Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. What does that fact signify?
According to senior U.S. officials, little or nothing. From the outset, they treated the national identity of the terrorists as incidental, connoting nothing of importance. It was as if the 15 murderers just happened to smoke the same brand of cigarettes or wear the same after-shave.
Had they come from somewhere other than Saudi Arabia, a different attitude would surely have prevailed. Imagine if 15 Iraqis had perpetrated the attacks. In Washington’s eyes, Saddam Hussein’s direct involvement would have been a given. Fifteen Iranians? U.S. officials would have unhesitatingly fingered authorities in Tehran as complicit.
Saudi Arabia, however, got a pass. In its final report, the 9/11 Commission said it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” had funded al-Qaida. This artfully crafted passage was an exercise in damage control, designed to preserve the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship from critical scrutiny.
The effort never fully succeeded, skeptics suspecting that there might be more to the story. Today those doubts find expression in demands to declassify 28 pages of a congressional investigation said to detail Saudi relations with and support for the al-Qaida terrorist network before September 2001.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the Obama administration may finally do just that. Whether the 28 pages sustain or refute suspicions of Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks will remain impossible to say absent such executive action.
Yet implicit in this dispute is an issue of even greater moment: Who ultimately exercises jurisdiction over truth?
Does it fall within the exclusive province of the state? Or do judgments about truth rightfully belong to the people?
On anything that touches national security — an infinitely elastic concept — the state has long since staked out its position: Views expressed by government authorities are authoritative.
In matters relating to war and peace, U.S. officials tell us what in their judgment we need to know. They deny access to information that we ostensibly could misconstrue, or that they deem too dangerous for us to possess.
In effect, the state curates truth. In doling out information, curators working at the behest of the state — a category that includes more than a few journalists — fashion narratives that may not be entirely accurate but that have the compensatory virtue of being expedient. In some instances, the aim of the narrative might be to obfuscate past mistakes, thereby sparing policymakers embarrassment. More commonly, the purpose is to facilitate the exercise of power along certain lines.
By characterizing the events of Sept. 11 as a bolt out of the blue unrelated to past actions by the United States, the version of truth constructed in the wake of those events served both purposes. Rather than prompting a reassessment of prevailing U.S. policies — the problematic U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia among them — it upheld those policies, justifying their perpetuation and not incidentally affirming the wisdom of those who devised them in the first place.
No wonder the foreign policy establishment insists that the 28 pages remain secret; not only might the document challenge the state’s preferred Sept. 11 narrative, but the demands for its declassification also call into question the establishment’s very authority to control that narrative.
Opposing the pages’ release, Philip Zelikow, the Washington insider who served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission, describes them as “unvetted, raw material.” The contents, he insists, are “misleading.” Besides, were they to become public, “hundreds, if not thousands” of pages of additional material would also need to be declassified.
Why not allow Americans to judge for themselves? Why not make available those thousands of relevant pages? The answer is self-evident: Because in the estimation of those such as Zelikow, ordinary citizens are not to be trusted in such matters; policy must remain the purview of those who possess suitable credentials and can therefore be counted on to not rock the boat.
But the boat needs rocking. In the Middle East, the foreign policy establishment has made a hash of things. Indulging that establishment further serves no purpose other than to perpetuate folly. Releasing the 28 pages just might provide a first step toward real change.
Andrew Bacevich is author of the new book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org