How Did 9/11 Happen?Printable Version
A CNP Conversation With U.S. Senator Bob Graham
October 13, 2004
On Wednesday, October 13, 2004, the Center for National Policy hosted U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), a group of senior intelligence experts, and Congressional staff members for a discussion of Graham's new book, Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror. CNP President Tim Roemer introduced Graham and moderated the discussion. Senator Graham’s remarks summarized the findings of his book, which traced the development of the 9/11 plot, and detailed the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to prevent the attacks. He said his book aims to answer three central questions: how did the attacks of September 11, 2001 happen? Could they have been avoided? And, was the response appropriate?
Senator Graham concluded that successful implementation of the attacks occurred as a result of three key factors. Graham pointed first to the fact that the nineteen hijackers were able to live in the United States, some for as many as 18 months, undetected for the most part by the U.S. law enforcement. The men, many of whom spoke very little English, employed what Graham called “native skills” to evade detection for so long. Second, he said, they were able to tap into al-Qaeda’s complex infrastructure, already in place in the United States, for support and cover. Graham believes that this network is still intact and available for al-Qaeda to exploit and execute subsequent future plans. Third, he believes at least two of the terrorists were receiving substantial support from individuals associated with the government of Saudi Arabia. Senator Graham asserts that the Saudi government played an active role in supporting the terrorists. Graham believes that the Saudi government provided significant financial assistance to the worldwide network that supported the attacks and provided diplomatic cover to al-Qaeda sympathizers in the United States and abroad.
Could 9/11 Have Been Avoided?
Graham argued that 9/11 could have been avoided, and noted in his book 12 instances in which various agents of the U.S. Government could have synthesized seemingly disparate pieces of information to foil the attacks. For example, FBI analysts at field branches in Arizona and Minnesota monitored individuals with links to Osama bin Laden enrolled in flight schools. If this information had been shared with the CIA, who had investigated some of the same individuals for their involvement with al-Qaeda, further suspicions would have been aroused. Graham maintains that these suspicions would have given rise to a more thorough investigation, which could have disrupted the 9/11 plot. Graham also criticized the Bush administration for its initial statement that 9/11 was “an unavoidable tragedy." Graham said that he feels this is a misconception and that it hampered early efforts to understand what happened on September 11, 2001.
Was The Response To 9/11 Appropriate?
Within weeks of the attacks, the U.S. was at war in Afghanistan, successfully destroying the Taliban government and key al-Qaeda strongholds. However, Senator Graham said, just as U.S. and Northern Alliance forces were cornering Osama bin Laden, the Bush Administration diverted elite forces and equipment out of Afghanistan to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Senator Graham recounted a private conversation he had with General Tommy Franks, who expressed reservations about the Administration’s decision to go to Iraq. He quotes Franks in his book as saying , “If we stay in this war in Afghanistan, we will win, but we are having our most important people and equipment re-deployed to get ready for a war with Iraq.” Senator Graham believes that decision allowed bin Laden to escape, and al-Qaeda to regenerate into a more decentralized and less hierarchical organization. In effect, Graham argued, the war in Iraq prevented the U.S. from eliminating al-Qaeda. It has continued to implement lethal attacks all over the world.
After opening remarks, Graham turned to forum participants for questions. In this part of the discussion, he further commented on several key issues.
Senator Graham stated that he strongly believes that any reforms adopted by the Senate should address institutional changes regarding Congress’ role in intelligence oversight. Primarily, he said, if only one congressional committee is charged with overseeing intelligence, there might be less aggressive oversight when the Congress and the White House are of the same political party. Graham noted the recent example of the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)in Iraq. He said although the intelligence was seriously flawed on Iraq’s WMD, only one of the four congressional committees, whose jurisdiction extended into these matters, chose to follow up with a serious investigation. Secondly, he said he favors separating the intelligence community’s budget from the overall Defense Department budget. He believes that a separate authorizing committee should consider the intelligence budget.
Senator Graham went on to focus on two problems with the current state of congressional oversight. The first, he said, is the existence of term limits for members of Congress serving on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This limitation prevents them from building an adequate base of expertise. Some issues in intelligence are so complicated and technical that they take years to understand. The second concern he voiced was that oversight not get bogged down in assessing past failures. Rather, he argued, there should be one subcommittee tasked with "looking in the rearview mirror,” while allowing the committee as a whole to focus on future threats. The subcommittee should concentrate on oversight, audits, and investigations.
The Current Threat
Graham said he estimated that there are at least several hundred al-Qaeda operatives in the United States today. He based this on information gathered by the CIA. Graham believes that most of these agents were trained in the terrorist camps of Afghanistan in the middle to late 1990s. He said that some government intelligence agencies have vastly underestimated the current threat. He pointed out that in a Senate briefing the FBI’s assistant director for counter-terrorism stated that there were only 237 members of al-Qaeda worldwide.
The Saudi Role
Senator Graham was asked to compare and contrast the conclusion of the Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission with respect to the role of the Saudi government on 9/11. He said that there are some ambiguities in the nature and extent of the relationship between a Saudi intelligence officer and two of the 9/11 hijackers. Senator Graham speculated that a meeting between them was not coincidental. For this and other reasons, Graham has called for further investigation into Saudi Arabia’s role in the attacks of 9/11. Graham noted that he has encountered strong resistance from Executive Branch agencies, who he believes are under Bush administration orders to shield Saudi officials from any implication of culpability. Tim Roemer noted that the 9/11 Commission did strongly rebuke Saudi Arabia for being "an inconsistent and problematic ally." Roemer further elaborated on the need for Saudi Arabia to recognize some of their own inherent problems, and proceed on a steady course of political, economic, and educational reforms.