The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Sunday upended a widely accepted narrative of the hunt for Osama bin Laden that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks, suggesting US ally Saudi Arabia cultivated secret ties with the terrorist leader and knew where he was after the attacks.
The comments, made in an interview on ABC News, seemed to implicate the erstwhile US ally in Bin Laden’s success at evading US attempts to kill or capture him for a decade after 9/11.
Carson’s remarks came as the 2001 attacks returned to the headlines, as a spat between two other candidates, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, continued over remarks Trump made about Bush’s brother, President George W Bush, and culpability for the hijacking of the planes that crashed in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
At the second Republican presidential debate, in California last month, Carson said that if George W Bush had announced a plan to end reliance on Persian Gulf oil “within five to 10 years … moderate Arab states” spurred by the threat of the loss of a key market “would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter in two weeks”.
Pressed by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, Carson stood by the assertion.
“I think [moderate Arab states] would have been concerned, and if we were serious about it … I think that would have trumped any loyalty they had to Osama bin Laden,” Carson said.
Stephanopoulos said: “But they didn’t have any loyalty to him. The Saudis kicked him out. He was their enemy.”
Carson responded: “Well, you may not think they had any loyalty to him. But I believe otherwise.”
Asked how the Saudis or allies would have located Bin Laden in his remote refuge in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Carson said: “I think they would have known where he was.
“There were indications, for example, during the Clinton administration that we knew where he was … If we could tell where he was, I’m certain they knew where he was.
“My point is, we have other ways that we could have done things. I personally don’t believe that invading Iraq was an existential threat to us. I don’t believe that Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to us. It’s a very different situation right now.”
Stephanopoulos said: “But sir, I wasn’t asking about invading Iraq. I was asking about invading Afghanistan, which had been harboring Osama bin Laden.”
“Well, I was primarily talking about Iraq,” said Carson. “I wasn’t particularly interested in going into Afghanistan, but I do think that we should have taken aggressive action.”
Carson has been faulted before for peddling parallel and borderline conspiratorial versions of global security history. Politifact conferred a “Pants on Fire” rating to a claim he made earlier this month on TV that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran and Russian president Vladimir Putin knew each other in 1968 in Moscow.
The exchange about Bin Laden was part of a wide-ranging interview in which Stephanopoulos questioned the candidate about his proposals on healthcare and education, about banking reform and about the upcoming showdown in Congress over a vote to raise a limit on debt the government may hold.
Most economists have warned of a potential ratings downgrade for US debt if Congress fails to raise the limit and a default results. Carson said he would consent to raising the debt limit this year but then would look for ways to cut spending by government agencies across the board.
Asked to reply to an attack by Trump, on whom Carson appears to be gaining in polls, that he did not have enough negotiating experience to be president, Carson replied that he did.
“I’ve had lots of experience doing a whole host of things, negotiating with all kinds of people in order to get things accomplished,” Carson said.
As examples of major negotiations he had led, Carson cited his work steering the Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgery program to national prominence, and setting up his charity for students, the Carson Scholars Fund.
Carson was asked if he thought it would be more difficult in a general election to face off against Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
“I personally don’t think anyone will be very tough, because it’s going to be such a clear-cut election,” he said. “I think it’s going to be crystal clear, and the people will make a decision.”