Story highlights

Ben Rhodes is President Obama's deputy national security adviser

He also helped draft the 9/11 Commission report, which is again in the news

Editor’s Note: The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

Washington CNN —  

A top aide to President Barack Obama who also worked on the 9/11 Commission report, said the the Saudi government did not overtly support al Qaeda leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks, but that individuals in the country did.

READ: Saudis warn of economic reprisals if Congress passes 9/11 bill

Ben Rhodes would not speak directly about the classified 28 pages of the report that have become the subject of new scrutiny as Congress weighs legislation that would allow Americans to sue the Saudi government.

But in an a new episode of “Axe Files,” the David Axelrod podcast produced jointly by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of politics, Rhodes did talk broadly about the report, the Saudis and how the U.S. relationship has evolved. The U.S., said Rhodes, is much more blunt with Saudis, who he said have become an anti-terror partner of the U.S.

Before the terror attacks in 2001, Rhodes said he doesn’t think the government was actively funneling money to al Qaeda, but they weren’t trying to stop it, either.

“The question is two things – one is, was the government actively trying to prevent (funding of al Qaeda) from happening? And I think the answer is no,” said Rhodes. “Not because they necessarily supported them, just because there was a bit of unregulated space, you know, and rich people can make different contributions. And, but the other element of this is, you know, there may be individuals, you know, who are operating, who kind of get to do their own thing.”

Listen to the whole podcast and read the portion on the 9/11 Commission report below:

DA: What did you learn on that commission? Obviously what you guys learned has become an issue again recently. Bob Graham (former Florida senator) set off about the role of the Saudis, but tell me what you took away from that because you didn’t have a background in national security issues then even though you studied international relations. This is a whole different education.

BR: Yeah. You know what was interesting about that is you learned that- I mean there are all these very practical things about homeland security and aviation security and how the intelligence community is organized and kind of the wiring of the U.S. government that is important and the 9/11 Commission led to significant reforms in those areas. But I think the main thing that the 9/11 Commission did that was interesting beyond that was tell the story of how we got to 9/11, and did it in this book that, you know, is written almost like a novel.

DA: And you participated in that?

BR: I did, I did. You know, Hamilton was very focused on the recommendations, so that was the main part that I focused on, but I also, you know, was tracking all these other things. I think what I learned is that as this was kind of happening … how deep the roots were that led to 9/11. You know, it went back to Afghanistan, to the war that the Mujahadeen fought against the Soviet Union, and Bin Laden kind of cut his teeth there, and then he bounced around Sudan and Afghanistan. And you know, Americans weren’t really paying attention to some of these things, but …

DA: Although we were supportive of their effort to repel the Russians … the Soviets at that time.

BR: That’s right, that’s right. And you know, kind of what you learn is that there are all these unintended consequences to our foreign policies, because in the ‘80s we were supporting the Mujahideen, that ends up including people like Bin Laden, the people who became the Taliban. In the ‘90s we had the Gulf War. Bin Laden kind of used that event and the fact that U.S. Troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia as kind of his pivot point to focusing on the United States. And you know, these things were right at the time, it was the right thing to do, for us to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, and to support opponents to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but you know, there are unintended consequences to everything that we do, and there are these trends that build up in different parts of the world. And the other fact of the matter was that Al Qaeda also prayed upon the grievances of young people in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, who resented their repressive governments. So all of these different forces, you know, created this space that Bin Laden filled with Al Qaeda, and in many ways we’re dealing with similar problems today.

DA: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Saudis, and I know you probably are proscribed from being too responsive, but I’m going to take a run at it anyway, which is how valid is the charge that they were complicit through various sponsorships and so on.

BR: Well I think that, you know there’s this issue of the 28 pages, and without getting into that …

DA: They are classified.

BR: Without getting into that specifically because that’s still classified, I think that it’s complicated in the sense that, it’s not that it was Saudi government policy to support Al Qaeda, but there were a number of very wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia who would contribute, sometimes directly, to extremist groups, sometimes to charities that were kind of, ended up being ways to launder money to these groups. So, a lot of the funding - and you know Bin Laden himself was a wealthy Saudi - so a lot of the money, the seed money if you will, for what became Al Qaeda, came out of Saudi Arabia.

DA: Could that happen without the government’s awareness?

BR: I think that’s … I think there are two … The question is two things – one is, was the government actively trying to prevent that from happening? And I think the answer is no. Not because they necessarily supported them, just cause there was a bit of unregulated space, you know, and rich people can make different contributions. And, but the other element of this is, you know, there may be individuals, you know, who are operating, who kind of get to do their own thing, you know …

DA: Within the government?

BR: Within the government, or family members you know, because remember you have a large royal family, and they have you know, people – the Bin Ladens for instance were contractors essentially for the, that royal family – So basically there was, at - certainly, at least kind of an insufficient attention to where all this money was going over many years from the government apparatus.

DA: What about the notion that they wanted to keep quiescent extremists within the country, and this was a way of doing that?

BR: Yea, well, I think there has been a margin for many years in Saudi Arabia, where essentially the royal family, kind of runs the affairs of state, and runs kind of the oil company, and the security services, but then there are clerics who have enormous power and can operate on their own. And that’s kind of the bargain. Now, some of those clerics are completely legitimate, some people you know, over the time have propagated a more rigid form of Islam, again not necessary the vision of al Qaeda and ISIL, but a fairly rigid version of Islam, that we saw over time get taken and perverted by the more extremist elements into the ideology that we see out of al Qaeda.

DA: Do you - this to me underscores sort of the complexity of foreign policy and national security, because the Saudis are considered an ally, and yet there are elements of activities there that seeded the greatest attack perhaps helped seed the greatest attack on our country. How do you explain that to Americans, that, you know, on the one hand we call them an ally on the other hand they have these deep roots in these extremist elements?

BR: Well, you know again, first of all it is important, I wouldn’t, I would stop short of saying that there was any willful government intention from Saudi Arabia to support al Qaeda. Again, this is more just how are individuals operating in Saudi Arabia. I think the difficult thing that Americans need to understand is we forge these relationships with governments because we have some shared interest with them. And for many years the basic interest at the root of the U.S.-Saudi was simply they provided the oil that sustained the global economy and we provided essentially security for the Saudi state. And we didn’t really think about any other aspect of it at great length at least, and yet over time these trends emerge with respect to extremism and funding of extremist groups. And we were slow to pay attention to that because the way the relationship was set up was we just kind of thought about security and oil and didn’t kind of go that other layer down. And I think the point for Americans is sometimes we fail to recognize how omnipresent we are around the world. People in other countries are aware of the role we play and are aware the fact that we are the most important country in the world, so if they have grievances against their own government or against their own economic situation they blame us. So I think it’s hard for Americans to understand why does this constantly come back to us, but the fact of the matter is we are inevitably seen as the one superpower as a potential source of grievances from all kinds of people all over the world.

Ben Rhodes in August
Ben Rhodes in August

DA: But the obvious question is – well let me ask it this way: how blunt are the conversations with the Saudis about breaking ties of some of these elements?

BR: Well, they’re very blunt. And look, since 9-11 the Saudi government has shifted and now they are a counter-terrorism partner. And so now it’s not just oil and security, it’s also cooperation against terrorist organizations. So we’re very blunt. We’re very direct. And they too now are threatened by these groups themselves, so they have turned hard against al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9-11. They’re working with us against ISIL. So they share the counter-terrorism policies that we would pursue. They still have a system of government that is very different from ours and in some cases a view of regional conflicts that are different from ours, so we’re not totally aligned -

DA: Plainly they were unhappy with the Iran agreement.

BR: They’re kind of the center of Sunni Islam in some ways. Iran is Shia. So there’s a sectarian element to a lot of these regional conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq that in our view sometimes takes more precedence to some of our allies and partners than the necessity of focusing on these extremist elements like ISIL.

To hear the whole interview with Rhodes, which also touched on Hillary Clinton’s support for a no-fly zone in Syria and the proposed lifting of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, click on

To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at