When You’ve Lost Your Leverage (Saudis On The Ropes)

My online friend Lisa Schiffrin notes that “As we know from personal relationships, the less you care about your relationship with someone, the more leverage you have.” That’s the lesson, it seems, the Saudis are about to learn.

It’s hardly been a secret to those who paid attention that some Saudis, including some highly placed ones, have funded and fanned the flames of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative form of Islam throughout the world. Perhaps it was out of religious belief, but just as likely it was to keep the ruling families in power and the extremists from attacking them. If so, it may now prove to have been an unwise strategy.

The role of Saudis in the 9/11 attack on the U.S. has hardly been completely hidden: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, trained in Wahhabi schools. More than that, there is evidence that Saudi officials in the U.S. aided and abetted them once they were here -- people like Omar al-Bayoumi, who met with some of the hijackers on the very same day he met with someone (as yet not publicly identified) in the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.

Families of those murdered on 9/11 have been trying to get redress through litigation from the Saudi royal family, Saudi banks, and Saudi charities, but have been stymied in part because of 1976 law that grants immunity to foreign nations in U.S. courts. There’s an effort in Congress to change that, to deny such immunity to nations that have been culpable for terrorist attacks, which kill Americans on American soil. It is probably no coincidence that as this legislation is being considered, CBS’ "60 Minutes" aired a feature on the efforts to declassify the 28 redacted pages of an investigative Congressional report written in 2003 that documents the Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers. 

While these damning 28 pages were redacted, they are accessible to Congress members, and persons who have served on the committee itself have revealed in general terms their content. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Committee, indicates the report, “outlines a network of people that supported the hijackers while they were on the West Coast and helped them to enroll in flight school.”

Questioned on whether that network included the government, rich people,and charities, the senator replied: “All of the above”.

These questions have begun to dog Barack Obama:

But as Obama heads to Saudi Arabia next week for a visit that will include a meeting with King Salman, the outgoing US president is facing increasing pressure to declassify those pages.

The pressure comes amid rising tensions in US-Saudi relations, with the Sunni Wahhabi kingdom – under an increasingly bellicose Salman – opposed to Washington’s overtures to its arch rival, Iran, which culminated in a nuclear deal last year. A decreasing US reliance on Saudi oil has further strained a bilateral relationship once considered too important to fray. Suddenly, realpolitik imperatives are not sufficient to silence the howls for accountability from the families of the 9/11 victims and the US public at large.


60 Minutes… detailed the level of frustration among senior US officials who have been pushing for a declassification over the past 13 years.

These senior former and current officials include Florida Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee and co-chairman of the inquiry, and former CIA director Porter Goss, who was also a co-chairman of the inquiry.

Two days after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Sen. Graham told Fox News that the White House had informed him that a decision on whether to declassify the documents would be made in one to two months.

Graham provided no details on why it would take a month or two, although White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday that the 28 papers were the subject of an intelligence community “classification review.” 

Why these 28 pages were classified in the first place is subject to debate -- was it to hide sloppy investigative efforts, as former Democratic congressman Tim Roemer has suggested? Was it to avoid straining relations with an unreliable but still necessary government ally whose oil exports were essential to other of our allies? Or was it done simply to avoid embarrassment to then President G.W. Bush who along with his family had close ties to the Saudi rulers? In any event, there’s good reason to believe these 28 pages were not classified to protect our state secrets.

John Lehman, secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and another member of the 9/11 Commission, told 60 Minutes: “We’re not a bunch of rubes that rode into Washington for this commission… We’ve seen fire and we’ve seen rain and the politics of national security. We all have dealt for our careers in highly classified and compartmentalized in every aspect of security. We know when something shouldn’t be declassified. And this, those 28 pages in no way fall into that category.”


Lehman told 60 Minutes that he has no doubt some high Saudi officials knew assistance was being provided to al Qaeda, but he doesn’t think it was ever official policy. He also doesn’t think it absolves the Saudis of responsibility, Kroft said in his commentary.

The Joint Inquiry in 2002 headed by Goss and Graham preceded the 9/11 Commission, which released its own report in 2004. Persons connected with that 2004 report have offered differing views of the significance of the 28 pages in the earlier Congressional report:

Democratic California Rep. Adam Schiff said this year that “the issues raised in those pages were investigated by the 9/11 Commission and found to be unsubstantiated” and says he would like to see them released to defuse the controversy surrounding their existence. The 9/11 Commission’s director, Philip Zelikow, doesn’t appear to have taken a public stance on the pages’ release, but he told Lawrence Wright that they amount to “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports.” The 9/11 Commission’s official report says it ultimately “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded [al-Qaida].”

On the other hand, more than one member of the 9/11 Commission -- including former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who spoke to 60 Minutes -- has said that the “found no evidence” sentence should not be considered an exoneration of the Saudis. 

The dispute comes at a particularly difficult time for the Saudi government. It faces substantial revenue cut as the price of oil keeps dropping and seems unlikely to be able to persuade other petrostates to freeze oil production to raise prices.

The petrostates assembling in Doha to discuss a potential output freeze two days from now aren’t coming together in a show of solidarity or out of some sense of duty towards one another, but rather as an act of desperation. Bloomberg ran the numbers, and found that the oil price collapse has collectively cost the 18 countries involved in this meeting nearly one third of a trillion dollars.


‘Saudi Arabia accounts for nearly half of the decline in foreign-exchange reserves among oil producers, with $138 billion -- or 23 percent of its total -- followed by Russia, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. In the final three months of last year, Saudi Arabia burned through $38.1 billion, the biggest quarterly reduction in data going back to 1962. […]’

Now, though, the Saudis are finally looking to coordinate production with other petrostates, spurred on by the speed at which their rainy day fund is being depleted.

And with Riyadh ready to play ball, there’s not much more in the way of a deal to limit output… except for Tehran, which is looking to boost its own production to the levels it was posting before Western sanctions were enacted. Iran is one of many reasons why this Doha meeting looks unlikely to produce the sort of price rebound those 18 assembled nations really want….

In terms of national defense, Saudi Arabia’s situation is also difficult. The administration has obviously tilted toward Iran; Iranian-Saudi relations are at a new low, with a heated proxy war going on in Syria. The Saudis have reached out to both Egypt and Israel, granting billions in aid to Al-Sissi who, in return, has ceded islands in the straits of Tiran to Saudi Arabia, islands Egypt was given by Israel. The Saudis in compliance with the Egypt-Israeli treaty gave public written assurance to the Israelis promising them free passage for Israeli shipping through the straits. 

Beset by an enormous loss of revenue and existential danger, the release of these 28 pages now is certainly not something that would be welcomed by the Saudis.

True, in 2003 then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan proclaimed that his country had “nothing to hide”

Present threats by the Saudis suggest they, indeed, do fear disclosure:

Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts.

Several outside economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through, saying that such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. But the threat is another sign of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

From my armchair perspective I don’t see that the Saudis have much leverage to make good on their threats. I don’t think they can any longer protect those members of the royal family or officials or banks or charities if, as claimed, these played a role in 9/11. At best, the Saudis can hope the record does not implicate their nation as a whole, and they ought to cooperate by waiving immunity from this suit, either by promising to make available for civil trial any of their people or institutions involved, or by negotiating on their behalf of all the defendants a settlement of the claims of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

In any event, it looks like the game may well be up. 

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