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Saudi PR Turns From Spin to Stonewalling By: William McGurn
The Wall Street Journal | Tuesday, December 17, 2002


For months now Prince Bandar has watched American distrust of Saudi Arabia climb even as his kingdom is spending millions to fix its battered image. But the exodus of three founding partners from the Saudi's U.S. public relations firm, Qorvis Communications, suggests that the Saudi ambassador's problem is not limited to the American public. Apparently even the people selling the Saudi line aren't buying it.

The tumult within Qorvis comes at a bad moment for both company and client, given recent headlines and their mutual involvement in the sticky issue of American children abducted to Saudi Arabia . For it puts Prince Bandar in the impossible position of trying to persuade an increasingly skeptical America that the Saudis are faithful friends at precisely the moment he and his PR firm are stonewalling Congress's investigation into these captive Americans. More absurd still is the Saudi's legal argument: That diplomatic immunity extends from the embassy to the communications of its hired lobbyists.

The point man at Qorvis is its managing partner, Michael Petruzzello. Dan Burton's Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed Mr. Petruzzello's records in an effort to learn whether Qorvis has moved beyond simple PR into active collaboration with the Saudis designed to frustrate a Congressional inquiry. After dodging federal marshals for several days, Mr. Petruzzello was finally served with a subpoena to testify, which he did Wednesday. Though Mr. Petruzzello refused to turn over the documents in question, he and representatives from two other PR firms used by the Saudis squirmed in their seats and fudged their answers as the Indiana Republican read out the official Saudi responses and asked the PR men if they really believed them.

"We hear a lot about friendship," says Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who has become Mr. Burton's ally here. "But friendship is based on respect, and we need to see some [Saudi] respect for U.S. law."

Sen. Lincoln's involvement stems from a plea from Margaret McClain, a constituent seeking help in getting the Saudis to return her daughter, Heidi al-Omary. Now 10 years old, Heidi was kidnapped back in 1997 with the apparent complicity of the Saudi embassy. What makes that abduction particularly egregious is that Miss McClain had specifically notified the embassy of a U.S. court ruling that the girl not be taken out of the country.

Now you might think Saudi royals have more pressing issues than defending the right of Saudi men to flip the bird to Uncle Sam. After all, when George W. Bush had Prince Bandar down to his Texas ranch this summer, the president, according to his spokesman, told the prince that "not enough progress has been made, because people who should be allowed to come back to the United States have not been able to."

That was August. Want to know how many Americans have come home since President Bush's request? Zero.

It gets worse. In written answers to a Burton questionnaire, the State Department admits that the Saudis have never returned a kidnapped child to the U.S. To the contrary, the Saudi response has always been to obfuscate and propose "solutions" (e.g., a special commission) that are aimed at delaying everything until the issue fades or the children are old enough to be married off and impregnated. In Saudi Arabia , marriage can come as young as 12 years old for girls.

Take the way the Saudis responded to Mr. Burton's inquiry into the case of Alia and Aisha Gheshayan, two American women who were kidnapped as children in 1986. As far as anyone knows, the women had never been off Saudi soil since. But shortly after Mr. Burton's Congressional delegation landed in Riyadh in August, the women suddenly materialized in London. There they were interviewed by the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" in the presence of a note-taking minder for the Saudis provided by -- you guessed it! -- Mr. Petruzzello.

In fairness, the State Department, which also interviewed the women in London, wasn't much better. State claims that in so doing it was simply honoring a request from two U.S. citizens. But buried in that same Burton questionnaire is State's admission that the request was in fact made by Saudi adviser Adel al-Jubeir and processed by his brother, Nail al-Jubeir, after a brief phone call to one of the women's husbands.

So far the Saudis have been winning, at least in the sense that no American has been returned. But they are paying a high price. Put it this way: At a time when their interior minister is blaming the 9/11 attacks on the Jews and Prince Bandar is busy explaining why his wife was writing checks to what appear to be two al-Qaeda advance men, the Saudis could have used the good will that the return of American citizens would surely have given them.

Instead the Saudis are banking that the issue (and the subpoenas) will go away when Mr. Burton's chairmanship runs out this month. But Sen. Lincoln says such a view would be badly mistaken. Already she's sponsored legislation targeting visas of Saudi relatives of kidnappers, put a hold on a top State nominee until she was guaranteed Senate hearings on the issue and pushed Colin Powell to ask for the release of Heidi al-Omary (which he's done). As far back as June she also wrote a letter to President Bush signed by 13 women senators urging him to "take up the cause" -- a letter, she notes, that has been acknowledged but never answered.

"This isn't about rupturing a relationship with the Saudis," says Sen. Lincoln. "All I'm after is to get these kidnapped American children back home with their mothers. And I'm not going to let it go until they are."

Mr. McGurn is chief editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal.




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