June 10, 2007
Mr Fix -it
Who is Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi prince at the centre of alleged bribery by BAE, the British arms giant? Our correspondent tells the story of the best connected man in the world
By Bob Woodward
In the autumn of 1997, former President George HW Bush, then aged 73 and five years out of the White House, phoned one of his closest friends, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.
“Bandar,” Bush said, “W would like to talk to you, if you have time. Can you come by and talk to him?”
His eldest son and namesake, George W Bush, who had been governor of Texas for nearly three years, was consulting a handful of people about an important decision and wanted to have a private talk.
Bandar’s life was built around such private talks. He had been the Saudi ambassador for 15 years, and had an extraordinary position in Washington. His intensity and networking were probably matched only by former President Bush.
They had built a bond in the 1980s. Bush, the vice-president living in the shadow of President Ronald Reagan, was widely dismissed as a wimp; but Bandar treated him with the respect due a future president. He gave a big party for Bush at his palatial estate overlooking the Potomac river and went fishing with him at Bush’s vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine – Bandar’s least favourite pastime but something Bush loved. The essence of their relationship was constant contact.
Like good intelligence officers – Bush had been CIA director and Bandar had close ties to the world’s important spy services – they had recruited each other. The friendship was useful and genuine. During Bush’s 1991 Gulf war to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and prevent him from invading neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Bandar had been virtually a member of the Bush war cabinet.
At about 4am on election day 1992, when – up against Bill Clinton – it looked as if Bush was going to fail in his bid for a second term, Bandar had dispatched a private letter to him saying, You’re my friend for life. You saved our country. I feel like one of your family, you are like one of our own. And you know what, Mr President? You win either way. You should win. You deserve to. But if you lose, you are in good company with Winston Churchill, who won the war and lost the election.
Bush called Bandar later that day and said, “Buddy, all day the only good news I’ve had was your letter.” Early next day, Bush called again and said, “It’s over.”
Bandar became Bush’s case officer, rescuing him from his cocoon of near depression. He visited Bush three times at Kennebunkport and flew friends in from England to see him. He took Bush to his 32-room mansion in Aspen, Colorado, where there was a “Desert Storm Corner” with the former president’s picture in the middle. Bandar played tennis and other sports with Bush, anything to keep him engaged.
Profane, ruthless, smooth, Bandar was almost a fifth estate in Washington, working the political and media circles attentively and obsessively. But as ambassador his chief focus was the presidency, whoever held it, ensuring the door was open for Saudi Arabia, which had the world’s largest oil reserves but did not have a powerful military. When Michael Deaver, one of President Reagan’s top White House aides, left to become a lobbyist, Nancy Reagan, another close Bandar friend, called and asked him to help Deaver. Bandar gave Deaver a $500,000 consulting contract and never saw him again.
He planned his 1997 visit to Governor George W Bush around a trip to a home football game of his beloved Dallas Cowboys. That would give him “cover”, as he called it. He wanted the meeting to be discreet, and ordered his private jet to stop in Austin.
“Hi, how are you?” greeted George W, standing at the door before Bandar could even get off the plane. He was eager to talk.
Bandar, 49, had been a Saudi fighter pilot for 17 years and was a favourite of King Fahd; his father was the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan. Bush, then 51, had been a jet pilot in the Texas Air National Guard. They had met, but to Bandar, George W was just another of the former president’s four sons, and not the most distinguished one.
“I’m thinking of running for president,” said Bush. He told Bandar he had clear ideas of what needed to be done with national domestic policy. But, he added, “I don’t have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy.
“My dad told me before I make up my mind, go and talk to Bandar. One, he’s our friend. Our means America, not just the Bush family. Number two, he knows everyone around the world who counts. And number three, he will give you his view on what he sees happening in the world.”
Bush said Bandar should pick what was important, so Bandar provided a tour of the world. As the oil-rich Saudi kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, he had access to world leaders and was regularly dispatched by King Fahd on secret missions, an international Mr Fix-It, often on Mission Impossible tasks. He had personal relationships with the leaders of Russia, China, Syria, Britain, even Israel.
Bandar spoke candidly about leaders in the Middle East, the Far East, Russia, China and Europe. He recounted some of his personal meetings, such as his contacts with Mikhail Gorbachev working on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. He spoke of Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair. Bandar described the Saudi role working with the Pope and Reagan to keep the communists in check.
“There are people who are your enemies in this country,” Bush said, “who also think my dad is your friend.”
“So?” asked Bandar, not asking who, though the reference was obviously to supporters of Israel, among others. “Can I give you one advice?”
“Mr Governor, tell me you really want to be president of the United States.”
Bush said yes. “And if you tell me that, I want to tell you one thing: to hell with Saudi Arabia or who likes Saudi Arabia or who doesn’t, who likes Bandar or doesn’t. Anyone who you think hates your dad or your friend who can be important to make a difference in winning, swallow your pride and make friends of them. And I can help you. I can help you out and complain about you, make sure they understood that, and that will make sure they help you.”
Bush recognised the Godfather’s advice: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. But he seemed uncomfortable and remarked that that wasn’t particularly honest.
“Never mind if you really want to be honest,” Bandar said. “In the big boys’ game, it’s cutthroat, it’s bloody and it’s not pleasant.”
As Bush locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Bandar kept in touch. Over the weekend of June 10, 2000, he attended a surprise party for Barbara Bush’s 75th birthday at the family retreat in Kennebunkport. Bandar thought it was quaint and old-fashioned, complete with the Bush family members putting on a 45-minute variety show with comic skits.
George W pulled Bandar aside.
“Bandar, I guess you’re the best asshole who knows about the world. Explain to me one thing.”
“Governor, what is it?”
“Why should I care about North Korea?”
Bandar said he didn’t know. It was one of the few countries he did not work on for King Fahd.
“I get these briefings on all parts of the world,” Bush said, “and everybody is talking to me about North Korea.”
“I’ll tell you what, Governor,” Bandar said. “One reason should make you care about North Korea.”
“All right, smart aleck,” Bush said, “tell me.”
“The 38,000 American troops right on the border.”
Most of the US 2nd Infantry Division was deployed there, with thousands of other army, navy and air force personnel. “One shot across the border and you lose half these people immediately. You lose 15,000 Americans in a chemical or biological or even regular attack. The United States of America is at war instantly.”
“Hmmm,” Bush said. “I wish those assholes would put things just point-blank to me. I get half a book telling me about the history of North Korea.”
BANDAR followed W’s 2000 campaign like a full-time political reporter and news junkie. The candidate’s father promised to come to Bandar’s estate outside London for pheasant shooting after the election. Bush Sr told Bandar, “By the time I come to shoot with you, either we will be celebrating my boy is in the White House, or we’ll be commiserating together because my boy lost.”
After the election, Bandar visited the new President Bush in the White House regularly, and kept in touch with Bush Sr. On occasion he saw the father and son together. There was a bonding, an apparent emotional connection; and yet there was a standoffishness, a distance that was not explainable. Many times Bush Sr commented to him about policies being pursued by his son.
“Why don’t you call him about it?” Bandar asked.
“I had my turn,” Bush Sr replied. “It is his turn now. I just have to stay off the stage. For eight years I did not make one comment about Clinton. I will not make any comment vis-à-vis this president, not only out of principle but to let him be himself.”
On Thursday, March 15, 2001, the 53rd day of the Bush presidency, Bandar went to the Oval Office. It was highly unusual for an ambassador to have Bandar’s kind of direct access to the president. They discussed Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq and world oil prices. Bush said he would like to see Bandar at least once a month. He wanted honest talk.
Bandar was elated. He sent a secret message to Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler under the ailing King Fahd: “Many positive signs as far as relations and issues that are of concern to both countries. Loyalty and honesty are sensitive issues for this president. It is important that we invest in this man, in a very positive way.”
On April 1, China forced down a US navy spy plane and took its 24 crew hostage, the first big foreign policy crisis of the new Bush administration. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was given the assignment of negotiating a settlement. He enlisted Bandar, who had special relations with the Chinese through various deals to purchase arms. China was also beginning to rely on Saudi oil.
Bandar eventually got the Chinese to release the hostages. Never modest about his influence, Bandar considered it almost a personal favour to him. The Chinese wanted a letter from the US expressing regret. It was the kind of diplomatic gobbledy-gook that was Bandar’s speciality. The US would say it was “very sorry” the spy plane had entered Chinese airspace to make an emergency landing but it would not apologise for what it considered a legitimate intelligence-gathering mission.
The National Security Agency was monitoring Bandar’s calls with the Chinese and sending reports to Powell about negotiations, including the final deal Bandar arranged. Powell called Bandar with congratulations.
“Hey, it’s great!” he said.
“How the hell do you know?” Bandar asked.
Having jumped the gun, Powell sheepishly tried to get out of explaining. Bandar knew his calls were monitored, but he and Powell couldn’t really talk about one of the most sensitive and classified intelligence-gathering operations of the US government involving communications among foreign governments. So for a year Powell and Bandar laughed and half joked about it without ever really defining it.
There was friction over the Palestinians, however. On June 1, 2001, a suicide bomber killed 21 in a Tel Aviv nightclub. Bush condemned the attack as “heinous” and unjustifiable. Two days later Bandar had dinner in the White House residence with Bush, Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.
He brought a lengthy outline of a paper on how the Arab world viewed the US. It was all part of Bush’s education on the ways of the world – as seen through Saudi eyes – a remarkable five-hour session that started at 7pm and kept Bush up well past his bedtime.
Bandar cited examples of the US condemning violence when Israelis were killed – as Bush had just done – “and at the same time, silence when something similar happens that caused the killing of Palestinians”. This jeopardised the “work of the countries that are too close to the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan”. Even in Saudi Arabia, “for the first time in 30 years we are facing a very questionable internal situation”.
Bandar was imploring. “Mr President, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something. I mean, you’re killing us basically. We are being slaughtered right and left, and you’re not doing anything.”
The president vehemently criticised the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, as “a liar”. Bush would not negotiate with him.
“Fine,” Bandar said, “he’s a liar. We know that. You know that. He’s a schmuck. But he is the only schmuck we have to deal with.” The problem was larger than one man.
Two months later Bandar brought Bush a message from the crown prince accusing the US of taking a strategic decision to adopt Israeli policy in the Middle East. Henceforth, the crown prince said, he was going to cut off communications with the White House and Saudi Arabia would pursue its own interests without taking America’s into account.
Bush seemed shocked, and Powell cornered Bandar later. “What the f*** are you doing?” he demanded. “You’re putting the fear of God in everybody here. You scared the s*** out of everybody.”
The Saudi threat worked. Two days later, August 29, Bush sent the crown prince a two-page letter stating: “I firmly believe the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination and to live peacefully and securely in their own state, in their own homeland, just as the Israelis have the right to live peacefully and safely in their own state.”
It was a much bigger step than Clinton had taken. At Saudi prompting, Bush agreed to come out publicly for a Palestinian state. A big roll-out was planned for the week beginning Monday, September 10.
That Tuesday, September 11, Al-Qaeda attacked America. Next day the elder George Bush called Bandar. The president was having a bad time, he said. “Help him out.”
On September 13, Bandar met the president at the White House. The Saudis had arrested and detained some key Al-Qaeda suspects immediately before and after 9/11. The president told Bandar: “If we get somebody and we can’t get them to cooperate, we’ll hand them over to you.”
With those words, the president casually expressed what became the US government’s rendition policy – the shifting of terrorist suspects from country to country for interrogation. Though the Saudis denied it, the CIA believed the Saudis tortured terrorist suspects to make them talk. In the immediate wake of 9/11 Bush wanted answers from those who had been detained.
The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, but this seems not to have affected Bandar’s relationship with the president. Instead, history now repeated itself – with Bandar at the centre of the action.
IN August 1990, after Saddam had invaded Kuwait and was threatening to move into Saudi Arabia, Bush Sr had directed Dick Cheney, his secretary of defence, to brief the ambassador on the US war plan.
In his Pentagon office Cheney produced top secret photographs showing Iraqi divisions pointing at Saudi Arabia. Colin Powell, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (JCS), summarised the US plan, which would include more than four divisions, three aircraft carriers, plus many air force attack squadrons.
More than 12 years later, on January 11, 2003, Cheney again invited Bandar to review a top secret plan of attack on Saddam. Cheney was now vice-president, and the aim was to overthrow the Iraqi dictator.
Sitting on the edge of the table, the JCS chairman General Richard Myers took out a large map labelled “Top Secret Noforn” and explained the battle plan. Noforn meant “no foreign” – classified material not to be seen by any foreign national.
Bandar stared intently at the 2ft x 3ft top secret map. Could he have a copy so he could brief the crown prince?
“Above my pay grade,” Myers said.
“We’ll give you all the information you want,” said Don Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. But as for the map, “I would rather not give it to you, but you take notes if you want.”
“No, no. It’s not important. Just let me look at it,” Bandar said, trying to take it all in.
The Europeans and their “obstruction” at the United Nations were very much on his mind. France, Germany and Russia were urging that Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector in Iraq, be given more time.
Rumsfeld looked Bandar in the eye. “You can count on this,” he said, pointing to the map. “You can take that to the bank. It’s going to happen.”
“What is the chance of Saddam surviving this?” Bandar asked. He believed Saddam was intent on killing everyone involved at a high level in the 1991 Gulf war, including himself.
Cheney, who had been quiet as usual, replied: “Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast.”
Bandar had heard big promises before that didn’t materialise. He wanted to hear it directly from Bush.
After he had left, Rumsfeld voiced some concern about the vice-presi-dent’s “toast” remark. “Jesus Christ, what was that all about, Dick?”
“I didn’t want to leave any doubt in his mind what we’re planning to do,” Cheney said. He wanted Bandar to know it was for real, but he didn’t plan to be quite as direct with anyone else. After all, he had known Bandar a long time.
When he got home, Bandar took a large blank map of the region that had been supplied by the CIA and began reconstructing the plan piece-by-piece. The next day Rice invited him to meet the president.
“You got the briefing from Dick, Rummy and General Myers?” the president asked.
“That is the message I want you to carry for me to the crown prince,” Bush said. “The message you’re taking is mine, Bandar.” Bandar believed it was exactly what Cheney had told Bush to say.
Four months later, after the fall of Baghdad, Bandar went again to the White House. He expressed concern about stability in Iraq to Bush. The US military had occupied the country, but Rumsfeld was talking about a fast withdrawal. There would be a power vacuum in Iraq for sure.
Chaos in Iraq or an extremist, pro-Iranian Shi’ite regime would be a nightmare for the Saudis, conceiva-bly worse than the relative stability provided by Saddam.
Bandar advised the president: “What you should do, announce all of the military report back to their barracks and keep, let’s say, the colonels on down. Somebody has to run things.” And do the same thing with the Iraqi intelligence and security services. “Look, their intel service was the most efficient. Take off the top echelon and keep the second line and let them find those bad guys, because those bad guys will know how to find bad guys.” They could find Saddam.
“That’s too Machiavellian,” someone said. The Saudi notes of the meeting indicate it was either Bush or Rice.
“Let bad people find bad people, and then after that you get rid of them,” Bandar said. “What’s the big deal? Double-cross them. I mean, for God’s sake, who said that we owe them anything?”
No one responded.
The Saudis estimated that there were some 3m pensioners in Iraq, sitting at home, getting the equivalent of $6 a month. “Go and pay them for six months, for God’s sake,” Bandar advised. “Each of them supports a family, mind you. So from 3m you could get the support of literally 10m people. Suddenly you have a major constituency for you because you have paid them off.”
It was the Saudi way. Paying 3m pensioners would amount to about $100m. Bandar proposed doing the same with the Iraqi military. Chop off the top echelon, and then pay the rest for three to six months. That might be another $100m. The total cost of the buyout programme would be about $200m. It might be the best $200m the US ever spent, he said.
Bush indicated it was up to Rumsfeld.
BANDAR had half a dozen meetings with Bush in 2004 and into 2005. The president’s deep religious convictions came up time and time again, as he talked about his faith and his relationship with God. He made it clear he felt no doubt that a higher authority was looking after him and guiding him.
But Bandar’s role was coming to an end. After a serious illness he left for home in September 2005. He had been ambassador for nearly 22 years. During a farewell call on the president there was no real discussion of politics or policy. In a photo with Bush, Bandar looks worn and distant.
© Bob Woodward 2004, 2006 Extracted from State of Denial and Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward, published by Simon & Schuster. The paperback edition of State of Denial will be published on July 2 at £9.99
Saddam’s wit and murderous wisdom
Bandar met Saddam Hussein four times and he once shared his memories – along with those of King Fahd, who had met Saddam many times – with George W Bush.
He recalled a conversation Fahd had with Saddam after the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by hundreds of militants who claimed the Saudi government was becoming too liberal and friendly to the West.
“Kill those people,” Saddam advised Fahd.
Fahd said their leaders would be executed and the others would go to jail.
“Oh my, I’m worried,” Saddam said. “I’m embarrassed by your comments.”
Fahd asked what he meant.
Saddam replied: “In my mind there is no question you are going to kill all 500. That’s a given. Listen to me carefully, Fahd. Every man in this group who has a brother or father – kill them. If they have a cousin who you think is man enough to go for revenge, kill him. Those 500 people is a given. But you must spread the fear of God in everything that belongs to them, and that’s the only way you can sleep at night.”
According to Bandar, Saddam required his bodyguards to do two things to prove themselves: kill somebody else from within their own tribe and kill somebody from another tribe. So there would be a double vendetta.
Bandar explained: “This is smart evil, because if you take the evil out of it, it makes sense. If I want to trust you with my life, I want to make sure nowhere else you are safe except with me.”
At another time Saddam pointed to the people around him – high and low – and told Fahd: “They are the most loyal to me.”
“It is nice to be surrounded by the most loyal people,” Fahd replied.
“Oh, no, no, I didn’t say that, Your Majesty,” Saddam corrected. “I told you they are very loyal to me because every one of them, his hand is bloody. Every one of them knows that when I die, you will never find a piece this big from my body.” Saddam indicated the smallest piece of flesh between his fingers. “I’ll be cut to pieces, and if that happens to me, they’re all finished.”
From his personal meetings with the Iraqi dictator, Bandar said, “The most amazing thing about Saddam is how confident he looks, how relaxed he looks, and how charming he is – and how deadly. And each of these attributes are clear and at the same time.”
Saddam could make his most senior generals shake, Bandar said. Once, while Bandar met Saddam in the 1980s when trying to broker an end to the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam told him: “Bandar, all those people are loyal to me. I know a man by looking into his eyes. I can tell you if he is loyal or not. And if his eyes start blinking, I know he is a traitor and then I exterminate him.”
Bandar said that Saddam was excited to show his power, and said it in such a gentle voice and in such a genteel manner that it took five seconds to realise he was serious.
“You are a man with presence,” Bandar told the Iraqi dictator. “I would not be surprised that some poor young officer or minister might panic, which is natural. Are you going to tell me you are going to kill somebody because he panicked only because he is in awe of you?”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, HA!” Saddam replied with the most deadly laugh. He then tapped Bandar on the shoulder.
“I’d rather kill somebody, not sure if he is a traitor, than let one traitor get by.”
For an interview with Bandar bin Sultan: