Sen. Graham: Bush covered up Saudi involvement in 9/11

The former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee tells Salon that the White House has suppressed convincing evidence that Saudi government agents aided at least two of the hijackers.

Published September 8, 2004 11:21PM (EDT)

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.

After that one-hour meeting, he and that companion go to a Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles to have lunch. They overhear Arabic being spoken at a nearby table. They invite the two young men who are at that table to come and join them. It turns out those two young men are Alhazmi and Almihdhar, two of the 9/11 terrorists. When I asked the staff director of the 9/11 commission about this, he thought it was just a coincidence that they met at this restaurant. I did some independent research. There are at least 134 Middle Eastern restaurants in Los Angeles. So the statistical odds of these two groups meeting at the same Middle Eastern restaurant at the same time are staggering.

You don't believe the meeting was a coincidence?

I'm almost certain this was a prearranged meeting. Later, Bayoumi takes the two terrorists to San Diego, where he introduces them to people who arrange for them to obtain [phony] Social Security cards and flying lessons.

Did the White House specifically request classification of the section on the Saudis?

Technically, it was done by the CIA, but it was at the direction of the White House. I cannot tell you with 100 percent certainty, but I am 90 percent sure that was the case. The White House played a heavy role throughout not only our investigation but the investigation of the 9/11 commission.

You obviously don't believe the Bush administration was justified in classifying the 27 pages.

No. Sen. Shelby, who was the vice chairman of the [Senate intelligence] committee and who is a Republican, reread those pages shortly after they were classified. And I also reread them. Independently, we both came to the same assessment that 95 percent of the material that had been classified could have been released to the public. It did not represent concealment of national secrets or of sources and methods by which information is obtained.

Why do you think the White House is so intent on keeping that information from the public?

I think there are several possible reasons. One is that it did not want the public to be aware of the degree of Saudi involvement in supporting the 9/11 terrorists. Second, it was embarrassing that that support took place literally under the nose of the FBI, to the point where one of the terrorists in San Diego was living at the house of a paid FBI informant. Third, there has been a long-term special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and that relationship has probably reached a new high under the George W. Bush administration, in part because of the long and close family relationship that the Bushes have had with the Saudi royal family.

In the book, you describe being furious with the FBI for blocking your committee's attempts to interview that paid FBI informant. You write that the panel needed the bureau to deliver a congressional subpoena to the informant because he was in the FBI's protective custody and could not be located without the bureau's cooperation. But the FBI refused to help. What happened? And what do you think the bureau was trying to hide?

We had just finished a hearing and had asked various representatives of the FBI to come into a conference room and discuss our strong interest in being able to interview the San Diego informant. It was clear that the FBI representatives were not going to voluntarily allow that to happen, and we had already prepared a subpoena, which I had in my coat pocket. I walked over to the principal representative for the FBI, Ken Wainstein, and I was approaching him with this subpoena, he clasped his hands tightly behind his back. I tried to hand him the subpoena, but he acted as if it were radioactive. Finally he said he didn't want to take the subpoena, but he would get back to us on the following Monday. Well, nobody ever got back to us. It was the only time in my senatorial experience that the FBI has refused to deliver a legally issued congressional subpoena.

Later, the FBI congressional affairs officer sent a letter to [co-chairman] Porter Goss and me, saying, "The administration would not sanction a staff interview with the source, nor did the administration agree to allow the FBI to serve a subpoena on the source." What that tells me is the FBI wasn't acting on its own but had been directed by the White House not to cooperate.

Did the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, play any role in what you describe as the support network for these two hijackers? As you know, Bandar is a great friend of the Bush family.

Most of the things that he did are, frankly, still classified. But he has clearly demonstrated that he has a close relationship with President Bush. You have no doubt seen that famous picture of the two of them together at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. And then there's the fact that within a few hours after 9/11, Prince Bandar was able to gain access to the president to make the case for why 140 or so Saudis should be given permission to leave the United States immediately.

Did the Saudi Embassy play a role?

I'm going to have to defer answering that question. Those things that still have not been made available to the public, such as this issue of what Prince Bandar's participation was, I did not include in the book.

It sounds then as if the role of Bandar and the Saudi Embassy is addressed in those 27 classified pages of the panel's report?

Most of it would be addressed there, yes.

Most of it? That implies you know other relevant information that's not in the classified report.

Yes. Some information came to our attention too late to be included in the report, or it was not directly related to the events of 9/11.

Let's move from 9/11 and the Saudis to the invasion of Iraq. Do you believe the president misled the American public about the justification for the invasion and the urgency of the security threat?

If he believed the evidence that was being presented to him -- that there were 550 sites in Iraq where weapons of mass destruction were being either produced or stored -- then he was very noncurious about finding out what the basis of that information was. He should have pursued the credibility of the intelligence before he committed us to taking one of the most serious actions any country can take. The user of intelligence has the responsibility to challenge the credibility of the intelligence. When [then CIA director] George Tenet said it was a slam-dunk that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the president supinely accepted that.

But a lot of people who were opposed to the war on the grounds that Saddam was already contained did believe there were probably weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What did you believe?

I was suspicious [about the intelligence], but I was prepared to accept the word of the president of the United States. But my reason for voting against the war was really a more strategic one: that al-Qaida was a greater threat to Americans than was Saddam Hussein, and that we should stay on the task of al-Qaida until we had finished it. I didn't think we should get into a situation where our prestige and reputation would suffer in the entire Middle East and into what now appears to be a quagmire which has no end in sight.

Along those lines, you said that in a meeting at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., in February 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks, who was then conducting the war in Afghanistan, told you that resources were already being shifted quietly to Iraq. Additionally, you write that Franks told you that Somalia and Yemen, not Iraq, were the next logical targets in any action to combat terrorism.

Yes. I had just received a briefing on Afghanistan when Gen. Franks invited me to come into his office, just the two of us. He told me that military and intelligence resources were being redeployed from Afghanistan to Iraq. What that suggested to me was [first] that the decision to go to war in Iraq had been made at least 14 months before we actually went to Iraq, and long before there was authorization from Congress and long before the United Nations was sought out for a resolution of support. Secondly, it suggested we couldn't fight the two wars concurrently to victory, but that it would take redeployment of personnel from Afghanistan to Iraq to make that a successful invasion. Third, it suggested that somebody -- I assume the president -- had decided that Iraq was a higher priority for the United States than was completing the war in Afghanistan.

Why do you think Franks told you this?

I don't know what his motivation was, but we had just heard a report on the status of the war in Afghanistan, which was very upbeat, [saying] we were making a lot of progress. So one motivation may have been to caution me that things in reality weren't necessarily what they appeared to be.

Do you believe the White House manipulated the intelligence to persuade the public to back the invasion? "Manipulate" may be too strong a word for you. But it took a request from you and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to get the intelligence community to produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the danger posed by Iraq, a step that would seem an obvious one to take, considering the stakes to the nation.

I am comfortable with the word "manipulate." There was a chapter that did not become known until three or four months ago that occurred in May 2002. Various leaders of the CIA were called down to the White House and told that the White House wanted to have a public document that could be released under the CIA's label but which would make the case for going to war with Iraq. I think one of the reasons they didn't want to do a formal National Intelligence Estimate was because it would be done not by the CIA alone but by all of the members of the intelligence community, and it was likely to reach a different conclusion. At least it would contain dissenting opinions and caveats that wouldn't be in a CIA public document.

This description of the CIA is one that is under the complete control of the White House, an agency that is not independent but highly politicized.

That's right. It is the expression of the leadership of the intelligence agencies, trying to placate their masters in the administration.

A later inquiry conducted by the Senate intelligence committee under your successor as chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., looked at the quality of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and concluded that it was execrable. Yet the Republicans on the panel blocked any probe of whether the administration pressured the intelligence agencies to manufacture the conclusions it sought to justify a war that it had already decided to wage. If you had still been the top Democrat on the committee, would you have insisted that the White House and the agencies be included in that probe?

I think Sen. Jay Rockefeller [D-W.Va.], who is the vice chairman of the committee, did insist, and the effect of that was to make clear to him that there would be no investigation of anything if he persisted. I think he decided the better course was to agree to just do the first component if there was a commitment to do the rest at a reasonably close later date.

You retire at the end of this year. What's next for you?

First, I'll be working on letting the American people know about the opportunity they have to better understand the intelligence matters of the United States by buying this book. (Laughs.) Then, I'll teach at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard for a year and after that come back to Florida to establish a policy center at one or more universities in Florida.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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9/11 Afghanistan Iraq War Middle East