2004 Transcript

Prince Bandar on CNN's Late Edition': Saudi-U.S. relations

Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN's 'Late Edition' on Sunday, April 25, 2004, concerning terrorism, Iraq, Saudi-U.S. relations, and oil, touching on Bob Woodward's book


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: New focus on Saudi Arabia this week. A terrorist bombing, a shoot-out with militants there, and a new report that Saudi Arabia may have known about the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq even before some top members of the president's own Cabinet.
The man at the center of the story, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is joining us now live.
Prince Bandar, thanks very much, and welcome to 'LATE EDITION'.
BLITZER: Let's get to, first of all, what happened in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia this week. There was a horrible terrorist attack there. Who was responsible?
BIN SULTAN: We believe that it is a group, a cell that belongs to al Qaeda and bin Laden.
BLITZER: How do you know that?
BIN SULTAN: Because, like anything in security, success, nobody knows about it. We were after this cell for quite few days, a few weeks, actually, and few days before the bombing, we dismantled five trucks that were loaded with explosives, and some people were caught.
And that led then to where we -- the bombing and then after it, two days later, in Jeddah, we found five of the list of 26. Four of them were killed, one is detained.
BLITZER: Is Saudi Arabia -- do you believe that Osama bin Laden personally is still coordinating these attacks against your kingdom?
BIN SULTAN: I believe it's preplanned, yes. And he definitely is taking credit for it. He doesn't hide it. So, yes, he's an evil man, and people, his ilk, are evil, too.
But they're not going to succeed, number one. Number two, they have been exposed to the Saudi people, that those people are after killing innocent people, regardless of faith, religion, ethnic background, etcetera. And anger and sorrow is very high now, and the people are bonding together against this evil work.
BLITZER: Many of these al Qaeda operatives, as you well know, are themselves Saudis. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.
Looking back at what's happening in Riyadh now and what's happened over the past year, do you regret that your government didn't clamp down on al Qaeda, the teachings of those who support al Qaeda, much more forcefully in advance?
BIN SULTAN: We always are smarter after the fact. And when I was watching 9/11 commission discussing the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 activities and assessments, it was like a replay of our situation.
Definitely before 9/11, we didn't think that they had that kind of capability, that extent. However, at the time before 9/11, the people who we used to call terrorists -- remember, the West, America and Europe used to call dissidents -- well, you discovered that those dissidents are not really -- they're evil people.
And the fact that there are 15 people out of 19 people that were used in that tragic, horrible, evil work of 9/11, shows that part of the plan of the masterminding behind this is to hit America but also to target Saudi-American relationship. And they almost succeeded, because bin Laden and his gangs, they have a pool of people they could use. The fact that selected 15 of his misguided people to do this out of 19 shows you that they are the target.
And the bombing in Riyadh the day before yesterday is another proof that you are a target, we are a target, by the same people.
BLITZER: Is Saudi Arabia better off now security-wise after the war in Iraq started more than a year ago or worse off right now?
BIN SULTAN: I believe we are better off since we began to fight those terrorists, because they are more exposed. The people are united, and the Crown Prince has declared war on them. But not only on them, but on the people who also sympathize with them or justify their actions.
And it was amazing to watch the last two days, particularly on Friday, how all the senior religious people were attacking those people in a way we have never seen before.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the war in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has a 500-mile border with Iraq. There's no doubt that the U.S.-led coalition is on the verge of taking some dramatic steps right now, in Fallujah, for example.
Do you want the U.S. to go into Fallujah and crack down on the insurgents?
BIN SULTAN: I think the decision is an American decision, not ours. But I would say that, if the situation in Fallujah could be negotiated, and storming it, fight could be avoided, that would be the best for everybody.
BLITZER: It doesn't look like that's going to happen. It looks like there's going to be a fight.
BIN SULTAN: Let's pray for the right outcome.
BLITZER: Do you support the decision by Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, the coalition administrator, to go ahead and ease up his de-Baathification program, and allow now former high- ranking members of the Baath Party, including some generals and colonels, to resume their old positions?
BIN SULTAN: I believe that there were a lot of Iraqis who were Baathist only in name, because that's the only way they could survive and stay in power. I believe that the real bad clique and the criminals who were around Saddam Hussein, obviously the Iraqi people will never accept them.
But out of 20 million people, if you can exclude all the Baathists, you're not going to have any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there, any democracy (ph).
BLITZER: So this is a good idea?
BIN SULTAN: I think it's a good idea if they are vetting them well.
BLITZER: Vetting them well.
BIN SULTAN: Vetting them well, and if the Iraqi leadership find it OK. After all, it's an Iraqi decision.
BLITZER: Publicly, Saudi Arabia opposed the U.S. and the coalition going to war against Saddam Hussein, but privately, behind the scenes, we all now know that Saudi Arabia made it possible for the U.S. to go to war, with air bases and logistical support, all sorts of special operations forces moving into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
How do you explain this apparent contradiction between the public stance going into the war and what we now know was the real cooperation that your government gave the U.S.?
BIN SULTAN: Well, I think the underlying premise is that Saudi- American relationships are long, strong and consistent, and is based on solid basis, which is mutual interest, mutual respect. And I think, in that context, I am amazed that people are amazed that Saudi Arabia and America could be supporting each other when it serves their mutual interests.
BLITZER: But are you prepared now to confirm publicly that the U.S.-Saudi cooperation going into the war was as robust as it was?
BIN SULTAN: I think our relationship is robust overall, and...
BLITZER: Did you let special operations, U.S. special operations forces operate from Saudi soil to move into Iraq?
BIN SULTAN: Wolf, I was in the military 20 years ago. I am a diplomat now. You...
BLITZER: But you know the situation.
BIN SULTAN: And if I know, I don't think I'm going to tell you.
BLITZER: The air bases in Saudi Arabia, the Prince Sultan Air Base, I visited there before the war, one of the biggest, most impressive in the world. Other bases, Tabuk. You allowed U.S. war planes to fly missions from those bases against Iraqi forces.
BIN SULTAN: Those air bases are first-class, as you said, and you've been there. And at the time, until after the war, actually, American forces were there, and they were doing and supporting the Southern Watch, as you remember. And that continued all through.
What more was done, or less, was judged based on the need and the circumstances. But I don't think your viewers, particularly in the United States of America, should be surprised to know that Saudi- American relationship is much more solid than people try to make it.
BLITZER: All right. I'll take all that as a confirmation of what I said.
Stand by, Prince Sultan. We're going to take a quick -- Prince Bandar, excuse me -- we're going to take a quick break. We've got a lot more to talk about, including Bob Woodward's book and what he says in there about you.
Also, two United States senators, Richard Lugar and John Rockefeller, they're standing by to offer their views on what's happening in Iraq right now.
And one of the president's closest advisers, Karen Hughes, she'll join us live, as well.
‘LATE EDITION’, the last word in Sunday talk, will be right back.
BLITZER: I have more questions for Prince Bandar about the Middle East, Iraq, terrorism, oil, much more.
And our Web question of the week is this: Do you approve of the Pentagon's ban on releasing photos of the coffins of slain U.S. military personnel? You can cast your vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results later in the program. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Welcome back to ‘LATE EDITION’. I'm speaking with the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Mr. Ambassador, there's been a lot of uproar since Bob Woodward's book came out. And I interviewed Bob Woodward on Friday. And he suggested that your denial that you got the word from the president on the decision to go to war before the secretary of state, Colin Powell, may not really have been a denial. Listen to what he said to me.
BOB WOODWARD, THE WASHINGTON POST: I interviewed the president, and we spent a long time going over that meeting and the meeting with Colin Powell. And the president is the one who said, like to Colin Powell, time to get your war uniform on. That's not a maybe, that's war is coming. It could not have been clearer. For some reason, Bandar wants to fuzz this up.
BLITZER: And he also says, Woodward, that you called him around midnight Thursday night and you said, "wink, wink," suggesting you really weren't denying. You knew the president had made up his mind.
BIN SULTAN: Wolf, let's start with the second question. Yes, I did call Bob Woodward after his bedtime, and I had an objective: To wake him up, because he kept me awake for three, four days now, people asking about his book.
And as far as "wink, wink," I think when you wake up somebody at midnight they might hear things or see things. But I can tell you...
BLITZER: Are you saying you didn't say "wink, wink" to him?
BIN SULTAN: What I'm trying to tell you is that everything in the story about my meeting with the vice president that Bob Woodward put in his book is accurate. Bob Woodward portrayed that meeting accurately.
What he did not hear, because he was not there and I was there, or maybe he didn't know, is when I walked into the vice president's office, I was told, "The president has not made a final decision. Now we'll give you the briefing." And I don't see any contradiction between these.
As far as what the president said to the secretary of state, I'm not privy to that, and I wasn't there. And I'll take Bob Woodward's word for it, since he talked to both of them.
BLITZER: But you emerged from that meeting in January, two months before the war started, convinced the president had made up his mind.
BIN SULTAN: I emerged from that meeting in January thinking that if Saddam Hussein had any brains, he will accept whatever he is offered diplomatically, because I had no doubt if Saddam Hussein turned the offer down, there would be war, yes.
BLITZER: The other controversial point involving you and the Bush administration, supposedly underscoring this unique relationship that you have with the Bush family, Woodward writes in his book, the book called "Plan of Attack," he writes: "According the Prince Bandar, the Saudis hoped to fine-tune oil prices over 10 months to prime the economy for 2004. What was key, Bandar knew, were the economic conditions before a presidential election, not at the moment of the election."
The suggestion that you were trying to help the president get re-elected by lowering the price of oil, increasing Saudi output on the eve of election.
BIN SULTAN: When it comes to oil prices, Wolf, the Saudis always, as far as the media is concerned, damned if I do, damned if I don't. If the price is high, we are blamed for it.
And some politicians, in fact, said, if President Bush has close relations with the Saudis, "Why doesn't he talk to them to bring the prices down?" Now that we're working on that, they say, "You see, they're talking together."
BLITZER: But is this a political gift designed to help the president get...
BIN SULTAN: No, it isn't.
BLITZER: ... re-elected?
BIN SULTAN: No, it isn't. Absolutely not. This is a manifestation of an oil wealth policy. Saudi oil policy is that we want the prices to stay between $22 to $28. Anything above that we think is no good for the consumer, no good for the -- and is not much good for us, because any time the oil prices affect the world economy that's recovering now, it will affect our economy as well.
BLITZER: Listen to what John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, said in Houston on Thursday. Listen to this.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we have a right to ask OPEC why they're waiting. What are they waiting for? If they're our friend, you write that's for sure, but if they're our friend, if they want to help us, this is the time. They could up that production tomorrow, and we deserve to have them answer us why they won't do that.
BLITZER: All right. What's the answer?
BIN SULTAN: Oh, it's very simple. The problem with American gas prices, high gas prices, has nothing to do with crude oil. If tomorrow Saudi Arabia sends 1 million barrels to the United States of America, this will not affect the gas prices, because it is a matter of refinery.
Wolf, the United States has not built a refinery in 15 years. There are so many regulations that differs from one state to another. Your import from refined product from gas from Europe is down 20 percent. American refining need is 1 million barrel less than your capability.
So there is no shortcut to it by increasing the production of oil.
BLITZER: Do you want...
BIN SULTAN: However, if I may say...
BIN SULTAN: We have now, as our oil minister declared a few days in Dallas, Texas, we declared we are willing to help by investing in refineries in this country. But there is no shortcut.
And I would like Senator Kerry to answer the question. If we cut the oil production, 1 million barrels a few weeks ago, how come the oil prices went down $1.50? There is something wrong in the market, and there are a lot of traders, a lot of speculators.
BLITZER: Do you want President Bush to be re-elected?
BIN SULTAN: I want every president of the United States of America to be re-elected when they are in office.
BLITZER: So, you do. You would -- if you could vote, you would vote for Bush over Kerry?
BIN SULTAN: No, no. One, I don't vote. But two, you ask me, do you want the president of the United States, I say this, any president of the United States, and I worked with five of them.
BLITZER: Why do you want every president to be re-elected?
BIN SULTAN: Why wouldn't I?
BLITZER: I'm just asking.
BIN SULTAN: Me, too. I find it logical. If you work with somebody for four years...
BLITZER: Because the question has been raised about the special relationship that you have with the Bush family, the president and the president's father.
BIN SULTAN: I am proud to say I have special relation, in the personal sense, with every president I worked with. I knew President Reagan very well and his family. I've been to the family quarters. I knew President Clinton very well. I went to watch movies with him in the White House. I knew President Carter very well and his family. I knew, of course, Bush Sr.
I don't see what's the point there. Nobody wrote a book, "Al Saud and Al Clinton," "Al Saud and Al Carter." So this is part of the game that's played inside Washington inside the Beltway.
However, Wolf, you guys are going through your tribal warfare, and it doesn't make sense for me to make even logical comments until after November.
BLITZER: We don't have a lot of time left. So let me get on to some other issues. The president's relationship with another leader, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel. Listen to what the president said this week.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ariel Sharon came to America, and he stood up with me and he said, "We are pulling out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank." My judgment, the whole world should have said, "Thank you, Ariel."
BLITZER: Do you want to say thank you to Ariel Sharon?
BIN SULTAN: When the withdrawal takes place from Gaza, I will be very pleased. And President Mubarak yesterday gave a speech, and he said any time Israel withdraws from an occupied Arab territory, that's good news.
BLITZER: So this is an important step that the Israelis are making?
BIN SULTAN: It is an important step any time Israel withdraws or dismantles settlements, yes. But it is not -- as long as it is not isolated step in the -- not in context.
And as far as the Prime Minister Sharon meeting with President Bush, if you read the statement of President Bush, you will find what we in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) find essential is all there. He affirmed the two-state concept. He affirmed 242, 338 UN Resolutions. He affirmed the final status issues will be negotiated between the parties, and in that -- in that setting, in that set, I don't see what's wrong with these statements.
BLITZER: He said one thing and I'll press you on this. In supporting a two-state solution, Israel alongside a new state of Palestine, he said Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Does Saudi Arabia believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state?
BIN SULTAN: Yes, if there's a Palestinian state and an Israeli Jewish state, that's fine. That is not the question, though. The question is -- Israel exists today as a state, what we are dealing with is making -- creating the Palestinian state where the Palestinians will have their own home.
And in that context, I believe that, really, on the basics, that counts Saudi Arabia, we didn't see a major change between the four points I mentioned to you. The road map, 242, 338, the final status issues to be discussed and negotiated between the parties, and that all was in the president's speech.
Well, now the Israelis are very clever. I bet you there are things in the president's speech that Prime Minister Sharon didn't like, but they only accentuated the positive that suited them.
BLITZER: Well, they like the fact that he was saying that the right of return for the Palestinians no longer applies.
BIN SULTAN: I understand, as his views, which is fine. But we, the Arabs, I think, should take what we like from his speech and then emphasize it.
BLITZER: One final question: Sharon now says that his commitment to President Bush not to kill Yasser Arafat is no longer applicable. He said in an interview on Israel television the other day. The Bush administration says it should be applicable. They don't want him to harm Ariel Sharon. What would happen if...
BIN SULTAN: Harm Arafat.
BLITZER: I mean, harm Yasser Arafat. What would happen if they did?
BIN SULTAN: I think it would be disaster and it would be a very negative -- it will have a negative impact on the whole peace process. But the good news is I just hear before I came to the studio that Prime Minister Sharon have said this is, anyway, not in the card at the moment, and therefore he is backing down. I think it is smart to just put this issue to bed and not talk about it anymore.
BLITZER: Prince Bandar, we have to leave it right there. Thanks very much for joining us.
BIN SULTAN: Thank you, and I enjoyed being with you. Alas, you are a Redskin fan, and that bothers me as a Dallas Cowboy fan.
BLITZER: We do have something in common. We both went to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
BIN SULTAN: Absolutely. And I don't know how they got -- allowed you and I to join there.
BLITZER: We both graduated from there.
BIN SULTAN: Thank you.
BLITZER: Thanks for coming. I appreciate it.