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The Saudi petrodollars that have flooded into the U.S. during the last 30 years have affected American business, politics, & society. This book focuses on Saudi power, as flexed with billions of dollars in oil revenues. It reveals some ways in which the Kingdom has manipulated American institutions & policies. Saudi Arabia acts much like every other country trying to cultivate U.S. support, influence foreign policy on issues it considers important, & learn about what America might do that could affect its own national interests. But what makes the Kingdom different from many other countries with similar ambitions is the power of its money. It has succeeded on a scale unmatched by other countries. This is the inside story of its success.
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Gerald Posner is the chief investigative reporter for the Daily Beast and the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Case Closed and Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection.
Audie Award finalist Alan Sklar has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and has won several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
A Free Pass for the Saudis
On August 31, 2003, Time published the first review of my book Why America Slept, and focused on the final chapter about the capture and interrogation of an al Qaeda terrorist, Abu Zubaydah. It revealed an American intelligence scheme to dupe Zubaydah into disclosing whatever he knew about imminent terrorist attacks. Using a room in a CIA-linked Afghan facility that was hastily converted to resemble a Saudi Arabian prison, U.S. officials concocted an elaborate ruse. Two Arab-American Special Forces soldiers pretended to be Saudi interrogators. The Saudis wanted Zubaydah—Osama bin Laden’s number three man—for terrorist crimes, and they had a well-deserved reputation for using torture in interrogations. The thinking behind the Mission Impossible–type deception was that Zubaydah would be so frightened he would either divulge critical information to avoid torture or prefer to be handed over to, and cooperate with, American questioners to avoid the tougher fate with the Saudis.
It took almost three years before news leaked out confirming that the government had approved so-called “false flag” operations for terrorists. On January 29, 2005, The New York Times, in its coverage of Michael Chertoff’s nomination to be the next homeland security chief, reported that in his former job at the Justice Department, Chertoff had advised the CIA on the legality of coercive interrogation methods for terror suspects under the federal antitorture statute. CIA officials evidently wanted legal protection so its officers minimized the risk of prosecution. “Other practices that would not present legal problems were those that did not involve the infliction of pain, like tricking a subject into believing he was being questioned by a member of a security service from another country,” reported the Times.1
The subterfuge backfired. Zubaydah seemed relieved rather than frightened when confronted by the fake Saudi interrogators. From memory, he rattled off two telephone numbers and told the startled U.S. Special Forces agents, “He will tell you what to do.” The numbers were private home and cell phone lines of Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the nephew of Saudi king Fahd. The Western-educated Ahmed was one of the wealthiest members of the royal family and chairman of the Research and Marketing Group, the Kingdom’s largest publishing company. Although his media firm was responsible for virulent anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda, he was considered by most observers simply a Westernized businessman with little apparent political interest. Ahmed was best known as a premier collector of Thoroughbred horses, including the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem. Since 1996, he had spent $126 million buying racehorses.2
The CIA officials running Zubaydah’s interrogation directed the two American Special Forces agents to falsely tell the terrorist that the telephone numbers he had provided were wrong. By that time, Zubaydah had been deprived of sleep for days, maintained on minimum pain medication for gunshot wounds sustained in his capture, and had been secretly administered a “truth serum” by intravenous drip. Yet, when told his telephone numbers had not panned out, he did not panic. Instead, he gave the “Saudi” interrogators several more numbers, these belonging to two other Saudi princes as well as the chief of Pakistan’s air force, the equivalent of being a member of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. These were his key contacts inside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Zubaydah claimed. And in a rambling monologue that one investigator later dubbed “the Rosetta stone” of 9/11, Zubaydah told his American interrogators that two of those named, the king’s nephew and the chief of Pakistan’s air force, knew before 9/11 there would be an al Qaeda attack in America around that date. No one had warned the United States.
Zubaydah’s astonishing information put American intelligence in a quandary. At the time, April 2002, the U.S. was working hard to convince the Saudi and Pakistani governments to cooperate with George Bush’s declared war on terror. Pakistan had already allowed the U.S. to use its military bases to conduct the war in Afghanistan, and the Kingdom was slowly providing some minor intelligence on al Qaeda, as well as tacitly supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. There was no willingness in the Bush administration to confront either ally based only on the unproven word of an avowed terrorist, especially since Zubaydah recanted his entire confession once he learned he had been duped by the Americans.
Intelligence analysts speculated that Zubaydah’s inclusion of Prince Ahmed raised the possibility that the supposedly apolitical prince might merely be a conduit of information for someone higher ranking. Ahmed’s father, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, is the governor of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, a post he has held since 1962. One of seven sons of the country’s founder, he is one of the Kingdom’s most influential ministers and a trusted advisor to King Fahd. Since Fahd’s 1995 stroke, Salman rarely leaves his brother’s side in Jeddah. According to diplomatic reports, Salman, along with his older brother Sultan, the defense minister, and his half brother Abdullah, the crown prince, are the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Besides his official position, Salman, whose Riyadh office overlooks Sahat al-Adl—“Justice Square”—where public beheadings take place on Fridays after noon prayers, is influential both with Saudi intelligence and in censoring the media. But there were several other roles that interested American investigators more. One was Salman’s multiyear courtship of religious fundamentalists as his power base, especially after his born-again conversion to strict Islam in the 1990s. He has strong ties to the religious conservatives, particularly those in the regional strongholds of Buraydah and Darriya, places Salman frequently visits. The CIA was also intrigued that during the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviets, Salman was responsible for organizing transportation to Afghanistan for the militant armies (mujahideen) from various Arab countries. And finally, he controlled the Kingdom’s charities that raised tens of millions for the mujahideen, and brought in billions for Muslim causes worldwide. And many of those chari-ties were on the U.S. government’s list of terror sponsors.3
But U.S. intelligence agencies were soon stymied in determining whether there was an al Qaeda link between the senior Salman and his son. So the Bush administration gambled. It authorized the CIA to pass along Zubaydah’s charges to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. By covertly monitoring the reactions inside those two countries, the administration thought it might determine the accuracy of Zubaydah’s remarkable revelations. Both countries quickly answered, however, with remarkably similar denials, feigning outrage at the very suggestion there could be any truth in the disclosures.
If that had been the end of it, Zubaydah’s confession might just be a footnote to the 9/11 story. However, what happened next ensured that the questions raised by Zubaydah might forever remain unanswered. Only three months after the Saudis and Pakistanis learned of what he had told the Americans, the people he named started dying. Within a few days, all three Saudi princes were dead. Forty-three-year-old Prince Ahmed, the king’s nephew, died after he voluntarily entered the best hospital in Riyadh for non-life-threatening surgery for a digestive problem, diverticulitis (one acquaintance says the prince actually went for liposuction, but that procedure is normally done on an outpatient basis). He was dead two days later, with Saudi officials and doctors flip-flopping over the cause of death from a heart attack to a blood clot. One of the doctors suggested that the portly Ahmed was himself responsible for a deadly clot because he was not active enough after his surgery. The doctors, he claimed, felt they could not advise Ahmed to move about since he was a prince, and as such could not be given orders, even by medical professionals.
The day after Ahmed’s untimely death, the second prince named by Zubaydah—Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud—a forty-one-year-old former military officer, was killed in a car accident. He was Ahmed’s cousin, and was on his way to Ahmed’s funeral. No other car was involved. He must have been driving too fast, concluded the Saudi police, when his car spun out of control and off the road. A week later, the third prince named by Zubaydah—Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir—a twenty-five-year-old, was found dead near his car, only fifty-five miles outside Riyadh. According to the Saudi Royal Court, which took the unusual step of announcing the death, this prince had “died of thirst,” a victim of dehydration in the brutal Saudi summer.
Zubaydah’s Pakistani link, Air Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, died on February 20, 2003, together with his wife and fifteen of his top aides, when his military aircraft crashed in Pakistan’s rugged Northwest Frontier province. That plane had recently sailed through a thorough maintenance inspection. The weather was clear at the time. There are reports—which Pakistani authorities refuse to acknowledge—that another military officer replaced the air marshal’s trusted private pilot at the last moment. Also, ear witnesses told investigators they had heard a loud explosion immediately before the crash.
If foul play was involved in the cluster of deaths, what could the victims have known that was so significant that someone wanted them dead? It might not be possible to answer that. Saudi Arabia, for instance, never even made a pretense of investigating the deaths of the princes. In Pakistan, a full investigation was announced into...
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