Freedom denied

Posted: Sep 17, 2002 12:00 AM
Only days before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, the U.S. State Department helped the House of Saud keep two Americans from the very freedom for which we are fighting in the War on Terror. A recent memo sent to State Department headquarters in Washington from a U.S. consular officer in London shows that the department wasted a unique opportunity to move the two now-adult daughters of Patricia Roush, Alia and Aisha, closer to freedom--and in fact, State did the opposite. Held hostage in Saudi Arabia since being kidnapped from their suburban Chicago home by their Saudi national father in 1986, Alia and Aisha recently were unwittingly involved in an international fiasco masterminded by the House of Saud, publicized by the Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, and blessed by the U.S. State Department. There has been a tremendous amount of coverage of the incident in the past two weeks, but a newly obtained memo from the consular officer who spoke with Alia and Aisha spells out the State Department’s unwillingness to play an active role in advocating freedom for the young women. By all indications, State was a latecomer to the events surrounding the London escapade. On the same weekend that a congressional delegation led by Rep. Dan Burton (R., Ind.) arrived in Saudi Arabia to negotiate the release of American citizens, the two women topping Burton’s list surfaced in a London hotel--the first time they had ever left the desert prison. Since no Saudi sleight-of-hand would be complete without a little help from State, a consular officer met with the young women “at their request”--which is State’s contention, at least--at the posh Langham Hotel. Members of the press are not the only ones who were told that Alia and Aisha requested the encounter--the consular officer started off her conversation with the young women by explaining to them that they had requested the meeting. If they asked for the meeting, why did the consular officer need to tell them that they in fact requested it? The press flaks at State explain that Alia and Aisha were free from duress because they met with the consular officer in private with no Saudis in the room. The memo from the consular officer to the folks back in Washington, however, reveals a small, but extremely important, omission in that story: The room was bugged, and Alia and Aisha knew it. Because the consular officer did not know Arabic, a translator was present--over a speakerphone. In other words, there was a microphone possibly broadcasting the conversation to members of the Saudi royal family, among others--and State saw nothing wrong with this. Whether or not the translator alone was listening in is irrelevant: Alia and Aisha had no meaningful assurances that there were no Saudi government officials or operatives eavesdropping on the other end. Alia and Aisha had good reason to fear an open microphone in the room, because the swank hotel was teeming with Saudi men and at least one American working for the House of Saud. In this mini-Saudi Arabia, where the desert prison had merely changed scenery from sand dunes to red carpeting and chandeliers, the consular officer never bothered to ask the obvious question about coercion or undue influence. On the likely chance that Alia and Aisha were threatened, the consular officer should have made clear to them that they would be free of punishment and retaliation if they expressed a desire to come to the United States--but she did no such thing. The consular officer didn’t even give them any indication that they might be able to travel directly and immediately to the U.S. As far as the frightened young women knew, favorable statements about meeting their mother in the U.S. would be met with strenuous disapproval--or worse--from their father, the Saudi government, and the Saudi men who purchased them as brides. Even in the rather unlikely event that Alia and Aisha felt free to speak their minds, the consular officer should have spent a few moments to counter the House of Saud’s anti-American propaganda that the young women have been force fed for 16 years. Considering that Alia and Aisha are all too familiar with the concept of not being allowed to leave a country, the consular officer should have explained to them that no one is ever prevented from leaving the U.S., that there is no American counterpart to the Saudi “exit visa.” The consular officer stayed silent on this count as well. When asked about the wisdom of legitimizing the Saudi scheme to portray Alia and Aisha as two women who want no part of freedom, State’s top flak Richard Boucher nonchalantly replied that his department’s actions were “normal.” If these actions are “normal” for the diplomatic corps, then State isn’t fighting for the one thing the rest of us are in the war on terror: freedom.