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From the October 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 10)

Middle East

Saudi Arabia: Vanishing Ink

Peter Valenti, World Press Review contributing editor

U.S. Congressional report on intelligence failures connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The heavily censored U.S. congressional report outlining intelligence failures connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).
Debate in the Arab world over the United States’ foreign-policy agenda erupted anew with the release July 24 of a congressional report tracing intelligence failures connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The furor resulted from 28 pages of material the Bush administration deemed too sensitive to declassify. Members of Congress and the media reacted by claiming the White House had shielded Saudi wrongdoing.

The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Bandar ibn Sultan, proclaimed, “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with the questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.” Most Saudi op-eds and editorials on the fallout from the report echoed Bandar’s sentiments. Al-Watan’s July 30 editorial was concise: “We say release the pages to the public.”

Many writers suspected that the information in the missing pages was circumstantial. Ali Sa’d al-Musa wrote in an Aug. 1 op-ed in Al-Watan that because the U.S. government has no hard evidence of Saudi officials’ complicity with terrorists, it orchestrated a fake “cover-up” of the 28 pages to leave the impression that it does have such evidence. Uthman Mir Ghani chided the report in an Al-Sharq al-Awsat op-ed (July 30), suggesting that, given the U.S. intelligence track record on Iraq and in the pre-9/11 period, the report was far from infallible. In Talal Salih Banan’s July 31 op-ed in Okaz, he asked, “Is there something pertaining to the American administration that it wants to hide and is embarrassed to make public?”

Quite a few Arab writers saw a hidden hand behind Saudi Arabia’s critics. While they often point to the role of U.S. neoconservatives, those looking for villains inevitably turn to Israel. Mutasher al-Murshid said in an Al-Riyadh op-ed (Aug. 3): “I won’t hide my suspicions that the contents of the report…are based on obscured information derived from some Zionist writings and sources.” An angry July 31 Al-Watan editorial stated that even as two Saudi police officers were killed capturing terrorists, pro-Israel representatives in the U.S. Congress were “reaping the benefits” of the deleted pages.

Some Saudi writers turned their gaze inward. In particular, they focused on the lack of government controls over monetary flows and charitable donations before Sept. 11. Ghani took this position: “Without a doubt, mistakes have been made [in financial institutions]…and in the manner of allowing Saudi youth to head off to foreign battlefields, and in the lack of preventing incendiary rhetoric….However, all of this does not in any way amount to organized [government] involvement or encouragement of acts of terrorism.” 

In an Al-Watan op-ed (Aug. 6), Adel Zayd al-Tarifi focused on financial support for terrorism. “Money transfers were happening prior to Sept. 11 even in the United States itself before such problems were detected in other countries such as Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And terrorist organizations benefited from charity activities in Saudi Arabia…under a curtain of misrepresentation [of themselves].”

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