Partnering with the Saudis

Posted: Aug 03, 2003 12:00 AM
U.S.-Saudi relations aren't easily parsed. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that the two countries have information about each other that they don't want publicized. In the exchange early in the week, the Saudis seemed to trump the Americans. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said it was perfectly OK by him to release the 28 pages from the congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 strike. It was President Bush who declined to authorize the release of those pages.

Why? Because, Bush said, there's stuff in there that we don't want in general circulation because that would jeopardize our channels of communication -- perhaps some of the people who give us information, perhaps some of the methods we use to get information.

The Saudi government was clearly teasing the Bush administration with its show of we-have-nothing-to-hide. But its role is not all that easy, because the government does not want to give us back Omar al-Bayoumi. On this matter the Saudis are saying that we had extensive opportunity to interrogate Bayoumi and to prosecute him, if he was found in any way implicated in the Sept. 11 attack. We let him go, he is back home -- why should we want him yet again?

Now these exchanges remind us that all nations have secrets. There isn't a whole lot, we can safely assume, that the U.S. government would want to withhold from the British government, but undoubtedly there are some things there, as when we inched our way forward, starting as early as 1949, to conclude that His Majesty's servant Harold "Kim" Philby was actually working not for Great Britain, but for the Soviet Union.

In that situation, the two countries had a common interest: remove Philby from access he had been enjoying to U.S. secrets and remove him from British espionage work, pending the accumulation of evidence sufficient to put him in the Tower of London. (When the counterespionage team finally started closing in on him, in 1963, he fled to Moscow.) A relevant historical detail, because the U.S. government didn't want to tell our sister power everything that had contributed to our knowledge that Philby the Brit was a Soviet agent.

But Saudi openhandedness doesn't quite do it all. There is one datum that can't be made to go away: Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who hijacked the four airplanes on 9/11 were Saudis. From this dominating fact we quite naturally want to know what we can about the terrorists. How were they infected, how trained, how financed, how protected? What about fellow terrorists who didn't die on that mission in America? Where are they? Who is sheltering them?

The official explanation, of course, is that they were agents of Osama bin Laden, terrorists in the ongoing al-Qaida enterprise. What the congressional investigation told us was that the intelligence community didn't have any way to predict exactly what would happen on Sept. 11. In the language of the report, "Beginning in 1998 and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States." And what that language calls to mind is that the office of Homeland Security has told us that we should anticipate another attack in the near future.

How to prepare ourselves? Is there a further precaution to take, beyond removing our shoes at airports?

That question brings us back to Saudi Arabia. Whatever the detours taken, it was Saudi money that financed the terrorists of 9/11, and we continue to learn that Saudi money is circulating through U.S. foundations and charities, financing mischievous activity. The Saudis had, in the attack on Riyadh in May, a taste of terrorism on their own soil. There are reports that Saudi officials are cracking down on security risks.

But Saudi Arabia is a mess. They're good at chopping off the heads of people clearly guilty of high treason, but not so good at diligent measures to abort the gestation of such people. For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia is an incompetent, backward, bureaucratic, strategically illiterate rich lump. Tiny Qatar, operating in the bosom of Saudi Arabia, continues to sponsor al-Jazeera, the Goebbels of the Middle East. On Thursday, it broadcast one more message by Saddam Hussein urging more activity by al-Qaida. More killing. What do the Saudis need to stanch that nosebleed?