WASHINGTON - FBI agents have interviewed a Saudi citizen identified by congressional investigators as a likely intelligence operative for Saudi Arabia who befriended two of the 9/11 hijackers in California more than a year before the attacks, government officials said Monday.
The interview on Monday in Saudi Arabia was the first of two scheduled sessions between investigators and Omar al-Bayoumi, who was living as a student in San Diego in early 2000 when he met Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 15 Saudis who came to the United States to train for the hijackings.
The officials said that in the interview, al-Bayoumi denied any advance knowledge of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, although officials cautioned that the questioning was incomplete and that a number of questions remained to be asked about his activities in the United States.
The interview with al-Bayoumi, whose presence in San Diego has long been known to American authorities, took place largely because he figured prominently in a congressional report on the hijackings released on July 24 by a joint committee of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Al-Bayoumi's dealings with the two hijackers are detailed in the public parts of the report and in a 28-page classified chapter that has not been made public. Congressional investigators concluded that American authorities would have had their best chance of unraveling the plot if they had aggressively tracked al-Bayoumi, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi.
Saudi officials agreed to allow al-Bayoumi to be questioned by FBI agents after Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, asked the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, for access to him during a White House meeting with President Bush on July 29. At the meeting, Saud asked Bush to release the classified portion of the congressional report so it could be rebutted. Bush refused.
Saudi officials have repudiated the report as an ''outrage,'' because its classified parts are said by people who have read them to accuse senior Saudi officials of approving hundreds of millions of dollars for charities and other organizations that may have helped finance terrorism, including the 9/11 plot.
Although al-Bayoumi provided no financial support to the two hijackers, he had access to large amounts of money, ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, from sources in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he appeared to report to government departments in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and to officials who increased the payments after he met the two hijackers.