Obama under pressure over 'secret 9/11 report' ahead of Saudi trip
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As Barack Obama heads to Saudi Arabia next week, the US president is under increasing pressure to declassify redacted pages of a 9/11 report detailing Saudi connections to the attacks.
Secured behind a locked door in a secret vault on Capitol Hill in the heart of Washington, DC sits a 28-page document that only a small group of people have been permitted to see. Members of Congress may go into the room and read them – but they cannot take notes or be accompanied by members of their staff when doing so.
Such is the veil of secrecy behind what has come to be known as “the 28 pages” – or the final chapter of the 9/11 investigation report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The 28 pages documenting Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers were redacted in 2003, when the 838-page report was released, due to national security concerns.
More than a decade later, that piece of the investigation into the worst terrorist attack on US soil is still – very controversially – under wraps.
But as Obama heads to Saudi Arabia next week for a visit that will include a meeting with King Salman, the outgoing US president is facing increasing pressure to declassify those pages.
The pressure comes amid rising tensions in US-Saudi relations, with the Sunni Wahhabi kingdom – under an increasingly bellicose Salman – opposed to Washington’s overtures to its arch rival, Iran, which culminated in a nuclear deal last year. A decreasing US reliance on Saudi oil has further strained a bilateral relationship once considered too important to fray. Suddenly, realpolitik imperatives are not sufficient to silence the howls for accountability from the families of the 9/11 victims and the US public at large.
What lies in the pages?
The clamour to unseal the 28 papers ahead of Obama’s Saudi trip was sparked by an April 10 report on the respected US television magazine, 60 Minutes, which detailed the level of frustration among senior US officials who have been pushing for a declassification over the past 13 years.
These senior former and current officials include Florida Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committe and co-chairman of the inquiry, and former CIA director Porter Goss, who was also a co-chairman of the inquiry.
Two days after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Sen. Graham told Fox News that the White House had informed him that a decision on whether to declassify the documents would be made in one to two months.
Graham provided no details on why it would take a month or two, although White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday that the 28 papers were the subject of an intelligence community “classification review.”
Asked about any alleged Saudi ties to 9/11, Earnest cited the 9/11 Commission's findings that there was no evidence the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials funded al Qaeda.
Saudi authorities have long maintained that support for the hijackers did not come from the government.
In the absence of public access to the papers, rumours have long circulated that the 28 pages detail funding for the 9/11 al Qaeda hijackers – not necessarily from the Saudi government, but from wealthy Saudis, including members of the royal family.
In the 60 Minutes report, Sen. Graham was asked if he believed support for the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
“Substantially,” Graham replied.
CBS reporter Steve Kroft pushed the US Congressman further: “And when we say, ‘The Saudis,’ you mean the government…rich people in the country? Charities?”
“All of the above,” Sen. Graham replied.
The times have changed
US government officials, however, argue that the redacted pages do not contain any information the public does not already know.
But advocates for the declassification point that if that were true, the Obama administration has no reason to maintain the redaction.
They also note that the redaction probably made sense under the George W. Bush presidency given the close personal relationship between the Bush and Saudi royal families.
Given the sensitive nature of US-Saudi relations in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, as well as the US dependence on oil, a redaction was understandable under the circumstances.
But those circumstances have changed.
A report entitled “The Obama Doctrine” in US monthly The Atlantic details the extent to which the current US president is willing to shake up the old ties of dependence that bound Washington to the Sunni Arab world.
The Saudis – involved in a military campaign in neighbouring Yemen and a soft power conflict against Iran that exasperates Washington – have appeared increasingly truculent over the past year.
Eyebrows were raised last year when King Salman decided not to join a summit of Gulf leaders hosted by Obama at his Camp David country residence.
Although Obama has already made three visits to Saudi Arabia during his presidency, both Washington and Riyadh know the dynamics of the US-Saudi relations are changing.
When Obama meets with Salman on Wednesday, the families of the 9/11 victims – including those supporting a lawsuit seeking redress from the Saudi government for the loss of their loved ones – will be carefully watching for any public comment on the 28 pages.