The second tower of the World Trade Center bursts into flames after being hit by a hijacked airplane in New York on September 11, 2001..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What was US CIA director John Brennan trying to accomplish on Sunday when he poured cold water on the idea of connecting Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 attacks? Brennan was getting out in front of the likely imminent release of 28 until-now classified pages of the 2002 9/11 Commission report, which are expected to be released sometime this month.
From US President Barack Obama and Brennan’s perspective, his statements on the issue were a first major shot to save US-Saudi relations from the impact of releasing those pages and a bill making its way through Congress which collectively could rupture those relations.
All indications are that, in direct contrast to Brennan’s statements, the 28 pages will show a greater and more detailed connection to 9/11 between certain Saudi officials and power-brokers than has been known to date.
If that is true, then why is Brennan saying the opposite: that they effectively absolve Saudi Arabia of many unfair suspicions held against it since 9/11? There are two parts to the answer.
From a birds-eye view, how the US public and Saudi Arabia react to the 28 pages could determine no less than the future of the decades old alliance, which has been a cornerstone of the power relations that make up the Middle East.
Thanks to the US-Saudi fighting over the Iran nuclear deal and the Yemen and Syrian civil wars, a rare bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress that Riyadh has abused the US alliance and spit on US human rights values for too long.
Furthermore, after unearthing its own vast energy resources in recent years, the US is less dependent on Saudi oil than ever before.
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This gets into the second part of the answer.
As a manifestation of the recent distance and breaking of dependency between the US and Saudi Arabia, the US Senate in mid-May passed a bill that essentially creates a new right for families of 9/11 American victims to sue Saudi Arabia for harm from the attacks.
The truth is that suing Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks is not new.
Since 2005, the families of the 9/11 victims have been suing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, four Saudi princes, a charity known as the Saudi High Commission for Relief to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a Saudi banker.
The four princes – Salman, Sultan, Naif and Turki al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud – all hold government office.
But until now, all of these cases, referred to as the “In re Terrorist Attacks” cases (there are four groups of cases), have hit wall after wall of US laws dating back to 1976, in particular the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, blocking lawsuits against sovereign nations or agents and instrumentalities of those nations.
So until now, the US courts have maintained a generally hands-off policy vis-a-vis foreign states, and that has kept Saudi Arabia untouchable.
This new bill would sweep away the obstacles and leave the Saudis completely vulnerable.
Getting back to the bigger game of where US-Saudi relations may go, this seemingly smaller legal issue could bring a machete to the already unstable relationship.
The Saudis are so upset by the possibility of this new bill becoming law that they have threatened to sell off up to $750 billion in US assets, rather than face exposure in US courts.
This is where the soon-to-be disclosed 28 pages come in. If the US public views them as a smoking gun of Saudi involvement, the suing Saudi Arabia bill may pass through Congress.
Obama has threatened to veto the bill. Despite all of the changes in the US-Saudi dynamic, he clearly is not prepared to risk a complete rupture in relations.
But if the smoke from the 28 pages becomes a cloud, there could be enough public anger to fuel Congress overriding Obama’s veto.
This is where Brennan’s statements come in. Brennan’s sizing up the 28 pages was carefully worded.
He told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya that the 9/11 commission’s overall conclusion was that there was no evidence “that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials” supported the 9/11 attacks.
Brennan’s statement tries to positively spin the people who he thinks “really matter” in Saudi Arabia, while slicing off any non-senior Saudi officials or parts of the government that may have “gone rogue” so that he can stay true to the 9/11 commission’s findings and what the 28 pages are expected to say about such officials.
He also does not mention that the commission said it both lacked evidence against Saudi Arabia and lacked the capacity to fully probe the issue.
That leaves Brennan trying to emphasize the positive of what will come out of the 28 pages, before the negative grabs the headlines and possibly pushes the new bill over the finish line and US-Saudi relations into the abyss.
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