Edward A. Turzanski is a Life Member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), having served with the U.S. Intelligence Community in postings throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe during the Reagan Administration. He was also a member of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Anti-Terror Advisory Committee throughout the George W. Bush Administration. He currently serves as the Templeton Fellow and Co-Chair of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is also Professor of Political Science and History at La Salle University in Philadelphia, where his research focuses include Intelligence and Espionage, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, U.S. National Security Policy, the American Presidency, and Social and Cultural Commentary.
What is your view of the controversy over the release of the classified 28-page portion of a Congressional report on 9/11?
I think it is very important that the secret portion of the “9-11 Report” be disclosed in its entirety — because at this point, having the “28 pages” lurk as a phantom invites people to supply their own narrative, which in the long term is much more damaging to US-Saudi relations than disclosing what we believe to likely be in the report and then dealing with the aftermath. Let’s also keep in mind that there’s a broader context to the US-Saudi relationship — and of greater concern to those people who respect that very long, consequential relationship is the Administration’s position vis a vis Iran, which to my thinking, has been damaging to the US, to Saudi Arabia, and to other allies that the US has in the Middle East.
What is publicly known about the content of the unreleased “28 pages”?
What we have been told most frequently in the US media is that the Government of Saudi Arabia is not implicated. Getting the information out is important, and we need to deal with any fallout there might be. Each side is going to deal with justice on its terms. But again, I do stress that, keeping the information out of the public view has the corrosive effect on American confidence in Saudi Arabia and in the relationship with Saudi Arabia. I believe that is more dangerous in the long term than disclosing what’s in the report, dealing with the aftermath, and then moving on — recognizing that we do have some common interests. And those interests are not being served by the Administration’s tilt toward Iran.
For over a decade the position of the Saudi government has been to call for the release of the “28 pages.” So, who is opposing their release, and why? And how, if at all, does this controversy relate to the dispute over proposed legislation which would enable U.S. citizens to sue the Government of Saudi Arabia for damages caused by terrorism?
There are a range of possibilities. One of them, for which there is a strong likelihood, is that the State Department has its own views on what should and shouldn’t be released, because it views itself as the primary instrument of American foreign policy — the primary institution responsible to manage foreign relations, in this case specifically with Saudi Arabia — and it considers this to be injurious in the long term when it comes to the conduct of US foreign policies. I think people who know foreign policy would not be shocked by that, though if you conducted man-in-the-street interviews around the United States, you’d get some very puzzled, if not angry looks from people. If they hear there’s a piece of legislation saying Americans should be able to litigate against foreign governments for terrorist acts or other harm, they’ll say that on its face, that’s a common-sense, intelligent thing to have.
The State Department may tend to oppose any attempt to engage in that kind of litigation. The public’s immediate response would be to say, the State Department cares less about Americans and is more concerned about its prerogative to deal with foreign entities. That may be true — but at the same time, as the State Department points out with some justification, if you go down that road, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” — and don’t be surprised when foreign nationals start litigating against the US government in much larger numbers than Americans would be litigating against foreign states. So you can see where the State Department has a point. It may not make it in the most tactful way in terms of domestic public opinion or political considerations, but it’s not without some justification.
So back to your question, who would be saying, “Don’t release these documents,” it would not surprise me in the least if the State Department or some agency within the foreign policy establishment within the US government would say, “Listen, no good will come of this because it will complicate an already difficult relationship.” The issue of the 28 pages has been with us before, and it has bubbled to the surface again. If the problem is removed, we can move on, and people will be in a position where they’re looking more clearly about those common interests that call for cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia. But when you have this unresolved issue, as painful as it could be to excise in the short term, the damage done over the long term by not excising it is much greater.
Following your logic that the US-Saudi relationship is damaged more severely by the concealment of the 28 pages than its release, how does the controversy play into the political dispute over a new American alliance with Iran?
There would be more pushback against the Administration’s policies vis a vis Iran were it the case that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were seen to be a dependable ally in all instances. Now I will enter the realm of speculation — and I realize that doing so exposes me to the risk of being guided by a conspiratorial mindset. That having been said, I think that the Administration has exhibited a pattern of conduct in which it will use whatever lever it can in order to bolster relations with Iran. And I believe that’s damaging to America’s interests in the Middle East. The Iranian regime does not deserve this kind of support from an American administration. It’s just very bad for us, bad for the Saudis, and bad for our other allies in the region. So the short answer is, the Administration may be using this.
Think back for a moment: Less than a year ago, the Iranians seized American sailors in international waters, held them and exhibited them in violation of the Geneva Convention, and in response, our Secretary of State thanked the Iranian regime for treating them well and seeing to their prompt release. Now Tehran is commemorating the spectacle by commissioning a statue to be built to the lasting image of our embarrassment. This has been the experience we’ve had, especially since this very poorly-thought-through deal was signed with the Iranians, where they continue to violate the terms of the deal. When you point it out to them, they accuse the US of being the violators of the deal, and the Administration meekly accepts this. And American allies say, “Have you lost your senses? How do you allow this to happen?” The Administration wants this deal very badly. And there is an old adage that says, “Be careful how you want something. If you want it badly, you’ll get it the way you wanted it.”
Kindly clarify what you see as the relationship between the Administration’s policies and the resurgence of controversy over Saudi Arabia and September 11.
I would say there’s a broader context to show that the Administration suppresses certain pieces of information at certain times in order to build political capital for whatever purpose it has, and promulgates other pieces of information at other times to advance the same purpose. And there may be a predisposition in certain quarters of the media, first of all, not to be critical of this president; and second, to protect him in those cases where a significant policy initiative of his is at risk. Among the many examples I recall was a period in the Iranian nuclear negotiations in which Administration sources began to disclose certain aspects of the Israeli nuclear program. Doing so helped make the Iranian case, by saying, “Let’s all be reasonable here. The Iranians have reason to be afraid.”
What do you see as guiding this Administration’s tilt toward Iran in the first place?
One of the President’s core beliefs appears to be that American engagement in foreign affairs has in most cases, if not caused then certainly exacerbated conflicts. He’s determined that the best way to ameliorate these conditions is to have the US be less of an active participant. I can’t tell you why the Administration has taken such a biased position in favor of relations with Iran: I think the president is transparent in favoring the Iranians; he’s opaque in his reasons as to why. The Administration’s supporters will say that it has been a long-term goal of the United States to restore relations with Iran. That is true. That has been true ever since Carter. We have indeed looked for a way back. But the Administration had its opportunity to restore relations with Iran in a different way, I think, in June of 2009, when the “Green Movement” took to the streets in Iran — but to its lasting shame, instead of supporting the Green Movement, the Administration instead effectively congratulated the Islamic Republic of Iran on a successful presidential election.
Do you believe that the apparent American tilt toward Iran and away from its traditional allies is a policy trend that is likely to survive the present Administration?
I do believe that the Obama Administration’s position has been an aberration, if it’s judged by the long arc of American policy. I don’t think there’s anybody in any capital throughout the Middle East who would say otherwise. Whether it stays that way, it’s an open question. With respect to the future policies of a Hillary Clinton Administration, I do not know what she will do. With respect to a future Trump Administration, I do not think even he knows what he will do. But I think if you’re talking about the US Congress, there’s deep alarm over what the Administration has done, and it would be strongly disposed to try to repair relations with traditional allies. Every few years, elected officials have to stand before the voters. And to come back to the related issue of the “28 pages,” one thing I can tell you about the mood in this country is that the public is tired of double games, and does not like to be put in a position where it’s being treated as a pack of fools. You will not be able to silence the discussion in American domestic politics if you just keep everything covered up. And there are enough people in the American foreign policy establishment, including members of the House and Senate in senior leadership positions, who recognize that relations with Saudi Arabia are important and have to be conducted in a constructive way.