Oil Painting

Robert Baer is the kind of contact every journalist wishes he or she could trade notes with over a beer, a gifted storyteller with a wealth of war stories from his 21 years as a CIA case officer in places such as Beirut, Sudan, northern Iraq and Central Asia. After his resignation in 1997, he wrote See No Evil, a chronicle of his career and his deep disillusionment with the agency during the Clinton years. In Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Baer again plays to his strengths. Here Baer turns to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, offering a glimpse into the shortsightedness and dysfunction of U.S. policy that only a veteran Middle East hand like himself -- fluent in Arabic and immersed in the study of Islamist terrorism -- could provide.

According to Baer, the Saudi royal family is a deeply corrupt and degenerate bunch. Sleeping with the Devil offers a litany of anecdotes that convey the almost fin de siècle depravity of the extended Saudi royal family -- not just high-stakes gambling and whoring in Monte Carlo, France's Côte d'Azur and Morocco but "illegal ventures" that make the princes widely resented at home. Family members are not above, for example, supplementing their royal allowances with bribes on construction contracts and arms deals, selling visas and bootlegged alcohol, or even "seizing commoners' property and selling it." Widespread Saudi resentment at such behavior has, Baer leaves no doubt, helped give rise to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, whose members include the 15 Saudi hijackers who took part in the September 11 attacks.

But Baer's tale is not only an indictment of the Saudi royal family and its excesses. The real target of Baer's criticism is the U.S. government itself. According to Baer, successive presidential administrations have stubbornly ignored the facts about Riyadh and other oil-rich Persian Gulf allies. In the wake of 9-11, of course, the evidence that the Saudis played a significant if not dominant role in those attacks, and in the ranks and leadership of al-Qaeda, was overwhelming. But Baer writes that the U.S. government had for years had plenty of information about the Saudi role in earlier terrorist attacks against Americans, including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, the 1995 attack on a Saudi National Guard facility, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Yet, as Baer describes it, "Washington still continues to insist that Saudi Arabia is a stable country. … To listen to Foggy Bottom's spin, you would think Saudi Arabia was Denmark." Until almost a year after September 11, the State Department, for instance, did not require Saudi citizens to appear at a U.S. embassy or consulate for a visa interview. Under a system called Visa Express, Saudis merely submitted their paperwork to a Saudi travel agency that took care of things at the U.S. embassy for them. Indeed, Baer points out, all 15 of the Saudi 9-11 hijackers, though unmarried and unemployed, received valid U.S. tourist visas with which they entered the country to carry out the attacks -- even though U.S. immigration law is supposed to treat such applicants as presumed immigrants and therefore ineligible for a tourist visa. Similarly, the State Department's yearly studies on global terrorism reported favorably on Riyadh's anti-terrorism efforts -- despite the total lack of cooperation Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef gave then-FBI Director Louis Freeh, refusing even to meet with him in the wake of the Khobar Towers bombing. And Baer's former employer, the CIA, didn't bother to write national intelligence estimates on Saudi Arabia because the president "hated reading bad news about the kingdom."

Why did the United States refuse for so long to acknowledge the security risk that Saudi Arabia potentially posed to Americans? The answer Baer gives is twofold. Most obviously, Saudi Arabia has lots of fast money and cheap oil, and "has proved over and over that it was willing to spend it, as well as open the oil spigots any time we asked." Baer also notes in two interesting chapters how strategically targeted Saudi money is used to curry favor with Washington officials by carefully and generously giving patronage to everything from presidential libraries, university chairs, Middle East study centers and think tanks to American defense contractors, arms makers, plane manufacturers, K Street lobbying firms, oil services, and construction companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton. Indeed, Baer describes Saudi Arabia's longtime ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, as running a virtual employment service for high-ranking U.S. government officials when they return to private life. "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office," Baer cites Bandar as saying, "you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office."

The second explanation is more complicated. During the Cold War, Baer writes, the United States covertly made common cause with Islamist Sunni radical groups against such figures as former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was viewed by the United States as being pro-Soviet. One of these was the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian secret society founded in 1928 to establish Islamist governments throughout the Muslim world. While banned in Egypt, the organization has been given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Baer argues that past wink-and-nod alliances between U.S. intelligence services and Sunni Islamist militant groups may have made it more difficult for U.S. agencies to see the threat under their noses. "It's like the 9/11 attacks themselves," Baer writes. "No one saw them coming because no one wanted to look."

Baer's book is most interesting when it traces the links between certain officials in Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and some of the principals and architects of the 9-11 attacks. Baer breaks new ground when he reveals such connections about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by U.S. officials as the "architect" of the 9-11 attacks, who was taken into U.S. custody in Pakistan this spring. A Kuwaiti-born engineer of Pakistani-Baluch ethnic background, "KSM," as he is known by U.S. intelligence, is believed by U.S. officials to be an uncle of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

In 1995, Mohammed plotted to blow up 12 U.S. airliners flying out of the Philippines. But the "Bojinka" plot, as it was called, was discovered and preempted by Filipino police after a fire erupted in Mohammed's rented Manila apartment. Baer discovers when interviewing Qatar's former chief of police that when Mohammed fled Manila, he was given safe haven in Qatar, a U.S. ally. Mohammed had come to Qatar "from the Philippines after a couple of his henchmen were arrested," the former Qatari police chief tells Baer. "He was immediately taken under the wing of the [Qatari] interior minister, Abdallah bin Khalid, who is a fanatic Wahhabi. The Amir then ordered me to help Abdallah. The first things he asked for were twenty black Qatari passports. I know he gave them to Khalid Sheikh, who filled in the names … I still have the [passport] numbers in my safe."

"When the FBI [later] came to Doha," the former Qatar police chief told Baer, "the Amir ordered the interior minister to move Mohammad out of his apartment to [his] beach estate. In the meantime, agents of the Ministry of Interior cleaned out Khalid Sheikh's offices."

Needless to say, the allegation that high-level officials from Qatar supported the mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks with false passports, safe haven and ultimately safe passage when the FBI came knocking is eye opening, indeed. (The reader will kindly remember that it was from Doha, Qatar, that the Pentagon briefed reporters every day during the recent Iraq War.)

A second case of potential linkage between a U.S. ally and 9-11 principals that Baer might have probed more deeply involves the San Diego-based Saudi hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Many disturbing indications in the national reporting following 9-11 suggest that the San Diego al-Qaeda cell that included al-Hazmi and al-Midhar may have been linked to Saudi sources, both official and unofficial. As Newsweek reported in November 2002, Princess Haifa, the wife of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, sent tens of thousands of dollars as charitable donations to two San Diego-based Saudis who were close friends with the hijackers, and some of the money may have been shared with the hijackers. Federal law-enforcement sources told Newsweek that Omar al-Bayoumi, one of the hijackers' friends who received charitable payments from the princess, may have been serving as the "advance man" for the hijackers.

Indeed, Bayoumi met the two hijackers at a restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport upon their January 2000 arrival in the United States, right after he met with an official from the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. Al-Bayoumi then persuaded the future hijackers to move to San Diego, paid their first month's rent and security deposit, and threw them a welcome party. Bayoumi himself left the United States two months before the 9-11 attacks, heading first to England and then to Saudi Arabia. The other friend of the hijackers who received money from the princess, Osama Bassnan, mysteriously went to Houston in April 2002 to meet with a Saudi intelligence official who was part of the visiting Crown Prince Abdullah's entourage. Newsweek also reported that Bassnan accepted a suitcase of money from the visiting prince.

For her part, Princess Haifa has publicly professed shock that her charitable payments could have gone to the hijackers, and she is reported to have been fully cooperating with U.S. authorities since those payments were discovered. But the suggestions that the San Diego-based al-Qaeda cell that plowed a plane into the Pentagon may have had links with elements of Saudi intelligence sympathetic to al-Qaeda remain hard to dismiss. And the fact that the Bush administration has refused to declassify the chapter of the congressional 9-11 report concerning Saudi Arabia's possible role in financing the attacks suggests the administration's discomfort with what connections might come to light.

In the end, though, it is a testament to Baer's timeliness and acuity that events that may have broken too late for him to include in his book fit so smoothly into his argument. Baer's book goes a long way toward explaining how the entrenched system that connects Washington politics to Saudi oil and money has taken hold, and why we're that much less safe for it. Whether or not we've sold our soul for Saudi crude, we've certainly sold our security.

Laura Rozen writes on national-security issues from Washington, D.C.