The episode has been retold so many times in the last three and a half years that it has become the stuff of political legend: In the frenzied days after Sept. 11, 2001, when some flights were still grounded, dozens of well-connected Saudis, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, managed to leave the US on specially chartered flights.
Now, newly released government records reveal previously undisclosed flights from Las Vegas and elsewhere and point to a more active role by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in aiding some of the Saudis in their departure.
The FBI gave personal airport escorts to two prominent Saudi families who fled the US, and several other Saudis were allowed to leave the country without first being interviewed, the documents show.
The Saudi families, in Los Angeles and Orlando, requested the FBI escorts because they said they were concerned for their safety in the wake of the attacks, and the FBI -- which was then beginning the biggest criminal investigation in its history -- arranged to have agents escort them to their local airports, the documents show.
But FBI officials reacted angrily, both internally and publicly, to the suggestion that any Saudis had received preferential treatment in leaving the country.
"I say baloney to any inference we red-carpeted any of this entourage," an FBI official said in a 2003 internal note. Another FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week regarding the airport escorts that "we'd do that for anybody if they felt they were threatened -- we wouldn't characterize that as special treatment."
The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, which provided copies to The New York Times.
The material sheds new light on the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and it provides details about the FBI's interaction with at least 160 Saudis who were living in or visiting the US and were allowed to leave the country. Some of the departing Saudis were related to Osama bin Laden.
The Saudis' chartered flights, arranged in the days after the attacks when many flights in the US were still grounded, have proved frequent fodder for critics of the Bush administration who accuse it of coddling the Saudis. The debate was heightened by the filmmaker Michael Moore, who scrutinized the issue in Fahrenheit 9/11, but White House officials have adamantly denied any special treatment for the Saudis, calling such charges irresponsible and politically motivated.
The Sept. 11 commission examined the Saudi flights in its final report last year, and it found that no Saudis had been allowed to leave before national airspace was reopened on Sept. 13, 2001, that there was no evidence of "political intervention" by the White House, and that the FBI had done a "satisfactory screening" of the departing Saudis to ensure they did not have information relevant to the attacks.
The documents obtained by Judicial Watch, with major passages deleted, do not appear to contradict directly any of those central findings, but they raise some new questions about the episode.
The FBI records show, for instance, that prominent Saudi citizens left the US on several flights that had not been previously disclosed in public accounts, including a chartered flight from Providence, Rhode Island, on Sept. 14, 2001, that included at least one member of the Saudi royal family, and on three flights from Las Vegas between Sept. 19 and Sept. 24, also carrying members of the Saudi royal family.