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What the CIA Didn't Tell President Bush When He Returned from Vacation

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

When President George W. Bush returned to Washington DC from a month-long vacation in Crawford, Texas, on August 31, CIA director George Tenet resumed his morning intelligence briefings of him and Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House. In his first conversation with the two on the 31st, Tenet did not mention the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, nor (according to the 9/11 Commission) did he have any discussions with the president regarding the domestic threat of terrorism, not then or over the next few days.

On top in the classified news that day was the resignation of Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, head of the Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah (General Intelligence Directorate)—Saudi Arabia's external intelligence service. In his position as head of Saudi intelligence for 23 years, Prince Turki's unexpected resignation (his term had just been extended in May) was surprising to the CIA, the first time in decades that a senior prince had been pushed aside. Though there was known to be bad blood between Prince Turki and Crown Prince Abdullah, who had ruled the country since King Fahd had a debilitating stroke in 1995, the resignation was not immediately connected to terrorism, to Abdullah's dissatisfaction with Turki's handling of terrorism matters, or the Crown Prince's impatience with Turki's failure to reign in Osama bin Laden. But that appears to be the reason behind his being pushed out.

Over the years, Prince Turki had been extremely close to the CIA, anchoring the Saudi portion of support for the Afghan resistance to the 1979 Soviet invasion, particularly Saudi financing of the Arab fighters that the country sponsored to go to Afghanistan and fight. Over the next ten years, the Saudis handled administration and financing of these Arab fighters, particularly Saudi and Gulf state young men who mostly went for the status symbol of having waged jihad and not for actual combat.

President Bush 9/11 al qaeda terror attack
The CIA focused on Saudi Prince Turki in their 8/31 briefing. President George W. Bush holds an American flag during a Memorial Service at the Pentagon October 11, 2001 in Arlington, Virginia. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Prince Turki also was the main interlocutor with a young Osama bin Laden, who would become the de facto head of the Arab fighters and the intermediary for Saudi support. Some would even say that Prince Turki was bin Laden's patron, and the two are believed to have forged some kind of agreement in the late 1990's that al Qaeda wouldn't directly attack Saudi domestic targets in exchange for the government's support (or at least its turning a blind eye).

In the two attacks on U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia (the 1995 attack on a military compound in Riyadh and the 1996 Khobar Towers attack), U.S. intelligence was frustrated with the lack of Saudi cooperation in the investigations. Prince Turki also stonewalled Saudi cooperation on terrorist financing exchanges, particularly regarding on al Qaeda financial officer, a Saudi who had defected from the organization and returned to his home country. Though the United State would read Pakistan the riot act after 9/11, no such threats were made against the oil giant.

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Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.