AUGUST 1, 2003
Since the joint congressional committee investigating September 11 issued a censored version of its report on July 24, there's been considerable speculation about the 28 pages blanked out from the section entitled "Certain Sensitive National Security Matters." The section cites "specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers," which most commentators have interpreted to mean Saudi contributions to Al Qaeda-linked charities. But an official who has read the report tells The New Republic that the support described in the report goes well beyond that: It involves connections between the hijacking plot and the very top levels of the Saudi royal family. "There's a lot more in the 28 pages than money. Everyone's chasing the charities," says this official. "They should be chasing direct links to high levels of the Saudi government. We're not talking about rogue elements. We're talking about a coordinated network that reaches right from the hijackers to multiple places in the Saudi government."
This week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal flew to Washington for a hastily convened meeting with President Bush. Faisal publicly demanded that the 28 pages be declassified, but he had to have known in advance, and welcomed the fact, that his request would be denied--ostensibly friendly nations don't normally send their foreign ministers to meetings halfway around the world to be surprised. For his part, Bush has insisted that revealing the 28 pages would compromise "sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror." But the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time of the joint inquiry, Florida Democrat Bob Graham and Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, rejected that argument, contending that perhaps only 5 percent of the 28 pages would compromise national security if made public. Graham and Shelby are leading a drive in Congress to force the government to declassify the documents. While the new chairman and vice-chairman of the committee, Kansas Republican and Bush loyalist Pat Roberts and West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, have yet to endorse Graham and Shelby's request, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback and New York Senator Charles Schumer have begun gathering signatures demanding declassification.
The Bush administration has, of course, good reason for not wanting to ruffle the Saudis by declassifying the 28 pages. Saudi Arabia sits atop 25 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and, through its dominant position in OPEC, essentially controls the global energy market. In addition to stabilizing world oil prices--most recently during the run-up to the war with Iraq--the Saudis also directly subsidize American consumers by offering oil at lower prices to the United States. In a 2002 article for Foreign Affairs, petroleum experts Edward Morse and James Richard estimated the subsidy at $620 million a year. It's probably much larger now, given recent trends in oil prices and the volume of oil imports. A serious conflict with the Saudis could not only disrupt an already turbulent Middle East, but could halt the economic recovery here and perhaps even precipitate a global downturn.
The Bush administration has insisted, again and again, that the war on terror is its first priority. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued, "The battle to secure the peace in Iraq is now the central battle in the global war on terror." Wolfowitz says this presumably because he still believes that Saddam Hussein's regime had close ties with Al Qaeda. But it's looking more and more like the principal theater in the war on terror lies elsewhere. The official who read the 28 pages tells The New Republic, "If the people in the administration trying to link Iraq to Al Qaeda had one-one-thousandth of the stuff that the 28 pages has linking a foreign government to Al Qaeda, they would have been in good shape." He adds: "If the 28 pages were to be made public, I have no question that the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia would change overnight."
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic. Spencer Ackerman is an assistant editor at The New Republic.