Senator Bob Graham, 9/11, and the Mirage of American Democracy

Former Senator Bob Graham passed away on April 16 at the age of 87.  Graham had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Iraq War.  But his brightest legacy was his perennial fight against the cover-up of role of the Saudi government in September 11 terrorist attacks.

Graham was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee when terrorists toppled the World Trade Center towers.  When President George W. Bush whipped up support for war by blaming the 9/11 attacks on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Graham recognized the scam.   In October 2002, when Bush rammed a pro-war resolution (though not a formal declaration of war) through Congress, Graham objected that another war in the Middle East would obscure the real perils: “If you believe that the American people are not going to be at additional threat, then, frankly, my friends — to use a blunt term — blood is going to be on your hands.”

After the 9/11 attacks, Bush and the political-media elite masterminded a tide of servility. In the days after the attack, flag waving and patriotic appeals swept the land: polls showed a doubling in the number of people who trusted government to “do the right thing.” The national media rallied to the cause with headlines such as “The Government, Once Scorned, Becomes Savior” (Los Angeles Times), “Government to the Rescue” (Wall Street Journal), and “Government’s Comeback” (Washington Post). The government failed—so the government became infallible.

But not for Sen. Graham. Working with the House Intelligence Committee, he led an investigation that revealed far more failures and frauds than the Bush White House ever admitted.

The congressional Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, completed its investigation in December 2002. But the Bush administration stonewalled the release of the 838-page report until mid 2003 — after its invasion of Iraq was a fait accompli — and totally suppressed a key 28 page portion. A Washington Post obituary noted that the work of Graham’s Joint Intelligence Committee was “largely overshadowed by the independent 9/11 Commission.”  This is because bootlicking is far more popular with the Washington elite than honest criticisms.

Almost everyone has forgotten how hard the Bush administration fought to torpedo that report. Graham bitterly complained, “There’s been a pattern in which information is provided on a classified basis, and then what is declassified are those sections of the report that are most advantageous to the administration.”

Some intelligence officials even insisted on “reclassifying” as secret some of the information that had already been discussed in public hearings, such as the FBI Phoenix Memo. On May 13, 2003, Senator Graham accused the Bush administration of engaging in a “cover-up” and said that the report from the congressional investigation “has not been released because it is, frankly, embarrassing … embarrassing as to what happened before September 11th, but maybe even more so the fact that the lessons of September 11th are not being applied today to reduce the vulnerability of the American people.” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) complained that intelligence agencies sought to totally censor the report: “The initial thing that came back was absolutely an insult, and it would be laughable if it wasn’t so insulting, because they redacted half of what we had. A lot of it was to redact a word that revealed nothing.”

When the bulk of the report was finally released, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added an additional opinion in which he castigated “the FBI’s dismal recent history of disorganization and institutional incompetence in its national-security work.” The congressional report was far blunter than the subsequent 9/11 Commission. The congressional investigation concluded that the FBI’s “mixed record of attention contributed to the United States becoming, in effect, a sanctuary for radical terrorists.” But the Bush administration stonewalled the most damaging revelations on the Saudi government financing the hijackers. Disclosing Saudi links to 9/11 could have undermined efforts by some Bush administration officials to tie Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. Senator Shelby objected to the suppression of the 28 pages: “The American people are crying out to know more about who funds, aids, and abets terrorist activities in the world.” Forty-six senators, spearheaded by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and including almost all the Democratic members, signed a letter to President George W. Bush urging the release of the 28 pages. No such luck.

Graham continued pushing to declassify those 28 pages after he left the Senate. In 2015, he declared that “there is compelling evidence in the 28 pages that one or more foreign governments was involved in assisting some of the hijackers in their preparation for 9/11.”

When those pages were finally declassified and released in 2016, they provided another neon light example of how the Bush administration had lied the nation into the Iraq War.   There was no formal response in Washington to update  Lincoln’s famous adage to tout “government of the people, by the people, and for the Saudis.”

In a radio interview on WBUR in September 2016, Graham castigated the continuing coverup of other 9/11 bombshells: “I describe [the 28 pages of congressional report] as the cork in the bottle, and now we need to pour out the information that I think would’ve been unavailable before the 28 pages were released but now are available, and that follow-up information to the leads that were first encountered in the 28 pages. We need the full information in order to make an informed and final judgment as to the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11.” Former FBI Special Agent Stephen Moore, who led one of the key FBI teams investigating 9/11, stated in a 2017 affidavit: “Based on evidence we gathered during the course of our investigation, I concluded that diplomatic and intelligence personnel of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knowingly provided material support to the two 9/11 hijackers and facilitated the 9/11 plot. My colleagues in our investigation shared that conclusion.” Graham said in 2018 that the FBI has “just thrown the biggest blanket they can find over everything that has to do with the Saudi role in 9/11,” as investigator Brian McGlinchey reported.

Unfortunately, President Biden is continuing that coverup as the Justice Department continues fighting against disclosures of foreign government finagling.  Biden signed an order in 2021 calling for a declassification review of 9/11 evidence but the FBI apparently exempted itself.  The Senate Homeland Security Committee has been seeking an unredacted copy of an FBI analysis of Operation Encore, detailing the ties between the Saudi government and 9/11 hijackers. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CN) complained last September: “We have not received a single document or obtained an explanation for any of the hundreds of redactions that remain [on the Operation Encore analysis], despite the government’s recent declassification review.” The senators complained that that stonewall was part of “the U.S. government’s long-standing refusal to provide full transparency to the American public… about Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks.”

Graham’s courage in exposing federal failures was rare in Washington. But self-government is an illusion if politicians can shroud the most important details driving federal policy. As Attorney General Ramsey Clark warned in 1967, “Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.”

An earlier version of this piece was published by the Libertarian Institute.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism and Tyranny. His latest book is Last Rights: the Death of American Liberty. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at