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LiberalOasis Interviews Craig Unger
Investigative journalist Craig Unger has been reporting on the connection between the Bushes and the Saudi royals since the Iran-Contra scandal broke, for publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair.
Now he has published the important book, "House of Bush, House of Saud," which explores how deeply intertwined the two dynastic families are, and how it may be hurting the war on terror."House of Bush, House of Saud" is the LiberalOasis Book of the Month for April '04. You can order the book here, and excerpts are available at Salon.com.
Craig Unger joined LiberalOasis for an exclusive interview on March 27, 2004. The following is an edited transcript.
LiberalOasis: How would you summarize the relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family?
Craig Unger: It's unique. Never before in history has a president of the United States -- and I'm really referring to both President Bushes -- has had such a close relationship with another foreign power.
Never have they had personal and financial relationships and their public policies so deeply tied to another foreign power.
And the Saudis, of course, are not a Western democracy. It's an Islamic theocracy. And they've played a huge role in the development of terror.
So, I think there's a piece of logic that has been missing from the American conversation about this...I think a strong case can be made that without the Saudis, there is no 9/11.
It's not just that 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudi. The infrastructure of Al Qaeda, it's funding, was developed in many ways by Saudis.
That raises the question of: if you're in bed with the Saudis, how can you fight a real war on terrorism?
LO: Is it fair and accurate to treat the Saudi royal family as a singular entity, or is it more of a dysfunctional family, with one faction sympathetic to radical Islamic terror and another faction that's more sympathetic to the West?
CU: There are many divisions within the royal family. At the same time, it has to accommodate militant clerics.
Certain factions of it -- for example, that led by Prince Nayef, the interior minister -- are overtly anti-West, and really lean much more towards the militant clerics.
There's no question there are many members of the family who seem to be pro-West. Obviously Prince Bandar and Crown Prince Abdullah do.
But the Western face we see that is so much, "these are our allies, they're trying to fight terrorism," is very different from the face you see within Saudi Arabia.
LO: If the Saudis are this complicit, why is it that Osama Bin Laden wants to overthrow them?
CU: Well, he feels they betrayed them.
And I think, by the way, if they were overthrown, it would not be like the Shah of Iran being overthrown in 1979.
It would be more likely that someone within the family, like Prince Nayef...would take over, who was more accommodating to him.
[Bin Laden] feels very much that the whole jihad against the United States and the House of Saud... started...after American troops occupied Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.
And he thought that was a real betrayal and he has felt they're hypocrites and obviously he does want to overthrow them.
At the same time, elements of the royal family and the Saudi government have been supportive.
And I think things changed enormously in the last year.
In May 2003, you finally saw bombings that really did strike at the royal family itself. Before that, most of Al Qaeda's violence was directed at Western targets.
LO: So where does the relationship between Bush and Saudis stand now?
CU: It's very volatile and it could be getting towards the breaking point.
[But] what I focus on in my book, is what happened more immediately after 9/11 and was Bush giving the Saudis a break then.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, rather than wage a real war on terrorism, he was very accommodating to the Saudis.
And I focus specifically on what I call "The Great Escape", this massive operation in which eight airplanes stop in 12 American cities and took 140 Saudis out of the United States, when I believe we should have been interrogating them and seeing what role they would have played...
...You have a time in which no one in the United States can fly. Our skies are completely shut down.
You have Prince Bandar meeting with President Bush on the Truman Balcony in the White House on September 13. And then suddenly all these planes start flying...
...And on the passenger lists, I think the most important name I found was Prince Ahmed bin Salman who...is alleged to have ties to Al Qaeda and advance knowledge of 9/11.
...I'd love to see the 9/11 Commission investigate why and how...those planes left the country. How did they get White House authorization?
LO: What do you think was the Bush Administration's motive to do that?
CU: The Bush Administration denies that these flights took place.
I got the passenger list. I got photos of the interiors. I believe they did.
I don't like to speculate as a rule, but all I can suggest is that...Prince Bandar's been a friend of the family for 30 years. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they could be complicit, even inadvertently, with terrorism.
The Saudis clearly made this request and they acceded without thinking about it.
LO: Is there any responsibility that the Clinton Administration holds, in not holding the Saudis accountable in his tenure?
CU: Well they were more aggressive against the Saudis.
Certainly there is blame to be laid at the Clinton Administration.
But it really grows mostly out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which crippled them so much that it...took away the political capital necessary to have a really strong response.
They did crack down on the Saudi banking system...
... the National Commercial Bank, which was the biggest bank in Saudi Arabia, was removed from the hands of Khalid bin Mahfouz and was nationalized, and it had been the target of Clinton Administration attempts to investigate it for allegedly funneling money to terrorist groups.
So they had some success there.
[But] when there were bombings in '95 and '96... suspects were often beheaded [by the Saudis] before the FBI could interview them.
So the Clinton Administration found the Saudis terribly uncooperative.
LO: There seems to be a neoconservative component of the Bush Administration that is virulently anti-Saudi. How does their presence square with the Bush Family's close ties with the Saudis?
CU: I think a lot of them, privately, are very critical of the Bushes, whether they'll go public with that or not.
I convey a problem, in the sense that, if they're so anti-Saudi, how is that their patrons are in bed with Saudis?
I think this has been a continuing debate within the Bush Administration, and it's going to be very interesting to see how it will play out...it is potentially a real split within the Right.
LO: Are the neoconservatives right in that we should be agitating for some sort of regime change in Saudi Arabia?
CU: I don't think it's that simple, and that could be very dangerous.
As deeply, deeply flawed as the House of Saud is, whoever replaces it is likely to be far more anti-American.
And we have a very, very delicate problem at hand.
The question I raise is, can we maintain any sort of real relationship that serves American interests, in terms of serving our strategic needs for oil, but still crack down on them in terms of terrorism?
LO: So what is the solution?
CU: It's a very tough line to walk.
But we had a pact with Saudi Arabia in a relationship that's gone back 40 years... we get oil, we sell them weapons, and part of the pact was we didn't look too closely at what was really going on in Saudi Arabia.
I think that part of the pact -- that we turn a blind eye -- ...should have come to an end long before 9/11.
And the question is, why the Bush Administration didn't do that if they were really against terror?
That's the question I raise in the book.
I found...over a thirty year period, how much money went from the House of Saud to companies through contracts and investments...in which the Bushes and their allies had a major position.
I found a total of 1.4 billion dollars.
What I'm really suggesting is this is not a conspiracy so much as business, 1.4 billion dollars worth of business.
And when you're in business, one of the first rules of thumb is you don't bite the hand that feeds you.
So I believe the Bushes really turned a blind eye to what was going on in Saudi Arabia.
At a certain point, you start saying well wait a minute, this terrorism is coming out of your country and you're killing Americans and we've got to do something about it, that's absolutely not acceptable.
Instead, what I think happened is, while the war on terror had really begun in the 90s, the Bushes were in the private sector and they were doing investments after investments through the Carlyle Group in Saudi Arabia.
They were raising money from the Saudis. They were getting arms contracts from the Saudis, while Osama bin Laden was growing in power.
And they were doing business with people who, indirectly at least, at the very least through sins of omission, were allowing the rise of terrorism.
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