Dealing Fairly with a Key Ally: Releasing the 28 Pages
May 19, 2016
(Revised and Updated on May 25, 2016)
The United States needs to exercise extraordinary care in taking any action that could accuse a key ally of providing support for terrorism, particularly support for a tragedy as great as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. No real guilt for such action should ever be ignored for the purpose of diplomatic convenience. At the same time, no unsupported accusations that blame a country for the actions of its individual citizens should ever be made in ways that ignore the weight of evidence, giving the accusations the appearance of official legitimacy because they are issued out of context and without a full examination of the evidence.
The United States risks doing this if it simply releases the 28 classified pages that were drafted in preparing pages 415-443 of the HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 (“Joint Inquiry”), which was published in December 2002, and reviewed by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (“9/11 Commission”) along with its associated material in preparing its final report in 2004. While the legislative branch produced the Joint Inquiry report, classification decisions were delegated to the executive branch, consistent with customary U.S. practice
These pages were not part of the 9/11 Commission report, but some of those on the 9/11 Commission who saw them, and others who reviewed their content, have said they may indict Saudi Arabia for its complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attack. This has led a number of people to call for the public release of these 28 pages. This, however, presents the problem that releasing unvalidated material out of context, and that was prepared for different reasons over twelve years ago, raises critical issues in terms of U.S. relations with a major ally, and in the fairness of any such release.
It is not possible for anyone without the proper clearances to address whatever charges are in the 28 pages in any detail. No one can fully discuss the contents of classified material that has not had full access to those pages and to the background information behind them. I have not seen the 28 pages, and have no way to evaluate them in depth. In fact, I am struck by the fact that anyone who attempts this task without access to both the actual pages and their associated material must try to do something even more impossible than prove or disprove a negative. Evaluating the 28 pages means being asked to address issues where you not only lack access to the evidence, but lack access to the charges.
I have, however, spent some four decades working on Gulf security and terrorism. I do have a familiarity with Saudi Arabia that is based on both service in the U.S. government, and extensive research outside it. Based on this experience, I cannot exclude the possibility that some Saudi officials were involved, but there is no country in the region or the Islamic world which does not have some officials that have supported Al Qaeda or other violent Islamist organizations, and even the U.S. military suffered a major terrorist attack by a U.S. military officer.
Far more is involved here than making accusations public that can support lawsuits if the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is passed and becomes law. The problem is whether any such charges relating to 9/11 are valid, and to put them in the proper context.
A new study by the Burke Chair at CSIS attempts to do this, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160525_Saudi_911_Report.pdf.
The Importance of Strategic Partnership
All my experience indicates that the Saudi government has never supported such acts of terrorism and has never had any motive to do so. There is also a large mass of evidence to show that by the early 1990s, senior members of the Saudi royal family and the Saudi government had every reason to oppose bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and saw them as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.
My experience also indicates that Saudi Arabia has had to fight much the same fight against terrorism and extremism that the United States has fought, and that Saudi Arabia remains an important ally in both counterterrorism and providing military security a troubled region that is of vital strategic importance to the United States.
Accordingly, I believe we need to take great care in addressing any material that could threaten that partnership and that we must do so in ways that surface all of the relevant evidence and put it in the proper context. Furthermore, I believe that any review of 9/11 that focuses narrowly on the Saudi role in that tragedy must be evaluated in the broader context of the actions of other states in the region, and the key role that Saudi Arabia has played—and still plays—in counterterrorism and regional security.
Conspiracy Theories and “Disproving a Negative”
This need for caution and perspective is particularly important if—as I suspect—much of the 28 pages consists largely of unvalidated charges and conspiracies. I spent several years as the Director of Intelligence Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. During that time, I saw far too many well-structured reports of conspiracies that could not be substantiated.
All too often, these conspiracies seem remarkably convincing until they are subjected to full-scale analysis using all of the intelligence sources available, and are put in the proper context.
Looking over the various press reports on the still-classified 28 pages, I see far too many similarities to past conspiracy theories. I do not see any serious indication of new evidence of the involvement of senior Saudi officials, and I do see some Saudi names in the press that have been key figures in encouraging Saudi and U.S. cooperation in counterterrorism and regional security before and after the 9/11 attacks.
Moreover, while I can scarcely claim to have read all of the material involved in advancing such conspiracy theories, there is an amazing lack of discussion in any of the various media reports on those calling for release of the 28 pages regarding any clear motive on the part of the Saudi individuals involved, much less any collective motive on the part of the Saudi government or the Saudi Royal Family. There is not only is no credible evidence of “who,” there is no credible mention of “why.”
The Evidence – or Lack of it – Since the Joint Inquiry and the Original 9/11 Commission Report
This is why I have tried to go as far beyond conspiracy theories as I can in preparing for this report, and tried to find more credible official data than the material already made public in the 9/11 Commission report and comments by those making them that imply those making them had some access to the material in the HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 (“Joint Inquiry”),
To the extent I have found an unclassified official attempt to go beyond the material actually in the 9/11Commission Report—and that may be relevant to the material in the HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry—it consists of a relatively brief section at the end of an FBI report issued in March of last year.
It is striking that this March 2015 FBI report does not name any member of the Saudi royal family or senior Saudi official. It does not name any Saudi official at all—except for Fahad al-Thumairy, the Imam at the King Fahad mosque near Los Angeles. al-Thumairy was not a Saudi official in the classic sense, but he was an accredited diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.
As the 9/11 Commission Report indicated, al-Thumairy met two of the 9/11 hijackers on Flight 77—Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar—when they spent time in San Diego in 2000 (See pages 218-224 of the original Commission Report). The new FBI report goes on to note, however, that, “Based on the evidence available at the time, the 9/11 Commission concluded that there was no evidence that al-Thumairy provided assistance to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.”
The Need to Put Any Release of the 28 Pages in HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry in the Proper Context
The fact the FBI found no new evidence of official Saudi involvement, however, is only part of the need to put the 28 pages in full context. Saudi Arabia has been a key ally to the United States on many occasions. Saudi and U.S. forces have cooperated closely ever since the British withdrawal from East of Suez, and Saudi Arabia and the United States have cooperated in checking and deterring Iran ever since the fall of the Shah in 1979. They have also cooperated in dealing with the threats posed by the Iran-Iraq War during 1980-1988, and Saudi and US troops fought together against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
While many Americans are not aware of this, Saudi Arabia experienced its own “9/11” in the form of al Qaeda attacks on Saudi soil in 2003. As the annual U.S. State Department Reports on terrorism make clear, Saudi Arabia has become a key partner in counterterrorism. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has long been a key partner in both Gulf and regional security, as Department of Defense factsheets issued in the last month make clear. If the U.S. government is to release the 28 pages, it needs to address the overall support Saudi Arabia has given the United States as a strategic partner in both counterterrorism and military terms.
It is equally important to fully update and expand the portions of the HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry that deal with Saudi efforts to control bin Laden, which are now more than a decade old, and put them in the fully update context of the actions that the Saudi government had taken against Bin Laden and Al Qaeda before 9/11. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia failed to fully anticipate the fact that al Qaeda could ever pose the level of threat that produce 9/11. Like every other state in the region, Saudi Arabia failed to actively control every domestic aspect of support for Islamic extremism, including charities that posed as fronts for extremist fundraising.
But, this scarcely means that Saudi Arabia did not begin to treat bin Laden and al Qaeda as serious threats nearly a decade before 9/11. If the U.S. government is to release unsubstantiated charges, it cannot do so out of context, it must update the information involved, and must establish the full chronology of events that shaped Saudi government dealing with bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Some key facts in this chronology are very public and very clear. The Saudi royal family and government came to see bin Laden as a threat long before 9/11. The Saudi government first had to openly confront bin Laden when he objected to the Saudi partnership that allowed U.S. military forces to enter Saudi territory in 1990 in preparation for the liberation of Kuwait. Its efforts to control bin Laden forced him to leave Saudi Arabia in 1991 – a decade before 9/11.
Saudi Arabia’s Role as An Ally
I think it is equally critical to provide a clear evaluation of the role Saudi Arabia has played as an ally, and not to limit any release of material to charges against a few members of the Saudi royal family, Saudi officials, or possible Saudi officials out of context.
One key piece of evidence regarding both the Saudi role and motive is the extent to which the Saudi government has been a strategic partner to the United States, has fought its own fight in counterterrorism, and been a partner with the United States in counterterrorism. The context of the demands for release of the 28 pages is, after all one which potentially would hold an entire government liable for the actions of few individuals—somewhat equivalent to saying that the U.S. government should be liable for the various Islamist extremist attacks on its own soil.
It also seems relevant to evaluate the Saudi government’s side of the story, and its claims. If we are to release any report with unsubstantiated claims about senior officials or members of the royal family, they should be matched by an official and substantiated discussion of the role Saudi Arabia has played in counterterrorism—before and after 9/11—by senior officials from the King down to the Ministers of the Interior, the heads of Saudi intelligence, and within the Saudi security services.
“Unproving” the Saudis As Guilty Without Attempting to Establish the Facts
Let me again stress that I do not know all the facts relating to the 28 pages in the HPSCI-SSCI Joint Inquiry, and that only the U.S. government can hope to gather all of the evidence—including classified and sensitive data—and establish those facts. It is all too clear, however, that releasing the 28 pages out of context will do nothing to establish those facts, and will instead fuel more conspiracy theories and enrich a handful of lawyers and professional terrorism alarmists.
At best, releasing the 28 pages out of context may give families that suffered because of 9/11 some money, but the 28 pages can only provide an illusion of closure. Releasing the 28 pages out of context will also trigger broad doubts in the United States about a critical strategic partner as a critical time, as well as create anger and hostility in Saudi Arabia against the United States, and feed the kind of al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda that charges the United States as the enemy of Islam and Muslims.
It may well be too late not to address this issue, no matter how uncertain the content of the 28 pages may be. If the U.S. government is to address this issue at all, however, it must do so fully and release all of the relevant data now available, not simply 28 pages from a report written in 2002 with a narrow focus on the events of 9/11. It must also address the role of the officials and military in other countries, particularly Pakistan.
As Americans, we are often rightly critical of the rule of law in other nations, including Saudi Arabia. We also stress the goal of holding everyone innocent until proven guilty, and of surfacing all of the evidence in a given case. At present, there seems to be all too great a risk that we will release unsubstantiated charges that assume the Saudis are guilty until proven innocent, seem to prove that guilt to many regardless of the full truth, threaten a key U.S. strategic partnership, and feed charges that the United States is intolerant of Islam and other cultures in ways that actually add to the anger and distrust that feed extremism and terrorism.
I am not arguing that we should conceal the facts or any real element of guilt. I am arguing that that if the U.S. government is to properly address this issue, it has a clear obligation to establish all the facts that can establish innocence as well as guilt, and to put the history of events into a full and proper perspective.