Mark Thwaite What first put you on to wanting to investigate the links between the House of Bush and the House of Saud?
Craig Unger "The United States has long had an extraordinary sense of being invulnerable— until 9/11, that is. The attack was also one of these rare public events that deeply affects one personally. (The Kennedy assassination was another.) That said, as a journalist I was deeply shocked by how poorly the events were covered in the U.S. The New York Times— arguably our best newspaper— even published a book on the subject called Out of the Blue. That was how Americans perceived the attacks— that they came out of the blue.
I felt that, quite the contrary, the attacks grew out of events and relationships that had preceded them. Having covered the elder George Bush and his involvement in the Iran-contra and Iraqgate scandals, I was aware of his relationship with the Saudis. I was also well aware that the Gulf War was in many ways a joint venture between Bush senior and the Saudis. And now we had another Bush in the White House and, as for the attacks, 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudi, bin Laden was Saudi and al-Qaeda was largely Saudi. As a result, I resolved to cover the events leading up to— and the aftermath of 9/11— through the relationship between the two most powerful families in the world— the Bushes and the royal House of Saud."
MT If Bush does have - or has had – business dealings with "undesirable" businessmen, I'm sure he isn't the first person to run a country who isn't a perfect specimen of probity. Why are these links worse than what many other people in positions of power get up to?
CU "It is absolutely unprecedented for a president of the United States— much less two from the same family— to have such close links to another foreign power. I traced a total of $1.4 billion in investments and contracts going from the Saudis to companies in which the Bushes and their allies have major positions. I wonder if the same were true of Tony Blair if that would not constitute a scandal. In any case, I think it is astonishing that this has not gotten more attention. Bill Clinton was investigated for years over a $65,000 investment in which he lost money. Over $40 million was spent investigating the Whitewater scandal and it turned out he had done nothing wrong.
This is more than 20,000 times as much money and it ties the White House to a country that is harboring our most mortal enemies, a brutal theocracy which has turned a blind eye to the growth of Wahhabi extremism and Islamist terrorism. Bush’s links to the Saudis raise serious questions about whether he is capable of truly fighting an honest war against terrorism. After 9/11, he should have demanded that transparency from the Saudis in terCU of how their banking apparatus and Islamist charities funded terrorism. Instead, he invaded Iraq— which had nothing to do with 9/11. "
MT Is there a danger of anti-Saudi anti-Arabic racism creeping into a narrative that concentrates on the links of Bush with "foreign businessmen" rather than simply concentrating on Bush's domestic record in Office?
CU "The point is that the the royal House of Saud and the Saudi merchant elite have allowed the ascendancy of Islamist terrorism. They must be held responsible if we are to crack down on terrorism. In addition, this is a regime where Princes and rich merchants spend $100 million redoing the interiors of their private planes, but millions of people are unemployed. Given the vast disparities in wealthy, it is pro-Arab— not anti-Arab— to call attention to such inequities. Bush’s domestic record is a worthy topic for another book."
MT Are you and Michael Moore not just the great left-liberal conspiracy kicking in to action, simply mirroring the great right-wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton talked about trying to undermine her husband? In the end, aren't they all as bad each other!?
CU "The myth of the liberal media is just that— a myth. There has been enormous consolidation of the press in the US so that only a handful of conglomerates shape the media agenda. Journalists who work for them and cover the White House or the Pentagon, whatever their political beliefs, get ahead politically by having access to the powers that be— RuCUfeld, Cheney, etc. These reporters know damn well they won’t have access if they ask the tough questions— and as a result these questions rarely get asked.
Another result of this consolidation is that it is extremely hard for independent voices to be heard. One of the great ironies of American life is that we have the First Amendment in our Constitution granting us true freedom of the press— yet commercial and political pressures have created a press that is extraordinarily timid. Michael Moore has had enormous success— and my book has sold well, too. But that simply shows that there is an audience and a readership for that is hungry for these views. Hardly a conspiracy.
In addition, the Right was able to commandeer the Special Prosecutor’s office, and get more than $40 million in public funds to investigate Clinton, with subpoena power. It has launched dozens of right wing think tanks, right wing TV networks such as Fox News, scores of talk radio shows spewing right wing vitriol, started massive disinformation campaigns getting phony stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction on the front page of the New York Times, and on every TV network and paper in the land.
By contrast, I’m just a reporter working alone out of my home. I have no resources except words. As to methodology, readers can make up their own mind, but my book has over 1000 footnotes and I invite them to compare the rigor of my reporting with the right wing rantings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News or talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh."
MT What do you think led Random House to withdrawing publication of your book in the UK? What would you like to say to them?
CU "Given the libel laws in the UK and the rash of suits by the Saudis in the UK, Random House was clearly afraid of being sued. I was surprised and disappointed by their action. But the book has been published now and is doing quite well. While I am sympathetic to the dilemma posed to publishers by the harsh libel laws in England, obviously, I reserve my admiration for courageous independent publishers like Gibson Square."
MT What is your favourite documentary film/non-fiction book/fiction book?
CU "I suppose I’m not allowed to mention Michael Moore, since I’m in Fahrenheit, but I have admired his work beginning with Roger and Me. I also admire the documentaries of Errol Morris (Fog of War), and recent documentaries such as Control Room and Death in Gaza. In non-fiction, the early work of Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) was an inspiration and I admired The Power Broker by Robert Caro and the work of J. Anthony Lukas (On Common Ground). In fiction, I’m a fan of Philip Roth (The Human Stain, etc.) ."
MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?
CU "I’m finding that promoting a book is nearly as much work as writing one-- though I am grateful that people remain interested. I am working on a proposal for a new book, but it is a little too early to divulge what it is about."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
CU "I suppose one of them would be All the President’s Men."
MT What are your top tips for for the aspiring writer?
CU " You sure you really want to do this? About 100,000 books are published each year in the US—even more in the UK, I’m told-- and only a handful of authors make enough to make a real living out of it. I played softball in New York on a team with various authors and each year someone sent out a Christmas card with a list of the ten lowest paying professions in the United States. “Author” was just behind “migrant farmworker.” Everytime someone turned in his manuscript, we had a moment of silence. We called it “the calm before the calm.” Because that’s what happens to most books. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Magazine and newspaper writers who worked for publications with half a million circulation or so were used to turning in their copy, waiting a few days and getting lots of attention—not to mention a regular paycheck. But with books, they labored in isolation for months, even years. Waited for another eight months or so before publication. And then...not much. A few good reviews. A few thousand copies. But not much more.
So if you do this, be realistic and make sure you can afford to do it. Remember that almost anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Your wonderful agent may leave the agency. The editor who initially championed the book may quit or be fired. Another book may beat you to the punch. Current events may overtake you. Jeffrey Toobin wrote an excellent book about the controversial 2000 presidential election and it had the misfortune to hit bookstores just around September 11, 2001. There are many factors you can’t control and you will have nothing to cushion such blows. So be prepared.
Also, make sure you are writing the right book— you may be married to this material for years and it will define your career. And do your homework when selecting a editor and publishing house. Do they have expertise in handling the kind of book you are writing? Many publishers publish a couple of dozen books each season, but only really promote the top two or three. Will they get behind your book?"
MT Thank you so much for your time Craig - all the very best!
Further reading: Craig's House of Bush website.