In his new movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” film-maker Michael Moore makes the eye-popping claim that Saudi Arabian interests “have given” $1.4 billion to firms connected to the family and friends of President George W. Bush. This, Moore suggests, helps explain one of the principal themes of the film: that the Bush White House has shown remarkable solicitude to the Saudi royals, even to the point of compromising the war on terror. When you and your associates get money like that, Moore says at one point in the movie, “who you gonna like? Who’s your Daddy?”
But a cursory examination of the claim reveals some flaws in Moore’s arithmetic—not to mention his logic. Moore derives the $1.4 billion figure from journalist Craig Unger’s book, “House of Bush, House of Saud.” Nearly 90 percent of that amount, $1.18 billion, comes from just one source: contracts in the early to mid-1990’s that the Saudi Arabian government awarded to a U.S. defense contractor, BDM, for training the country’s military and National Guard. What’s the significance of BDM? The firm at the time was owned by the Carlyle Group, the powerhouse private-equity firm whose Asian-affiliate advisory board has included the president’s father, George H.W. Bush.
Most importantly, the movie fails to show any evidence that Bush White House actually has intervened in any way to promote the interests of the Carlyle Group. In fact, the one major Bush administration decision that most directly affected the company’s interest was the cancellation of a $11 billion program for the Crusader rocket artillery system that had been developed for the U.S. Army (during the Clinton administration)—a move that had been foreshadowed by Bush’s own statements during the 2000 campaign saying he wanted a lighter and more mobile military. The Crusader was manufactured by United Defense, which had been wholly owned by Carlyle until it spun the company off in a public offering in October, 2001 (and profited to the tune of $237 million). Carlyle still owned 47 percent of the shares in the defense company at the time that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—in the face of stiff congressional resistance—canceled the Crusader program the following year. These developments, like much else relevant to Carlyle, goes unmentioned in Moore’s movie.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t legitimate questions that deserve to be asked about the influence that secretive firms like Carlyle have in Washington—not to mention the Saudis themselves (an issue that has been taken up repeatedly in our weekly Terror Watch columns.) Nor are we trying to say that “Fahrenheit 9/11” isn’t a powerful and effective movie that raises a host of legitimate issues about President Bush’s response to the September 11 attacks, the climate of fear engendered by the war on terror and, most importantly, about the wisdom and horrific human toll of the war in Iraq.
But for all the reasonable points he makes, on more than a few occasions in the movie Moore twists and bends the available facts and makes glaring omissions in ways that end up clouding the serious political debate he wants to provoke.
Consider Moore’s handling of another conspiratorial claim: the idea that oil-company interest in building a pipeline through Afghanistan influenced early Bush administration policy regarding the Taliban. Moore raises the issue by stringing together two unrelated events. The first is that a delegation of Taliban leaders flew to Houston, Texas, in 1997 (”while George W. Bush was governor of Texas,” the movie helpfully points out) to meet with executives of Unocal, an oil company that was indeed interested in building a pipeline to carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan.
The second is that another Taliban emissary visited Washington in March, 2001 and got an audience at the State Department, leaving Moore to speculate that the Bush administration had gone soft on the protectors of Osama bin Laden because it was interested in promoting a pipeline deal. "Why on earth would the Bush administration allow a Taliban leader to visit the United States knowing that the Taliban were harboring the man who bombed the USS Cole and our African embassies?" Moore asks at one point.
This, as conspiracy theories go, is more than a stretch. Unocal’s interest in building the Afghan pipeline is well documented. Indeed, according to “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10., 2001,” the critically acclaimed book by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, Unocal executives met repeatedly with Clinton administration officials throughout the late 1990s in an effort to promote the project—in part by getting the U.S. government to take a more conciliatory approach to the Taliban. “It was an easy time for an American oil executive to find an audience in the Clinton White House,” Coll writes on page 307 of his book. “At the White House, [Unocal lobbyist Marty Miller] met regularly with Sheila Heslin, the director of energy issues at the National Security Council, whose suite next to the West Wing coursed with visitors from American oil firms. Miller found Heslin…very supportive of Unocal’s agenda in Afghanistan.”
Coll never suggests that the Clintonites’ interest in the Unocal project was because of the corrupting influence of big oil. Clinton National Security Council advisor “Berger, Heslin and their White House colleagues saw themselves engaged in a hardheaded synthesis of American commercial interests and national security goals,” he writes. “They wanted to use the profit-making motives of American oil companies to thwart one of the country’s most determined enemies, Iran, and to contain the longer-term ambitions of a restless Russia.”
Whatever the motive, the Unocal pipeline project was entirely a Clinton-era proposal: By 1998, as the Taliban hardened its positions, the U.S. oil company pulled out of the deal. By the time George W. Bush took office, it was a dead issue—and no longer the subject of any lobbying in Washington. (Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force report in May, 2001, makes no reference to it.) There is no evidence that the Taliban envoy who visited Washington in March, 2001—and met with State Department and National Security Council officials—ever brought up the pipeline. Nor is there any evidence anybody in the Bush administration raised it with him. The envoy brought a letter to Bush offering negotiations to resolve the issue of what should be done with bin Laden. (A few weeks earlier, Taliban leader Mullah Omar had floated the idea of convening a tribunal of Islamic religious scholars to review the evidence against the Al Qaeda leader.) The Taliban offer was promptly shot down. “We have not seen from the Taliban a proposal that would meet the requirements of the U.N. resolution to hand over Osama bin Laden to a country where he can be brought to justice,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at the time.
The use of innuendo is rife through other critical passages of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” The movie makes much of the president’s relationship with James R. Bath, a former member of his Texas Air National Guard who, like Bush, was suspended from flying at one point for failure to take a physical. The movie suggests that the White House blacked out a reference to Bath’s missed physical from his National Guard records not because of legal concerns over the Privacy Act but because it was trying to conceal the Bath connection—a presumed embarrassment because the Houston businessman had once been the U.S. money manager for the bin Laden family. After being hired by the bin Ladens to manager their money in Texas, Bath “in turn,” the movie says, “invested in George W. Bush.”
The investment in question is real: In the late 1970’s, Bath put up $50,000 into Bush’s Arbusto Energy, (one of a string of failed oil ventures by the president), giving Bath a 5 percent interest in the company. The implication seems to be that, years later, because of this link, Bush was somehow not as zealous about his determination to bin Laden.
Leaving aside the fact that the bin Laden family, which runs one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest construction firms, has never been linked to terrorism, the movie—which relied heavily on Unger’s book—fails to note the author’s conclusion about what to make of the supposed Bin Laden-Bath-Bush nexus: that it may not mean anything. The “Bush-Bin Laden ‘relationships’ were indirect—two degrees of separation, perhaps—and at times have been overstated,” Unger writes in his book. While critics have charged that bin Laden money found its way into Arbusto through Bath, Unger notes that “no hard evidence has ever been found to back up that charge” and Bath himself has adamantly denied it. “One hundred percent of those funds (in Arbusto) were mine,” says Bath in a footnote on page 101 of Unger’s book. “It was a purely personal investment.”
The innuendo is greatest, of course, in Moore’s dealings with the matter of the departing Saudis flown out of the United States in the days after the September 11 terror attacks. Much has already been written about these flights, especially the film’s implication that figures with possible knowledge of the terrorist attacks were allowed to leave the country without adequate FBI screening—a notion that has been essentially rejected by the 9/11 commission. The 9/11 commission found that the FBI screened the Saudi passengers, ran their names through federal databases, interviewed 30 of them and asked many of them “detailed questions." “Nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to the 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave the country,” the commission stated. New information about a flight from Tampa, Florida late on Sept. 13 seems mostly a red herring: The flight didn’t take any Saudis out of the United States. It was a domestic flight to Lexington, Kentucky that took place after the Tampa airport had already reopened.(You can read Unger’s letter to Newsweek on this point, as well as our reply, by clicking here.)
It is true that there are still some in the FBI who had questions about the flights-and wish more care had been taken to examine the passengers. But the film’s basic point—that the flights represented perhaps the supreme example of the Saudi government’s influence in the Bush White House-is almost impossible to defend. Why? Because while the film claims—correctly—that the “White House” approved the flights, it fails to note who exactly in the White House did so. It wasn’t the president, or the vice president or anybody else supposedly corrupted by Saudi oil money. It was Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism czar who was a holdover from the Clinton administration and who has since turned into a fierce Bush critic. Clarke has publicly testified that he gave the greenlight—conditioned on FBI clearance.
“I thought the flights were correct,” Clarke told ABC News last week. “The Saudis had reasonable fear that they might be the subject of vigilante attacks in the United States after 9/11. And there is no evidence even to this date that any of the people who left on those flights were people of interest to the FBI.” Like much else relevant to the issues Moore raises, Clarke’s reasons for approving the flights—and his thoughts on them today—won’t be found in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” nor in any of the ample material now being churned out by the film-maker’s “war room” to defend his provocative, if flawed, movie.