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Chairman Burton And The Saudis

A war of words has broken out between House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and the Saudi government. For months, Burton has sought the release of American children, including three from Indiana, kidnaped and held in Saudi Arabia. In most cases, the kids had been spirited out of the U.S. by their Saudi fathers in the aftermath of lost custody cases. The Saudi embassy issued passports to the children in direct violation of court orders not to remove them from the United States. Burton has held repeated hearings, taken a delegation to the royal kingdom seeking to meet with the kidnaped children, and pleaded with Saudi officials?all in vain. Chairman Burton has written to the White House seeking help, with no luck thus far.

To counter Burton, the Saudis have waged a vigorous public relations campaign, assisted by prominent Washington PR firms like Patton-Boggs and Qorvis Communications. Burton said recently that the Saudis pay Qorvis’ Michael Petruzzello $200,000 a month to advise them on how to deal with America. The Saudis’ American advisors get Prince Bandar “media opportunities” to rebut Burton and other critics. And they helped outfox Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel last summer by spiriting Pat Roush’s daughters to London just as Chairman Burton’s congressional delegation was landing in Riyadh to meet with the two young women.

After allegations emerged of money flowing to the 9/11 hijackers from Prince Bandar’s wife, the Saudis responded with a renewed media campaign to convince Americans of their reliability as an ally in the war on terrorism. Saudi foreign policy advisor Adel Al-Jubeir held a press conference at the Saudi embassy and appeared on cable news networks to complain about the unfair criticism the Saudis have been getting recently. At the press conference, he jumped on a question about Chairman Burton and the child custody cases. Al-Jubeir dismissed these cases as “strictly personal matters” and claimed that only two or three are still unresolved. He charged that Chairman Burton’s efforts to obtain the release of American children are nothing more than a “publicity stunt.”

At a hearing on December 4, Burton shot back that Al-Jubeir had shown himself to be “adept at skirting the truth” and cited twelve specific examples of Saudi lies. Burton said that hundreds of American women married to Saudi men and living in the royal kingdom have suffered terrible physical abuse and dozens of American children have been kidnaped and taken to Saudi Arabia. He emphasized the complicity of the Saudi embassy in Washington in these kidnapings and recited Saudi deceptions and outright lies about the cases.

But the real surprise of Burton’s hearing was the refusal of the Saudis’ American lobbyists to cooperate with the committee’s investigations. Burton has been seeking documents prepared by the lobbyists that he suspects show Saudi complicity in the kidnapings. The three lobbyists, Jack Deschauer of Patton-Boggs, Jamie Gallagher of The Gallagher Group, and Petruzzello, declined to provide the documents and refused to voluntarily testify before Burton’s committee. The lobbyists cited the “privileged” nature of their relationship with the Saudi embassy to justify their refusal to comply with the committee’s requests. Burton consulted one of the few experts on the international convention the three tried to hide behind; she declared that the convention didn’t apply to this case. Al-Jubeir had said that once the expert had read the Saudi “legal opinion” on Burton’s request, she changed her tune. But there was no evidence of that in her December 4 testimony. Instead, she declared the documents in question do not meet the convention’s standard of “inviolability,” so Al-Jubeir’s claim seems yet another distortion.

Burton then issued subpoenas to the three lobbyists. But when U.S. marshals tried to serve them, they weren’t at their offices or their homes. Burton said at the hearing that they are probably hiding out in the Saudi embassy. They appear to be on the lam, probably hoping to outlast Burton, who will step down as chairman in the new congress.

Daniel Pipes, writing in the New York Post, details how the Saudis spread money around Washington to buy former diplomats, retired generals and admirals, and old politicians to do their bidding. This signals those still inside government that big rewards await those willing to support Saudi policies. Pipes thinks the Saudis have yet to learn how to work Capitol Hill effectively, which for him explains the contrast between the administration’s response to the Saudi child custody cases and the Congress.