It’s been a week of heightened attention to links between Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 hijackers, first with the news that so-called “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui has testified that members of the Saudi royal family were major patrons of al Qaeda, and now with a front-page story from New York Times chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse that discusses the classified, 28-page finding on foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers found in the report of a joint congressional intelligence inquiry.
Read the piece here. As for our thoughts on the story, we’d like to focus on one specific aspect: The attempt by 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow to position the commission as having throughly investigated and then dismissed the Saudi Arabia leads uncovered by the congressional inquiry that preceded it. Writes Hulse:
Others familiar with that section of the report say that while it might implicate Saudi Arabia, the suspicions, investigatory leads and other findings it contains did not withstand deeper scrutiny. Philip D. Zelikow, the executive director of the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks after the congressional panels, said the commission followed up on the allegations, using some of the same personnel who wrote them initially, but reached a different conclusion.
Many close followers of the 28 pages story and the 9/11 Commission’s work will take particular issue with this quote from Zelikow:
“Those involved in the preparation of the famous 28 pages joined the staff of the 9/11 Commission and participated in the follow-up investigation of all the leads that had been developed earlier,” he said Wednesday. “In doing so, they were aided by a larger team with more members, more powers and for the first time actually conducted interviews of relevant people both in this country and in Saudi Arabia.”
Chances are, Zelikow neglected to tell Hulse that he fired a member of the 9/11 Commission staff, Dana Lesemann, for going around him to acquire a copy of those very 28 pages—pages she needed to perform her assigned task of investigating potential ties to Saudi Arabia.
According to The Commission, Philip Shenon’s exhaustive account of the 9/11 investigation, Zelikow had, for weeks, neglected Lesemann’s request for a copy of the 28 pages. “Philip, how are we supposed to do our work if you won’t provide us with basic research material?” reportedly asked an agitated Lesemann, prompting Zelikow to storm off in silence. Fed up, she took matters into her own hands. When Zelikow discovered it, he fired her.
That’s not the only aspect of Lesemann’s experience that undercuts Zelikow’s portrayal of the commission’s work as exceedingly thorough. Before the firing over the 28 pages, Zelikow and Lesemann clashed over the breadth of the investigation. Again according to Shenon, Lesemann had presented Zelikow with a list of 20 government officials she wanted to interview to pursue the Saudi links. She was furious when Zelikow, several days later replied that she could interview only 10—a numerical limitation that Lesemann felt “arbitrary”, “crazy” and damaging to the work of the commission at its critical outset.
Beyond what Shenon portrays as a pervasive pattern of Zelikow restricting investigators and excessively limiting access to and sharing of information, there are other reasons to question Zelikow’s assertions on this topic, starting with the fact that, to the extent the 28 pages put the commission’s final product in doubt, he may have an interest in prolonging their censorship.
And then there are Zelikow’s conflicts of interest in his role, including:
- His previous friendship with Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, with whom he’d even authored a book.
- His position on the Bush administration’s transition team.
- His frequent contacts with Bush political advisor Karl Rove—while the investigation was underway—which lend credence to characterizations that he failed to be an impartial and, when necessary, adversarial investigator.
That last point is critical, given widespread reports that the Bush White House routinely impeded the commission’s investigation of possible Saudi ties to 9/11. The Commission describes 9/11 Commission member and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s frustration with the Bush administration’s relentless shielding of Saudi Arabia:
Lehman was struck by the determination of the Bush White House to try to hide any evidence of the relationship between the Saudis and al Qaeda. “They were refusing to declassify anything having to do with Saudi Arabia,” Lehman said. “Anything having to do with the Saudis, for some reason, it had this very special sensitivity.” He raised the Saudi issue repeatedly with Andy Card. “I used to go over over to see Andy, and I met with Rumsfeld three or four times, mainly to say, ‘What are you guys doing? This stonewalling is so counterproductive.”
Zelikow portrays the commission’s work on the Saudi threads as more thorough than that of the joint congressional intelligence inquiry behind the 28 pages, but—even if that’s in some ways true—the question remains: Was it thorough enough?
9/11 Commission chairman Tom Keane doesn’t seem to think so. Said Keane, “(Vice chairman Lee Hamilton and I) think the commission was in many ways set up to fail because we had not enough money…we didn’t have enough time.” Indeed, charged with unraveling and studying the vast and extraordinarily complex tapestry that is 9/11, the commission was initially given a budget of just $3 million—later increased to a still-paltry $15 million—and issued its final report just over 18 months after the very first organizational meeting.
Keane and Hamilton aren’t the only ones who, unlike Zelikow, acknowledge that the 9/11 Commission report is far from the last word on potential Saudi government complicity in 9/11. Commission member and former Senator Bob Kerrey, in a sworn statement recently submitted in litigation by 9/11 family members and victims against Saudi Arabia, said the commission report does not exonerate the kingdom. Wrote Kerrey:
“To the contrary, significant questions remain unanswered concerning the possible involvement of Saudi government institutions and actors in the financing and sponsorship of al Qaeda, and evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.“