Bush's bungled Saudi deal-making

President Bush and his lawyer, the former U.S. ambassador in Riyadh, wasted a golden opportunity to pressure the Saudis to crack down on terrorism.

Published July 23, 2004 5:36PM (EDT)

Now that the 9/11 commission report has been released, it is essential to take a closer look at the dark side of the Bush administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia since it declared a war on terror. President Bush sent his personal lawyer, Robert Jordan, to Riyadh as ambassador in 2001-03. Although Jordan was successful in obtaining superficial and grudging support from Saudi leaders for the invasion of Iraq, the administration gave up too much in return for support so weak that it mattered little to the course of the invasion. The White House's horse-trading with the Saudis ultimately served to reduce America's security against terror from the land with so much involvement in Osama bin Laden's 9/11 attack. What's more, the rush to war itself, resulting in subsequent terrorist attacks on the kingdom's own soil, undermined a potential pro-U.S. tilt in Saudi Arabia and may have slowed political reforms in Saudi Arabia that would have made America safer from terrorism. For all the Bush administration's attempts at concealing these disadvantageous deals, their outlines are becoming clearer.

Jordan became Bush's attorney long before Bush became president. As a corporate defense lawyer in the Houston law firm of Baker Botts ("Baker" as in James Baker, George H.W. Bush's close friend and secretary of state), Jordan personally represented the younger Bush in 1991-93. The Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Bush on insider-trading violations involving stock of his company, Harken Energy. Jordan's obstructive tactics in that case are noteworthy. One key Harken memo in Jordan's hands would have gone far toward establishing Bush's guilty intent. Disobeying rightful SEC demands for documents, however, Jordan withheld this memo from the SEC until the week after the SEC sent its 1993 letter suspending the case, asserting that he had just then decided that a claim of privilege he had previously thought shielded the memo no longer applied.

Jordan's privilege claim appears bogus, and his supposedly belated awakening to the need to drop the claim appears staged. Stripped of the cute veiling, it looks more like an elaborate maneuver for keeping a hot potato out of the SEC's hands until the finagling of Bush's dicey reprieve.

Clearly, Bush had found in Jordan a lawyer he could trust to work solely for his own interests -- just the man to send as deal-maker to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers were longtime friends of the Bush family unmatched in the exchange of favors. Saudi leaders -- particularly Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington nicknamed "Bandar Bush" within the Bush family for being so close -- welcomed the 2001 change from President Clinton to President Bush. They hoped it meant they would get some relief from U.S. pressure on the most sensitive of issues, the threat to the United States posed by al-Qaida, the terrorist group led by bin Laden, scion of the billionaire family that runs the royal Saudi construction firm.

American pressure on the kingdom to rein in a potential violent jihad had caused strains between two key Saudi factions. Crown Prince Abdullah led the American- and Western-tolerating faction that was seemingly in charge, but he had to reckon with the extremely powerful faction partial to religious extremists, championed by Interior Minister Prince bin Abdul Aziz Nayef. That faction not only supported al-Qaida's antagonism toward the infidel superpower but was also by no means uniformly opposed to the use of terrorist methods.

A series of early favors the Bush administration did for the Saudis helped set the tone for what was to come. The Clinton administration had pushed specific initiatives against al-Qaida and the Taliban, some of which were successful, including sending an American delegation to the kingdom to discuss terrorist financing. As described in the 9/11 commission's staff report, "In Saudi Arabia the team concentrated on tracing bin Laden's assets and access to his family's money, exchanges that led to further, fruitful work." In contrast, the report continues, "the Bush administration did not develop any diplomatic initiatives on al Qaeda with the Saudi government before the 9/11 attack," a serious mistake considering the belief of counterterrorism experts that the real possibility of a huge strike against the United States required pressing the Saudis hard.

Other favors included the infamous Visa Express program (started in spring 2001) used by five of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers (15 were Saudi) to enter the United States, and the decision to let scores of bin Laden family members and other top Saudis fly out of the United States right after 9/11 without meaningful questioning. The flights were handled by Prince Bandar.

Soon thereafter, Bush and Jordan were effectively working with Saudi leaders to divert the American public from obtaining a clarification of Saudi policies on Islamic extremism. After 9/11 and the war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Americans felt growing outrage at the Saudi extremist faction that had spawned Osama bin Laden and effectively installed him in his Taliban base of operations, providing recruits, training and funding for 9/11 (though without all the extremists having to know the ultimate details of the plot). Conversely, a substantial portion of the disaffected Saudi population, encouraged as much as possible by Riyadh to direct its feelings at external rather than internal grievances, regarded bin Laden and the Taliban as heroes.

Jordan mostly kept a low public profile in the U.S. media during the period from 9/11 to the Iraq invasion. This fit Bush's general strategy of minimizing attention to the obvious ties among bin Laden, Saudis and terror and instead inducing the public to (mis-)associate 9/11 with Iraq. But Jordan contrived one clever exception, an extremely revealing one for understanding the nature of Bush administration deal-making with the Saudis.

On June 3, 2002, columnist Michael Barone published in U.S. News & World Report a frank piece titled "Our Enemies the Saudis." It summarized what the press corps had learned from Bush's own Treasury Department, among other sources: "Al Qaeda was supported by large contributions from Saudis, including members of the Saudi royal family. The Saudis' cooperation with our efforts to track down the financing of al Qaeda appears to be somewhere between minimal and zero."

A Dallas lawyer, Jordan chose the Dallas Morning News for a reply to Barone about the Saudis, titled "Our Reliable Allies," on June 25, 2002, perhaps having calculated that the fanciful line he had to take to promote deals with the Saudis, a line both unpopular and unconvincing in America, would draw the least critical attention there.

"Our Reliable Allies" unsubtly pitched to the interests of his Texas audience that "tens of thousands of Americans, a large percentage from Texas, have ... worked in Saudi Arabia." Then Jordan got to his real signal that Riyadh need not feel unappreciated (at least by America's Texan leaders): "In the months since September [11], the Saudis have offered very substantial cooperation to the United States," he asserted. "Groups from the FBI, the Treasury Department and the like have been to Saudi Arabia to gather and share information. The Saudis have assisted us every step of the way. Saudi Arabia has provided vital diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and political support to our efforts. The Bush administration is pleased with that cooperation."

There is no need to focus on the factual contradiction between Jordan's statements and what Treasury investigators actually faced from uncooperative Saudis, which Barone recounted with exactitude. Rather, knowing that Bush and Jordan labored twice as hard after 9/11 to warm the Saudis to a private deal, it's instructive to look at what was on the deal-making table and what got resolved at the time.

Some may wonder what caused the Bush White House to express such delight in Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack," an account that in many respects gives a highly disturbing picture of the administration. One thing is that the book presents the White House's line geared for American consumption (presumably originating from Bandar) about the sincerity of Saudi support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Bush White House has always wanted us to believe that Arab leaders in general (and in private) and the Saudis (the single most important regional leaders) in particular were positively thrilled that we would rid them of Saddam Hussein. Such leaders, the Bush line goes, needed no more than the reassuring strength of Bush's firm resolve to give tangible and earnest support for the Iraq occupation. Why, at home, did these leaders loudly disavow support? Oh well, there they were held back by the Arab street's misguided distaste -- which, according to the specious Bush logic, the leaders did not share -- for the global superpower's unilaterally and preemptively flexing its enormous military muscle to occupy an Arab country with huge oil reserves (which would then be rebuilt by a tight and exclusive net of American-chosen contractors).

How absurd to think that this venture had traction at any political level in Arab nations, when Turkey, our staunchest ally in the Muslim world and a NATO partner, peeled away hard from the venture. Whatever Bandar, as an expert in the care and feeding of the Bush family, politely told Bush then, carefully declaimed to selected reporters later, and laid out ingenuously to Woodward, Riyadh itself was not led by neoconservative groupies. In the first Gulf War, when the Saudis really did fear the Saddam who had marched into Kuwait, they kicked in $50 billion. This time, they offered as support not a cent. Instead, Riyadh publicly embraced Saddam, prewar, as an Arab brother. Riyadh had no particular stock in getting rid of an enfeebled regime in Baghdad that, from its perspective, performed a desirable service in keeping down an Iraqi Shiite majority otherwise subject to pro-Iranian influence. Quite the opposite: An armed U.S. occupation would stir up virulent animosity among the Saudi population, and no matter how hard Riyadh tried to distance itself, some of that would rub off on Riyadh itself.

So what could Bush and Jordan trade for a little Saudi support? Atop both Osama bin Laden's list of stated grievances (with both America and Riyadh) and Crown Prince Abdullah's list of vital issues with the United States lay one and the same item: ending the intrusive presence of 4,500 massively armed Americans -- potent infidels -- at the U.S. military's central regional installation, the giant Prince Sultan Air Base 50 miles south of Riyadh. America built this air base after the Gulf War, and the base sustained the enormous operation of containing Saddam with a no-fly zone in southern Iraq. But as Saddam weakened, Saudis saw the base more as an irritant, something occupying, not defending, their nation. It was too near Islam's holiest sites at Mecca and Medina. Much of the Saudi public viewed bin Laden's suicidal terrorists and the 200 or so Saudis captured fighting alongside the Taliban as heroes for fighting (they said) to get that base, and what it stood for, out of the holy Saudi land.

By January 2002, in light of these internal Saudi tensions, Abdullah could no longer delay. Riyadh quietly summoned Jordan and two assistant secretaries of state for meetings. Jordan was quoted in a British newspaper as saying these were "consultations with the Saudi government to review our presence here and to discuss what we need and what we don't need." Translation: Abdullah told them, it seems, that the air base just had to go. And Abdullah was correct -- notwithstanding the awful humiliation (especially for "standing tall" President Bush) of yielding after 9/11 to bin Laden's No. 1 demand. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, basically agreed: We had to remove the base if it was not wanted.

While Bush could not keep the base in Saudi Arabia indefinitely against Abdullah's will, the timing and context of its closing, which he could control, mattered greatly. Abdullah planned a whole set of moves, including vitally needed (if tame) political reforms and some (very limited) curbing of jihadist extremism, to be executed when he got some breathing room (that is, protection against extremists' charges that he was an American lackey) from the popular step of the base closure. In return for greatly pleasing Abdullah with an agreement to close the base, Bush had the opportunity to get something very substantial. A different U.S. government, attuned to America's real security needs after 9/11 and backed by an angry public, would have pushed the Saudis for the maximum in both democratic reforms to shore up the regime's legitimacy and the biggest possible crackdown on religious extremists sympathetic to al-Qaida -- and, perhaps, gotten it.

But those goals lacked primacy with Bush and Jordan. Rather, what they wanted, and so what the Saudis would offer, came via Bandar's clever line of "support" voiced in Washington for Bush's Iraq invasion. (As Bandar put it, "People are not going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein.") Abdullah did not even have to tell his people at home that, via Bandar, the unpopular Iraq invasion had received whispered Saudi support; that was solely for Bush's and the American public's consumption. In return, Riyadh got the base closure on an agreeable schedule, with a nice cover story about how the closure followed naturally from the base's no longer being needed with Iraq occupied (actually the base remained needed and was quietly moved at American expense to Qatar), but without having to address the American public's post-9/11 interest in full Saudi housecleaning reforms. Riyadh even got to take credit when, on April 30, 2003, one day after Bush announced the "mission accomplished" in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Prince Sultan formally announced the base closing.

Could this mutually satisfying exchange have been just an uncoordinated happenstance? It's doubtful. Bush and Jordan had labored mightily to please the Saudis. Bandar's skill lay in figuring out how to please Bush in return, which, considering Bush's desperation to prove he was not leaving America alone in invading Iraq, required the particular finesse for which Bandar is renowned. But this was a deal that had to be made and implemented both in Riyadh and in the U.S. bureaucracy. And this was not Jordan's only extraordinary Saudi-placating deal that had to be implemented that way, at that moment.

A simultaneous malodorous Saudi-Bush deal proposed by Jordan in August 2002 has recently come to fuller light. In July, after a preliminary New York Times exposé, Salon followed up with details of the amazing deal by which the Saudis imprisoned and tortured several Westerners, mostly Britons, into falsely confessing to being terrorists, basically positioning these luckless figures as either scapegoats or hostages and then trading them for the release of five Saudis -- including two trained in Afghanistan by al-Qaida -- being held in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In May 2003, right after Bush declared his "mission accomplished," Jordan announced -- without mentioning the trade, of course -- to lawyers representing the Saudi prisoners and, hence, to the Saudi public that the five would be handed over to the Saudi government. This apparently gave just the right public message for Abdullah, diverting his nation's anger at his not taking an even harder line against the American occupation of Iraq. It showed that Abdullah could extract concessions from America on the delicate subject of the 200 Saudi jihadists captured in Afghanistan (the Saudis call them relief workers; the United States calls them terrorists) -- something no one else in the world at that time had the power to do.

Strikingly, the press reports of the deal make clear that Jordan himself proposed and then pushed hard for it. The deal required overcoming strong Defense Department resistance, some initially from Rumsfeld himself, not to mention resistance from the CIA and the Justice Department. Very possibly, had anyone but Bush's personal lawyer sponsored the proposal, the merest hint of trading captured terrorists for hostages taken and tortured by an ostensibly friendly regime would have elicited bitter and unyielding resistance.

As it is, on July 13, the Senate Democratic leadership wrote President Bush to get his answers to a series of very tough questions about the deal, bluntly asking, "Did Robert Jordan, our Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, propose to senior State Department officials that the release of Saudi terrorism suspects be linked to the Saudi release of British subjects?"

Considering the timing of the hostages-for-terrorists swap, Jordan may have lobbied for the swap in late 2002 and early 2003, just when he was also addressing the details of the upcoming Prince Sultan Air Base closure. He could have justified both, as only the president's personal lawyer could do effectively, as implementing Bush's own strongly held desire to make Riyadh feel rewarded for "supporting" the Iraq invasion.

In the Bush administration's line, the Saudis' unhelpfulness in the many months after 9/11 can be viewed as a temporary expedient that got cleansed away once al-Qaida began attacking foreign targets within the kingdom in July 2003. After all, thereafter Saudi security forces began a crackdown on those directly participating in al-Qaida, and Abdullah implemented a limited version of his much-touted reforms. In this there is some truth but also a great deal of Bush-Saudi spin.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq continues to arouse fury at all Saudi levels, high and low, greatly increasing America's vulnerability to additional terror attacks. Although al-Qaida's violence within the kingdom is not condoned by the Saudi regime, the intense anger among the powerful-as-ever religious extremists there does not bode well for our national security. And when the Iraq occupation is added to other grievances, the United States is likely seen by many as deserving the sting of what is deemed, in the wake of an invasion of another Islamic country, a defensive jihad. The United States stands suspected of crushing the Sunnis (who enjoy Saudi Wahhabi sympathy) in Fallujah, Iraq, a place where Saudi nationals currently train in terror. Equally blameworthy, the United States stands suspected of making an alliance with Iraq's majority Shiites (very much lacking in Saudi Wahhabi sympathy), who threaten to achieve, by America's efforts, unwonted power. As for what were modest proposals for democratic and anti-extremist reforms in the first place, Abdullah has disappointingly cut way back on even the small degree of political reform America had good reason to get for what it traded.

Although the White House has denied that the Saudis gave Jordan the boot in 2003, citing personal reasons for his recall as ambassador, overseas sources shed some light on what may be the actual reasons. In spring 2003, Jordan reportedly spoke frankly and, hence, indiscreetly about the Saudi succession at Saudi dinner parties. He said that not only did America want Abdullah in charge when King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz dies but, more important, that, after Abdullah, it wanted to skip the rest of his generation and have the next generation take over. This was a direct attack on Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and Prince Nayef, two powerful brothers of Abdullah's who would thereby get passed over.

On Sept. 25, 2003, the right-wing Washington Times -- in a surprising contradiction of the White House's assertion a few days later that Jordan was departing "for personal reasons" -- reported that "Saudi Arabia has demanded the removal of U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan." Some sources say Bandar (who just happens to be Prince Sultan's son) discussed the removal with Bush that August. Another longtime Bush friend, a prominent Republican oil lobbyist from Texas famous for keeping the public completely in the dark about his moves, took his place.

Jordan clearly goofed by talking about the Saudi succession without the requisite diplomatic cover. But since Abdullah was partial to Bush -- and presumably in sympathy with Jordan's comments -- the ambassador might have survived his faux pas, especially considering that al-Qaida's attacks in the kingdom in July 2003 made Saudis more sympathetic to the American position. It was Saudis' rage over the occupation of Iraq that weakened Abdullah's position, forcing him to yield to his brothers and kick Jordan out.

The Bush administration's patient exculpation of the Saudi role in 9/11, and above all its closure of the giant Saudi air base, should have strengthened America's hand with the kingdom on vital matters. But Bush did not use this source of leverage well: He failed to get in return a real Saudi commitment to ending jihadist incitement and implementing domestic reforms. The fresh waves of ill will against America generated by Bush's go-it-alone invasion dissipated whatever goodwill had been gained. In the end, Bush's diplomatic dance with the Saudis, combined with his bungled occupation of Iraq, made America less safe from terror attacks, not more.

By Charles Tiefer

Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school, is the author of the forthcoming "Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes" (University of California Press). From 1984 to 1995, he was solicitor of the House, advising on congressional investigations including the Iran-Contra affair.

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Al-qaida Iraq War Middle East Osama Bin Laden Terrorism