Are the Saudis an Ally in the War on Terror?

his is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 17, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The Saudi government is trying to improve its public image here, airing radio ads across the United States. Every since 9/11, the Saudi kingdom has been criticized as a spawning ground for terror, but the Saudi government is doing it's best to fight that notion. Robert Jordan (search) is a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Jordan, today's big question: Is Saudi Arabia a solid friend or a truly problematic ally?

ROBERT JORDAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: Well, it depends on which side of the coin you look at. I would say that on balance they have been a pretty darn solid friend, but they have had their problems. And so it's been a mixed bag in terms of our dealings with them. They clearly in this series of ads are trying to reach out, I think for the first time to the American people. You know our relationship with the Saudis has pretty much been at the government level for the last 60 years with Congress and with various presidential administrations. Now they are kind of reaching out to the people and I think regardless of what you think of the content of the ads, it's a significant thing to see a government actually reaching out to the people of America in a public relations campaign.

GIBSON: Are they telling the American people the truth?

JORDAN: Well, they're certainly quoting accurately from the 9/11 Commission (search) report, but they're not quoting completely. They do quote I thing some significant findings of the 9/11 Commission about the fact that the Saudis as a state and as senior Saudi leadership have not sponsored Al Qaeda (search) terrorism. What they don't include of course in their ads are the findings that the Saudis have been a problematic ally in the aftermath of 9/11. I also think it's very significant though that in the aftermath of the May 12th bombings of last year, 2003, the Saudis took their cooperation to a whole new level. So the 9/11 Commission's findings are appropriate as far as they go but I think we've also got to keep in mind how hard the Saudis have worked since May 12th of last year. Are they perfect? Absolutely not, but they have come a long way.

GIBSON: The May 12 attack kind of rang a bell in Saudi heads. It said well guess what, they're not after the Americans any more, they are after us.

JORDAN: Right.

GIBSON: So all right, fine. They are trying to save their own skins and that's good as far as it goes but under that skin, does that make them truly our friends or is this just a very selfish anti-Al Qaeda phase of Saudi life?

JORDAN: Well, any country is going to act in its own national interest, including the United States. We both have a common interest in fighting in the war on Al Qaeda and in that context we are allies. I would also point out that the Saudis were important allies with us in the Iraqi invasion. They provided us with much more access than the public has really heard about. I was personally involved and present in a lot of those discussions and negotiations. So we have actually seen the Saudis step up, not notwithstanding the fact that their own people are really resisting this kind of cooperation.

GIBSON: But Ambassador, you know that on this government to government level, there are very good friendships that go back a long way. What about the madrasas? What about the imams? 50,000 imams employed by the Saudi government and they cannot speak words that are forbidden. What is being forbidden now? Are they being controlled? Are they controlling this money going to the madrasas, which raised the terrorist who want to attack us?

JORDAN: There is a degree of improvement in that level of control. It is not as far as we would like it to go from a United States standpoint. They have fired or retrained about 2,000 of these imams, so they've got about 48,000 to go. We're still hearing sermons that are coming out of the grand mosque in Mecca in which they pray for the destruction of Jews and infidels. There is a long way to go in dealing with the ideological support for extremism. This is an area where I think we have to continue to keep the pressure and continue to keep engaged with the Saudis. But I think it's helpful for to us to put aside as the 9/11 Commission has done, some of the false reports so that we can actually then be more effective in dealing with what the problem is.

GIBSON: But having said that, if the American public were to take your advise, keep the pressure on, they might not want to believe these ads, to keep the pressure on?

JORDAN: Well, I think there is a distinction between the Saudi government saying they wish to be steadfast allies and their domestic difficulties in reining in overnight a culture and a religious tradition of super conservatism and extremism in their country. They may not be pushing the envelope as far as we would like them to push and this is why we have to keep the pressure on. But I can assure you they are pushing it far better than they did two or three years ago. So I think we have to look at the ads in context. The context is the Saudis are trying to reach out to us. They're acknowledging they've got a problem from a public relations standpoint. But the real fact has to be based on what the actions are rather than a public relations campaign. This is where we've got to keep the pedal to the metal with them.

GIBSON: Robert Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Jordan, thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

JORDAN: Sure, thank you.

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