The heads of Congress’s intelligence committees at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks looked at the same set of facts about the tragedy, but the two Floridians reached different conclusions.
While 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, Rep. Peter Goss, who would later become CIA director, saw no hand of the Saudi government or any part of it in the attacks.
Sen. Bob Graham, for whom the real truth of 9/11 remains a near-obsession, thought it preposterous that young foreigners who barely spoke English and lived in different places across the United States could have pulled off such an audacious, intricate scheme without outside assistance at high levels of their government.
Nearly 15 years later, Goss, a Republican from Sanibel, on Florida’s Gulf coast, and Graham, a Democrat from the Miami suburb of Miami Lakes, retain a deep mutual respect rooted in their shared experience as co-directors of Congress’s inquiry into the worst mass murder in U.S. history.
But they also retain conflicting perspectives on the al Qaida assault that killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.
“Saudi Arabia has been the principle financier of every major terrorist organization since al Qaida was established in the late 1980s in Peshawar, Pakistan,” Graham told McClatchy.
Al Qaida founder bin Laden was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where his father headed a multinational construction firm that leveraged its close ties with the Saudi royal family to refurbish the holiest Islamic mosques in Mecca and Medina, and to land other big government contracts.
In Graham’s eyes, Saudi Arabia’s expulsion of bin Laden in 1991, a decade before 9/11, doesn’t exonerate the Riyadh government.
“It has been the primary funder of the regional offshoots of al Qaida in Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere,” he said. “It has continued to operate madrases throughout the Middle East, North Africa and particularly in Pakistan. It has been a key source of money and fresh jihadists. I would not assume that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. I would even say I don’t think it is our ally, period.”
For Goss, whose family helped settle Sanibel Island, where Sanibel is located, that is an overly harsh judgment on a vital strategic partner.
“I consider Saudi Arabia an ally,” Goss told McClatchy in an interview. “I’m not necessarily putting the word ‘friendly’ in front of it. But on the yellow pad of pluses and minuses in the world today, they are an ally.”
The administrations of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama withheld for a combined 13 years a section focused mainly on Saudi Arabia in a much larger 2003 congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Those differences reemerged with the long-delayed release last week of the long-withheld 28-page section of the report on 9/11 that Graham and Goss, now both retired, oversaw as heads of the congressional “Joint Inquiry into U.S. Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.” At the time, Graham chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Goss, its House counterpart.
The secret section, which both men wanted to be made public, revealed tantalizing hints but no definitive proof of official Saudi involvement in the terror attacks when it was finally released Friday.
Focusing on three hijackers who’d lived in Southern California, the section revealed their interaction with two possible Saudi intelligence agents and their friendship in San Diego with a Saudi man, Osama Basman, who lived across the street from two of them.
After the 9/11 attacks, Basman told an FBI undercover agent that he’d helped the hijackers, was an avid supporter of bin Laden and had cashed a $15,000 check from an account belonging to Saudi Prince Bandar, who at the time was the Saudi ambassador to the United States, according to the report.
Both the Saudi government and the Obama administration said the secret section showed, as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it, “no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi individuals funded al Qaida.”
Graham, a Florida governor before serving in the Senate from 1987 to 2005, disagrees.
“It points a strong finger at Saudi Arabia’s involvement,” Graham said.
Here again Goss, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency from September 2004 to May 2006, differs.
“Bob and I do have some daylight between our views,” he said by phone from his summer vacation home on Fishers Island, off the southeastern tip of Long Island, New York. “I wouldn’t discourage his efforts to find out more. But right now nothing convinces me that anybody acting in an official Saudi capacity and blessed by the Saudi government or any element of the Saudi government was connected to 9/11.”
Graham’s displeasure goes beyond Saudi Arabia. He says that both during the joint congressional investigation in 2002 and since then, the FBI has obstructed his efforts to uncover the roots of 9/11, primarily by denying him access to neighbors and friends of a dozen Saudi hijackers who lived in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey before the attacks.
The FBI, Graham says, also refused to share with him the results of its probe of those hijackers.
“We were not allowed to interview several key witnesses,” Graham said.
Goss said Graham’s frustration is reasonable. “I think he’s justified in feeling slow-rolled,” he said. “Would that be the first time in Washington someone was slow-rolled? No. Slow-roll is the name of the game in Washington.”
15 Number of the 9/11 hijackers, among 19 in all, who were Saudi nationals
A decade after the attacks, with Graham still pushing the FBI to declassify 9/11 documents, he was shocked to be met by two FBI agents as he and his wife got off a flight from Florida at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
In Graham’s account, the two agents led him into a nearby agency office where then-Deputy Director Sean M. Joyce was waiting, even though he had not told the FBI he would be traveling to the nation’s capital.
“He basically said that everything to be found out about the situation with Saudi Arabia and 9/11 had been learned, that I was wasting my time and I should get a life and do something more productive,” Graham recalled last week.
Goss, who said he’s gotten together with Graham socially several times since they’ve both left public service, doesn’t doubt his recollection. “If Bob feels that way, I’m sure he has a legitimate reason,” Goss said. “The FBI would be way out of bounds to even be suggesting anything intimidating or threatening to a former senator and governor from the state of Florida.”
He added: “I don’t know whether the FBI was trying to do him a favor and brief him or say, ‘Look, you’re wasting your time.’ You could look at that (encounter) either way.”
Graham rejects the wilder 9/11 conspiracies, some of which focus on the Bush family’s longstanding friendship with the Saudi royal family going back to before President George H.W. Bush took office in January 1989.
Graham, however, believes that the decision to protect Saudi Arabia was made above the level of the FBI.
“I don’t think the FBI would act this way on their own volition,” he said. “The way they acted was almost identical to how the U.S. Department of Treasury acted when asked to produce documents, like the State Department acted when it was asked, like the CIA acted. Someone had written a common sheet of music, given it to all the affected agencies and told them not to produce any information that would cast negative aspersions on Saudi Arabia.”
Asked where such directions came from, Graham responded: “The White House.”
He was somewhat less direct when asked whether President George W. Bush gave the directions.
“I don’t know whether he personally signed an order, but he was responsible for the executive branch of the government,” Graham said. “I don’t believe something as significant as this would have been implemented without approval.”
One weakness of Graham’s argument is that the secret section of the Joint Inquiry was also withheld during the tenure of President Barack Obama, and other 9/11 documents remain classified.
“His is the much more inexplicable administration,” Graham said.
I would not assume that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. I would even say I don’t think it is our ally, period.
To this day, it galls Graham that he had to learn about a key pre-9/11 drama in a September 2011 report that appeared in the Miami Herald on the attacks’ 10th anniversary. The report, which had run first on the Florida Bulldog website, disclosed that a wealthy Saudi couple, Abudllazziz al Hijii and his wife, Anoud, had ties with two of the 9/11 hijackers, that the hijackers had visited the Hijii’s home in Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf coast, and that less than two weeks before the attacks, the couple abandoned the home suddenly and flew to Saudi Arabia.
Goss does not indulge in such theories, though he acknowledges that many people in the Bush administration and within Congress itself resisted the inquiry and that he and Graham had to make common cause in the harrowing months after 9/11 to push for their committees to work together and investigate the tragedy’s roots and aftershocks.
“This was a highly charged, very stressful time for both Bob and me to keep the joint inquiry alive,” Goss recalled in his first interview since the release of the 28 pages. “There were people who had very different agendas about our inquiry and would just as soon have seen us fail. It was a very bad time.”
Goss admires Graham’s continuing efforts to learn more about who was behind the 9/11 attacks, but he himself has moved on.
Goss compares the tragedy with the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“This is one of those cases where I’m afraid there is never going to be complete closure,” he said. “The size of the tragedy was so great, I doubt anybody will ever find a blueprint for this thing in somebody’s safe somewhere.”
Graham’s campaign to get the secret report section and other 9/11 documents released has made him a hero to many relatives of those murdered in the attacks.
“Thank God we’ve got Bob Graham,” said Bill Doyle, who lost his son on 9/11 and now lives in The Villages north of Orlando.
Graham himself acknowledges that his search for the real story about 9/11 borders on an obsession.
“My wife says I’ve failed at retirement,” he said with a chuckle. “My two passions are encouraging a higher level of civic engagement and getting out the truth of 9/11 to the American people.”
James Rosen: 202-383-6157; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose