At the nexus of diplomacy and secret intelligence, governments almost never speak forthrightly about their purposes. When ranking officials decide what can be revealed and what must be concealed, political expedience is at least as important as national security. And on the rare occasion when such an official publicly demands the disclosure of embarrassing information, as the Saudi foreign minister did recently, an ulterior motive should be assumed.
So regardless of any claims to the contrary, it seems prudent to remember that the White House and the House of Saud are likewise best served by keeping all the sensitive files locked away. Both houses would be unwise to risk speaking candidly about each other now—a caution that applies with special emphasis when the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. bear the name of Bush.
On July 29, Prince Saud el-Faisal paid an extraordinary visit to the Bush White House. For an hour, he and George W. Bush discussed the 28-page section of the joint Congressional report on Sept. 11 that evidently implicates agents of his country’s government in the terrorist attack. The prince’s ostensible reason for coming to see the President—whose family has long maintained close connections with the Saudi royals—was to ask Mr. Bush to declassify those 28 pages because, as he declared at a press conference: “We have nothing to hide, and we do not seek, nor do we need, to be shielded.”
That glibly ridiculous assertion is contradicted by the repressive habits of his family’s autocratic regime, which has a lot to hide from its own people as well as ours. Besides, the prince knew before he landed in Washington that the President would decline his plea. Foreign ministers don’t meet with any head of state, particularly not the leader of the world’s only superpower, unless they already know what the meeting’s outcome will be. In this instance, the President’s negative answer could have been ascertained via embassy cable within hours, or by telephone within minutes.
As Senator Charles Schumer suggested, the prince visited the President to improve the kingdom’s image rather than to inform the American public. The Saudis requested the release of the Congressional report’s incriminating pages with absolute confidence in a denial by their old friend George W., who insisted that releasing the report’s unflattering references to Saudi Arabia might somehow undermine the “war on terror.”
The New York Democrat, like other legislators of both parties seeking to pry loose those 28 pages, discounts that clichéd excuse. Senator Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who oversaw the joint Congressional probe, has said that “90 to 95 percent” of the pages being withheld “would not compromise, in my judgment, anything in national security.”
Why, then, is the Bush administration so determined to prevent the public from learning what Congressional investigators discovered about Saudi connections to Sept. 11? Conventional answers involve the kingdom’s control of the world’s largest oil reserves, its influence over the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, its potential assistance in achieving peace between Israelis and Arabs, and its proclaimed alliance with the United States against Al Qaeda.
In steeply descending order of persuasiveness, all those stated reasons possess some merit. The problem is that the Bush administration—as well as the President’s family and its associates—is scarcely able to assess the merits with any degree of objectivity. After all, if they reveal damaging information about the Saudis, what might the Saudis reveal about them?
For more than three decades, Saudi Arabia has sought to influence American politicians, often through investment in American business. While they have occasionally sought out Democrats, they are far more comfortable with Republicans—and in particular, with Bush Republicans. At the moment, for example, the kingdom’s defense attorney in a lawsuit brought by families of Sept. 11 victims happens to be James Baker, that ultimate Bushie whose résumé includes stints as Secretary of State and Treasury. (Mr. Baker’s last big court case was Bush v. Gore.)
Commercial connections between the Saudis and the Bushes extend from limited-partner investments in George W.’s failed oil ventures more than 20 years ago to the Carlyle Group, a mighty merchant bank that currently employs Mr. Baker, former President George Herbert Walker Bush and a host of lesser family vassals. Saudi money has also figured in several of the most significant political scandals of the postwar era, notably the Iran-contra affair and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International blowup. Whatever the Saudis might say about any of those matters is probably better left unsaid—not only to protect state secrets, but also for the sake of Bush senior, the former CIA director and suspected Iran-contra conspirator.
The U.S. government knows many unflattering stories about the Saudi rulers. Unfortunately, they know many and perhaps worse about ours. The preference for silence and secrecy is understandably mutual.
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer. His most recent book is: "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton."