Michael Pregent is a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who focused on Iran in the course of his service. Currently an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute focused on Middle Eastern affairs, he is also a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
In recent weeks, allegations of Saudi government operational involvement in the 9-11 attacks have regained prominence in the American public discussion. What do you see as the political context of this trend?
With all of the recent provocations by Iran, Democrats who supported the Iran deal are now in an uncomfortable political position vis a vis their constituents based on those provocations. They’ve expressed their concerns to the President, and say they’d be willing to support sanctions against Iran for non-nuclear violations, such as the terrorism violation. But meanwhile, the President has been appealing to every Governor of every state to consider lifting their existing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear violations such as humanitarian violations and support for terrorism and support for Hezbollah. So that’s something that also came out this week. The President, in a letter to state Governors, said, we’re asking you to lift sanctions on Iran. Many of the Governors have responded by saying, ‘We thought this was only a nuclear deal. Why are you asking us to lift sanctions on Iran for terrorism and humanitarian issues?’
The current White House is an administration that is doing everything it possibly can to make sure that the Iran deal does not unravel before the President leaves office. Iran knows this, and so it continues to pressure the US, conveying in substance that that is exactly what they’ll do if the US doesn’t give Iran access to the US banking sector and lift all existing sanctions on Iran.
In this context, there is a visible trend, both on the part of the White House and on the part of some of its most prominent supporters in Congress, to accentuate information about Saudi Arabia that is helpful to supporters of the Iran deal. Supporters of the Iran deal know that they cannot persuade Americans to feel comfortable with the Iranian government or accepting the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a security partner. But perhaps their confidence in America’s traditional allies — Saudi Arabia being prominent among them — can be eroded through the painful memories of September 11 and the allegation that the Saudi government had something to do with it. In other words, “If you don’t like Iran, Saudi Arabia is worse, or just as bad.” It’s called moral equivalency.
What is your opinion of such claims?
I reject them, because Iran is a state supporter of terrorism and Saudi Arabia is not. Neither the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia nor its security sector are targeting Americans. By contrast, both the Iranian leadership and its security institutions — notably, the Quds Force Directorate of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are state sponsors of terror that have targeted American servicemen overseas, American citizens, and our allies.
In this highly charged political climate, the Saudi discussion is a welcome distraction from Iran while the administration puts pressure on governors to get them to play ball, because Khamenei is accusing the US of not living up to its part of the deal. Iran believes that all sanctions must be lifted. The reality of a sudden American shift towards Iran is settling in now — both in the Middle East and in the United States. Unfortunately part of the result is a push to punish a long-time ally of the United States — and Iran has to love this.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the 28-page portion of the Congressional Report on 9-11 that remains classified, which purportedly concerns alleged Saudi government involvement in the September 11 tragedy.
The 9-11 Commission was privy to the 28 pages, and yet nothing it found in that document or in any other source led to the result of a conclusion implicating the Saudi government in the 9-11 attacks. The 28-page documents would contain information that was under investigation at the time, before it was necessarily verified and before any allegations were confirmed. The notion of “28 classified pages concerning Saudi Arabia” sounds nefarious so long as it remains classified. I note that the Saudi government has been calling for the release of the material for years now. Anyway, my opinion is that the 28 pages will show that there is no direct government involvement, and that these were private citizens who were perpetrating the attack without government support. But meanwhile, I must say, there is a much larger trove of classified documents that really ought to be released which the Obama Administration seems unlikely to declassify.
What are those documents?
I’m referring to over a million documents — including papers, computer hard drives, and audio and video recordings — that were seized by the Sensitive Site Exploration Team from Osama Bin Laden’s residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Only a tiny fraction of the Bin Laden documents has been released, and we have every indication that it is a selective release. If the Administration were to have released some of the many items concerning Bin Laden’s relationship with Iran that have bearing on its material support for Al-Qaeda prior to and after 9-11, both the information and the fact the Administration knew of it would have torpedoed the Iran deal.
It has been reported that you had some involvement with those documents in your professional capacity as a Defense Intelligence Agency officer. Can you explain?
It was 2012, and I was on a team from United States Central Command (CENTCOM) that was concerned with a granular Al-Qaeda investigation. In looking at phone numbers, signals intelligence intercepts, and other things, we started to see route facilitation through Iran. There was a letter in the Bin Laden documents referring to Iran’s crucial role in the organization, warning Al-Qaeda operatives “not to mess with Iran.” We were trying to gain historical knowledge of the organization, to see how it functioned. And we started seeing stuff nobody was talking about, like Iranian facilitation of Al-Qaeda travel into Pakistan, for example. It seems to me that we were starting to piece things together and they didn’t like it.
Anyhow, we received permission from the CIA to go to the National Media Exploitation Center in McClean, Virginia to review the documents — only for the trip to be cancelled at the last minute. From what I was told, the decision came from the President’s National Security Council. The team was disbanded weeks later.