At a time when tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were flaring in public, President Bush was busy behind the scenes building a new antiterrorist task force with the kingdom's rulers. The plan started as Bush was refusing to release 28 pages of the 9/11 congressional report made public in July--pages that allegedly detail how financial networks in Saudi Arabia have funded terrorism. He argued that releasing them would "help the enemy" by revealing how U.S. intelligence gathers information.
That did not go over well in Riyadh--or with Saudi critics in the U.S. The Saudis demanded that the material be released to make it clear that, as Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal put it, "We have nothing to hide." Sources tell TIME that around the time Bush decided to withhold the 28 pages, he telephoned Crown Prince Abdullah and had a cordial chat with the de facto Saudi ruler. Bush brushed aside the controversy and, wanting the two countries to move forward, told Abdullah he would send advisers to discuss the purported financial networks. Abdullah received Bush's envoys on Aug. 5 in his As-Salaam palace in the Red Sea port of Jidda just as the afternoon call to prayer sounded. The U.S. group, led by the National Security Council counterterrorism chief, Frances Townsend, soon launched into a parley on the touchy topic. Townsend wanted more cooperation; Abdullah suggested a joint task force. The envoys seized the unexpected offer.
Sources tell TIME that a group of FBI and IRS agents are scheduled to fly to Riyadh this week to start work at a joint center that could one day house two dozen financial experts. "It's difficult to overestimate the potential value of this joint effort," says Treasury general counsel David Aufhauser, the top U.S. official dealing with terrorist finances. The Saudis seem to have plenty to offer. They have arrested or killed some 200 al-Qaeda suspects since the May 12 Riyadh bombing that took 35 lives and have found documents, including financial records, that could provide useful leads. --By Adam Zagorin