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9/11 chair, despite alleged Saudi ties, is remarkably clean

By Freda Moon
RAW STORY COLUMNIST

Bush's first choice to lead the 9/11 commission, Henry Kissinger, was forced to step aside after potential conflicts of interests arose. His next choice, and the now-chair, Thomas Kean has come under fire for alleged connections to a Saudi bank now being sued by 9/11 victim's families. But Kean's record is far cleaner than many believe.

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Kean is a decidedly different sort of man. Despite supposed connections to a financial backer of Al Qaeda, Kean has remarkably clean hands. By today’s standards, he is a moderate Republican.

Kean has served on the National Endowment for Democracy, the publicly funded right wing think tank founded in the wake of the Church Commission. The NED is cited by critics such as William Blum, author of Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower, as having been created to “do somewhat overtly what the CIA had been doing covertly for decades, and thus, hopefully, eliminate the stigma associated with CIA covert activities” Kean has also, however, served on the board of World Wildlife Fund and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

While President Clinton was in office, Kean was selected to head the American delegation to the UN Conference on Youth in Thailand. He also served as vice chairman of the American delegation to the World Conference on Women in Beijing and was appointed to serve as a member of the President's Initiative on Race. Among his laundry list of affiliations are the good, the bad, and the surely profitable, but if there has ever been a cause for conspiracy theorists to think twice, it is surely the case of Thomas Kean.

Born in 1935 to a family of prominent New Jersey politicians and businessmen, Kean did the things that are expected of men of his pedigree. He went to Princeton as an undergraduate, and on to receive an M.A. from Columbia University; he served on the New Jersey Assembly — holding positions as majority leader, minority leader, and speaker — before becoming governor of New Jersey in 1982. He served as governor until 1990, when he left public life to lead Drew University as its President.

It can be assumed that Kean has succeeded at both gaining influence and adding wealth to an already significant family fortune. Kean’s grandfather, Hamilton Fish Kean, was an investment banker and New Jersey Senator, who’s worth was given as “nearly $50,000,000” in 1937’s “America’s Sixty Families” by Ferdinand Lundberg — an amount equal to about $624,624,716 today. For his part, Thomas Kean has devoted much of his life to education, an undeniably venerable pursuit, particularly for a man of his wealth and privilege.

He has not, however, neglected his corporate roots. A 2003 report by consulting firm Pearl Meyer & Partners found that among the 200 largest U.S. corporations the average total remuneration to board members was $155,884. At the time that he was appointed to the 9-11 commission Kean was director of Amerada Hess Corporation and Aramark Corporation, and had previously served as director of UnitedHealth Group, Bell Atlantic Corp (now Verizon) and CIT Group, as well as being a former chairman and board member of Fiduciary Trust Company International and Pepsi Bottling Group.

Sitting on multiple boards is commonplace among successful members of the governmental, business and nonprofit communities. It is also frequently problematic. Potential conflicts of interest are a common cause for board members to step down. If one considers the scope of the modern corporation, as well as the ties between the business and governmental communities (the Bush administration being the most emblematic example of this interconnectedness), it becomes easy to see seemingly inappropriate linkages everywhere. Someone with a tendency to distrust those in positions of exceptional power, and those who are drawn to conspiracy theories have much to fuel their research in our present political moment. Scattered throughout the Internet are allegations of Kean’s conflicts of interest, along with nearly every other member of the 9-11 panel.

Kean has been targeted for business dealings that include ties to Khalid bin Salim bin Mahfouz of the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia, who was named among some 70 defendants in a 2002 lawsuit brought by a group of some 600 families of September 11th victims. He has also, apparently inaccurately, been referred to as Osama bin Ladin’s brother in law.

Bin Mahfouz was listed as one of seven “Main individual Saudi sponsors of al Qaeda” in a report prepared by JCB Consulting, the self-proclaimed “world expert on terrorism financing,” for the President of the Security Council of the United Nations in December of 2002. The report, titled Terrorism Financing: Roots and trends of Saudi terrorism financing, has been cited throughout the investigation into the 9-11 attacks and Jean-Charles Brisard, CEO of JCB Consulting, is the lead investigator for victim’s families in their civil lawsuit against the financial apparatus behind the al Qaeda network.

A Google search on bin Mahfouz brings up hundreds of results including a paid advertisement directing interested parties to a site titled “bin Mahfouz Information,” sponsored by none other than the bin Mahfouz family. The site takes a Frequently Asked Questions approach, acknowledging “misconceptions,” and attempting to set the record straight. Some of the information on the site, however, contradicts publicly available evidence.

The site claims, for example, “To the best of our knowledge, the UN has never published any report citing Khalid bin Mahfouz in any context whatsoever.” Technically this may be true since JCB formally issued the above-mentioned report. The United Nations may not have published such a report but considering the number of places that this report has come up, the claims of the bin Mahfouz family that it is unofficial, therefore insignificant, ring more than a little hollow. The more important question is whether the allegations in the report are true. The adamant denials of the bin Mahfouz family are an interesting read, as are the aggressive attacks against bin Mahfouz himself, and all those associated with him.

Regardless, the connections between bin Mahfouz and Kean are loose. They are of the “6 degrees of separation” variety, the sort that can mean something, but often do not. The relationship between the two men is, in fact, distant enough that it is difficult to track. It goes something like this: According the annual report of Nadir Group Limited, the “ultimate owners” of its parent company Nimir Holdings Limited, are Sheikh Abdulrahman Bin Khalid Bin Mahfouz and Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalid Bin Mahfouz, the sons of Khalid bin Salim bin Mahfouz. According to a correction in Fortune magazine, in which it retracted statements made in the article "Five Degrees of Osama" (February 3rd, 2003), there was a “joint venture in Azerbaijan between Delta Oil and Nimir Petroleum” in a Unocal oil exploration project. In 1998 Nimir sold its rights in the project to Amerada Hess, creating the joint venture Delta Hess. Lost yet?

To clarify, the issue here is that 1) Thomas Kean sat on a board of directors 2) of a company that bought rights 3) from a company that was owned by 4) the sons of a man 5) who more or may not have funded 6) al Qaeda. Okay, six degrees. Not bad. I suppose that could be seen as a conflict of interest.

The issue, then, is whether Khalid bin Salim bin Mahfouz is actually guilty of the allegations, which were made in various reports, books, and journalistic pieces. Increasingly, the answer seems to be no. Of at least four lawsuits filed by bin Mahfouz in which libel is alleged, two have already been settled in his favor (the other two are in process). Both the Mail on Sunday (UK) and Pluto Press have issued public apologies and have agreed to pay damages in the cases brought against them.

There may be things about Kean that deserve criticism. The Cato Institute, for example, has called the National Endowment for Democracy a “Loose Canon”. A 1993 Cato policy briefing says “On a number of occasions, for example, NED has taken advantage of it alleged private status to influence foreign elections, an activity that is beyond the scope of the AID or USIA and would otherwise be possible only through a CIA covert operation.

Such activities, it may also be worth noting, would be illegal for foreign groups operating in the United States.” Kean’s position in the NED, therefore, would seem a more obvious choice if one were to condemn the man based on affiliation. Of course, one would then have to acknowledge that Clinton was among NED’s biggest proponents; one would also have to concede that in politics nothing is black and white, and that Kean is not so easily classified as either conspiracy theorists or some well-meaning critics on the Left would have us believe.

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