Do Americans have the right to learn whether a foreign government helped finance the 9/11 attacks? A growing number of congressmen and senators are demanding that a 28-page portion of a 2002 congressional report finally be declassified. The Obama administration appears to be resisting, and the stakes are huge. What is contained in those pages could radically change Americans’ perspective on the war on terror.
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 portion. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) chairman of the investigation, 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.” Graham later indicated that the Saudis were the guilty party. But 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.
Almost everyone has forgotten how hard the Bush administration fought to torpedo that report. In April 2003, controversy raged on Capitol Hill over the Bush administration’s continuing efforts to suppress almost all of the report by the Joint Intelligence Committee investigation. 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, 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 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 may have succeeded in stonewalling the most damaging revelations.
Suppressing the 28 pages was intensely controversial at the time. Senator Shelby, the vice chairman of the joint inquiry, urged declassification of almost all of the 28 pages because “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.
Bush, at a July 30, 2003 press conference, justified suppressing the 28 pages:
We have an ongoing investigation about what may or may not have taken place prior to September the 11th. And therefore, it is important for us to hold this information close so that those who are being investigated aren’t alerted…. If we were to reveal the content of the document, 29 [sic] pages of a near-900-page report, it would reveal sources and methods. By that, I mean it would show people how we collect information and on whom we’re collecting information, which, in my judgment, and in the judgment of senior law-enforcement officials in my administration, would be harmful on the war against terror.
And then he dangled a carrot: “Now, at some point in time, as we make progress on the investigation, and as a threat to our national security diminishes, perhaps we can put out the document. But in my judgment, now is not the time to do so.”
The claim of secrecy is routinely a cloak for incompetence. As former Senator Graham said earlier this year, “Much of what passes for classification for national-security reasons is really classified because it would disclose incompetence. And since the people who are classifying are also often the subject of the materials, they have an institutional interest in avoiding exposure of their incompetence.”
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) revived the push to declassify the pages in 2013. Jones is a conservative stalwart best known for coining the phrase “freedom fries” in 2003 when France opposed invading Iraq. He has since become one of the most outspoken opponents of reckless U.S. intervention abroad. He explained that he introduced a resolution because “the American people deserve the truth. Releasing these pages will enhance our national security, not harm it.”
Jones further explained that “the information contained in the redacted pages is critical to our foreign policy moving forward and should thus be available to the American public. If the 9/11 hijackers had outside help — particularly from one or more foreign governments — the press and the public have a right to know what our government has or has not done to bring justice to all of the perpetrators.”
Last May, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) fresh from a bracing filibuster against the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act, joined the 28-page fight. He introduced the Transparency for the Families of 9/11 Victims and Survivors Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The suppressed pages are another wedge between Paul and other Republican presidential candidates: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rejects declassification, instead urging deference to the president’s judgment on the issue. A person attending a recent New Hampshire event asked Christie, “Don’t we have a right to know?” Christie replied, “That’s for the president of the United States to decide.… [The] question is: In his judgment and the judgment of the people in the national-security apparatus, do they believe there’s something in there that’s classified that would cause harm or danger to American interests?” But cravenness is never a good recipe for safety.
Members of Congress can read the still-classified pages in a special secure room on Capitol Hill if they get prior permission from the House or Senate Intelligence Committee. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the few members to read the report, was shocked: “I had to stop every couple of pages and just sort of absorb and try to rearrange my understanding of history for the past 13 years and the years leading up to that. It challenges you to rethink everything.” Massie is one of 18 co-sponsors of Jones’s resolution in the House.
Too much trouble
It is encouraging that the effort spearheaded by Congressman Jones has garnered support on Capitol Hill. But it is surprising that the 28-page disclosure campaign has not yet spurred far more members of Congress to read the document. Unfortunately, members of Congress were also grossly negligent when it came to the evidence to justify invading Iraq. In October 2002, prior to the vote on the congressional resolution to permit Bush to do as he pleased on Iraq, the CIA delivered a 92-page classified assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to Capitol Hill. The classified CIA report raised far more doubts about the existence of Iraqi WMDs than did the five-page executive summary that all members of Congress received. The report was stored in two secure rooms — one each for the House and the Senate. Only six senators bothered to visit the room to look at the report, and only a “handful” of House members did the same, according to the Washington Post. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) explained that congressmen were too busy to read the report: “Everyone in the world wants to come to see you” in your office, and going to the secure room is “not easy to do.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans were sent 6,000 miles away to swelter for months in burning deserts because congressmen could not be bothered to walk across the street. Most congressmen had ample time to give saber-rattling speeches for war, but no time to sift the purported evidence for the invasion.
Why is the Obama administration continuing to suppress a report completed more than a dozen years ago? It is not as if the White House’s credibility would be damaged by revelations of Saudi bankrolling the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis).
And it is not as if the Saudis became squeaky-clean Boy Scouts after 9/11. Saudi sources are widely reported to be bankrolling Islamic State terrorists throughout the Middle East; Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee last September, “I know major Arab allies who fund [ISIS].”
Barack Obama just ordered more U.S. troops to Iraq to seek to rebuff the ISIS onslaught. If the Saudis are helping sow fresh chaos in the Middle East, that is another reason to disclose their role in an attack that helped launch conflicts that have already cost thousands of American lives and more than $1.6 trillion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“Don’t confuse me with the facts” should be the motto of the war on terror. Self-government is an illusion if politicians can shroud the most important details driving federal policy. If Americans have learned anything since 9/11, it should be the folly of deferring to Washington secrecy.
This article was originally posted in the December 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.