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28 pages: the controversy over Saudi Arabia and 9/11, explained

Bin Laden CNN via Getty Images

Did Saudi Arabia, an American ally but a country that supports extremists, have a hand in the attacks of September 11, 2001?

When Americans talk about this question, they will often mention a section of a still-secret 2002 congressional report, which has achieved such infamy that it is described only as "the 28 pages."

Those pages are in the news again now, resurfacing long-unresolved debate in the US over Saudi Arabia and 9/11. Here is what we know about that document and about the question of Saudi involvement in 9/11.

Though subsequent US government investigations concluded there is no proof of official Saudi support for the attacks, American doubts persist, showing that this controversy is perhaps not exclusively about 9/11 but could also draw on deeper, unresolved American doubts about the US-Saudi alliance and about why we responded to the attacks as we did.

What are the 28 pages?

In 2002, shortly after a Joint Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks concluded its report, the Bush administration ordered that the inquiry permanently seal a 28-page section that investigated possible Saudi government links to the attack. It has remained sealed ever since.

Some members of Congress who have read the report, but are barred from revealing its contents, describe it as potentially damning. An unnamed member of Congress told the New Yorker, "The real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through."

"The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier," former Sen. Bob Graham, who is leading the charge to release the document, said in February.

Other officials, though, say the findings are speculative and inconclusive and have been rebuked by subsequent investigations. They warn that their release would spread unfounded conspiracy theories and cause unwarranted damage to the US-Saudi alliance, which has grown increasingly fragile in recent years.

The controversy over the 28 pages has resurfaced over and over in the years since, including, again, this week.

The families of 9/11 victims have expressed a desire to sue the Saudi government over the attacks, but such suits are typically barred by US law. Congress is now considering legislation that would allow their suit to go forward.

President Obama, traveling to Saudi Arabia this week, is expected to address concerns there that the document could be released. His administration is urging Congress to drop the bill, and Saudi officials have threatened, should the law pass, to sell off $750 billion in US-based assets.

What do we know about Saudi Arabia and 9/11?

Saudi Arabia has a long and tangled history with jihadist movements. In the 1980s, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Saudi government (along with the US) aggressively funded Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviets.

The Saudis especially favored religious extremists, including a wealthy Saudi citizen named Osama bin Laden, who led a group of fanatical Arab fighters in Afghanistan that later became al-Qaeda.

By the 1990s, though, the Saudi government and bin Laden had become enemies. Their disagreements were many but culminated in the royal family inviting the United States to station troops in Saudi Arabia to defend against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which had invaded neighboring Kuwait.

But Saudi Arabia has long played a double game with extremists, including in the 1990s. It revoked bin Laden's citizenship and deported him, but was one of only three countries to officially recognize the Taliban, an extremist group that had seized Afghanistan and officially sheltered bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia's record of backing jihadists and of a shadowy, playing-both-sides strategy has raised understandable suspicions about the country's possible links to 9/11 — enough that the US government has investigated this question at least twice since the Joint Congressional Inquiry.

Those reports, which have been made at least their final assessments public, found no evidence that the Saudi government supported the 9/11 attacks or attackers.

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in 2002 (Eric Drapper-White House/Getty)
President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan in 2002. (Eric Drapper-White House/Getty)

After the Joint Congressional Inquiry, the 9/11 Commission formed to independently investigate the attacks. Their investigators followed up the same details and questions on possible Saudi involvement, and even hired some of the same staffers who had worked on the Joint Congressional Inquiry. But the 9/11 Commission ultimately dismissed the earlier findings on Saudi Arabia as unsubstantiated.

"Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of Al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization," the report concluded.

This past June, the CIA's Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its own internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

The final section of the report, titled "Issues related to Saudi Arabia," addressed the question of possible Saudi involvement. That section is entirely redacted, save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found "no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists."

These conclusions would seem to fit with what we know about the Saudi government.

For instance, while Saudi Arabia has a history of supporting jihadist movements, it uses them as military tools to achieve narrow political ends: fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Saudi leaders do not appear to support jihadists out of ideological fealty. Indeed, Saudi royals are notorious for spending much of their time living lavishly in the West. Jihadists will take Saudi money but often consider the royal family apostates and Western puppets — and will often attack the Saudi government itself.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the US have been close allies for decades, and for reasons beyond just oil. They shared enemies in the Soviet Union, Saddam's Iraq, and revolutionary Iran. Saudi and US officials had spent two generations working closely together and often becoming personally friendly.

Looking at this history, it is difficult to imagine a reason the Saudi government would work clandestinely with its jihadist enemies to strike the US, its most important ally and benefactor.

But there is another theory, one hinted at in the 9/11 investigations, of a different kind of Saudi involvement: that of rogue Saudi officials acting against the wishes and interests of their government.

What is the rogue Saudi official theory?

Both the 9/11 Commission report and the CIA Inspector General report hint at — but do not fully substantiate — another possibility: Could rogue Saudi officials, acting without sanction from their government, have funneled state resources to aid the attackers?

The 9/11 Commission report states, "This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda."

The CIA Inspector General report is more candid:

Individuals in both of the Near East Division (NE) and the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) [redacted] told the Team they had not seen any reliable reporting confirming Saudi Government involvement with and financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11, although a few also speculated that dissident sympathizers within the government may have aided al-Qa'ida. A January 1999 Directorate of Intelligence (DI)/Office of Transnational Issues Intelligence Report on Bin Ladin's finances indicated that "limited" reporting suggested that "a few Saudi Government officials" may support Usama Bin Ladin (UBL) but added that the reporting was "too sparse to determine with any accuracy" such support.

It is worth reiterating that this theory has never been confirmed. But, as commonly told, it begins with Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia, fearing it could be next, invited the US military to station thousands of troops in the kingdom. The country's powerful and ultraconservative clerical establishment was outraged, seeing this as a humiliation and a desecration of Muslim holy land, and openly hinted it might support a violent uprising.

The Saudi royal family responded as they had to other such crises: by co-opting and appeasing the clerical establishment. They shut down some nascent liberalizing reforms that had angered ultraconservative clerics, for example.

And they established a new government agency, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, designed to appease Saudi ultraconservatives, some of whom were recruited to the agency itself and given wide latitude.

Islamic Affairs ostensibly supported Islamic charities as a humanitarian and soft-power mission. But, owing to the ideological leanings of the ministry's officers, it also funded Islamist extremism and jihadism throughout the Muslim world.

The ministry, closely tied to the Saudi clerical establishment that has never really been under the government's control, operated with an unusual degree of autonomy. The government tolerated this; better that ultraconservatives cause trouble abroad than at home.

Could some of the officials in that ministry, acting independently, have quietly deployed their resources in support of the 9/11 hijackers?

In recent years, a handful of inconclusive but highly disturbing details have come out that suggest possible links between the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the hijackers.

For example, a Saudi living in the US who had ties to the Islamic Affairs Ministry, and who was salaried by a Saudi aviation company for whom he never actually did any work, facilitated and paid for an apartment for two of the 9/11 hijackers. His US-based contact in Islamic Affairs, Fahad al-Thumairy, was expelled from the US in 2002 over suspected ties to terrorists.

Such details, along with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs' unusual autonomy and its links to an ultraconservative clerical establishment that could be at times more sympathetic to jihadists than to their own government, have long fed speculation that rogue officials in the ministry could have played a role.

Again, while this theory has never been confirmed, it is difficult to rule out completely, both because US investigators have raised it and because this theory would comport with what we know about the Saudi government and the Saudi clerical establishment.

If some version of this theory made it into the still-classified "28 pages," then that could at least hypothetically explain the confusion over what the report does and does not show. It is easy to imagine, for example, that the report's authors initially treated evidence for this theory as possibly implicating the Saudi government itself but, when those investigators looked at the same question in greater depth for the 9/11 Commission report, decided it did not.

That is speculation, but the point is that, now 15 years after 9/11, we have the distance to conclude that there is strong reason to doubt that the Saudi government would have supported the attacks, but at least moderate cause for wondering if rogue officials with Islamic Affairs might have been involved. In 2002, when the "28 pages" were written, we did not have that distance.

So why does this debate keep coming back, time and again? What is it about those 28 pages, and about questions of Saudi involvement, that seems to so nag at Americans?

Why do the 28 pages keep coming up?

The recurring debates over the 28 pages are a reminder of why so many Americans still wonder, nearly 15 years later, whether our closest Arab ally might have shared responsibility for the worst ever terror attack on US soil.

Because the document is still sealed and cannot be independently examined, but has been the subject of so much speculation, it has become something of a Rorschach test for how one considers the question of possible Saudi involvement in 9/11. And that question is often about more than just 9/11.

The 28 pages can be a way to debate the American alliance with Saudi Arabia itself. If the case against releasing the document is that it would harm US-Saudi ties, then your view naturally turns on whether you see that alliance as worth protecting. Demanding the release of the documents can be a way of expressing skepticism of the Saudis and of the US-Saudi alliance.

In some ways, then, this is as much a controversy over 9/11 as it is over longstanding, and recently growing, American discomfort with the Saudi alliance, which at times appears counter to both US values and interests.

Since the Arab Spring, that alliance has appeared increasingly strained, both because the two countries have developed conflicting goals for the region and because it is uncomfortable for the US to seek Mideast democracy while also supporting a theocratic absolute monarchy.

The monarchy, Americans have grown keenly aware, makes a practice of supporting jihadists, which naturally increases the threat to the United States. (The jihadists also threatened, and have attacked, Saudi Arabia itself.) When Americans hear denials that Saudi Arabia supported the particular jihadists who launched the 9/11 attacks, then, it conflicts with their understanding of reality and can feel untrue.

The controversy also thrives on unresolved emotions over the legacy of 9/11.

There remains, still years after the attacks, distrust of an official narrative that initially blamed Saddam Hussein; a sense that we went after the wrong enemy by invading Iraq; and skepticism about why the US still allies itself with a Saudi government known for promoting extremists.

These are difficult issues that the United States has never fully confronted, in part because it would require asking hard questions about the utility of an Iraq war for which thousands of Americans gave their lives.

While these issues do not necessarily suggest that Saudi Arabia had a hand in 9/11, it is easy to see how, to many Americans, that could end up feeling true. The 28 pages, regardless of what they actually show, are way of answering the unanswered questions and resolving the unresolved emotions that Americans have never quite collectively processed.

The existence of those secret 28 pages, and the Saudi and White House effort to keep them secret, seem to hint at confirmation of things many Americans suspect: that we attacked the wrong enemy after 9/11, that our Saudi allies are not allies at all, and that American policy toward the Middle East is disastrously shortsighted and self-defeating.

Asking about the 28 pages is a way of conveying these beliefs. Those things can indeed be true — and there is a case to be made that they are — without it being the case that Saudi Arabia somehow participated in the 9/11 terror attacks.

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