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10) U.S.

met secretly with Saudis over al-Qaida funding; 1999 meeting set up by Vice President Gore failed to stop flow of money, experts say BY TONY BARTELME Charleston Post and Courier Long before the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, officials in the White House learned that Islamic charities and wealthy Saudi Arabian businessmen were bankrolling al-Qaida. By 1999, the evidence was so clear that Vice President Al Gore contacted Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to set up a secret meeting between U.S. counter terrorism experts and high-ranking officials in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. "We wanted to show how seriously we took the issue, and requesting the meeting through the vice president was one way to do that," said William Wechsler, a former counter-terrorism director with the National Security Council. Wechsler was a key member of the delegation that flew to the Gulf. He said many details of the trip remain classified but described the talks with the Saudis as "substantive ... We left hoping that we had started something." Afterward, however, the Saudis did little to turn off the money spigot to al-Qaida. "In the long run, the trip was of marginal utility." Gore's help arranging the secret 1999 meeting, which has not been disclosed until now, sheds new light on how top U.S. government officials grappled with the threat from al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001, and how powerful bureaucratic and diplomatic currents worked against them. The 1999 trip also underscores how the U.S. and its longtime ally Saudi Arabia knew a great deal about al-Qaida's organizational structure long before the Sept. 11 attacks. What the government knew about the attacks, and whether it could have done more to prevent them, is a debate that's likely to become more vigorous. One high-profile congressional commission is expected to release its final 800-page report about the attacks next week. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, a Democrat who served on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Miami Herald last week that it contains information that is "highly explosive." Other lawmakers who have read the report have said it is highly critical of U.S. intelligence lapses and that classified sections focus on Saudi Arabia's links to terrorism. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, which also is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, is expected to wrap up its work early next year. In hearings held this week, one al-Qaida expert said the United States allowed Afghanistan to become a "terrorist Disneyland" in the 1990s. "You didn't do what was necessary to prevent your country from being humiliated," Rohan Gunaratna, a former United Nations investigator based in Singapore, told the panel. Meanwhile, the Gore-brokered meeting in 1999 with Saudi officials may get some attention in another arena -- the courts. Lawyers suing on behalf of nearly 4,000 Sept. 11 victims say that, because of that trip, the Saudis knew or should have known that their banks and charities were sending money to terrorists. "After the trip in 1999, they were put on notice, so that trip is a critical component in the case," said Mike Eisner, an attorney for Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant. The firm is seeking $1 trillion