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Lowell Bergman: How Saudi Arabia figures into the war on terror

Lowell Bergman is a correspondent for PBS's Frontline. He recently interviewed the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He has produced and reported on numerous Frontline films, covering such topics as the California energy crisis, American drug policy, corruption in the Mexican government, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa. He is also a former producer for CBS's "60 Minutes."

CNN: Greetings and welcome to Newsroom Lowell Bergman. We are pleased to have you with us today.

BERGMAN: Good afternoon from Boston where it's just after noon.

CNN: What is the Saudi Arabian government's official view on the "war on terrorism," and does that differ from the Saudi public's view? BERGMAN: Well, I'm not sure that there's been a unified Saudi presentation of their complete view. So far, they've said they're our ally, that they'll consider our request for assistance, and they say they have not yet received a request to use installations for offensive actions, meaning the airbases we populate in Saudi Arabia. There is reason to believe both from reporting by the New York Times and interviews we did for the broadcast, that there are a number of people in Saudi Arabia who see Osama bin Laden as a "hero" who has been able to defy the United States and the Saudi royal family.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the U.S. government really trusts the Saudi government? Maybe that is why the U.S. hasn't made a request to use installations?

BERGMAN: Well, it depends on what you mean by trust. We trust that the Saudi government wants to stay in power and that they will assess how far they can go before their own people want to replace them. Prince Bandar addressed this question directly. They have a balancing act to do, and that may be the limit to how much we can trust them to do things. There is another aspect of this that hasn't been reported on extensively, but probably will be soon, and that is that the Saudis have provided significant support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, at least up until 1998, and it is believed subsequently covertly through the Pakistani army. They are a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy, and so there is some sympathy for at least the beliefs of many of the people who are involved with bin Laden.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do most Saudi Arabians agree with bin Laden that American troops should not be stationed in Saudi Arabia?

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BERGMAN: It's hard to give a definitive assessment, because Saudi Arabia does not allow reporters free access inside the country. There is no free press there. So what we do know is that a section of the population finds the government objectionable. It's clear that some part of the population has been involved over the last few decades in violent opposition, both to the government and, in the last decade, to the presence of U.S. troops. Now, as the Saudi ambassador pointed out in our interview, (aspects of that interview and others are available on the frontline Web site, that there is opposition, they recognize that, to U.S. presence, but they insist it's not significant.

CNN: Who is Prince Bandar and what does he mean to U.S. - Saudi Arabia relations?

BERGMAN: Prince Bandar is the dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington. He has been ambassador longer than any other in Washington. He is a member of the Saudi royal family, and one of the interesting aspects of his home is the grand piano in his Victorian mansion. The top has at least a half dozen photos of many presidents of the United States dedicated to him. He is the link between Saudi Arabia and the most powerful political and corporate leadership in the United States. He's also a source for many people in the media in Washington. If you ever wonder sometimes how certain stories leak out, I would imagine the prince might be involved.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Bergman, will the Saudis help round up the terrorist in their country? And will they agree to allow U.S. to use bases on their soil for military strikes?

BERGMAN: As to the second part of the question, it seems unclear at the moment whether the government will allow their bases in Saudi Arabia to be used for offensive actions. The question of rounding up terrorists was something that greatly frustrated the former FBI Director Louis Freeh. He made it a point of not resigning as director of the FBI until he got U.S. State Department approval for the indictments of the various people in the bombings that took place in Khobar. Mr. Freeh's frustration matches that of others in the FBI with the difficulty of getting the Saudi government to cooperate fully in previous investigations.

On the other hand, Prince Bandar in our interview pointed out (and you should be able to access this on the Web, although it's not in the broadcast), that there has been a cultural problem that has gotten in the way of communication between U.S. law enforcement and Saudi law enforcement. In 1996, I believe, the Saudis executed four individuals for an attack on a U.S. military systems installation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was done over the objections of U.S. law enforcement because they wanted to question these individuals before they were beheaded. So, there has been cooperation and sharing information, but it is unclear whether the Saudi government will provide, for example, the defendants who have been indicted in the Khobbar barracks, for extradition.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How will the Saudis feel if we attack Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Libya, etc.-- those that harbor terrorists and do nothing to stop them and maybe even finance them?

BERGMAN: Well, that's the big question. Are we going to pursue terrorists who we have identified who were not involved in September 11th? Are we going to aggressively cross international boundaries, either with aircraft or on the ground, to pursue them? And if we cause there to be civilian casualties in those countries, are we willing to live with the consequences, which may result in alienating the government of, say, Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Right now, it seems that these countries or allies are waiting to see what we do in Afghanistan, and then what the consequences may be in what is called "the street" in the Middle East. The street means the masses in the country, their reaction.

CNN: Many critics would say this entire conflict stems from the American dependence on oil resources in Saudi Arabia. How will America's relationship with OPEC be affected by these acts of aggression?

BERGMAN: Well, it's unclear what our leaders are going to do in a long-term sense when it comes to energy and oil. It's unclear whether the Bush administration will try to decrease, for instance, our dependence on Saudi oil, which makes up about 15 percent of our consumption. And it's unclear what our major oil companies have in mind in the future, now that it appears that instability and danger levels have increased greatly. It's possible that for the first time since 1973-'74, we may have a national debate about our energy supplies, where they come from, and how we consume them. But so far, we have no indication about what the administration plans to do in this area.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Bergman is there any uneasiness concerning the Saudi's refusal to take Bin Laden from Sudan and then arrest him? It seems they might have contributed to his building terrorist network.

BERGMAN: There are allegations that members of the Saudi royal family continue to support his activities, and there is an extensive financial investigation going on in Washington related to those issues. It's clear that in 1996 that we were told by the President of Sudan that when they were pressured to get him to leave, they offered him to the Saudis and Americans. He had to find a place to go, and the only place willing to accept him was Afghanistan. They were controlled at the time by the Taliban, who had just come to power with Saudi support and Pakistani support and money. As Prince Bandar says in the interview, "You could argue over whether they refused to take him." He didn't deny that they could have. The U.S. government position is that we couldn't hold him because at the time, there was no indictment pending, and we had no legal process to take him into custody. The Saudis have a less bureaucratic way of apprehending people. It is a monarchy, after all.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Lowell Bergman.

Lowell Bergman joined via telephone from Boston, MA. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Wednesday, October 10, 2001.


• Frontline - PBS

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