- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

When American troops occupied Iraq, they pulled out of Saudi Arabia. That inspired much rejoicing in Washington. The diplomatic planets had been realigned, the Saudis could be freed of Western infidels and the clash of civilizations would end.

Now none of it looks so simple.

Pressures are mounting on the Bush administration to make a clean breast of what it knows about the Saudi link to terrorism. That is causing further strain in the important U.S.-Saudi relationship.

What is mildly surprising is that Senate Republicans and the Saudi government are joining in the demand for declassification of a secret section of the congressional report on the September 11, 2001, disaster. The Saudi royal family’s back-channel support for charitable organizations linked to al Qaeda is apparently discussed in that section.

It is Colin Powell’s State Department that appears to be holding up the show.

The worry at State is what it has been for a long time — that too much pressure could topple the House of Saud and leave that country at the mercy of extremists. The FBI and others say much progress has been made in Riyadh to crack down on terrorists since Western compounds came under attack. Yet, the Saudi regime continues to tolerate the religious leaders calling for violence against Westerners because they — more than the royal family — command the allegiance of the Saudi people.

The Saudi rulers for decades have been seen in Washington as a moderating influence on the Friday prayers for jihad. But confidence has been shaken by evidence of unofficial financial support for terrorism from the ruling circles. The section scissored from the congressional September 11 report has fueled the anxiety.

The name of Prince Nayef, the powerful Saudi interior minister, has emerged in speculation from Capitol Hill about the layers of nongovernmental and charitable organizations that built the al Qaeda financial empire before the attacks.

Rumors about the Saudi connection drew an emergency trip here by Saudi Arabia’s stressed out foreign minister last week. He got a cold shoulder from President Bush. And some skeptics on Capitol Hill think the minister knew well in advance that Mr. Bush would reject his request for full disclosure of the excised section.

As the second anniversary of the attack on America approaches, the House of Saud appears to be shaken not only about the deterioration of its most important alliance but its continuing loss of control over its subjects.

That concern has been widely shared here. The brutal but dependable, cheap-oil royals could be overthrown in favor of some sort of Islamic republic. After all, it happened to the shah of Iran across the Persian Gulf a quarter-century ago when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini moved in on the first anti-American wave.

Fearfully protecting Saudis is an old American practice. A former State Department official, Jonathan Winer, testified last week that investigations of terrorist financing were often halted during the Clinton administration when they got too close to the royal family. Officials at State worried then, as they do now, about roiling the U.S.-Saudi relationship. FBI officials, often backed by the Justice Department, wanted to protect law enforcement investigations.

Protecting the economy and cheap oil, of course, is the motivation that drives almost every mollycoddling facet of the Saudi relationship. But officials say the fear of instability in the oil fields — a cruel anti-American prince or a new Islamic radical regime — has kept U.S. policy glued to the support of this anti-democratic government for decades, just as it did during the shah’s tyranny.

What is new is that the limits of public toleration for footsy with desert princes may have been reached. The demands for full disclosure are coming not just from Democrats charging coverup, like Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

Independent Senate Republicans like Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine and a smattering of conservatives like Pat Roberts of Kansas and Richard Shelby of Alabama want the administration to release the censored pages.

Mr. Bush’s political antennae are better than most. He is holding firm for the moment against letting out any secrets that might foil the ongoing September 11 investigation. But he did not say a word at his news conference defending the House of Saud, which is starting to look like a house of cards.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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