The White House is coming under renewed pressure to declassify 28 pages of a congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings before President Obama leaves office next year.
The debate over the pages, which allegedly indicates that the 19 Saudi Arabian nationals who carried out the deadly attacks received some kind of support from the government in Riyadh, has ebbed and flowed ever since the report was published in 2002.
The controversy has flared up again ahead of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia for an April 21 summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meeting with Arab leaders, ostensibly, is a chance for the president to repair relations that have become frayed in the wake of last year’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran.
Some feel Obama should use the visit to declassify the redacted pages and finally put to rest an issue that has dragged on for nearly 15 years. One of the transparency advocates is former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) who oversaw a congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks that was separate from the independent 9/11 Commission inquiry.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Graham said that said the hijackers were "substantially" supported by the Saudi government, as well as charities and wealthy people in that country.
"I think it is implausible to believe that 19 people, most of whom didn't speak English, most of whom never had been in the United States before, many of whom didn't have a high school education — could have carried out such a complicated task without some support from within the United States," Graham said.
The renewed debate has also sparked interest in Congress. The same day the 60 Minutes segment aired, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) added her name to a roster of lawmakers who want to release the pages.
"I have always advocated for providing as much transparency as possible to the American people consistent with protecting our national security,” Pelosi, who once sat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Of course, if the pages are made available and show a link between the hijackers and Riyadh it could upend the U.S.-Saudi relationship at an already turbulent time in the region. Many Middle East states are worried that Iran is poised to spread its influence to their territory now that it is no longer hemmed in by a phalanx of international sanctions. Indeed, the nuclear deal has prompted many countries to order billions in new weapons as a possible hedge against anticipated Iranian aggression.
Still, Saudi officials have also said the pages should be released. With so many groups clamoring for it, why hasn’t it happened yet? Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision and the administration seems to be in no rush.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the pace is dictated by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whose agency reportedly began a review of the documents years ago.
“His office is responsible for these kinds of declassification exercises, and they'll make the necessary decisions about which of the materials and how much of the materials can be declassified,” Earnest said Monday during a briefing. He added that “without having seen those materials, it's hard for me to explain whether it will or why it would” have to wait until the end of Obama’s tenure next January.
Earnest said he wasn’t sure if the president had viewed the pages, and declined to say if Obama would abide by the intelligence community’s review if it determined the documents should be kept secret.
“I know that people often discuss the fact that the president does have the ability to decide on his own what information can be declassified. But obviously there is a place -- a process in place to consider the various points of view about releasing sensitive national security information,” he told reporters.
Of course, there could be an unintended consequence to declassifying the 28 pages. If no direct link between the attacks and Saudi Arabia is found it could unleash a new torrent of government conspiracy theories, like there are still more pages to be unearthed or that the congressional inquiry scrubbed or downplayed connections so as not to upset a long-time U.S. ally.
Conversely, if a connection is made it could impact every aspect of the diplomatic relationship, from military cooperation to gas prices – all factors President Obama is likely considering as he weighs the decision.