The greatest test yet of a U.S.-Saudi relationship already under strain may be the one that has been hiding in plain sight the longest: the Arab kingdom’s connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
It has been nearly 15 years since 15 Saudi citizens helped perpetrate the worst terrorist strike on U.S. soil; nonetheless, given the complex geopolitics that arose, the attack forged greater security cooperation between the longtime allies. But on his fourth and final visit as president to Saudi Arabia, which concluded Thursday, President Obama had to reconcile his need for the kingdom's help on regional security with increasing skepticism back home about the relationship, including his own.
"There’s no question that this is an important alliance that has accrued to the benefit of the United States in many ways," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said Thursday at a forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But as time goes on, it’s harder and harder to ignore the holes in the relationship."
The Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks has reemerged as a critical question for those assessing the alliance.
Ahead of his trip, Obama fought to manage increasing scrutiny over the possibility of deeper Saudi connections to the attacks than are publicly known.
For the record
In the April 22 Section A, an article about strained U.S.-Saudi relations referred to the potential declassification of 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report. The pages are from a 2002 congressional report.
Obama downplayed possible consequences from the potential declassification of 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report, which some believe will shed more light on potential Saudi involvement in the planning of the attacks. Senior intelligence officials were working to ensure that any newly released information would not compromise U.S. security or give an incomplete or inaccurate picture of what U.S. intelligence found, Obama said in an interview with Charlie Rose on "CBS This Morning."
Obama has less control, though, over legislation that could open the Saudi government to criminal prosecution over the attacks.
Families of the 9/11 victims have stepped up lobbying on behalf of a bill that seeks to clarify a 1976 law governing the principal of sovereign immunity. They want the law to specify that foreign governments could be held culpable in American courts for terrorist attacks in the U.S. for which the foreign government's liability could be proved.
The bill’s sponsors say the legislation is key to removing legal obstacles to a pending lawsuit against the Saudi government.
"It's very simple: If the Saudi government was complicit in terrorism, then they should pay the price," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday.
Neither Obama nor King Salman, the Saudi ruler, made mention of these issues as they sat down for a one-on-one meeting Wednesday. Aides later said the meeting lasted for more than two hours — their longest encounter — but that the legislation did not come up.
Talk of a strain in the relationship "was always overblown," Obama told reporters Thursday before leaving a summit with Persian Gulf leaders in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
"One of the things, at a time when the region is so fraught with so many different problems and challenges, is the need for more consistent institutionalized communication at every level of government," he said. "And that’s part of what we’ve been able to achieve."
But in Washington this week, the Saudi Embassy re-released a 2003 statement from Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the former Saudi foreign minister, responding at the time to the 9/11 Commission’s just-published report. He said his nation was “indicted by insinuation” because of the decision not to release the 28 pages and insisted that any accusations of involvement by Saudi officials were “based on misguided speculation and is born of poorly disguised malicious intent.”
As for the legislation, the White House has long opposed it, worried about the potential for fallout beyond the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“This is a matter of how generally the United States approaches our interactions with other countries,” Obama told Rose. “If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries,” he said.
Yet it is Obama’s own Democratic Party that is most supportive of moving the legislation forward; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blocked it this week from proceeding in the Senate while working on a compromise.
Lawmakers and the White House are still debating “the merits of the bill,” a Democratic congressional aide said.
“There are certainly sensitivities around the timing, given the trip,” the aide said, demanding anonymity to speak in detail about talks with the White House.
Schumer said this week that allowing a suit against Saudi Arabia to go forward, which the legislation aims to do, would give victims’ families "some measure of justice." But it would also send a message to other governments about the consequences of cooperation with terrorists.
Saudi officials have made their own case against the legislation directly to U.S. lawmakers, warning that its passage could bring economic consequences.
The Saudis consider the effort to hold it legally culpable for 9/11 “a major political attack," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. While there’s no evidence from the 9/11 Commission’s public findings that the kingdom supported Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, the panel did conclude that some of its senior figures and those from other regional countries “did support extremist charities and causes, and that controlling the flow of all such funding remains virtually impossible.”
Deputy national security advisor Rhodes made a similar point this week on the “Axe Files” podcast, saying that Al Qaeda was allowed room to thrive through “unregulated space” in the Saudi regime, even as he insisted that the U.S. view is that the Saudi government itself did not play a role.
"There was certainly, at least, an insufficient attention to where all this money was going over many years from the government," Rhodes said.
Obama himself was described in an article in the Atlantic magazine this month as “irritated" that foreign policy orthodoxy requires him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally. Obama's candid comments in the story, based on a lengthy interview, had already complicated the visit.
But Rhodes said the “blunt” and “direct” discussions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are a result of a deeper engagement that looks beyond what had previously defined the relationship – oil. The Saudis see the rise of the Islamic State and broader instability in the Middle East as more of a danger than they once viewed regional terrorism.
Rhodes told reporters Thursday in Riyadh that the new discussions helped "clear the air."
"Even as there have been some tensions over the years ... on a set of core issues, we are in alignment," he said.