The publication of a 900-page congressional report last month into intelligence lapses before the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001, ignited speculation about Saudi involvement after the White House refused to authorise the publication of 28 pages reportedly pertaining to allegations against the Saudis.
The report concluded that nothing could have been done to avert the attacks, but it also catalogued a series of failures by the intelligence services, the FBI and government departments. However, discussion of these failures, and virtually everything else, disappeared in the storm of controversy and speculation on the contents of the censored pages. Published parts of the report allege that two of the supposed hijackers had contacts with Omar al-Bayouti, a Saudi national who also had ties to the Saudi government. He left the US in April 2001 and denies all involvement, saying that he has been cleared by all investigations.
Other parts of the report allege that the Saudi authorities had been reluctant to cooperate with US attempts to investigate the attacks or take action against al-Qa’ida sympathisers in the kingdom. Fifteen of the nineteen alleged hijackers were Saudis.
The Saudi government reacted with fury to the speculation. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US, said :"The idea that the Saudi government funded, organised or even knew about September 11 is malicious and blatantly false." In a sharply detailed statement he described Saudi cooperation with the US: "Saudi Arabia has questioned over 1,000 individuals, arrested more than 500 suspects and succeeded in extraditing Al-Qaida members from other countries to face justice...Bank accounts of suspected individuals have been frozen and ...stringent banking regulations implemented. Saudi Arabia today has some of the toughest counter-terrorism laws and regulations in the world."
What Bandar may suspect, but be unable to say, is that the decision to omit the controversial passages, and so open the Saudis to unanswerable speculation, may well have been made specifically to divert attention and criticism from the Bush administration. Some officials involved in the congressional investigation said that they had pushed for the publication of the omitted pages, but White House officials had insisted on their omission.
The question, then, is what the White House may be trying to conceal. The answer may well lie in a statement issued earlier in the month by the chairman and vice-chairman of the federal commission investigating the attacks. They charge that they was systematically hampered by federal agencies and administration staff.
The chairman of the commission, Thomas Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, and his vice chairman, the former congressman Lee Hamilton, said that the vast majority of documents they have requested from various agencies have yet to appear. They particularly criticise the Pentagon for withholding material relating to air defences before and on September 11. The air force has been criticised for the apparent failure of its normal procedures to intercept hijacked aircraft.
Kean and Hamilton also called attention to the administration’s insistence that all government witnesses to the commission be accompanied by officials representing their agencies when interviewed by commission staff. Kean said: "I think the commission feels unanimously that it’s some intimidation to have someone sitting behind you all the time who you either work for or who works for your agency. You might get less testimony than you would otherwise. We would rather interview these people without minders or without agency people there." His use of the word "minders" brings to mind the Ba’athist Iraqi government’s use of official minders to sit in on interviews by UN weapons inspectors. At the time the Bush administration said that such tactics proved that Saddam had something to hide.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States was only established because of intense campaigning by families of the victims of September 11, and after strong opposition from the Bush administration.
Bush initially appointed former secretary of state Henry Kissinger as its chairman, in an attempt to ensure that the political establishment’s interests were protected. Kissinger stepped down after only two weeks, refusing to declare his business connections in the Middle East, and Kean was appointed. The commission has a deadline (May 27, 2004) for producing its report, and Kean pointed out that nearly half its time is already gone without it even being able to get the information it needs.
Only outside the mainstream are people asking awkward questions about information the government may have had, what government officials knew and when they knew it, and the sequence of events immediately before, during and after the attacks. These are questions the establishment is clearly reluctant to face. This reluctance is itself very suggestive.