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 were 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.”