Never-Ending Conversation
Consular Chief Maura Harty gives Congress the runaround.


“That was nasty.” As she was walking out of a Senate hearing Thursday, assistant secretary of state for Consular Affairs Maura Harty complained bitterly to several of her underlings about the questioning she had just received from Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), one of two senators who asked her questions. Her complaints were unwarranted, though; Sen. Brownback’s queries could have legitimately been a lot more pointed.

The timing of the previously scheduled hearings on child abductions couldn’t have been more opportune. Sara Saga, a 24-year-old American woman who was holed up in the U.S. consulate in Jeddah for over a week, returned to the United States on Tuesday — but her children are still trapped in Saudi Arabia. Though unusually short, the 45-minute session moved along at a brisk pace, with Harty receiving a free pass — until the last five minutes, when Sen. Brownback questioned her.

Following a bruising confirmation battle last fall, Harty has gone to great lengths to give the appearance of movement on child abductions, traveling to the Middle East twice and now is headed for Europe next month. The record, however, is clear: Little, if anything has changed. So when Sen. Brownback expressed concern that the parents did not feel they were getting much help from their government — he had little time to do much else — the gentleman from Kansas was far more nicer than he could have been.

Sen. Brownback could have asked Harty why U.S. consulate officials allowed Saudi thugs to enter the consulate and pressure a scared 24-year-old mother into signing a document in which she essentially forfeited her parental rights. Lawyers who have seen the “agreement” have all agreed that no lawyer would have advised someone to sign such a deal, particularly under such enormously stressful conditions. Saga, who was kidnapped and taken to Saudi Arabia when she was six and had remained there since, was told by State Department officials that she would never be able to get out of Saudi Arabia with her two children.

Without consulate staff trying to dissuade her, several Saudi officials last week convinced her to sign an “agreement” where she gave up her parental claims on her children. Within hours, she regretted the decision upon realizing what she had done, but it was too late. Fearing for her life — her father had told her mother that he would see his daughter dead before seeing her go to the United States — Saga left the Kingdom. But her children are still trapped in the desert prison.

But Harty fielded no questions about her department’s shameful actions in Saga’s case.

Had he had time, Sen. Brownback also could have asked Harty about the letter that the U.S. consulate sent to Saudi officials last week that curiously read, “She also asks to bring her two children (to the United States).” Sen. Brownback could have asked Harty why it didn’t read “We ask for her to bring her two children.”

A comment that was made by one of Harty’s lackeys after the hearing might shed some light on Harty’s frustration with Brownback’s “nasty” questions. One of the eight people trailing behind her on the way out of the hearing room moaned, “It’s one thing for them to disagree with us, but it’s another thing for the staff to flat-out lie to us about what we should expect.” It seems that Harty and her crew had gotten the impression from Chairman Richard Lugar’s Foreign Relations Committee staff that the hearing would not be a “nasty” affair.

When she was pressed by Sen. Brownback about the Saudi abduction cases, Harty was evasive. What she didn’t explain is that although she now has a stated goal of bringing abducted children back to be reunited with their left-behind American parents, she has yet to exert any leverage with the Saudis to make that happen. Since the Saudis face no repercussions for thumbing the U.S. in the eye time and again, Saudi fathers keep kidnapping American children — and the Saudi government keeps protecting them. And if an American woman actually manages to escape a controlling and abusive Saudi husband and take refuge in the U.S. consulate, then the Saudis manage to get into the consulate to force the woman to sign away her parental rights — all with the help of the State Department.

At least Harty gave one honest — and remarkably revealing — answer. When asked to describe the status of negotiations with the Saudi government on the numerous child abduction cases, Harty responded, “It’s a never-ending conversation.”

— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.