The Saudi cover-up

Posted: Jul 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Saddam Hussein never got it. He didn't realize that personal schmoozing in Washington and spreading lots of money around to former and soon-to-be U.S. government officials were the keys to realizing his geopolitical ambitions. He, in short, never learned the Saudi lesson.

How else to explain the differing treatments of the Iraqi and Saudi governments?

The Bush administration included a line in this year's State of the Union address about Saddam's alleged efforts to acquire uranium in Africa that was defensible, but hardly bulletproof -- prompting an (overblown) national scandal. Now the administration is withholding from a congressional report sections dealing with Saudi support and financing for terrorism -- which should prompt a (long-overdue) national scandal.

Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama who co-chaired the panel, said, "This might be embarrassing information, but I don't believe it meets the test of real classification." Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida (and presidential candidate) who was the other co-chair, said that the administration is "protecting a foreign government." That makes a kind of bipartisan consensus on the question.

The only apparent reason to keep the Saudi section under wraps is that it will embarrass Riyadh. If so, President Bush should have, at the outset, announced an important codicil to the Bush Doctrine that foreign governments have to choose between supporting us or supporting the terrorists -- unless it discomfits the Saudi royal family.

Saddam's grossest error, of course, was invading Kuwait. But if he had taken the Saudi route, he probably could have gotten away with presenting much more direct threats to the interests of the United States.

Riyadh created a worldwide Islamic extremist network that provides the sea in which al-Qaida swims. Islamic expert Alex Alexiev has reported that the Saudi push for its extremist brand of Islam represents "the largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted." Saudi "charities," nominally private but really controlled by the government, have pumped funds to terror groups. Saudi-funded Islamic schools promoted the radicalization of Islam in Pakistan and provided the recruits for the Taliban terror regime in Afghanistan.

According to a report in Newsweek, the 9-11 report documents how a Saudi who might have been a government agent had ties to two of the suicide hijackers living in San Diego prior to the attacks.

But Saudi flack Prince Bandar has extensive personal relationships with top Washington policy-makers -- he used to play racquetball with Colin Powell -- and knows the way to official Washington's heart: cash. The Saudis make a practice, for instance, of buying former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia. "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office," Bandar once said, "you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office."

So, when a terrorist conspiracy with Saudi links murders 3,000 Americans, the Saudis are treated very gently. Coddling the Saudis has become an ingrained Washington habit. The Bush administration does not usually skimp on tough rhetoric, but has hardly said a discouraging public word about the Saudis, and now is actively keeping such words from being published.

The administration probably tells itself it is somehow doing "moderates" in the Saudi government a favor. But the U.S. government has a moral obligation to give the American public as much information as possible about what forces led to the mass murder of 9-11. And embarrassment is something the Saudis need more of. Craven above all, the Saudis will respond to public pressure, so long as the United States doesn't keep them from feeling it.

The Democrats have been flailing for most of the past two years, attempting to find some way to criticize Bush's handling of the war on terror. Most of the criticisms have been bogus, but the overly solicitous attitude toward Riyadh is a ripe and legitimate target. Here's hoping that Democrats fix on it in earnest. It's not just in their partisan self-interest -- it is their patriotic duty.