President Obama made his fourth trip to Saudi Arabia Wednesday, ostensibly to “clear the air” in an attempt to repair the damaged relationship with the Kingdom brought about by what many will regard as his administration’s mistakes — cozying up to the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, and embracing the Arab Spring which toppled the Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
But perhaps the biggest mistake Obama has made with regard to the Saudis is the one they’ll likely thank him for; namely, opposing — and threatening to veto — a bill authored by Sens. John Cornyn and Chuck Schumer which would declassify 28 pages of a 2002 bicameral congressional report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and open the door for civil litigation against foreign governments involved in material support for that terrorist conspiracy.
The latter aspect of the bill can be debatable. There is a school of thought that says that if Congress passes and Obama signs legislation stripping sovereign immunity from foreign governments even for atrocities they’ve committed like 9/11, it’s akin to opening a Pandora’s box of potential unintended consequences. Doing so could open the American government up to suits for things like drone strikes that created collateral damage, or even to suit by Americans for failure to prevent a 9/11. A certain degree of circumspection and reticence to embrace a potentially dangerous new legal regime where sovereign immunity is concerned is reasonable, which is why John Bolton has expressed reservations about the bill.
But as to the former aspect? Release those pages immediately. It’s been 14 years without the transparency the American people deserve surrounding the deadliest enemy attack on our soil in the history of the Republic, and we deserve better.
Of all the things the American people can rightly condemn the administration of George W. Bush for, the redaction of the 28 pages might be the most egregious. The Bush administration, and Bush himself, had lots of personal friendships with the Saudi government and key players in it, and those friendships certainly colored American policy during those years. The 9/11 commission and the congressional investigation into the attacks of that day both found a great deal of evidence that it wasn’t some crazy coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers of those planes happened to be Saudis. Material support for them, the network of assistance they made use of to move about the country, attend flight schools, find housing and acclimate into American society while preparing to attack us came from other Saudis living in this country, some of whom were unquestionably connected to that nation’s regime.
We know from unredacted material in those 9/11 reports, for example, that there was a great deal of support given to two of the hijackers, a pair of Saudis named Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, while they lived in San Diego before the attacks. The “San Diego cell” was provided with cash, assistance with lodging and other help (like finding an apartment, putting down a deposit, opening a bank account and introducing them to a support network at a local mosque in San Diego) after arriving in the country by a shadowy figure named Omar al-Bayoumi, reportedly a Saudi intelligence agent, and Fahad al-Thumairi, a jihadist cleric at the King Fahd mosque in Los Angeles and Saudi consular official.
Bayoumi left the country abruptly, shortly before 9/11. So did another Saudi, Abdulazziz al-Hijji, an oil executive with Saudi Aramco who abandoned a posh Sarasota, Florida home owned by his father-in-law — an advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of then-King Fahd. Al-Hijji also abandoned three cars, a full house of expensive furniture, closets full of clothes, and even a refrigerator full of food when he and his family vanished. Subsequent investigations connected al-Hijji to 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, whose cars were spotted by archived security footage within the gated community al-Hijji inhabited after the deed was done. Al-Hijji, who denied any connection to the hijacking and denounced it as a “crime against all humankind,” later turned up in London as an executive with Aramco, the Saudi national oil company.
Yes, but the Saudi government relies on a key passage from the 9/11 Commission Report which says, “We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” Emphasis mine.
Nobody thinks the Saudi government was stupid enough to make material support for the 9/11 hijackers explicit government policy. It wouldn’t have worked that way. Thus there is no exoneration in that passage at all. In fact, 9/11 Commission member and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman told 60 Minutes earlier this year that those 28 pages contain information that would greatly color American perception of a Saudi role in the attacks. Though the exchange with Steve Kroft was rather suspiciously left to an online segment of the news report not broadcast on CBS air, when Lehman was asked if the 28 pages include specific names, his answer was “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
We could get into a semantic discussion of who a senior Saudi official might be. Ambassadors aren’t policy-makers per se, for example, so would one qualify as a “senior official”? How about the wife or brother of one? And shouldn’t the American people get to judge?
Rep. Thomas Massie, the libertarian-leaning Republican congressman from Kentucky, has seen the 28 pages. Massie’s reaction was enough in itself to argue the American people deserve to see them. “I had to stop every couple pages,” Massie said, “and… try to rearrange my understanding of history. It challenges you to rethink everything.”
But naturally, getting things rethought in Washington, D.C. is nearly impossible. And in this case we can probably drop the “nearly.” While the bill has bipartisan support and is quite popular, Obama says he’ll veto it. Lindsey Graham has put a hold on it. Mitch McConnell won’t say he supports it even though Harry Reid says he does. Paul Ryan isn’t quite running away from it, but he sure isn’t running toward it, either.
And meanwhile the Saudis, who are quite skilled in lots of things but conveying the impression of innocence surely isn’t one of them, have responded to the bill by (1) buying up every D.C. lobbying firm imaginable, including the ones containing former Mississippi governor and RNC chairman Haley Barbour, high-priced Washington lawyer Bob Bennett, Democrat super-lobbyist Tony Podesta, brother of the Clintons’ chief political hatchet man, and lots of others, and (2) threatening to unload some $750 billion in assets held in the U.S., including Treasury debt and real estate, on the theory that they’d have to liquidate that property before having it seized to pay judgments from American kangaroo courts seeking vengeance for 9/11.
As an aside, it’s somewhat amusing that Tony Podesta would be pocketing big money in an attempt to keep the Saudis’ secrets surrounding 9/11 secret when his brother is so often quoted as selling the openness with which Hillary Clinton will grace the American people on other government information surrounding encounters with aliens from outer space. He’s saying the American people can handle the truth about UFOs; his brother says, thanks to a check from Riyadh, that we can’t handle the truth about the Saudis.
It’s not illegal for the Saudis to hire lobbyists, but the rich and nefarious buying up of influence with both parties inside the Beltway to push things contrary to good policy and the desire of the majority is precisely why the American people have had it with the political class. Fourteen years of those redacted 28 pages, which represent a cover-up of why and how 9/11 really happened by both Republican Bush and Democrat Obama, serve as a perfect avatar for bipartisan decline and disgrace.
As Cornyn, the author of the bill, rightly says, it’s time to let the chips fall where they may. Release those pages and let’s build a diplomatic relationship with the Saudis based on truth for a change.