I remember watching the towers fall.
My sister called early in the morning to tell me to turn on the television. My husband and I, who had been working closely with Afghan women organizing against the Taliban, stared at the screen, aghast as the buildings crumbled.
Like everyone else the world over, we realized it was a moment that was going to change history. We also realized that ordinary people, including our friends in Afghanistan, were going to pay the price for something they likely had nothing to do with. And sure enough, on Oct. 7, 2001, despite the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, the U.S. went to war with Afghanistan. That war, the longest in U.S. history, remains a bloody weight on our collective conscience.
But as soon as the towers fell and Congress rushed to hand over blanket authority to President Bush to wantonly bomb, whispers of “an inside job” began circulating on the Internet.
Those whispers snowballed as the war expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq. Many anti-war activists, eager to undermine the flawed rationale for the Iraq War, insisted ever more shrilly that Bush and company were likely behind the attacks or knew ahead of time that the attacks were coming and failed to act purposefully. Complex and convoluted arguments about the temperatures at which the towers’ beams melted were vociferously trotted out on public radio and in Internet chat rooms. Jesse Ventura jumped into the fray. Films like “Loose Change” and “Zeitgeist” offered seductive theories for Americans to latch onto as they became angry about our rush to war.
As a journalist, I often came under fire from the so-called “9/11 truthers” for being a “gatekeeper” and refusing to take the conspiracy theories seriously. I was much more interested in the devastation being wrought by the U.S. in the name of the 9/11 attacks. And one irrefutable fact kept arising over and over in my mind: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. It was a simple fact that everyone agreed on. It had nothing to do with secrets, lies or thermodynamics. It was out in the open.
Here is a plausible conspiracy: The Saudi government, known for aiding and abetting fundamentalist terrorist groups in order to legitimize its own extremist ideology, may well have been involved with some of the 9/11 terrorists, whether or not they knew the hijackers’ intentions. Once those links were revealed, the U.S. government, which has a history of cozy relations with the Saudis for various reasons (oil, regional influence, weapons sales, etc.), may have wanted to overlook those embarrassing connections and instead divert the American public to countries it had an interest in, namely Iraq (with Afghanistan as a stepping stone).
But in 2004, the 9/11 Commission, a 10-person government panel created to investigate the attacks, absolved the Saudi Arabian government of any involvement. (It also faulted intelligence agencies for lack of coordination.) This was thought to be the end of the story. We were supposed to accept as mere coincidence the fact that the majority of the hijackers were Saudi citizens.
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Now it turns out that the far more plausible 9/11 conspiracy could be true. After years of rumors that a classified section of a 2002 congressional report held the key to a Saudi role, The Guardian newspaper recently interviewed a member of the 9/11 Commission who confirmed these suspicions. John Lehman, a Republican and former U.S. Navy secretary under President Reagan, asserted, “There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government.” According to The Guardian, Lehman was aware of “five Saudi government officials who were strongly suspected of involvement in the terrorists’ support network.”
Lehman, along with several members of Congress, wants the Obama administration to declassify the so-called “28 pages” that were kept secret. While Obama decides whether or not to release the documents, the GOP-dominated Senate has just passed a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government. The Saudis are predictably outraged, and Obama will likely veto the bill to assuage the U.S. ally.
Why is any of this important, particularly given the GOP’s penchant for finding any excuse, however insignificant, to oppose Obama?
It is important because the entire premise of current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is based on an assumption that no government actors were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Rather, we were told, it was a series of shadowy and reprehensible groups, including “al-Qaida, the Taliban and their associated forces,” in Obama’s own words, that have been targeted for blame and elimination. Just who those “associated forces” are is unknown. In reality, the “enemy” is about as classified as Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that began well over a decade ago unleashed chaos and violence. They generated the gulag in Guantanamo, Cuba. They were expanded via drone strikes in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. They have killed untold numbers of innocents and inspired hatred toward the U.S. The U.S. has undermined the Arab Spring movements for democracy in countries like Egypt and even bolstered Saudi Arabia’s brutal quashing of democracy in Bahrain. It has partnered with the Saudis on a bloody war in Yemen and continued its long-standing tradition of selling the wealthy Gulf monarchy more weapons than it knows what to do with.
The real 9/11 conspiracy is that, despite recent claims that “U.S.-Saudi relations are strained,” close ties between the two countries are worth far more than uncovering what really happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The real conspiracy has been out in the open all along. We are told that we need to trust that our government is handling the terrorists who hate us and tried to kill us, even if many contend that the wars have made us less safe. But it turns out our government is simply and amiably working along with the nation most implicated in the 9/11 attacks.
None of this is to imply that the U.S. should have bombed Saudi Arabia instead of Afghanistan in 2001. Our post-9/11 military incursions all point to the singular fact that the “War on Terror” has been a “War of Terror.” On the lengthy list of reasons our modern era of warfare is immoral, misguided, murderous, violent and in every sense wrong, the revelations of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks ought to be the final straw.