State Department aids Saudis, again

Posted: Dec 14, 2002 12:00 AM
At a hearing this Wednesday, Congress unfortunately made little progress in its bid to unravel a web of Saudi deceit on a number of child abduction cases where American citizen children are unable to leave the desert prison of Saudi Arabia. And refraining from putting any pressure on the House of Saud was the Saudi royal family’s most loyal ally: the U.S. State Department. For about the past six months, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) has been working to ensure the release of American citizens—estimated to be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of women and children—who are not allowed to exit the kingdom. Congressman Burton is particularly interested, however, in learning about the one case where two American citizens did exit Saudi Arabia—on the very same weekend he led a Congressional delegation to try and negotiate their release. The highest-profile Saudi child abduction case is that of Patricia Roush’s two daughters, who were kidnapped from their suburban Chicago home in 1986 by their Saudi national father. Alia and Aisha had been unable to leave Saudi Arabia for 16 years—until the Burton-led delegation arrived in the kingdom. Shortly before the lawmakers landed, the House of Saud had the girls shuttled off to a London hotel—surrounded by Saudi men and government officials in order to create a mini-Saudi Arabia—to give a canned statement to both a producer for Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor and a U.S. consular officer. Paid Saudi flacks—American PR and lobbying firms, whose executives testified at the hearing—framed and “sold” the fiasco as a “vacation,” but Burton’s committee wants to know what else was going on behind the scenes, and what other assistance the Saudi mouthpieces have been providing. But the Saudi spin doctors are not turning over any documents, citing “lobbyist privilege”—an argument not taken seriously by just about anyone, except the State Department. Taking yet another pass on an opportunity to pressure the House of Saud to release American citizens held against their will in Saudi Arabia, State’s official position was that the claims of privilege raised “novel and complex questions that concern both domestic and international law.” But in light of the opinion of the world’s leading expert on the relevant international law—who thinks there is no such privilege—and long-established and court-tested U.S. law, the legal theories aren’t “novel” or “complex” at all—they’re just plain wrong. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which dates back to the pre-World War II era, requires all paid agents of foreign governments to register, disclose all “propaganda” used on behalf of the foreign sovereign, and the agent’s files are subject to search at any time by the Department of Justice. FARA was passed to stop the secret spread of Nazi propaganda, which Congress believed posed a very real threat. Now, Burton’s committee believes that the activities of the Saudi mouthpieces—who are paid upwards of $200,000 each
per month--should see the light of day, allowing the American people to make fully informed decisions about what kind of “friend” Saudi Arabia really is. But if the documents are eventually turned over, the American people may learn even more about the kind of “friend” they have in the State Department. Every other time internal State documents have been handed over to the committee, there have been e-mails or memos disparaging the American parents or recommendations for Secretary of State Colin Powell not to press the issue of child abductions with the Saudi royal family. The sham “statement” given by Roush’s two daughters in London, for example, never would have received the stamp of legitimacy that it did if not for the helping hand of State—the result of a decision made by top officials there. In written testimony to the committee for Wednesday’s hearing, Will Taft, of State’s legal office, offered hollow praise for Rep. Burton’s efforts: “Your attention to these cases and your visit to Saudi Arabia have been very useful in underscoring to the Government of Saudi Arabia the importance the Congress and the American people attach to resolution of these cases.” If only State could do something—anything—to “underscore” to the House of Saud the importance it also supposedly attaches to the safe return of abducted American children.