Since the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when news emerged that most of the airline hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, dark allegations have lingered about official Saudi ties to the terrorists. Fueling the suspicions: 28 still-classified pages in a congressional inquiry on 9/11 that raise questions about Saudi financial support to the hijackers in the United States prior to the attacks.
Both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have refused to declassify the pages on grounds of national security. But critics, including members of Congress who have read the pages in the tightly guarded, underground room in the Capitol where they are held, say national security has nothing to do with it. U.S. officials, they charge, are trying to hide the double game that Saudi Arabia has long played with Washington, as both a close ally and petri dish for the world’s most toxic brand of Islamic extremism.
One of the most prominent critics is former Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat who co-chaired the joint investigation of the House and Senate intelligence committees into the Sept. 11 attacks. On Wednesday, in a press conference with two current members of Congress and representatives of families who lost loved ones in the attacks, he will once again urge the Obama administration to declassify the pages—a move the White House has previously rebuffed.
“There are a lot of rocks out there that have been purposefully tamped down, that if were they turned over, would give us a more expansive view of the Saudi role” in assisting the 9/11 hijackers, Graham said in an interview. He maintains that nothing in them qualifies as a legitimate national security secret.
Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who has also read the pages, agrees. “There is no reason the 28 pages have not been made public,” Jones told Newsweek. “It’s not a national security issue.” Parts of it, however, Jones said, will be “somewhat embarrassing for the Bush administration,” because of “certain relationships with the Saudis.”
In July, the two co-chairman of a separate inquiry, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, likewise urged the White House to declassify the 28 pages.
“I’m embarrassed that they’re not declassified,“ former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind) said at a press conference with his co-chair Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. “I assumed all along that our records would be public—all of them, everything. And when I learned that a number of documents were classified or were even redacted, I was surprised and disappointed. I am embarrassed to be associated with a work product that is secret.”
Referring to widely reported connections between Saudis and two future hijackers in Southern California, Kean added, “We did research on that particular episode in San Diego with Saudi Arabia and believe if you read the 9/11 report you'll find you want to find about that particular section. There is no reason to classify it anymore.”
Their live-streamed press conference at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. received considerable attention. But Hamilton told Newsweek that he did not favor declassification of the 28 pages from the congressional investigation, just his own 9/11 Commission report. “I do not favor the declassification” of the the congressional probe’s pages, he said in a telephone interview. He added that he had "never read" that section of the other probe and “I don’t know what’s in it….No one ever came to me and said you ought to read these pages.” (He later amended that to say, “I can’t say I’ve never read them; I have no recollection of having read them.”) He evinced no interest in reading them now. “I haven't asked. I don’t think I would,” he said. “It depends on the terms of classification."
Kean could not be reached for clarification of his own remarks. A confidante of both men, who asked for anonymity, said that confusion over their comments arose from "the somewhat confusing” manner the question was raised about the 28 pages in the press conference.
According to Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Saudi officials “knew that people who had a mission for Osama bin Laden were in, or would soon be placed in, the United States. Whether they knew what their assignments were takes the inference too far.”
The 2002 joint congressional committee probe he co-chaired reported only that, “contacts in the United States helped hijackers find housing, open bank accounts, obtain drivers licenses, locate flight schools, and facilitate transactions.”
But in an interview with Newsweek, Graham said “the contacts” were Saudis with close connections to their government. “I think that in a very tightly controlled institution like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, activities that would be potentially negative to its relationship with its closest ally, the United States, would not have been made at any but the highest levels,” he said.
The Florida Democrat charged that there has been “an organized effort to suppress information” about Saudi support for terrorism, which "started long before 9/11 and continued to the period immediately after 9/11" and continues today.
“I don't think that anyone in any agency, whether it was the CIA or FBI or others, made the decision to do this,” Graham added, referring to the decision to classify the pages. “I think it was a decision made at the White House and the executive agencies that were responsible to the White House were told to keep this under rocks.”
The Obama administration has also kept the 28 pages under lock and key. President Obama ignored an April 14 letter from Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Ma), requesting that the documents be declassified. Two months later, they received a response from the director of national intelligence’s legislative liaison promising “a coordinated response on behalf of the President,” which never came. A White House spokesperson told Newsweek on Monday it would have no further comment.
Likewise, Philip D. Zelikow, who was executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and has read the pages, thinks they should remains secret. Now a professor of history at the University of Virginia, Zelikow compared the 28 pages to grand jury testimony and raw police interviews—full of unproven facts, rumors and innuendo. If the government did decide to make them public, he said, “hundreds, if not thousands” of additional pages of interviews would also likely need to be declassified.
In any event, he maintains, the Saudi connections were “a red herring.” The roles of three Yemenis in the U.S. who supported the future hijackers, he said, is the real untold story of the attacks.
“The more interesting story is where they”—the hijackers—“decided to settle here, and why,” said Zelikow, whom Obama appointed to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board in 2011.
On their part, the Saudis have also publicly called for the pages to be declassified. “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., has said. “We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”
With only 21 co-sponsors, the congressional resolution Jones and Lynch plan to introduce is not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, Washington and the Saudi royals still maintain their decades-long, cozy relationship. This week Prince Khaled bin Bandar, chief of Saudi intelligence, arrived in Washington for “discussions on joint efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” according to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.
Which is all the more reason why Graham persists in his efforts, however unlikely they may be to come to fruition.
“Saudi Arabia,” he said, “has not stopped its interest in spreading extreme Wahhabism.”
And there’s a direct line, he maintained, running from the fostering of that ideology to the creation of the Islamic State.
“ISIS...is a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support, although now they are making a pretense of being very anti-ISIS,” Graham added. “That’s like the parent turning on the wayward or out-of-control child.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the aforementioned congressional resolution had no co-sponsors. The article has been amended to reflect that the resolution has 21 co-sponsors.