and sentenced her to 20 years in jail. Berenson was on trial for allegedly collaborating with Peruvian rebels in 1995. Her lawyers said they plan to appeal the ruling.



VAN SUSTEREN: According to The Associated Press, indictments have been handed down in the case of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The investigation was carried out by Saudi officials with the involvement of the FBI. On Monday, the statue of limitations in this case will expire.

Scott, lots of difficulties, is it not, for a prosecutor to try a case like this? It's thousands of miles away. And you have incredible language-barrier problems, as well as maybe cooperation issues. What do you do?

MENDELOFF: Well, it's very difficult, Greta. I mean one of the problems that you've got in addition to languages -- language problems, location of witnesses. You've got problems with respect to your evidence. You've got to be able to authenticate evidence. And it's quite hard to do so.

Some of the pieces that I've read suggest that there are some wiretap -- there is some wiretap evidence. But you have to authenticate those wiretaps. If the FBI didn't handle the wiretaps and they were done by Saudi officials, you're going to have to call those Saudi officials to testify. It's a nightmare.

VAN SUSTEREN: And how do I just wiretap -- Bill, there's also actual physical evidence. I mean what does the FBI do about dragging some of that physical evidence halfway across the world into a courtroom?

DALEY: Well, I mean the physical evidence that ended up, you know, within the bounds of the U.S. air base is something that they have control over and have taken away. But it's those other pieces of evidence that reside outside in the public area, in the Saudi space that's much more difficult to make sure that there was chain of custody, that it was stored properly, that they can even get it when the time comes, if they do go to trial.

So it becomes a lot more complicated issue than even just the indictments going down. It gets into the old issue of whether or not -- when they get into prosecution, if it does eventually take place, whether they'll have all the evidence and have the appropriate chain of custody to be able to have it stand on its merits.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which is sort of interesting, Scott, because as former defense attorney, I -- boy, I jumped up and down every time there was some sort of question about what had happened from evidence from the crime scene to the courtroom. Is this a nightmare for prosecutors when you have to go so far and it comes from another country?

MENDELOFF: It is. And you know, the other thing, Greta, that we have to take into account is the comment that was made earlier -- these cases could be tried seriatim. You're not going to have all...

VAN SUSTEREN: Meaning -- the meaning for the benefit of our viewers -- seriatim?

MENDELOFF: Yes, you've got...

VAN SUSTEREN: Individually.

MENDELOFF: Yes, you've got 14 defendants, I guess. And you're going to be able to -- you're going to be catching those people over time, over the years. You're not going to wait to try the people that are -- all the people all at once. So you're going to have to try each trial one by one by one. And as time goes, so will memories. Witnesses, including chain of evidence witnesses, as we just heard...

VAN SUSTEREN: But Scott...

MENDELOFF: ... are going to be all over the place.

VAN SUSTEREN: But Scott, the government is going to make every effort it can to put all the defendants in one courtroom at one time so that you don't have those issues. But they've also got the problem -- sort of nabbing these people. What do you do? If you can only nab one or two? Now do you wait until you can grab more and --so you can try them all together or do you take what you get?

MENDELOFF: No, you have to take -- the Speedy Trial Act requires the government to try people in a set period of time. So once you nab people the clock starts running and you're going -- you're not going to be able to wait. Those people have a right to a trial.

VAN SUSTEREN: If you were -- Ruth, where do you think the defendants are safest in this world to escape this U.S. courtroom?

WEDGWOOD: I suppose Iran at the moment. Although then -- they have to estimate the evident flow of Iranian politics correctly too. So there's really ultimately nowhere safe because the power of countries who you've got commerce, countries that want to make nice to the U.S. or France, it's tricky once you're really named in an indictment.

If I can just mention, on chain of custody and evidentiary problems, I think, ironically, the fact that the Saudis are cool to the case may help in persuading a jury that the evidence is OK because the Saudis may have reluctantly turned over the chassis' serial number or the license plate that was recovered from debris of the bombing. So it's less likely that they're manufacturing stuff in the KGB fashion to make the case go. They're the reluctant dragon. And I think to a jury, that's a nice argument the prosecution can make.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, this is obviously a developing story and we have not yet seen the actual indictment. But we originally -- many people thought that there'd be some high ranking Iranians who were going to be indicted. Then we heard that it was unlikely.

What -- why sort of is it -- is the lack of evidence -- would be a reason not to go after high ranking officials in the Iranian government or it is because of political reasons?

WEDGWOOD: I think it's probably more of a political judgment. I mean I must say my one concern about that decision, if it's true, is that the statute of limitations is running. And you can have John Doe defendants. You don't have to necessarily name them by name. But once you let the statute go, that's it. You can't bring it back if Iranian relations turns sour.

So me, I think I would have had some John Doe Iranians in there just to preserve the option of filling in the blank.

VAN SUSTEREN: And indeed there may be John Does in that indictment. We have yet to see it. And of course, CNN is chasing down this indictment.

But we're going to take a break. When we come back -- will this case have an impact on the Louis Freeh legacy? And how will it affect his successor at the FBI? Don't go away


Q: On this day in 1982, what attempted assassin was found not guilty of attempted murder by reasons of insanity?

A: John W. Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in March 1981. Hinckley was placed in a mental institution, where he still resides today.


VAN SUSTEREN: The case of the Khobar Towers bombing comes just days before the expiration of the statute of limitations in the case. It will also mark a closing chapter in the tenure of Louis Freeh, who's the director of the FBI. And he will be holding a press conference at 1:30 with the new attorney general, John Ashcroft, concerning this indictment. And CNN will carry that.

But let me go back to Bill. Bill, what does this mean for Director Freeh in terms of his legacy? He's on his way out the door.

DALEY: Well, first of all, in this particular case, he took a very personal interest in it. I mean, he was over there. He was with the agents. He's very supportive of the people I know who were involved in the investigation and wanted to see some closure to this. He wanted to see that at least people were named, that they broke through the diplomatic and political mire and were able to get out to where they have indictments out there.

And I think for him, leaving on this note, at least shows some positive results as opposed to what people may remember with the McVeigh files and with the Hanssen incident and concerns about Waco.

You know, we had another thing...


VAN SUSTEREN: Here's the thing that sort of strikes me about this -- I mean certainly this is, you know, an important indictment and to bring people to justice when they have committed a murder, assuming that the indicted have done that. But there was an article in "The New Yorker" magazine recently by Elsa Walsh about Director Freeh, suggesting that for a long time during this investigation he had been reluctant to bring this to the Justice Department for indictment, almost running behind the back of the Clinton administration. What do you make of that?

DALEY: Well, without knowing the intricate details, I mean -- in my opinion, it could be something such as he didn't feel as though he had enough information in order to, you know, make a solid case. He may have felt as though he wasn't getting the support. And I'm not justifying that that's the way you go about it as a government official. But you weren't getting the support from the administration so he needed to go out and have others -- maybe get influence or put a leverage on the Saudis to cooperate in order to have a much more fuller picture on the case.

That's the only reasons I could think or suggest that maybe that's why -- if in fact it happened. It did.

VAN SUSTEREN: Scott, what do you make of this with Director Freeh as he leaves?

MENDELOFF: You know, I think it's ironic that he is going -- he may take a black eye off of the McVeigh case, where he did everything he could to try to get the records produced. And here, if he gets positive kudos as a result of this, this kind of activity might have gone on.

I have to tell you, Greta, to the extent that he hid or ran behind the backs of the Justice Department, it's really something that is inexcusable. We have to have accountability in the FBI at all levels and especially at the director level.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ruth, what's your view on Director Freeh?

WEDGWOOD: Well, when I knew him in the Southern District of New York a number of years ago, he was a straight shooter. I -- there's no hint in this case of any White House campaign finance involvement. I can't see any motive for him to double-time Janet Reno.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you think that did happen, Ruth?

WEDGWOOD: It's just speculating. I don't know what the sources of the journalists were. It just strikes me as improbable. It's not in character with him.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Scott, you referred to sort of a black eye in the McVeigh investigation. I got to tell you, I actually thought that Louis Freeh certainly didn't -- had -- have a black eye. I thought that the McVeigh investigation went very well.

Yes, indeed some records showed up late and should have been turned over. But I guess I've been involved in so many investigations where there's thousands of documents that I'm a little bit sympathetic. But that was a high mark for the director and also for the Justice Department.

MEDELOFF: Yes, I -- having taking part in it, of course, I am proud of the work we did. And I was frustrated frankly, at the end, Greta, when that whole thing came up because I really believe that the FBI did an absolutely magnificent job in the work in our case. And you know, I was frustrated to see Director Freeh getting bad publicity at the end over what I think was not really his fault.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bill, what does this mean for the new nameless, faceless director? We don't have a new one. But we think we're going to have one within days. But what does this investigation mean for this new director?.

DALEY: Well, I think it points out that -- how complicated the expanding role of the FBI has become and that conducting investigations outside the U.S. and working with governments, you lose that control. You're only a guest in those countries. You don't have authority. And therefore, it takes a lot more than just investigative techniques. It takes more schmoozing and be able to work the politics of it all in order to be able to have you succeed as well.

So I think it points out that we need someone who's savvy, somebody who knows how to work with the administration and other agencies in order to be able to get investigations like this to come to a closure.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, Ruth, let's go back to the old fashioned concept of getting our defendants in court. I know that there's some sort of thought -- you consider nab and grab. What about extradition?

WEDGWOOD: Well, if they happen to land in a place where we have a bilateral extradition treaty that'll be hunky-dory. We'll get them that way. But the Supreme Court has ruled clearly that so long as there's no grossly inhumane treatment, if they're delivered by deportation, simply expulsion, the due process in the country that's giving them asylum is not a concern of the American courts.

VAN SUSTEREN: In other words, we can go kidnap and grab? Is that what you mean?


VAN SUSTEREN: I mean I use those terms lightly.

WEDGWOOD: I wouldn't use the K word.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, OK. I mean if we go...


WEDGWOOD: Extraterritorial arrest perhaps.

VAN SUSTEREN: What kind of -- I mean doesn't it though enrage or at least create policy problems with the country, the host country of the people we're seeking to bring back to U.S.?

WEDGWOOD: No, it does. And we've always tried to some extent at least often tried to be discrete about it. The Unise (ph) capture, put -- getting somebody lured onto a boat in the Mediterranean so it was on high seas so -- albeit, with a foreign flag.

The Alvarez-Machain case, the grab-and-nab in Northern Mexico some years ago, as you know, enraged Mexico. So we're going to be, especially in that region, very careful not to insult host countries.

VAN SUSTEREN: So I see -- I guess the first thing is we try to negotiate. If we can't negotiate, we use other methods. Is that the bottom line?

WEDGWOOD: We try to protect the face of the countries who are unstable.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": examining a tragedy in Houston. Did postpartum syndrome contribute to a family tragedy? Send Bobbie Battista your e-mail and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And tonight on "THE POINT": Russell Yates, the father of the five murdered children, in an extraordinary interview, spoke to reporters today. And he gave us a glimpse of the family. What do others know about the family? And what were the days like leading up to this tragedy? That's at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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