Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome back to To Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself with Senator Bob Graham.
Senator Graham’s biography is below. If you haven’t watched the previous segments of this interview, you really should, because I’m not going to introduce Senator Graham again. We’re going to get right to it.
Thanks for joining us.
Bob Graham, Fmr. US Senator: Good. Thank you.
Jay: There’s a lot of discussion and debate about what happened prior to 9/11 and why more wasn’t done. In your book, you suggest—I think it’s a dozen points where if the intelligence agencies and the White House had worked better or more effectively, that this whole conspiracy might not have been successful.
You also write about something which I think’s rather important, which is the presidential daily brief. Can you explain why—the brief that became very well known during the 9/11 committee hearings. Why is that so significant?
Graham: During August 2001, the president was doing what is standard for presidents and was for him, to take a vacation, in this case to his farm in Texas. But he continued to be briefed as to issues that would require his attention. And in one of those briefings—it’s called the presidential daily brief—he was told that intelligence was sensing that there was something serious occurring which could have dramatically adverse effects against the United States, and that they thought that it could involve the use of airplanes in some attack.
Jay: The title of the brief is bin Laden plans to attack the United States.
Graham: Yes. So it was a fairly stark and specific call. The president, from all evidence, basically ignored that warning and no steps were taken to try to dig deeper or to disrupt the plot that the intelligence agency—.
Jay: And Condoleezza Rice sees the same memo and apparently also—briefing, and apparently also does nothing. And you make—in your book, you lay out several things they could have done. For example?
Graham: Well, they could have asked the intelligence agencies—we are very concerned about this; let’s make this the absolute number-one priority for the next period. They could have alerted the federal aviation agency that we have these suggestions that aviation may be used in an attack against the United States; upgrade your security standards. The hijackers who got on the four planes had no more obstruction to them getting on the plane on September 11 than they would have had on June or July or August. They could have alerted the military that it may be necessary to scramble aircraft to intercept commercial planes that we have reason are being used for a terrorist attack. Those were some of the examples of what might have been done had this been taken seriously.
Jay: Now, at the 9/11 hearings, Condoleezza Rice is asked about this presidential briefing, and she says, we didn’t think it had anything to do with anything specific; it seemed to be just some general thing that we already knew, that bin Laden had some plans to attack the United States; and we didn’t consider it all that significant. But you point out something in the book I thought was quite interesting I personally hadn’t seen before, which is in something called the SEIB, the senior executive intelligence brief, which is essentially, normally, if I understand correctly, more or less what’s in the presidential brief, but it goes to many more people. That whole memo on bin Laden has been taken out. Well, if they’d consider it not of any great significance one way or the other, why on earth would they take it out?
Graham: One explanation would be that they didn’t want there to be a broadcast of the possibility that we might be under specific threat of terrorists using airplanes, part of the broader strategy of reducing the people of the United States’ knowledge and anxiety about what might be occurring. Or it could have just been a judgment by the people who convert the presidential daily briefing, which goes to a very small group, and to the executive briefing, which goes to several hundred if not thousand people, that this was not an appropriate item to make as broadly available.
Jay: It seems to me—I know you can’t or may not agree with what I’m saying, but there seems to be a pattern of a culture being created to stop inquiry into possible terrorist attacks. So, Senator Graham, there was a documentary made about Richard Clarke, and we did a story about this, where Clarke says that information about the two al-Qaeda operatives that are living in this house that you talked about earlier, with the Saudi elderly man, who was apparently an FBI informant, Clarke said he didn’t know anything about this at the time, and he should have, because both the FBI knew and the CIA knew and nobody told him. And here’s a little clip in this documentary of him saying that.
Richard Clarke, Fmr. Chief Counter-Terrorism Adviser on the National Security Council: You have to intentionally stop it. You have to intervene and say, no, I don’t want that report to go. And I never got a report to that effect.If there was a decision made to stop normal distribution with regard to this case, then people like Tom Wilshire would have known that.
Jay: So, Senator Graham, that’s kind of an alarming thing for Richard Clarke to say. The counterterrorism czar is saying that critical information, it was deliberately kept from him.
Graham: Well, he wasn’t the only one it was kept from. The first thing that we did when we started our congressional investigation in late 2000, 2001 was to ask all the agencies to hold any information materials they had relevant to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attack and that we would be asking for that as appropriate. We assumed that the agencies had complied with that.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2002, more than halfway through our investigation, that we discovered that there was information in the office of the San Diego FBI about the two hijackers. These are the two men who started in January 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, where some of the basic planning for what became 9/11 was undertaken. They came into the United States undisturbed. Approximately a week later, they have a meeting, at which it just happens that they are sitting in a restaurant close enough to hear each other talk with a Saudi agent who has been dispatched to that restaurant by a Saudi consular official who was the consul of Saudi Arabia in Los Angeles. He, the Saudi agent, overhearing these men speaking Arabic in a Saudi accent, sits with them, engages them, and then invites them to come to San Diego.
Now, the FBI says all of that is just coincidence, that it just happened that out of the over 100 Middle Eastern restaurants in Los Angeles, they both ended up, on the same day, the same hour, in the same section of the restaurant. I find that to be incredible. And these two men end up accepting the offer, come to San Diego. And that’s where they begin the process of preparing for 9/11.
Jay: We know now that the NSA’s been listening to a lot of conversations for many years. I guess what’s new with the Snowden revelations is how much they’ve been listening to Americans’ conversations. But I think it’s pretty well known the NSA’s been listening to foreign conversations for a long time. And given that bin Laden was number one on the FBI’s most wanted list, given that al-Qaeda had already attacked the embassy and the USS Cole, I mean, you’ve got to assume the NSA was doing everything they could to listen to anything to do with bin Laden, which would include the Saudis. Did you have any access to NSA? And did you try to get access to NSA logs or regulations for someone to come tell you what they might have heard?
Graham: Yes. What we found out was that immediately after the two bombings in Africa, there was a person who’d been involved that had survived who was interrogated, and he tipped off the CIA that there was a listening station in Yemen which was sort of the hub of communications for the al-Qaeda network. We immediately started listening to that station. That’s how we found out that there was this meeting of terrorists in Kuala Lumpur. This is how we found out that al-Qaeda was going to attack a U.S. naval ship in the port of Aden. We learned a lot, in fact. We apparently did not learn about the big plot that became 9/11. Maybe bin Laden had a back channel form of communication and didn’t use his main hub to discuss that particular case.
Jay: Did you ask to see records of conversations by Saudis that might have been involved in this?
Graham: To my knowledge, no.
Jay: Would that not be something one would want to see?
Graham: The answer is: I don’t know what the evidence was that would have indicated there were conversations that were relevant to what our inquiry was trying to answer.
Jay: Well, if the Saudis were involved, they might be talking about it.
Graham: Well, I don’t think—at that point I don’t know if there was an issue of whether prior to 9/11, in whatever communications had to take place in the planning and execution of the plot, whether there was a Saudi involvement in that communication network or not.
Jay: And also just to find out just how much was known about this prior to 9/11. I mean, the NSA—I mean, did you or would you have had access to whatever you asked for from the NSA? Did the NSA ever turn you down?
Graham: No, the only agency to my knowledge that withheld information was the FBI.
Jay: So you didn’t ask to see everything they had.
Graham: We asked them to hold everything. And we had—our staff was organized around the major intelligence agencies. And we had a group that was the NSA group, made up of people who had had current or previous experience with NSA. So without being able to say precisely what they asked for, I feel comfortable that had they found something that would have been relevant to the question of the plot and who was involved and were there external forces, that we would have known about it.
Jay: You’re not concerned this same culture of protecting the Saudis might have acted like a filter there as well. I mean, if the NSA did have anything that implicated the Saudis, if there was a culture had been created not to implicate the Saudis, then maybe they wouldn’t have been so forthcoming.
Graham: In a way, that question causes me to wish that we could turn the clock back to 2001 and 2002 and go into that issue. Assumedly, the NSA has maintained the records from that time period. And maybe even 12 years after the fact, there would still be the opportunity to find out what was known through intercepts about the plot.
Jay: So that leads me to something you’ve said several times, that you think this should all be reopened, there needs to be another inquiry. So, I mean, if there was another inquiry, what are a few of the most pressing questions or lines of inquiry that should be followed?
Graham: I think the basic questions are: was there one or more entities that were assisting the 19 hijackers? Or were they in fact acting alone? Since most of the questions about support have focused on the Saudis—specifically, what do we know or can we learn about the extent of Saudi involvement? Was it limited to San Diego? Or was it more broadcast in terms of its impact? And then why would the Saudis have taken this action? We discussed earlier some of the possible reasons. And then finally, why did the United States go to such lengths to disguise, to conceal the Saudi involvement or the involvement of any other outside force to assist the 19 hijackers? What was the U.S. interest in withholding this from the American people?
Jay: And if one takes the logic of what you’re saying, I think then one would think that someone at the level of Prince Bandar might well have known about this. It’s going on in the United States. It’s on his watch. He’s the ambassador here. Do you have any evidence that links Bandar to all of this?
Graham: Some of that evidence I can’t talk about.
Jay: This is in the redacted pages.
Graham: But the fact that he had and exercised as aggressively as he did his special entrée at the White House raises questions about why was he using that special entrée, for instance, to get people who were persons of interest to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement out of the country before they could be interviewed.
Jay: So I’m going to say something which I think all you can do is say, I can’t comment on, but I’m going to say it. If you’re right—and I’m going to take what you said even a little further, which—if you are right that Bandar knew this was going on, then he’s sitting meeting with his friend President Bush regularly in the days leading up to 9/11 and either not saying anything or somehow does. I mean, I know you know there’s a lot of theory—and, I think, a lot of evidence that would at least require an inquiry—that there’s a deliberate attempt not to know. It’s not just lack of—just incompetency and—. I mean, to believe that it’s just incompetency, then you have to think it’s like the Keystone Cops of intelligence agencies: they’re just tripping all over each other. But that seems hard to believe.
Graham: Well, and also the fact that it was so pervasive that virtually all of the agencies of the federal government were moving in the same direction, from a customs agent at an airport in Orlando who was chastised when he denied entry into the United States to a Saudi, to the president of the United States authorizing large numbers of Saudis to leave the country, possibly denying us forever important insights and information on what happened. You don’t have everybody moving in the same direction without there being a head coach somewhere who was giving them instructions as to where he wants them to move.
Jay: So that includes before and after the events.
Graham: Primarily before the event. After the event, it shifts from being an action that supports the activities of the Saudis to actions that cover up the results of that permission given to the Saudis to act.
Jay: So I’ll put you a little bit on the spot here. Would it be—in this new commission that we hope comes, would it be a legitimate line of inquiry into whether President Bush and/or Vice President Cheney knew something might be coming and didn’t do anything about it, in fact may have actually taken action in the sense of creating a culture of not wanting to know?
Graham: Well, without by giving this answer inferring that I believe that they did in fact have reason to believe that this attack was about to occur and made a conscious decision to suppress that information, if there were any evidence—and to my knowledge there is none—of course that would be a line of inquiry that would be central to answering the question of what was the Saudis’ role and why did the United States cover it up.
Jay: Thanks very much for joining us, Senator Graham.
Graham: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about some issues that, although it’s been more than a decade ago when this horrific event occurred, I think have real consequences to U.S. actions today.
Jay: There is so much detail to all of this, and particularly a lot of detail in Senator Graham’s book. So I urge you to get the book. It’s Intelligence Matters. And you’ll see a lot of the things we couldn’t explore in this interview in the book.
Thanks very much for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.