The 2020 Democratic presidential contender sent out a campaign email Tuesday that hinted at a conspiracy at the highest levels of the U.S. government to stop the public from fully knowing the role that longtime U.S. partner Saudi Arabia played in the attacks.
“We deserve all the information on 9/11,” read the subject line. In a video linked to in the email and posted on Gabbard’s website alongside a petition asking President Donald Trump to declassify “all information related to 9/11,” Gabbard wrote: “The American people still don’t have access to the truth about Saudi Arabia and who helped Al Qaeda carry out these deadly attacks … It is absolutely unacceptable that our government’s investigation into Saudi ties has been kept from these 9/11 families and from the American people.”
There are reasons galore to question U.S.-Saudi ties or be skeptical of Saudi denials of responsibility for catastrophes — as the slow, painful revelation of the truth about Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi’s killing shows.
But Gabbard’s email does not make clear what precisely she wants to be declassified. The George W. Bush administration classified one section of the initial congressional inquiry into the attacks — known as “the 28 pages” ― but President Barack Obama released those pages, with some redactions, in 2016.
Obama’s White House press secretary at the time, Josh Earnest, emphasized that the U.S. did not believe the Saudi government supported al Qaeda, which waged a bloody campaign against Saudi authorities in the years after 9/11. Lawmakers from both parties ― including key House Intelligence Committee members Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) ― agreed.
“I hope that the release of these pages, with appropriate redactions necessary to protect our nation’s intelligence sources and methods, will diminish speculation that they contain proof of official Saudi government or senior Saudi official involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” Schiff said. “I know that the release of these pages will not end debate over the issue, but it will quiet rumors over their contents – as is often the case, the reality is less damaging than the uncertainty.”
Later reports, including that of the 9/11 Commission, explicitly cleared the Saudi government in the 2001 terror attacks. Still, allegations of Saudi culpability continued, and in 2016, Congress passed a bill by overwhelming bipartisan majorities allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom ― showing that despite the Saudis’ lobbying influence and the U.S. government’s fears of losing an ally, U.S. lawmakers aren’t perpetually beholden to them.
In recent years, Congress has pressured Saudi Arabia in ways that it hadn’t for decades over the kingdom’s brutal conduct in a four-year military intervention in Yemen and its role in Khashoggi’s murder. Lawmakers are willing to flex their muscles for a range of reasons, from growing U.S. energy independence to public distaste toward Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudis’ de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But there is no current investigation, secret or otherwise, into Saudi links to 9/11.
Gabbard’s 2020 campaign did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Gabbard’s disturbing new gambit fits well with her general pitch that she is the only candidate challenging a national security establishment fixated on conducting foreign wars, exploiting Americans and playing its own intricate games. It’s part of the same narrative Gabbard’s used to attract fringe supporters on the left and right and to peddle debunked ideas with serious stakes for millions of vulnerable people, like repeatedly claiming that most Syrians fighting the country’s dictator Bashar Assad are tied to al Qaeda and other terror groups.
Assad has made the same false allegation to justify mass executions and bombing campaigns that constitute war crimes. And he’s repeatedly deployed another dishonest talking point Gabbard shares — that he was the target of a U.S.-driven campaign of regime change. (Obama’s actual policy was pressuring Assad to cut a deal and stop the war through tightly limited aid to rebels and political opponents while avoiding actions that could cause the collapse of Assad’s government.)
For an American with Gabbard’s prominence to speak in this darkly paranoid way is a boon for leaders like Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It bolsters their strategy of pointing to American failings, real or imagined, to distract from their own abuses and of trying to undermine public faith in the U.S. political system to delegitimize democracy and shore up their own tyrannical rule.
Coming from a Democrat, it’s also political gold for Trump, a way to say there’s bipartisan approval for his assertions that he is unfairly victimized by members of a so-called “deep state,” largely in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Trump tapped frustration with America’s national security track record in his 2016 contests with traditional Republicans and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ― and he’s supported Gabbard as she has recently sparred with Clinton and promoted herself as the way for Democrats to break with what she calls “the Bush-Clinton doctrine.”
It’s a reminder of how glaring holes and bad logic in the national conversation about U.S. foreign policy and actions since 9/11 have boosted hatred against and suspicion of Muslims, allowing the kind of Islamophobia that Trump has amplified from the Oval Office to thrive and guide government policy.
Gabbard’s new message about Saudi Arabia has to be understood in the context of her broader political message. She’s voted to make it harder for refugees from Syria to enter the U.S. She’s praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi as he’s directed an unprecedented crackdown by painting much of his population as Muslim extremists. She’s worked closely with supporters of Hindu nationalists in India who see the country’s millions-strong Muslim minority as a major problem.
Now she’s trying to make Islamist terror a focus of the Democratic primary ― reminding voters, in case they had forgotten, that there was something there to be afraid of.
Hundreds of other members of Congress, many of them far more senior and more mainstream than Gabbard, were wrong to bolster poisonous theories about 9/11 when they blessed the 2016 bill that implied there are still questions about Saudi ties to the attacks. Gabbard is wrong to do it now.