After keeping them secret for 14 years, the White House has finally released the 28 pages that were removed from the 2002 Congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and withheld from the final 9/11 Commission Report. More puzzling than the elusive pages is why Obama released them, and specifically, why now.
The administration claims that the 28 pages clear the Saudis because they provide no conclusive evidence of their involvement in 9/11. While some of the media echo chamber (Time, Al Arabiya, NBC, the Associated Press) were quick to follow the administration's lead by reporting that the pages contained "no smoking guns," they should read more carefully. There are smoking guns that expose the Saudi government as a sponsor of terrorism, and, by proxy, improve Iran's standing in the Middle East.
Author Paul Sperry writes that the 28 pages "show the hijackers got help from Saudi diplomats and spies." And while the evidence might not meet the threshold that the current Department of Justice requires for an indictment, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) described it as
"a chilling description of Saudi ties to terrorists, Saudi payments to terrorists, and Saudi obstruction of U.S. antiterrorism investigations" and found "more than enough evidence to raise serious concerns."
Obama had to know, despite his administration's tepid affirmation of Saudi innocence, that the information in the 28 pages would inspire a wave of negativity towards Saudi Arabia from the American public. He also knows that anything that hurts Saudi Arabia's reputation helps Iran. What weakens Saudi Arabia tips the scales in Iran's favor, as the two nations compete for dominance in the region.
The evidence of the Saudi government's connections to the 15 Saudi jihadists who were involved in the 9/11 attacks has long been among the worst-kept secrets in Washington. Even so, few suspected that the 28 pages would reveal an intricate web of Saudi nationals radiating outwards from Prince Bandar himself, supplying assistance to Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar, two members of the "muscle" crew on American Airlines Flight #77 which Hani Hanjour flew into the Pentagon. Bandar, nephew to the former and current King, was Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005.
The web includes Saudi consular officials, naval officers, pilots, and servants. At least three Saudi intelligence officers functioned as facilitators and go-betweens for several of the 9/11 jihadists. One of them, Osama Bassman, and his wife received monthly checks from Princess Haifa Bint Sultan -- not just any princess, but the wife of Bandar.
Meanwhile, Saudi-funded mosques and Islamic centers, a variety of Saudi owned front companies, and even the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., (where Osama bin Laden's brother Abdullah worked) provided all the cover a spy could ask for.
Mark Mazetti of The New York Times downplayed the damning evidence as a "wide-ranging catalog of meetings and suspicious coincidences." Coincidences indeed -- when Abu Zubayda, Al-Qaeda's financier, was captured in 2002 after a shoot-out in Faisalabad, Pakistan, he had on his person the phone number of Prince Bandar's bodyguard. What are the odds?
Former US Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida) and others in Congress have spent years calling for the 28 pages to be released, but that does not mean that the pages had to be released -- the administration continues to withhold a great deal of information requested by Congress (IRS files, Fast and Furious documents). President Obama could have prevented this release for the duration of his tenure, but he did not. So how does releasing evidence that the Saudi government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks advance his goals?
It is possible that Obama believes the information should be released in the interests of truth and transparency, but this is unlikely given his history and the fact that he has had over seven years to follow that course of action.
Under a different administration, releasing the 28 pages might be an opportunity to manipulate Saudi policy, or a ploy to pit the Saudis and Iranians against each other. Obama, however, has never done much to hide his favoritism for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Islamic Republic over the House of Saud.
A more realistic explanation for the sudden release of the 28 pages is that the president apparently believes it will burnish his legacy, embarrass his enemies and make permanent his diplomatic "accomplishments" with Iran. Reminding Americans of Saudi Arabia's Al-Qaeda connections, shortly after the 1-year mark of the JCPOA and before the 15-year mark of 9/11, might also continue to desensitize us to the dangers posed by Iran. This seems to be a top priority for the President in his second term.
The JCPOA legitimized the Iranian nuclear program and ensured that a Saudi nuclear program would follow. But revealing to the American public proof of the House of Saud's involvement with Al-Qaeda is a poison pill that will make it difficult to continue treating Saudi Arabia as an ally. It is hard to imagine how relations with the Kingdom could ever be the same. Perhaps there was an element of revenge involved for Bandar's opposition to the JCPOA.
Americans suddenly flush with a renewed indignation against the Saudis might not run into the arms of the Iranian mullahs, but some might get distracted from their equally-deserved indignation about Iran's ongoing missile tests, the steady progress Iranian scientists are making at the nuclear plant in Parchin, and their anger at having been lied to again and again.
A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.