Argument

28 Pages, Zero Proof of Anything

It should be clear to even the most die-hard conspiracy theorists that the argument for official Saudi involvement in 9/11 is bogus.

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The recently declassified “28 pages” from the joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks had the potential to rock the U.S.-Saudi relationship at a critical moment. The long-delayed release of these missing pages fed the conspiracy that Washington was hiding Riyadh’s official involvement in the 9/11 attacks. 

But the pages are not “devastating” to Saudi Arabia, as Simon Henderson provocatively alleges in a recent Foreign Policy article. If anything, the conspiracy theory peddled by former Sen. Bob Graham that Saudi Arabia ran a network of intelligence agents in the United States who were central to the 9/11 plot and to the hijackers’ ability to carry out the attacks is bust.

With the release of the pages last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the director of the CIA, the White House, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, and the 9/11 Commission chairs all noted that the unvetted information in the missing pages provided absolutely no credible intelligence that the kingdom was linked to the 9/11 plot.

The revelations in the 28 pages don’t amount to a smoking gun for the simple reason that the information they contain was, by its nature, preliminary. They were nothing more than early leads to be investigated by the FBI and CIA and later the independent 9/11 Commission. And they were investigated thoroughly.

Indeed, before the pages were released, CIA Director John Brennan said they consisted of “a preliminary review that put information in there that was not corroborated, not vetted, and not deemed to be accurate.”

The joint congressional inquiry that produced the 28 pages acknowledged its investigation as far from conclusive. More than a decade ago, when its 9/11 report was first published, the committee noted it “has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues … [and that it] was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of such alleged support to the hijackers.”

The 9/11 Commission — backed by the intelligence community — found no information that the “Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded [al Qaeda].” Similarly, in 2013, Congress directed the FBI to establish the 9/11 Review Commission to further assess any available evidence, which found that there was no new evidence that “would change the 9/11 Commission’s findings regarding responsibilities for the 9/11 attacks.”

Despite the seemingly “devastating” leads, the conclusions were anything but. Here is a quick review of the supposed revelations in the 28 pages that fizzled upon closer inquiry:

  • Allegations that “Saudi intelligence officers” in the United States were in contact with the hijackers turned out to be just that — allegations. Investigators in the 9/11 Commission and the intelligence community concluded that such claims did not pan out. According to the Office of the Inspector General’s report on CIA accountability, the OIG team “encountered no evidence that the Saudi Government knowingly and willingly supported al-Qa’ida terrorists. Individuals in both the Near East Division (NE) and the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) [redacted] told the Team they had not seen any reliable reporting confirming Saudi Government involvement with and financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11.”
  • The 28 pages posit that Princess Haifa bint Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then-Saudi ambassador to the United States, was a crucial link to at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, providing them with financial support — but no evidence supports the allegation. Here’s what the 9/11 Commission actually concluded in a staff monograph released after the final report: “Despite persistent public speculation, there is no evidence that the hijackers who initially settled in San Diego, Mihdhar and Hazmi, received funding from Saudi citizens Omar al Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, or that Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal provided any funds to the hijackers either directly or indirectly.”
  • Detractors have honed in on the 28 pages’ references to Saudi connections to al-Haramain, a Saudi Arabia-based charity found to have provided illicit financing to extremists — but fail to acknowledge the kingdom’s role in shuttering it. The Saudi government froze some of al-Haramain’s assets in 2002 and shut it down entirely in 2004, based on evidence it gathered in partnership with U.S. intelligence services. Despite Washington’s investigations into the group during the 1990s, as evidence mounted that individual employees and branches might be financing al Qaeda and extremist groups, the Treasury Department didn’t take any action against the group or notify Riyadh until after 9/11. The State Department concluded in a January 2003 memo that Riyadh showed a willingness to address groups that are found to be involved in terrorism financing.

On actually reading thoroughly both the official conclusions and the much hyped pages released last week, I let out a sigh. Although it may be tempting to believe there’s a secret “smoking gun” as Graham and others may peddle, there’s no credible evidence to point to the Saudi government’s direct involvement. There may be reasonable doubt that some Saudis did engage in financing such groups, but as for official government involvement in 9/11, there’s frankly no “there” there — the facts speak for themselves, as inconvenient as they are to some.

There’s legitimate criticism of President Barack Obama’s diplomacy toward the Arab Gulf countries. But as the gathering of defense and foreign ministers from more than 30 countries in Washington this week shows, the White House is rightly focused on the actual threat — the Islamic State. The jihadi group, after all, recently launched a series of devastating suicide bombings across three cities in Saudi Arabia, while a “lone-wolf” gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people in Orlando, Florida, last month. As the Islamic State kicks its terrorism campaign into high gear, the focus shouldn’t be on conspiracies, but on how to confront the common challenges Washington and Riyadh face.

SAUL LOEB / Staff

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