The date was April 24, 2002. Standing on the runway at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas, the cadre of FBI agents, Secret Service, and Customs agents had just been informed by law enforcement officials that there was a “snag” with Crown Prince Abdullah’s oversized entourage, which was arriving with the prince for a visit to George W. Bush’s Western White House in Crawford, Texas.
The flight manifest of the eight-plane delegation accompanying the Saudi would-be king had a problem. Three, to be exact: one person on the list was wanted by U.S. law enforcement authorities and two others were on a terrorist watch list.
This had the potential to be what folks in Washington like to refer to as an “international incident.” But the State Department was not about to let an “international incident” happen. Which is why this story has never been written—until now.
Upon hearing that there was someone who was wanted and two suspected terrorists in Abdullah’s entourage, the FBI was ready to “storm the plane and pull those guys off,” explains an informed source.1 But given the “international” component, State was informed of the FBI’s intentions before any action could be taken. When word reached the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) bureau, NEA’s reaction was classic State Department: “What are we going to do about those poor people trapped on the plane?” To which at least one law enforcement official on the ground responded, “Shoot them”—not exactly the answer State was looking for.
State, Secret Service, and the FBI then began what bureaucrats refer to as an “interagency process.” In other words, they started fighting. The FBI believed that felons were to be arrested, even the Saudi variety. State had other ideas. Secret Service didn’t really have any, other than to make sure that the three Saudis in question didn’t get anywhere near the president or the vice president. State went to the mat in part because it was responsible for giving visas to the three in the first place. Since it was a government delegation—where all applications are generally handled at one time—the names were probably not run through the normal watch lists before the visas were issued.
Details about what happened to the three men in the end are not entirely clear, and no one at State was willing to provide any facts about the incident. What is clear, though, is that the three didn’t get anywhere near Crawford, but were also spared the “embarrassment” of arrest. And the House of Saud was spared an “international incident.” That normally staid bureaucrats engaged in incredible acrobatics to bail out three guys who never should have been in the United States in the first place says a great deal about State’s “special relationship” with the Saudis.
While many critics of the repressive Saudi regime like to target President Bush and his oil ties as the culprit of the overly cozy relationship, the roots actually go much deeper. It’s the small favors that are done every day—decisions made far below the President’s pay grade—that truly define the relationship.
That is how you can have three Saudis get special protection, preventing the FBI from doing its job. That is also how you can have American children kidnapped from American parents and taken to the desert prison—and the State Department does nothing to help recover them.
Though it cannot be said that U.S. diplomats do favors for the Saudis in the hopes of lucrative payoffs later on, the Saudis reward those officials who were kind to them while working for the State Department. Scads of former State Department officials now either work directly for the Saudis or for organizations that take Saudi petrodollars.
The Saudis think it is money well spent. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador the United States, once said, “If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.”
Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes recently suggested banning former diplomats from receiving Saudi cash, thereby hopefully lessening the pervasive Saudi influence. It’s by no means a panacea, but it seems as good as any place to start.