Taking refuge with her two children in the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last month, Sarah Saga says, “I went there believing someone would help me.” At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty was unable to explain why no State Department official did.
Fleeing from an abusive husband and afraid for her life, 24-year-old Saga fled last month, with five-year-old Ibrahim and three-year-old Hanin, to the U.S. consulate. It didn’t take her long to realize that her government wasn’t going to help them.
Saga shared her story in front of a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill Wednesday. She told the congressional panel about her recent struggle, as well as the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her domineering father, who had abducted her to Saudi Arabia in 1985, when Saga was six years old. As terrible as the physical abuse doled out by her father was, though, people in attendance seemed more shocked by the treatment Saga received at the hands of the U.S. government.
U.S. consulate officials “kept telling me again and again that I cannot take the children” to the United States, Saga testified. The frightened young mother was subjected to daily meetings starting at 7 A.M., where she was given exactly two options by State Department officials each time: returning to the home of her abusive husband or leaving Saudi Arabia alone, with Ibrahim and Hanin being sent back to their father, who beats them. State Department officials never even held out the possibility that she might be able to take her children to safety in the United States: That option was probably never in the cards, if for no other reason than because State never asked the Saudis for the safe passage of Ibrahim and Hanin to the U.S.
Before the hearing started, Sarah Saga and her mother, Debbie Dornier, asked Harty why State never even asked for the return of the children. The consular chief, who came prepared with an arsenal of tough rhetoric to convince lawmakers that she was “doing something,” brushed off Saga and Dornier with an evasive, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” The brief conservation was her first time talking to Saga.
In her testimony to open the hearing, Harty put on an impressive show. She appeared to be the kind of no-nonsense person needed for her position. Harty informed the panel that she wanted to use “every tool” available to her to help get children back to the United States. But one “tool” she could have used in Saga’s case would have been to ask the Saudi government to allow Ibrahim and Hanin to leave the kingdom and the abusive custody of their father. But Harty didn’t do that.
Harty at one point shared an anecdote about a kidnapper’s brother who had felt the “pinch” of being denied a visa. This gave the impression, by design, that Harty’s agency was putting the squeeze on abductors and their families. But the reality in the Saga’s case, at least, is far different. Saga’s father, himself an abductor and an abuser, has not yet been denied access to the United States, although Dornier says that State officials promised her recently that they will “look into it.”
Although Harty sought to portray herself as someone who fights for the return of kidnapped kids, the head of Consular Affairs (CA) admitted that when her agency is dealing with the House of Saud on abduction cases, “The tone is always cordial.” But her attempts to appear to be a woman of action were undermined when she emphasized the value of “cordial” talks with the Saudi government, stating flatly, “Communication is never a bad thing.” She defended her comment from a previous hearing that her negotiations with the Saudis amount to a “never-ending conversation.”
The “conversation” regarding Saga’s children continues thanks to Harty’s agency. Officials at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah allowed three Saudi agents in to pressure Saga — over the course of two hours — into signing an agreement waiving her parental rights to Ibrahim and Hanin. For a woman who was fuzzy on many important details, Harty was quick to assure the congressional panel that consulate officials had advised Saga not to sign the contract. But a convincing Saga was adamant that U.S. officials were, at best, neutral.
The Saudis officials had the same message for Saga that U.S. consulate officials had been giving her for the previous week and a half: “You can’t take the children with you.” With both governments telling her exactly the same thing, it is no wonder that Saga tells NRO, “I thought they (U.S. consulate officials) would let the Saudis take my children from me.” Throw in the unrelenting pressure she felt from the Saudi agents hovering over her and the fear she had that her father might follow through on one of his many threats to kill her, and it is easy to understand why Saga signed the agreement in which she essentially forfeited her parental rights. (The document could never stand up in a court of law, according to several lawyers who have read it, but it will still be used for Saudi propaganda purposes.)
Throughout the two hours, consulate officials, Saga testified, kept telling her, “This is your decision, and we can’t force you to do anything.” But even though consulate officials knew that Saga knew little about her rights as an American given that she had been held hostage in Saudi Arabia for the past 18 years, they did nothing to help educate Saga. “Nobody at all talked to me about my legal rights,” she told the panel. Regardless of whose version of events is the truth, there is proof that State Department officials in Jeddah weren’t too concerned with the contents of the agreement: the signature of consulate official Loren Mealey and an official U.S. government seal certifying the document.
Within hours, Saga realized what she had done and wanted to tear up the contract. But it was too late. The damage had been done. She is back in the United States now, but her children are not. “I am so afraid for them,” she says. Saga is going to keep fighting from the U.S. to rescue Ibrahim and Hanin, not just because she misses them, but because their very safety is in jeopardy.
When asked in a phone interview if she’s hopeful that her children will be able to join her in the U.S., Saga responded, “I have hope.” But after she talked for a minute or two about the challenges she faced — a hostile State Department being the most daunting one — Saga’s voice dropped to a whisper: “But I’m not hopeful.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.