Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Intelligence Community: Allies Against 9/11 Transparency?

By Brian McGlinchey

One of the distinguishing hallmarks of the drive to declassify the 28-page finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers is the absence of vocal opposition. That’s not to say there are no opponents—only that they are working quietly and effectively behind closed doors.

It’s likely that among the most powerful of those unseen opponents of 9/11 transparency are two strange bedfellows:

  • The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—which has fueled the growth of terror
  • The U.S. intelligence community—which is charged with thwarting terror

Saudia Arabia’s Broad Influence on U.S. Policy

Saudi Arabia has claimed it wants the 28 pages released, but the kingdom is surely bluffing. At a January 7 press conference promoting the reintroduction of a House resolution urging the president to declassify the 28 pages, former Senator Bob Graham was pointed in describing how Saudi Arabia figures in the censored chapter of the report of a joint Congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11: “The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”

Like many other countries, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in building influence within American shores, and that influence may be a big reason why Barack Obama hasn’t reversed George W. Bush’s extraordinary redaction of 28 consecutive pages of a Congressional intelligence report, and why most of our federal legislators haven’t even bothered reading those pages despite the strong urging of peers who have.

Former Senator Norm Coleman: On the Saudi Payroll
Former Senator Norm Coleman: Once a Saudi Critic, Now on Kingdom’s Payroll

One relatively new pillar in Saudi Arabia’s influence infrastructure illustrates its strength. In September, The Nation’s Lee Fang—in a pieceoutlining the remarkable depth and breadth of the Saudi web of influence—revealed that Saudi Arabia had made an eyebrow-raising addition to its army of lobbyists: Norm Coleman, former United States senator and current chair of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a prominent Republican super PAC.

The hire breaks new ground, writes Fang, as Coleman “appears to be the first leader of a significant Super PAC to simultaneously lobby for a foreign government.” The move also reveals cringe-inducing hypocrisy: In 2005, Coleman signed a letter condemning Saudi Arabia for fostering Islamic extremism around the world, and today he serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.

While noteworthy, Coleman is just one star in a broad constellation of Saudi Arabian influence on American policymakers. As The New York Times reported in a September expose, another major avenue of foreign government influence is the funding of American think tanks:

“The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.”

The pressure on scholars isn’t always indirect: Some “donations” are accompanied by an explicit quid pro quo understanding that the think tank will advance the interest of its foreign state benefactor.

According to a Times infographic, Saudi Arabia has given money to many of the think tanks that journalists and policymakers turn to for analysis, including The Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, the Middle East Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Does the work product of these think tanks reflect their Saudi sponsorship? Consider the rather Saudi-friendly insights the CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman recently offered decision-makers on the transition of power following the death of King Abdullah. In it, Cordesman heralds Abdullah as “one of (Saudi Arabia’s) most competent and impressive kings” and “a strong ally.”  While he touches briefly on extremism, strikingly absent from Cordesman’s examination of Saudi Arabia’s role as a “close partner” in U.S. counterterrorism efforts is any mention of the country’s well-documented financial support of Islamic extremism and terror. To the contrary, Cordesman declares that Saudi Arabia “has been critical to preserving some degree of regional stability…during the rise of Islamic extremism.”

Considering Saudi Arabia’s think tank sponsorship, it’s no wonder that28Pages.org is only aware of one occasion where one of these influential entities has allowed an analyst to use its platform to promote the release of the 28 pages: Last month at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin urged their release and implored journalists to make the 28 pages a 2016 campaign issue.

Intelligence Community’s “Pervasive Pattern” of Covering Saudi Role

Saudi Arabia’s reasons for wanting the 28 pages kept secret are clear, but what about America’s intelligence community? Actually, its motives are likely identical: Shielding itself from public humiliation and the consequences that would accompany it.

Former Senator Bob Graham
Former Senator Bob Graham

The intelligence community would have us believe that publishing the 28 pages would somehow pose a threat to national security, a notion that’s been pointedly rebutted by many who’ve read them, including former Senate intelligence committee chairman Graham.

At the January 7 press conference, Grahamsaid“Much of what passes for classification for national security reasons is really classified because it would disclose incompetence. And since the people who are classifying are also often the subject of the materials, they have an institutional interest in avoiding exposure of their incompetence.”

The intelligence community’s failure in the years and months leading up to 9/11 isn’t exactly secret, but the 28 pages may shed powerfully unflattering new light on it. Remember, they’re found in the report of the “Joint Inquiry intoIntelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”

Secrecy about American intelligence agencies’ performance before and after the 9/11 attacks stretches far beyond the 28 pages. Perhaps the most prominent example of that broad veil relates to a 9/11 hijacker cell in Sarasota: Grahamsays the FBI failed to disclose its knowledge of that cell to the joint congressional intelligence inquiry he co-chaired.

When the cell later came to the attention of investigative journalist Dan Christensen at FloridaBulldog.org, the FBI first denied that it found any connection between 9/11 hijackers and a wealthy Saudi family that suddenly fled the country two weeks before September 11, and then denied it had any documentation of its investigation. Now we know the FBI indeed found direct links between that family and the hijackers, and a federal judge is studying more than 80,000 pages of FBI documents relating to the Sarasota investigation for potential release in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Relating the FBI’s Sarasota secrecy to the 28 pages, Graham said, “This is not a narrow issue of withholding information at one place, in one time. This is a pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11 by all of the agencies of the federal government which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.”

Richard Clarke
Former Counterterror Czar Richard Clarke

The CIA may want the 28 pages kept secret, too. Richard Clarke, who was the White House’s counter-terrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush administrations, says the CIA never told him that two known Al Qaeda operatives were living in southern California under their own names. Considering the San Diego cell figures prominently in the joint inquiry report, the 28 pages may shed light on the CIA’s motives for its history-altering failure to inform Clarke or the FBI or elaborate on what disaster-averting information the CIA had and didn’t share.

Like the CIA, the NSA also knew about the San Diego-based hijackers well before September 11. Keeping the 28 pages under wraps may serve the agency in its fight to preserve the post-9/11 mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden: If the 28 pages amplify the fact that the government had all the information it needed to thwart the 9/11 attacks without those controversial programs, the NSA’s arguments would be further weakened.

A Deadly Bargain

Amid all this discussion of the actions and inactions that enabled the terrible loss of life on 9/11, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that lives continue to hang in the balance—and the fact that former Senator Graham and current Congressmen Walter Jones, Stephen Lynch and Thomas Massie have all said that declassifying the 28 pages is imperative to understanding and countering the ongoing terror threat.

Said Graham at the 28 pages press conference that came just hours after the terror attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo: “There is no threat to national security in disclosure (of the 28 pages). I’m going to make the case today that there’s a threat to national security by nondisclosure, and we saw another chapter of that today in Paris.”

According to Graham, shielding Saudi Arabia from scrutiny of its role in 9/11 has emboldened the kingdom to continue its sponsorship of extremism and, in the process, enabled the rise of ISIS. If so, the continued censorship of the 28 pages has cost more lives around the world than were lost on September 11, 2001—and with growing U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS, American lives could become increasingly imperiled.

Americans may not be surprised that a faraway monarchy would be willing to gamble the lives of innocents in a bid for continued power, but they should be deeply troubled that the U.S. intelligence community would—wittingly or not—make the same deadly bargain. By shielding themselves from the oversight that’s vital to our system of government, our national security agencies also shield Saudi Arabia from accountability. In so doing, they endanger the very lives they’re charged with saving.

Brian McGlinchey is the founder and director of 28Pages.org.