O'Reilly the Wrong Factor in Saudi Abduction Case

Posted: Sep 06, 2002 12:00 AM
In a move that crossed traditional journalistic boundaries - and not for the better - Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly arranged a rendezvous in London last weekend for Patricia Roush's two daughters (who were escorted to Europe by many Saudi men), an O'Reilly Factor producer, and of course, a P.R. pit bull who worked for the Saudis. Details of how he and his staff helped coordinate the London excursion for Roush's daughters, Alia and Aisha, came out during a segment on his show Tuesday with Roush and the producer who interviewed the girls off-camera. O'Reilly has taken the most heat for beating up on Roush - he at one point called her "too emotional," not the choicest phrase to describe a mother who has dedicated the past 16 years to recovering her kidnapped children - but Roush is a tough, feisty lady who can stand up to him, and O'Reilly has apologized for his treatment of her. It's going to take more than a rude snap during a television interview to shake a woman who simply dreams of the day when she can cook pasta with her daughters and granddaughter at her side. Some people close to the Roush case suspect that O'Reilly does not really care about the girls' plight, but that theory doesn't seem right. In a phone interview with me Wednesday, O'Reilly seemed to sincerely want to help Alia and Aisha, and he passionately believes he did the right thing. Unfortunately, he didn't. This is yet another path to hell paved with good intentions. The talk host has justifiably been widely criticized for arranging to help two American citizens - who were kidnapped by their Saudi national father in 1986 - temporarily leave Saudi Arabia at the very time a congressional delegation was arriving there to negotiate their release. But the girls were getting out of Saudi last week, O'Reilly or no O'Reilly. The Saudis have a particular disdain for Roush, and they also know the significance of her case in Rep. Dan Burton's original decision to take a congressional delegation there. O'Reilly just provided the Saudis with a convenient opportunity. O'Reilly's maneuvers were not driven by any secret sympathies he harbors for the despotic Saudi tyrants - he is no fan of the House of Saud. In fact, he played a leading role earlier this year in showcasing the now-infamous Visa Express program. But that's the maddening thing: He knows enough about the Saudis to know better. Repeatedly exclaiming "they're gone for good" during the phone interview, O'Reilly is convinced that Roush's daughters will never breathe freedom again - and that they will never want to. But how could he believe this when his sentiment is based on what Alia and Aisha said in a London hotel under close Saudi supervision? In the phone interview, the talk-show host admitted that the girls were obviously brainwashed - Aisha described Osama bin Laden as a "peaceful person" - and that the hotel was a coercive environment. Yet he maintains that the interview room in the hotel itself was "not coercive." He tries to have it both ways: showing that he understands the enormous pressures the girls face, but also that
The Factor was able to instantaneously erase 16 years of unrelenting manipulation in a few hours. For some inexplicable reason, O'Reilly refuses to accept that the Saudi representative tainted the whole interview - because, he reasons, the P.R. woman is an American. But being an American, sadly, makes the woman's presence no less pernicious than that of a member of the royal family - because that's who she works for. The girls understood what O'Reilly apparently did not: The woman was going to report back to the House of Saud. Even if the girls somehow had the unlikely ability to overcome 16 years of psychological torture in mere moments, Alia's newborn baby, Bisma, was not in the interview room with her mother and may not have even been in the hotel. O'Reilly curiously stated on Wednesday night's show, in response to criticism for Tuesday's Roush segment, that the deciding factor in agreeing to the London interview was that a U.S. consular officer would privately meet with the girls. This suggests ignorance of the State Department, at the very least. State has a terrible track record of helping abducted American children, even when those children show up literally at their door. When Monica Stowers begged the U.S. embassy to help her rescue her two children a decade ago while they were physically in the embassy, Americans at the consulate snidely remarked that the embassy was "not a hotel" - and her children were deliberately sent back into the clutches of the House of Saud. But there's a more direct precedent for the current situation. When Dria Davis was kidnapped at age eleven by her Saudi father, a consular officer interviewed her in Saudi Arabia. The American State Department employee believed the sham appearance of a happy, albeit kidnapped, Dria. What she didn't know then from her cursory discussion is that Dria's father had threatened to kill her if she did not do exactly as told - which we only know now because Dria's mother paid to have her smuggled out of the desert prison three years ago. O'Reilly had to know Dria's experience, because she was a guest on the same show as Roush, and she even reminded him that Alia and Aisha had almost certainly been similarly threatened. Bill O'Reilly has done some great journalism, and he's even achieved major reforms on important issues. Maybe that impressive track record made him a little too ambitious in this instance: He decided he could in one month solve a 16-year ordeal. There was no way he could have - nor should he have tried. With genuinely good - but sorely misguided - intentions, he stepped all over a situation he never should have inserted himself into in the first place. But no matter how much damage O'Reilly caused - though he did some specific good - the real villain in this tale is the State Department. State bought into the lie that Alia and Aisha were "happy" as part of a "statement" they gave to the consular officer - and then State immediately lied to the American public about the condition under which the lies were made. O'Reilly's interview and explanation of the circumstances surrounding the London trip lay bare the ridiculous assertion by State over the weekend that Alia and Aisha were "on vacation." This lie was meant to hoodwink Americans about the real nature of the trip - which was for Saudi p.r. purposes - and disguise it as some voluntary, spontaneous action by the girls. It was no such thing. State's greater sin than lying, though, was to put the seal of legitimacy on the Saudi scam. State did not have to be the Saudis' lackey, but it chose to be. All is not lost, however. Though he is pessimistic about the prospects for Alia and Aisha ever reaching freedom, O'Reilly's dedication to the case has brought tremendous exposure, and the interview clearly showed the effects of Saudi brainwashing - something that State didn't even mention in its official line about the girls' "statement." No one can be sure how or when this case will end, but Pat Roush will hopefully get to cook that pasta with her daughters and granddaughter at her side before long - in spite of the State Department's efforts to shatter her simple dream.