A House committee chairman is accusing the Saudi Arabian Embassy of using a diplomatic smoke screen to protect its Washington lawyers, lobbyists and public relations agents from supplying information about international child custody disputes.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said Thursday the Saudi government was invoking diplomatic privileges and ordering its Washington representatives not to comply with congressional subpoenas for documents.
In recent hearings of the House Government Reform Committee that Burton chairs, members of half a dozen families in custody disputes testified their children were abducted by their Saudi fathers and taken to Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government was doing nothing to assist the American parents. In some cases, the children are now adults.
The congressional panel has subpoenaed records about the custody disputes from the law firm Patton Boggs, the public relations firm Qorvis Communications and the Gallagher Group lobbying firm — all representing the Saudi embassy in the congressional probe.
"We directed our representatives not to produce the contents of any files relating to the work performed on behalf of the embassy,'' Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar said in an Oct. 22 letter that Burton released.
"No nation, including the United States, can effectively pursue its diplomatic mission in foreign countries without freedom to communicate confidentially with lawyers and consultants,'' the prince added.
Burton wrote back Thursday, saying, "I see no reason why spies like Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames or Jonathan Pollard could not claim that they were agents of foreign embassies and that their documents were protected from disclosure by the Vienna Convention,'' the treaty governing diplomatic relations.
The Vienna Convention extends broad protections to diplomats of a foreign government, "but it has no application to American citizens who choose to sell their services as public relations/lobbying mouthpieces for foreign interests,'' Burton added.
The dispute raises novel legal issues.
"There does not appear to be any judicial precedent that directly resolves the scope of the privileges and immunities conferred by the Vienna Convention for confidential documents located in the files of an embassy consultant,'' a letter to Burton's committee from the law firm Latham & Watkins said in support of the Saudi legal position.
Latham & Watkins said Saudi Arabia has proposed to Secretary of State Colin Powell creation of a task force to work out an agreement on international child custody disputes.
Bandar's letter invoked a section of the Vienna Convention which provides that the archives and documents of embassies "shall be inviolable at any time and wherever they may be'' and that host countries must "protect free communication by embassies for all official purposes.''
At Patton Boggs, managing partner Stuart Pape said "we have no choice'' but to refuse to comply with the committee's subpoenas.
Pape cited the lawyers' professional rules of conduct in the District of Columbia stating that attorneys have an absolute obligation to assert on behalf of clients any privileges to which the clients believe they are entitled.
Patton Boggs lawyer Robert Luskin objected to the subpoena's call for billing records for the firm's work for the Saudis, stating in a letter to the committee that the subpoena is so broad that it could refer to work done by the law firm at any time for a Saudi citizen. In addition, a substantial number of documents are protected by attorney-client privilege, Luskin wrote Burton's committee.
Burton produced some legal advice of his own, citing a Nov. 18 letter from Eileen Denza, a visiting law professor at University College London, stating that "correspondence to a third party not being an employee of the sending state is not entitled to inviolability.''