Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe?
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
By Liza Porteus
WASHINGTON — President Bush was meeting Tuesday afternoon with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (search) to go over some of the details of the Sept. 11, 2001, report published last week.
That 800-plus page report, released by the Joint Intelligence Committee (search), reveals a series of missteps the Bush administration made leading up to that day's terrorist attacks.
But the White House said Tuesday that it will not declassify 28 blank pages that are said to discuss the involvement of foreign governments in the terror attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.
Declassifying the pages would "help the enemy" in the global war on terror, Bush said Tuesday.
"There's an ongoing investigation into the 9/11 attacks and we don't want to compromise that investigation," Bush said during a press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House Tuesday. "It would help the enemy if they knew our sources or methods."
Bush said the pages might be made public once ongoing investigations are over.
Parts of the declassified report notes that Saudi Arabia has been less than fully cooperative in the past when it comes to fighting terrorism.
"According to a U.S. government official, it was clear from about 1996 that the Saudi government would not cooperate with the United States on matters related to Usama bin Laden," the report says, referring to the terrorist leader who was behind the attacks.
The 28 pages not made available to the public have caused an uproar among the public and some lawmakers who are questioning why, if the Saudis are such good friends of this country, portions of the report that may refer to Riyadh are blacked out.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee
and 2004 presidential hopeful, on Monday sent a letter to Bush asking him to reconsider the "censorship of a key section of the Joint Inquiry's report on 9/11."
By declassifying the redacted section, "that will permit the Saudi government to deal with any questions which may be raised in the currently censored pages, and allow the American people to make their own judgment about who are our true friends and allies in the war on terrorism," Graham said in his letter.
Graham noted that even Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (search), is asking that the pages be declassified.
"It is disappointing that despite everything we are doing, outrageous charges continue," bin Sultan said in a statement on Monday. "First we were criticized by 'unnamed sources'; now, we are being criticized with blank pieces of paper.
"The idea that the Saudi government funded, organized or even knew about Sept. 11 is malicious and blatantly false. There is something wrong with the basic logic of those who spread these spurious charges," the prince added.
On Monday, the White House said it hasn't seen the Graham letter, and has no comment on it.
The Bush administration and previous administrations have insisted Saudi Arabia is a friend to the United States, but information continues to surface that suggests otherwise. The fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia has only added fuel to a fire that began before the attacks.
Experts agree that if there's nothing to hide, why not declassify the report and, if Saudi Arabia is mentioned, give that government a chance to clear its name.
"By leaving these pages blacked out, you give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories and conjecture and it's really counterproductive," said Chris Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute (search). "It seems to me, there has to be a very compelling reason for keeping things secret from the public."
"The [Saudis] need to reply and not just say 'these are fabricated reports,'" said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (search).
MEMRI just released a report that shows that for decades, the Saudi royal family has been the main financial supporter of Palestinian groups fighting Israel. Saudi Arabia came under scrutiny when it was widely reported that it held a fund-raiser last year to raise money for families of suicide bombers in the Middle East.
Through two committees — the Popular Committee for Assisting Palestinian Mujahideen (search) and the Support Committee for the Al-Quds Intifada (search) — the Al-Aqsa Fund has given over $4 billion and reportedly pledged Palestinians up to $1 billion to finance the continuation of the Intifada, commonly referred to by Saudi officials as "jihad" and "resistance."
"Four billion dollars
is a lot of money and this is just for two committees run by two very high-profile princes," said study author Stalinsky. "It's just a tiny dip in the bucket on Saudi money on what is being spent throughout the world."
Critics in Congress and other policymakers have said that Riyadh has served as a stronghold of support for Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and that the government hasn't done enough to halt the Islamic extremism that fuels terror groups.
Not only are lawmakers questioning Saudi ties to terrorism, but some are wondering why the United States continues to play nice with the desert kingdom that refused to allow U.S. troops to stage operations against Iraq from its land. Instead, the U.S. military moved its 5,000 troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to Qatar.
For all these reasons, experts say, the United States should take a harder look at whether being a friend to Saudi Arabia is a good national security decision.
"At the end of the day, we have to ask: Is our relationship — on a strategic level — counterproductive? I think, unfortunately, the answer is, 'yes it is counterproductive'" Preble said.
"We shouldn't base our policies on a hope and a prayer, and a wink and a nod."
This will be interesting.