Sept. 8, 2004 | As the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq war, Sen. Bob Graham tried to expose what he came to believe were national security coverups and manipulations by the Bush administration. But he discovered that it was hard to reveal a coverup playing by the rules. Much of the evidence the Florida Democrat needed to buttress his arguments was being locked away, he found, under the veil of politically motivated classification.
Now, as he prepares to retire after 18 years in the Senate, the normally cautious former governor of Florida is unleashing himself in a new book, "Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America's War on Terror."
In his book, Graham asserts that the White House blocked investigations into Saudi Arabian government support for the 9/11 plot, in part because of the Bush family's close ties to the Saudi royal family and wealthy Saudis like the bin Ladens. Behind the White House's insistence on classifying 27 pages detailing the Saudi links in a report issued by a joint House-Senate intelligence panel co-chaired by Graham in 2002 lay the desire to hide the administration's deficiencies and protect its Saudi allies, according to Graham.
Graham's allegations -- supported by the Republican vice chairman of the House-Senate 9/11 investigation, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, but not his co-chairman, Rep. Porter Goss, Bush's nominee to become director of the CIA -- are not new. But his book states them more forcefully than before, even as Graham adds new insight into Bush's decision to invade Iraq, made apparently well before the president asserted he had exhausted all options.
In February 2002, Graham writes, Gen. Tommy Franks, then conducting the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan (and later to speak in prime time on behalf of Bush's candidacy at the Republican National Convention in New York), pulled the senator aside to explain that important resources in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, such as Predator drones, were being quietly redeployed to Iraq. "He told me that the decision to go to war in Iraq had been made at least 14 months before we actually went into Iraq, long before there was authorization from Congress and long before the United Nations was sought out for a resolution of support," Graham tells Salon.
Graham voted against the congressional war resolution authorizing force to topple Saddam Hussein. In 2003 he briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, arguing that Bush had diverted resources from the hunt for America's real enemies with his joy ride in Iraq. (Graham dropped out before the primaries.)
Graham's book is being embraced by the John Kerry campaign, which arranged for him to discuss his conclusions with reporters in a conference call Tuesday. Dozens of journalists called in. This past Sunday, Graham appeared on "Meet the Press," and afterward Kerry issued a statement: "These are serious allegations being made by a well-respected and informed leader. If the White House and the FBI did in fact block an investigation into the ties between the Saudi government and the 9/11 hijackers, then this would be a massive abuse of power."
Salon spoke with the senator by telephone on Tuesday, his voice already growing hoarse on the first day of a heavy book promotion tour.
You write about the Bush administration's suppression of the joint House-Senate intelligence panel's findings on Saudi Arabian links to 9/11. What exactly was suppressed, and why? Or at least tell us what you can, given that the information is still classified.
In general terms it included the details of why we [on the committee] had raised suspicion that the Saudi government and various representatives of Saudi interests had supported some of the hijackers -- and might have supported all of them. My own personal conclusion was that the evidence of official Saudi support for at least two of the terrorists in San Diego was, as one CIA agent said, incontrovertible. That led us to another question: Why would the Saudis have provided that level of assistance to two of the 19 [hijackers] and not the other 17? There wasn't an adequate attempt to answer that question. My feeling was there wasn't anything to justify that discrepancy, and so there was a strong possibility that such assistance had been provided to others of the terrorists, but we didn't know about it. Then there's another question: If there was this infrastructure in place that was accessed by the terrorists, did it disappear as soon as 9/11 was completed? There's no reason to believe that it did.
Your investigation in Congress focused on a Saudi national named Omar al-Bayoumi, who had provided extensive assistance to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, when they lived in San Diego. You say al-Bayoumi was apparently a covert agent of the Saudi government, and from that you conclude there was official Saudi support for the plot. Yet the independent 9/11 commission came to a different conclusion. Its executive director, Philip Zelikow, has said his investigation had more access to information than yours -- including the opportunity to interview al-Bayoumi. And the commission concluded he had nothing to do with the attacks, that his contacts with the hijackers were coincidental.
Let me say that what we know about this comes primarily from FBI and CIA reports that were in the file in San Diego. And in those files, FBI agents referred to Bayoumi as being a Saudi Arabian agent or Saudi Arabian spy. In the summer of 2002, a CIA agent filed a report that said it was "incontrovertible" that terrorists were receiving assistance, financial and otherwise, from Saudis in San Diego. No. 2: Bayoumi was supposed to be working for a firm that was a subcontractor for the Saudi civil aviation authority. Yet he never showed up for work. His boss tried to fire him, and he received a letter from the Saudi civil aviation authority demanding that he be retained on their payroll despite the fact he wasn't performing any services. And the subcontracting company that employed Bayoumi was owned by a Saudi national who, according to documents seized in Bosnia, was an early financial backer of al-Qaida. Now, that's rather suspicious.
Also suspicious is the number of telephone conversations between Bayoumi and Saudi government representatives. It was a very substantial number that remains classified. Then, the event that really raised our suspicions was that shortly after Alhazmi and Almihdhar flew from Bangkok [Thailand] to Los Angeles [after attending an al-Qaida conference in Malaysia that resulted in their being added to a CIA watch list], Bayoumi tells various persons that he was going to Los Angeles to "pick up some visitors." He drives from San Diego to Los Angeles with a friend. His first stop in Los Angeles was at the consulate of the Saudi government, where he stays for an hour and meets with a diplomat named Fahad al-Thumairy, who subsequently was deported for terrorist-related activities....