One of the ongoing mysteries in Washington is why the Obama administration is still classifying 28 pages of a congressional report written in 2003 that documents Saudi support for the hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
The bipartisan co-authors of that report have long called for its release to the public, and President Obama on two separate occasions over the last several years promised the 9/11 families that he would declassify the 28 pages.
Now pressure on Obama to make good on his promise is mounting. Advocates claim there is no longer any reason to protect the Saudis 15 years after the attacks. Government insiders argue there’s nothing in the 28 pages that they don’t already know, and making them public will only roil an important strategic relationship at a time when it’s already under significant strain.
Into this volatile mix marches 60 Minutes, the venerable CBS News show, with a hard-hitting report Sunday on the making of those 28 pages, and a renewed push by those with the most direct knowledge of what they contain to finally make them public. As the 60 Minutes segment points out, Obama is traveling to Saudi Arabia in 10 days, a trip that comes in the midst of his administration’s review of whether to go ahead with the de-classification.
Former Florida senator Bob Graham chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chaired the joint congressional committee that looked into the attacks. He told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, “I think it is implausible to believe that 19 people, most of whom didn’t speak English, most of whom had never been in the United States before, many of whom didn’t have a high school education, could’ve carried out such a complicated task without some support from within the United States.”
An exchange between Kroft and Graham goes to the heart of the dispute. “You believe that support came from Saudi Arabia?” Kroft asks. “Substantially,” Graham replies. “And when we say, ‘The Saudis,’ you mean the government…rich people in the country? Charities?”
“All of the above,” Graham replies.
It has long been the Saudi position that support for the hijackers did not come from the government, and the congressional report contained a line that seemed to exonerate the government. “It’s not an exoneration,” says former senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission who has filed an affidavit in support of a lawsuit brought by the 9/11 families seeking redress from the Saudi government for the loss of their loved ones.
The families don’t want another 9/11 anniversary to pass without fully understanding the complicity that led to the attacks. By turning its media megaphone on the impasse, 60 Minutes showed viewers the extraordinary range of high-profile former officials on both sides of the political aisle who wish to see this matter resolved. Porter Goss, who co-chaired the congressional inquiry with Graham and then became CIA director under President Bush, recounted asking then-FBI Director Robert Mueller why the 28 pages were classified and basically being told, “Because we said so.”
Withholding them during the Bush years made a certain amount of sense because the attacks were still so fresh, and the Bush family had long-standing close ties with the Saudi royal family. Making those pages public would be embarrassing. Obama has more freedom to make a decision based on national security considerations, but he may be reluctant to strain U.S. ties with the kingdom further.
Former Democratic congressman Tim Roemer, who was a member of the joint committee, says the 28 pages contain information that will surprise people, including, he suggests, leads that were not sufficiently pursued. He mentions an imam at a San Diego mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki, who years later would be taken out by a U.S. drone in Yemen. “Those are a lot of coincidences, and that’s a lot of smoke. Is that enough to make you squirm and uncomfortable, and dig harder—and declassify these 28 pages? Absolutely,” he said.
60 Minutes opened its report with an image of a locked door on Capitol Hill, behind which the 28 pages are kept under top security. Members of Congress can go and read the pages, but they cannot take notes or bring along a staff member. A relatively small percentage of lawmakers have availed themselves of the opportunity. A bipartisan effort led by Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina and Democrat Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts is urging members to read the pages, and once they’ve done that, to sign on to a resolution calling for their declassification.
John Lehman, secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and another member of the 9/11 Commission, told 60 Minutes: “We’re not a bunch of rubes that rode into Washington for this commission…We’ve seen fire and we’ve seen rain and the politics of national security. We all have dealt for our careers in highly classified and compartmentalized in every aspect of security. We know when something shouldn’t be declassified. And this, those 28 pages in no way fall into that category.”
There are real-life implications for the 9/11 families in these 28 pages and their potential impact on a lawsuit being heard in New York. The U.S. government holds the position that a sovereign government cannot be sued, and that has so far shielded the Saudi government. Lehman told 60 Minutes that he has no doubt some high Saudi officials knew assistance was being provided to al Qaeda, but he doesn’t think it was ever official policy. He also doesn’t think it absolves the Saudis of responsibility, Kroft said in his commentary.
“It was no accident that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. They all went to Saudi schools. They learned from the time they were first able to go to school—of this intolerant brand of Islam,” Lehman said, referring to the ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. After oil, Kroft says, Wahhabism is one of the kingdom’s biggest exports. Saudi clerics have billions of dollars to spread the faith, and the mosques and religious schools that the Saudi government builds all over the world are recruiting grounds for violent extremists.
It’s long past time that someone blew the whistle on what the Saudis are doing in perpetrating extremism. There are no secrets here. It’s what everyone knows is going on but few dare to disrupt. Shining a light on this long-standing protection racket could make some people squirm. It could also interrupt a very vicious cycle of behavior.