Joel Mowbray

The date was April 24, 2002. Standing on the runway at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas, the cadre of FBI agents, Secret Service, and Customs agents had just been informed by law enforcement officials that there was a “snag” with Crown Prince Abdullah’s oversized entourage, which was arriving with the prince for a visit to George W. Bush’s Western White House in Crawford, Texas.

  The flight manifest of the eight-plane delegation accompanying the Saudi would-be king had a problem. Three, to be exact: one person on the list was wanted by U.S. law enforcement authorities and two others were on a terrorist watch list.

  This had the potential to be what folks in Washington like to refer to as an “international incident.” But the State Department was not about to let an “international incident” happen. Which is why this story has never been written—until now.

  Upon hearing that there was someone who was wanted and two suspected terrorists in Abdullah’s entourage, the FBI was ready to “storm the plane and pull those guys off,” explains an informed source.1 But given the “international” component, State was informed of the FBI’s intentions before any action could be taken. When word reached the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) bureau, NEA’s reaction was classic State Department: “What are we going to do about those poor people trapped on the plane?” To which at least one law enforcement official on the ground responded, “Shoot them”—not exactly the answer State was looking for.

  State, Secret Service, and the FBI then began what bureaucrats refer to as an “interagency process.” In other words, they started fighting. The FBI believed that felons were to be arrested, even the Saudi variety. State had other ideas. Secret Service didn’t really have any, other than to make sure that the three Saudis in question didn’t get anywhere near the president or the vice president. State went to the mat in part because it was responsible for giving visas to the three in the first place. Since it was a government delegation—where all applications are generally handled at one time—the names were probably not run through the normal watch lists before the visas were issued.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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