Web Only / Features » December 4, 2017
Worried About Russian Foreign Interference? Take a Look Into Saudi Arabia.
For decades, the D.C. establishment has been on the payroll of a foreign terror state. But because it’s Saudi Arabia, you won’t hear a peep.
Over three decades, Saudi Arabia has successfully ingratiated itself at the highest levels of power in the United States.
Imagine if Russia — instead of doing what it has been accused of doing last year — had funded and facilitated an attack on US soil that killed thousands of Americans. Then imagine that US policymakers, rather than punish the Kremlin by cutting diplomatic ties, imposing sanctions, seeking legal recourse, or all of the above, covered up its involvement in the attack and continued to treat it as a loyal ally.
Imagine if the president who presided over that attack had decades of intimate personal and financial ties to members of the Russian elite and subsequently spirited dozens of Russian nationals out of the country before law enforcement could interrogate them.
Imagine if, despite full knowledge of the Kremlin’s once and ongoing anti-American activities, successive presidents heaped praise on Russia’s authoritarian government, sold it weapons, and made regular pilgrimages to wine and dine with its leaders.
Imagine if an army of Russian lobbyists operated on Capitol Hill to ensure Washington’s pro-Kremlin line, eventually pressuring American leadership into actively assisting it in carrying out one of this decade’s worst war crimes.
Imagine if, at the end of all this, Donald Trump ran for president on an explicitly anti-Russia line, only to shamelessly reverse himself once elected, embrace the Russian leadership, and pursue policies that benefited them even more enthusiastically than his predecessors had.
It’s a pretty scary thought.
Thankfully, in the real world, none of this applies to Russia. It does, however, perfectly describe Saudi Arabia.
“A 9/11 Scale Event”
Even more of a 9/11 scale event was the actual 9/11. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the attack was planned by a scion of one of the country’s wealthiest and politically connectedfamilies. The hijackers, we now know thanks to the release of twenty-eight previously classified pages from the 9/11 commission’s report, had ties to members of the Saudi government, including the Saudi ambassador to the United States, who also belongs to the country’s royal family.
More recently, newly unearthed FBI files describe a 1999 “dry-run” for 9/11 carried out by Saudi government agents with tickets bought by the Saudi embassy.
But even without the 2016 release of those twenty-eight pages, Saudi involvement in anti-US terrorism has long been an open secret. John Lehman, Reagan’s navy secretary and one of the members of the 9/11 commission, went on record, saying that “it was well known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.” Further, intelligence services suspect various Saudi charities of funding extremists, including the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct, state-funded Saudi charity that exported a conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam and was known to support terrorists.
Leaked state department cables document Hillary Clinton’s concernsabout the Saudi government’s reluctance to crack down on wealthy patrons of terrorism. Zacarias Moussaoui, a former al-Qaeda member, has testified that Saudi royals made large donations to the organization during the 1990s and that he discussed carrying out a terrorist attack with a Saudi embassy staff member. Meanwhile, many have complained that Saudi Arabia resists US efforts to crack down on terrorist financing and even stonewalls investigations.
In other words, if we’re talking about national security threats, Russia can’t compete with the chaos Saudi Arabia has facilitated — and still does, given the weapons it’s been sending to extremists in Syria. But you’re not likely to see any US officials or citizens hauled before Congress to testify about their relationship with Saudis anytime soon. The national security establishment has always protected Saudi Arabia, as the lack of any accountability for their complicity in September 11 demonstrates.
Take Robert Mueller, the current #Resistance hero leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia and the director of the FBI at the time the 9/11 commission was undertaking its investigation. Andrew Cockburn learned that Mueller discouraged an investigator from reviewing the damning FBI files in the bureau’s San Diego office and blocked investigators’ requests to interview an informant who was close with two of the hijackers. Former senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee after 9/11, accused Mueller of being a “facilitator of the ineptitude of the Bureau,” covering up the truth.
These efforts continued long after the attack. The Bush administration had to be pressured into setting up an inquiry, and Bush originally nominated Henry Kissinger to head the commission investigating the attack. Besides being one of the twentieth century’s great monsters, Kissinger had also declared in August 2002 that it was “not acceptable to depict Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state.” His firm reportedly counted companies that did business with members of the Saudi royal family as clients, and he had once flirted with going into business with BCCI, a Saudi-owned bank that was really a conduit for the royal family’s geopolitical ambitions.
Kissinger was forced to resign from the 9/11 commission when he refused to release his client list, which many believed included Saudi clients. Journalist Philip Shenon recounted how Kissinger, when asked in a private meeting with the victims’ families if he had any clients who were Saudi or named bin Laden, spilled his coffee and nearly fell off the couch.
Once the commission’s report was finally released, President George W. Bush famously redacted the twenty-eight pages that implicated Saudi officials. When Obama took office, he personally promised the families of 9/11 victims that he would release them but never did so. He finally made them available amid a crescendo of public pressureand after more than a decade of persistence by a group of victims’ relatives who were suing the Saudi government.
Upon the documents’ release, the political establishment downplayed their details as mere “raw intelligence” that hadn’t been proven. Compare this with the eager acceptance of the wild, unverified claims in the Trump dossier, or the evidence-free assertions the intelligence community has released about Russian electoral interference. Moreover, multiple members of the 9/11 commission have said they believe Saudi officials were involved in the attack.
Anyone poring over the tangled web of both real and hyperbolic Russian connections to Trump officials may find the Bush administration’s links to Saudis far more alarming. But these connections have slipped liberals’ minds now that they’re pining for a third W. term.
For one, the Bush family has business ties to the bin Laden family: George W. started his first business, Arbusto Energy, with financing from the man who had been appointed the Houston representative of Salem bin Laden, Osama’s half brother. Salem was no religious extremist, but he did help his brother buy surface-to-air missiles for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
And that relationship wasn’t as exceptional as it sounds. It’s just one part of the Bush family’s decades of financial and business ties to various wealthy, well-connected Saudis, as detailed in Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.
Particularly interesting is Prince Bandar, member of the royal family, ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, and the former head of Saudi intelligence. Anyone who read the twenty-eight pageswould recognize Bandar as the high-ranking Saudi official who, along with his wife, gave money to the extremist who bragged about helping two of the 9/11 hijackers. He also had phone numbers that popped up in the contacts of an al-Qaeda associate captured in Pakistan.
If you belonged to the Bush family, however, you’d know him for something else. Bandar enjoyed such an intimate relationship with the Bushes he was nicknamed “Bandar Bush.” Close friends with the elder Bush for more than twenty years, Bandar and George H. W. went hunting and fishing together, and Bandar donated $1 million to his presidential library. “You’re my friend for life,” Bandar wrote to Bush Sr as the 1992 election slipped from the latter’s grasp. “I feel like one of your family, you are like one of our own.”
When Bush Jr was considering his own run for president, his father instructed him to consult Bandar about world affairs, as Bob Woodward reported:
One, he’s our friend. Our means America, not just the Bush family. Number two, he knows everyone around the world who counts. And number three, he will give you his view on what he sees happening in the world. Maybe he can set up meetings for you with people around the world.
The younger Bush maintained the friendship while president. When it came out in 2002 that a vehemently anti-Saudi private analyst had given a presentation to a Pentagon advisory board, Bush invited Bandar and his family to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and assured him it didn’t reflect his views. Kissinger, also present, duly defended the Saudis, and then–secretary of state Colin Powell — who was Bandar’s old racquetball buddy and received a 1995 Jaguar as a gift from him — also disavowed the briefing to his Saudi counterpart.
Bandar was one of the first people Bush told about his decision to invade Iraq; he received briefings on the war planning before the invasion; and he reportedly attended meetings at the White House even after he left the ambassadorship.
For skeptics, this was simply evidence that the Bush administration was “remarkably unconcerned with the appearance of impropriety.”
Most astoundingly, in an incident that’s never been satisfactorily explained, Bush met privately with Bandar on September 13, 2001, and the two smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony. Hours after their meeting, while flights were still limited and planes carrying organ transplants were being grounded around the United States, chartered planes picked up 160 Saudi nationals (including Saudi royals and members of the bin Laden family) and flew them out of the country, escorted by FBI agents. Simultaneously, federal agents were preparing round-ups and indefinite detentions of more than 1,200 innocent Muslims.
Although the 9/11 commission determined there was no impropriety, the White House consistently refused to tell the commission who authorized the flights, and an FBI spokesperson denied the bureau was involved, even as Bandar told reporters it was. Richard Clarke, Bush’s counterterrorism “czar,” later claimed he’d approved the flights due to the White House’s fears of retaliation against the Saudi nationals, but he couldn’t recall who or even which agency had brought him the request. For three years, the White House insisted that one of the flights didn’t happen.
More importantly, most of the passengers weren’t interviewed by investigators. One of those spirited out of the country was Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a media mogul and champion racehorse owner whose phone numbers were provided years later by terrorist Abu Zubaydah to interrogators he believed to be Saudi. Relieved to be in the hands of Saudis, he instructed the interrogators to call the prince. He would “tell you what to do,” he said.
A year after the 9/11 commission reported that the “intelligence community identified [Saudi Arabia] as the primary source of money for al Qaeda both before and after the September 11 attacks” — and Bush read and suppressed the damning twenty-eight pages — Bush invited then–Saudi crown prince Abdullah to Crawford, where they held hands and issued a statement affirming “our personal friendship and that between our nations.”
The exact details of what the Saudi government did or didn’t do regarding September 11 remain unconfirmed, but only because they were never fully investigated. Former Navy secretary John Lehman has said the “investigation was terminated before all the relevant leads were able to be investigated.” Former senator Bob Kerrey claimed the commission didn’t have the time and resources to “pursue the entire line of enquiry into Saudi Arabia” and has accusedthe government of covering up the Saudi government’s role.
Much like Russia’s role in the Trump campaign, many things are still not clear about the Saudi ruling class’s exact role in the September 11 attacks. And since 2003, when al-Qaeda carried out an attack in Saudi Arabia, the country has reportedly been less obstructionist and more willing to partner with the United States in stopping individual terrorists.
Still, replace “Saudi Arabia” with “Russia” in this account, and it would quickly become the subject of breathless exposés, endless tweet storms, and outraged condemnation. Yet the Bush administration has never faced the same level of scrutiny or hysteria for its ties to the Saudis as Trump and his inner circle are now undergoing for their Russian connections. It’s not hard to see why: this is par for the course in Washington.
A Bipartisan Romance
It would be one thing if the favoritism offered to Saudi Arabia was limited to one administration, as Trump’s alleged Russian ties are. But while Bush and his family stand out for the extent and sheer brazenness of their Saudi connections, fealty to Saudi Arabia has always been a bipartisan affair.
In what became his presidency’s trademark, Obama said all the right things about Saudi Arabia — calling them a “so-called” ally in 2002, criticizing their state repression and misogyny, and expressingconcerns about their funding of fundamentalist ideology — but did precisely the opposite.
He immediately sought to improve relations with the new Saudi king and offered the country more arms sales than any previous administration. He fought tooth and nail to prevent 9/11 victims’ families from suing the Saudi government, vetoing legislation that allowed them to do so. (Congress overrode his veto.) And he backedthe Saudis’ criminal war in Yemen, which has engineered the worst famine in recent history.
Or look at the Clintons. “This is the first time we’ve ever been attacked by a foreign adversary, and then they suffer no real consequences,” Hillary Clinton complained about the Russian hacking on two separate occasions this year. Clinton seemed to have forgotten about Saudi Arabia, whose nationals carried out a very real attack on the United States and, far from suffering no consequences, had been rewarded.
But it’s no surprise the Saudis slipped Clinton’s mind, given how generous they’ve been to her family over the years. The royals were the most munificent foreign donors to Bill’s presidential library, giving around $10 million, reportedly the same amount as they gave to the elder Bush’s. They also donated between $10 and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation, after which they received a marked increasein arms sales from the Clinton-led state department.
Hillary herself privately acknowledged the Saudis’ role in financing terrorism, years after her aides celebrated weapons sales to the regime. At the same time, Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign manager and confidante John Podesta, was working as a lobbyist for the Saudis.
Meanwhile, the Clinton-aligned Center for American Progress and Clinton ally Mike Morell urged a renewed commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia a few weeks before the election. No wonder the Saudis were looking forward to her presidency.
Washington lobbyists — and not just the Podestas — line up to serve Saudi interests in return for the government’s largesse. The royal family has hired at least fifteen firms to date, with at least six signing on since the inauguration. Many of these firms have connections to members of both the Democratic and Republican establishments.
As the Sunlight Foundation’s Josh Stewart told the Washington Post, “Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the bigger players when it comes to foreign influence in Washington,” using its lobbyists to court politicians and secure favorable media coverage. Of course, unlike the Trump campaign’s alleged misdeeds, this collusion is out in the open.
Decades of Access
Ultimately, the Saudi government has been allowed to get away with these things because of its vast oil reserves. But for decades, the Saudis have also consciously attempted to curry favor with US officials, Democrat and Republican. From their sudden decision in 1992 to give millions to an Arkansas academic institute just a month before then–Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s election victory, to their 1980s donations to initiatives led by Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, to their 1970s purchase of a Georgia bank that swiftly resulted in Jimmy Carter getting a personal business loan restructured, Saudi cash has been a mainstay of American politics for generations.
Ordinarily, this level of long-term influence-courting from another country might inspire suspicion or scrutiny, particularly when the country in question has been facilitating anti-American interests for just as long. But the Saudis’ image has long been protected by a pliant media, reinforcing its global PR efforts.
Bandar regularly received flattering profiles, like this one, from major newspapers, painting him as “the Arab Gatsby.” Columnists like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius have spent years writing puff pieces that whitewashed the Saudi government’s appalling human rights record. Some of them have even ended up working for the Saudi government.
Most recently, the New York Times faced much justified criticism for this column, which paints the country’s current crown prince — in the midst of war crimes in Yemen and a political purge at home — as a far-sighted reformer. The author? Tom Friedman, who is apparently more outraged at “9/11 scale events” than he is at the actual 9/11.
As historian Abdullah Al-Arian recently documented, Friedman’s love letter is just the latest in a seventy-year-long series of Timesarticles that declare successive Saudi rulers “reformers” and “modernizers.” And while the Saudis regularly pay for favorable coverage, there’s no evidence they have ever sent the Gray Lady a single dime for these fawning pieces.
Who Owns Trump?
The disparity between how Saudi Arabia and Russia appear in the public consciousness is perhaps best illustrated by Donald Trump. Trump is widely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s puppet, subverting the United States from within at the behest of his master in the Kremlin. Accusers point to his friendly rhetoric toward Putin, his many business interests in Russia, and, of course, the country’s alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.
Perhaps this will all turn out to be true. But if “Russia owns Trump,” Putin has received remarkably little return on his purchase.
Since Trump became president, his administration has widened sanctions against Russia; maintained its rhetorical and material support of Ukraine (and publicly mused about sending Ukraine weapons, a marked escalation from Obama’s policy); bombed Russia’s ally, Syria; shot down a Syrian warplane, which led to an escalating series of threats between the United States and Russia; and forcedstate-funded Russian news channel RT to register as a foreign agent, triggering retaliation from the Kremlin.
Trump’s special envoy tasked with ending the Ukrainian conflict saysUS-Russian relations are still at rock bottom. According to Dimitri Skorbutov, a former editor at the state-run Rossiya news agency, who has criticized the Russian state media’s pro-Trump coverage: “Russian authorities failed with their hopes that financial and media support will make Trump really Russian.”
Now compare this to Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. On the campaign trail, Trump was a strident anti-Saudi critic. He complained about having to support Saudi Arabia militarily, gripedabout (and factually mangled) the story of the Saudi nationals who were flown out of the United States after September 11, accused the Saudis of bigotry and “funding hate,” and charged the “dopey” Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal with seeking “to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money.” “Can’t do it when I get elected,” he wrote.
He even brought up Saudi Arabia’s 9/11 connections. “Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents,” he told Fox and Friendslast February.
Once president, however, Trump performed a neat U-turn. He chose the country he’d recently accused of carrying out the September 11 attacks to be the site of his first foreign trip as president, breaking from his five predecessors, who had all first traveled to either Canada or Mexico. Once there, he happily took part in a sword dance, touched a glowing orb, and bowed his head to receive a medal from the king, something he had mocked Obama for doing years before. He then lavished the country with praise in a major speech in Riyadh, violating his own insistence on using the term “radical Islam” lest he offend his hosts.
He dutifully (and ludicrously) kept Saudi Arabia off his already ludicrous travel ban, which is supposedly an anti-terrorism policy. When the Saudis and their allies told him Qatar funded terrorists, he eagerly and publicly backed their attempt to isolate the country, forcing the state department to put out yet another fire. He’s ramped up Obama’s policy of facilitating Saudi war crimes in Yemen and shows every sign of continuing to sell them billions of dollars worth of weapons. Most recently, he cheered on the crown prince’s consolidation of power.
And why should we be surprised? Trump has vast business interests in Saudi Arabia, including eight companies tied to hotel interests that he registered right after he announced his campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged a combined $100 million to his daughter’s fund for women entrepreneurs. The country owns the forty-fifth floor of Trump World Tower, and one of Trump’s appointees is even a registered agent for Saudi Arabia.
In other words, there is far more evidence that Trump is a Saudi puppet than a Russian one. But you won’t hear Democrats level this accusation. How can they, when they know any criticism of ties to Saudi Arabia would be tantamount to criticizing their own party’s foreign policy establishment?
Something very fishy happened between the Trump campaign and Russia, and with any luck we’ll one day find out what exactly that something was. But it remains dumbfounding that the alleged Russian collusion is treated as an apocalyptic event while similar and far more insidious interference from Saudi Arabia over the course of decades is met with a collective shrug.
Over three decades, Saudi Arabia has successfully ingratiated itself at the highest levels of power in the United States. The Saudi ruling class has provided favor after favor to American officials, insinuated itself into the good graces of both high-ranking officials and reporters, and donated a steady stream of many millions of dollars to a bipartisan group of policymakers, including two of the country’s foremost political dynasties, receiving the backing of the United States in return.
It’s done all this while openly spreading fundamentalist ideology and assisting extremists in carrying out attacks on Americans, and in spite of the voting public’s distaste for the regime. And that’s without even mentioning its government’s and royal family’s involvement in September 11, or the Bush administration’s dubious attempts to shield it from scrutiny, neither of which have been subject to a full investigation.
Whatever transpired between Trump and Russia will remain secret for now, but Saudi Arabia’s meddling has long been out in the open.
This piece first appeared at Jacobin.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where he received his Masters in American history, a fact that continues to puzzle everyone who meets him. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMarchetich.
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