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9.11 investigation

The Bushes and Saudi Arabia

In June 2001, the American embassy announced a Visa Express program, which allowed Saudis to get a visa to the U.S. without actually appearing at the consulate in person, allowing some of the 9/11 hijackers to enter the country.
The Denver Post, April 04, 2004

On Sept. 13, 2001, the U.S. imposed a nationwide no-fly zone, and yet more than 140 individuals were not only exempt from this rule, they also were permitted to leave the country.

Nearly all were Saudi, and roughly two dozen were kin to the man who had just orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks: Osama bin Laden. What kind of intelligence failure allowed this to happen? Were these individuals seriously questioned? Who allowed them to leave? Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, what was the rush in squandering what may have been a potential intelligence mother lode?

Craig Unger first reported this story in Vanity Fair. In "House of Bush, House of Saud," he places this incredible scenario in the context of a decades-old relationship between the ruling family of Saudi Arabia and America's pre-eminent political dynasty: the Bush family. In a year when the president will campaign as tough on terror and homeland security, Unger's book makes essential reading. Not only does it pose disturbing questions about Saudi involvement in 9/11, but it also presents a frighteningly believable case that the Bush administration's cozy relationship with the royal house of Saud precipitated this catastrophe.

To begin, Unger takes us back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when George H.W. Bush was an oilman in Texas whose early success included drilling the first offshore well for a tiny Middle Eastern country called Kuwait.

Bush got out of oil in 1966 to get in politics, and wound up head of the CIA just as Saudi businessmen close to the royal family, including the head of Saudi Arabia's most corrupt bank, began investing in Bush's home state. They bought up real estate and purchased planes. They bought a bank in Houston with former Texas governor John Connolly. They developed a skyscraper known as Texas Commerce Tower, which housed Texas Commerce Bancshares, the bank started by the grandfather of James A. Baker, Bush's right-hand man.

What emerges from Unger's narrative is a portrait of how under Bush senior's watch, the U.S. developed a way of doing business with the world's worst thugs that was duplicated, and transplanted to other regions with staggering naiveté. Our allegiance with the Saudis had proved so convenient that it was again used to prop up the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, who were fighting the Soviet army. Saudis matched our support dollar for dollar, and a scion of the family closest to the Sauds was sent over to fight and to build roads: Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia, a country built upon a schism between its fabulously wealthy royal family and the generally poor Wahhabi populace, gained extraordinary credibility by supporting bin Laden. The Saudis helped set up and fund Muslim charities, which in turn supported Bin Laden. They funded madrasa schools that taught militant extremism and then failed to provide jobs for the students when they graduated. The U.S., happy with its ability to make covert war with the Saudis and keep oil prices down, looked the other way at such impoverished conditions. The mujahadeen, however, never turned their backs to the U.S. As early as 1983, a CIA deputy was sent to Peshawar, Pakistan, to find out if they were selling weapons rather than using them in battle. A tribal chief responded quite frankly: "Yes," he said, "we are. We do sell your weapons. We are doing it for the day when your country decides to abandon us, just as you abandoned Vietnam and everyone else you deal with."

The real payoff began when Bush senior left office and began working for the Carlyle Group, an access capitalism investment firm that used its contacts in government to buy defense contractors on the cheap, secure lucrative contracts, including enormous ones in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and then sell them at a high profit. In addition to Bush, the Carlyle group once had George W. Bush on its board, and counted among advisers Baker and Frank Carlucci, who had served during the Reagan administration. It goes without saying that Saudis also invested directly in Carlyle funds.

The Bush administration didn't steer away from Saudis, even though a Saudi was public enemy No.1. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush courted the Arab-American vote by bringing up the need to stop the use of secret evidence in detaining Arab-Americans, as well as racial profiling at airports. The result was positive for Bush. According to one exit poll Unger cites, 91 percent of Muslims in Florida voted for Bush. Or, to put it this way, 55,000 Arab-Americans voted for Bush in that state alone. Bush's margin of victory, remember, was just some 500 votes. As Unger puts it: "Without the mobilization of the Saudi-funded Islamic groups, George W. Bush would not be president today."

Unger avails himself of recent publications to fill in a story that is as disturbing as it is urgent. In June 2001, the American embassy announced a Visa Express program, which allowed Saudis to get a visa to the U.S. without actually appearing at the consulate in person.

This disastrous policy allowed some of the 9/11 hijackers to enter the country, Unger says. One month before the hijacking, as news of an imminent attack traveled even up to the White House, George Bush took the longest presidential vacation in 32 years - a month-long retreat to his Crawford ranch.

The Bush administration was not just soft on terrorism pre 9/11, "House of Bush, House of Saud" makes clear; it was asleep. So what was the Bush administration focusing on at this time? It was busy repairing a Saudi-American split over some comments President Bush had made criticizing the proposal to create a Palestinian state. Bush immediately reversed his position, but his reward was short-lived.

It seems likely that "House of Bush, House of Saud" will be labeled conspiracy theory, but Unger's research is too cautious, too elemental to support that claim. Most of his footnotes refer to articles in The New York Times, The New Yorker and other esteemed publications. Not surprisingly, former President Bush and Baker declined interviews.

Still, what Unger has done here is synthesize these scattered reports into a narrative that is as chilling as it is gripping. The book builds a momentum of discovery that makes this book impossible to stop reading.

Will the American people carry these concerns into the election? Only time will tell. To borrow a line from Billy Crystal's Oscar-night hosting, one thing is for sure. Craig Unger better be preparing for his tax audit.

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