I’m well aware that the Bush-Bandar meeting was planned before 9/11 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I describe that in my book. And I’m not saying that Bush shouldn’t have met with Bandar. I’m saying that 15 Saudis had just killed 3,000 people on American soil, and there is not an iota of evidence to suggest that Bush was tough with Bandar. Nefarious, you say. Cozy is more like it. Too cozy for me. The White House even let the Saudis fly that day. And you and everyone else are acting as if Richard Clarke was running the show—not Bush—when the White House has made such a point of saying that Clarke was out of the loop. I do not know if Bush discussed the Saudi evacuation, but if he wants to be known as our wartime president, he is either responsible—or he is irresponsible. Bush should have demanded transparency for the Islamist charities funding terrorism or the Saudi banks that were used. But he did nothing.
Actually, you concede as much: “For the first 18 months [after 9/11], the Saudis moved slowly.” How can you possibly excuse that? For a year and a half, Bush allows the Saudis to get away with murder, and when it is revealed that Bandar’s wife inadvertently funded two of the hijackers, the first family consoles her. Look at Bandar’s body language in that photo on the Slate home page where he is draped across an armchair in Crawford. Bandar is visiting his best friend’s son, not being dressed down by the president of the United States. I am baffled. You are intellectually honest enough to say that the Saudis probably got preferential treatment in being allowed to fly. I suspect that if you had lost someone close to you, you might be more outraged at what I see as a colossal failure to start a serious criminal investigation.
Again, I’m well aware that the Saudis did not want the Iraq war. I think we largely agree on how it developed. My regrets if I was unclear. My book traces the history of the Iraq initiative back even further—to Paul Wolfowitz’s policy papers in 1992. I meant that rather than attack the real source of terrorism, Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to launch a completely different and unrelated initiative—which I think is an utter disaster that we will be paying for for decades. On the one hand, he let the Saudis get away with murder. On the other, we have lost the support of any and all moderate Arabs just when we need them the most, and the instability Bush has brought to the Middle East severely jeopardizes our future relationship with the Saudis to satisfy our oil needs.
I would add that while it is true that the Saudis were against the war, this doesn’t really answer the question of how Bush was tough on the Saudis. The war was undertaken for other reasons. I still haven’t heard any examples of how he cracked down on the Saudi role in terror.
Finally, back to the flights, where we disagree. Was everyone screened? According to the 9/11 commission’s preliminary report, 110 people were not asked any questions whatsoever. There’s no indication that anyone was subjected to formal investigative procedures, in which interviews were recorded for the permanent record. The people who searched the databases were, of course, FBI agents. Does it surprise you that they give themselves a clean bill of health? And the fact that certain names might not have been in databases—what does that really mean? Think about it. Someone close to you has just been murdered. You know who did it. But the FBI tells you they are not going to bother interviewing people who aren’t already in the database. I would be screaming that the crime just happened, so of course they are not in the database. If the FBI databases were so good, why didn’t they stop the attacks?
I interviewed many FBI agents about the evacuation, and they fell into two camps. One set consisted of FBI officials who, on the record, told me again and again that they “played no role in facilitating the flights.” Now, of course, they have changed their story. I still have many unanswered questions. But the experience of having been lied to for two years by the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the White House—who all denied that these flights took place at all—does make me suspicious.
Off the record, two agents who actually participated in the Saudi evacuation told me they had no time to perform a serious investigation and that they were constantly fighting with the Saudi Embassy, which didn’t even want them to check the passports. In the end, they were told to identify everyone, but not much more than that. Let me end with a final question: Would it bother you if any of the Saudis were tied to terrorist funding or if they knew where Bin Laden was? If Bill Clinton or Al Gore had had such a close relationship with the Saudis and allowed this to happen, I think the Republicans would be screaming for their heads.