The White House declassified and released the 9/11 Commission’s notes on an interview they had with former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004, discussing the situations before, during and after the 2001 9/11 attacks on the U.S.
A major area of discussion came about surrounding the United States strategy on counterterrorism before the attacks. Bush said that in early 2001, his administration had been working “to change the conditions that caused terror to arise,” particularly noting the efforts they made to improve relations with Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.
“This was a difficult problem,” the document states, saying that Bush explained that Crown Prince Abdullah had been unhappy with the U.S. approach to Israel and the Palestinian intifada. “He was disgruntled with the United States.”
The document later describes how one of the commissioners noted that “a big issue was the role of the Saudis,” citing a report of Saudi imams preaching a message of jihad in Iraq and Saudi Arabia not giving the U.S. access to a former al Qaeda chief financial officer. It also mentions how the commissioner “mentioned the belief of an INS inspector who testified … that there was pressure not to interfere with Saudis.”
Bush then responded with a candid description of the state of U.S.-Saudi relations at the time.
“The President replied that a fundamental political question for any President was how to deal with the Saudis. There was a sort of split personality there. Some found favor with al Qaeda and the extremists, supporting their radical policies. The U.S. had to have a process to push them to change their ways,” the document says.
Bush said that the Saudi royal family “was not a monolith,” and that different members were independent, holding different beliefs and not being completely aware of what the others were doing.
“The family was a complex organization, with different power centers,” Bush is described as saying.
He did express concerns about Saudi Arabia becoming “an al Qaeda country.” He also was worried that Saudi Arabia would align with Iran, but Saudi Arabia was controlled by Sunnis, and Iran was a major Shiite rival.
The discussion highlights many of the different things that have changed between then and now. For example, Saudi Arabia is now on better terms with Israel, and while the two countries have not reached a formal peace agreement, there have been rumors that one could come in the future. Saudi Arabia has also opened its airspace to the small country. The two countries even shared intelligence as recently as last week related to a threat of an Iranian attack.
However, there is still complexity and sensitivity in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Biden said during his campaign that the Arab nation should be viewed as a “pariah,” but later traveled there in summer of 2022 to discuss a variety of issues.
The Saudi-led OPEC+ group later decided to severely cut oil production, prompting U.S. officials to threaten to reconsider the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Much of the early portion of the interview dealt with the attack itself and how the president and vice president responded to the news of the attacks as they received more information. Bush apparently authorized shooting down a plane if necessary.
“Then they heard that an aircraft was down in Pennsylvania. The Vice President thought we’d shot it down,” the document says.
The downed aircraft was United Airlines Flight 93, which famously crashed into the ground after passengers fought back against hijackers, preventing them from carrying out an attack on another location.
The interview revealed that there had apparently been other situations where Bush had authorized the military to shoot down a plane but that “the problem was resolved without shots being fired” in each situation.
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