Going to lunch with former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham can be hazardous to retirement.
And extremely interesting.
Take the recent Sunday when my husband and I met Graham, his wife, Adele, and daughter, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, for lunch at Randevu, a small restaurant in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Over eggs benedict and cheese grits, Graham updated us on his continuing fight to force the FBI to disclose reports documenting the involvement of a Saudi Arabian family that left Sarasota in great haste 11 days before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Graham, a former legislator and governor who served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005, is absolutely convinced that the hijackers had outside help from Saudi Arabian officials. The official position of the U.S. government is that the 19 hijackers acted without assistance. He says high level law enforcement officials have told him to "forget it.''
And then he told us about the day in 2011 when he and Adele were heading to the Washington, D.C., area to spend Thanksgiving with one of their daughters.
As they stepped off an airplane at Dulles International Airport, two FBI agents approached and asked the Grahams to accompany them to a nearby agency office.
Graham had not informed the FBI that he was traveling to the Washington area and to this day does not know how they knew where he planned to spend Thanksgiving or what airplane he would be aboard.
A little scary huh? Perhaps his phone is on the NSA's list.
The agents escorted the Grahams to a nearby office where Sean M. Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, awaited. The No. 2 guy in the entire agency had traveled out from the District of Columbia to meet him.
Graham said he didn't feel threatened by the sudden attention from FBI agents because he thought the agency was finally going to release information he had been requesting for months.
He had received an email from a White House aide on Sept. 15 saying the FBI would be in touch with him to answer questions he had raised in an attempt to get the White House to force release of the FBI's investigation into the situation in Sarasota on 9/11.
The FBI had told Graham that they had released the information to the 9/11 Commission and congressional investigators. He says both groups received nothing that mentioned Sarasota from the FBI.
So his immediate reaction to being stopped by federal agents was to hope they would finally respond to his questions.
When they reached the FBI office at Dulles, Mrs, Graham was placed in a room by herself while Graham was ushered in to see Joyce.
After some period of time Mrs. Graham knocked on the door of her cell-like room and asked for something to read. Someone gave her an FBI Training Manual, noting that was all they had lying around.
Meanwhile, Joyce was telling Graham that the FBI had done a thorough job investigating all of the events in Sarasota and concluded there was no communication between the Saudi family that fled and the 9/11 hijackers who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.
Forgive Graham for doubting the FBI. But he had just seen some FBI reports and a Florida Bulldog story about the investigation of the Sarasota family. It included interviews with guards at the gated subdivision where the Saudi family lived and an allegation that cars linked to Mohamed Atta and other Saudi pilots who trained in Florida had been frequent visitors to the Saudi-owned house in Prestancia, south of Sarasota. Atta had trained at a nearby Venice airport where a member of the Saudi family also took flying lessons.
Graham had reason to be suspicious. He was chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee when the 9/11 attacks occurred and co-chair of a joint congressional commission that investigated the attacks. From the very beginning, the commission and Congress requested all FBI reports on their investigation.
Graham said not one single report involving the Sarasota family was given to the commission until he began to ask questions 10 years later. He learned of the investigation from the Florida Bulldog authors. Later, after seeing some of the FBI reports, he tried to contact Gregory J. Sheffield, the FBI agent who wrote the report, only to find he had been transferred to Honolulu. He says the FBI also withheld reports involving a similar situation in San Diego, where two other hijackers lived.
The FBI has repeatedly claimed to find no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 hijackers. In a highly unusual move, the agency earlier this year issued a written statement calling that original FBI report "unsubstantiated and poorly written,'' a move that tossed their own agent under the bus.
In 2003, the commission that Graham co-chaired released a preliminary report on the hijackings, but a 28-page section of the report remains secret. Graham says the missing pages could buttress claims for justice by the families of 9/11 victims who filed suit against Saudi Arabia for allegedly financing the attacks. He has filed an affidavit supporting a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Florida Bulldog and other Florida newspapers seeking the missing pages.
Before his encounter with Joyce at Dulles in 2011, Graham left several messages for Sheffield that were not returned,
Graham says he told Joyce on that November day that he had seen two reports indicating that the ties between the family and the hijackers needed more investigation. He said Joyce told him that the reports were based on information that had been taken out of context by an agent and insisted Graham would understand if he saw the "full context.''
"I said I'd like to see the context,'' Graham recalled saying. Joyce scheduled a Dec. 7 meeting with Graham in Washington promising an agent would show him the "context.''
Graham, traveling from Miami on his own nickel, returned to Washington for the meeting only to be told by Joyce that the FBI would provide no further information. "And he said he had directed Agent Sheffield not to talk.''
Sheffield left the FBI in April after 20 years. He is still not returning phone calls. Joyce retired from the FBI in 2013 to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers, a firm that does international consulting work for businesses and government agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. He could not be reached.
When the FBI was forced to release some of its reports as a result of the lawsuit filed in South Florida, the documents included a report apparently prepared by Sheffield saying the FBI inspected the Sarasota home and discovered they left the residence "quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation.''
The report also said further investigation of the family revealed many connections between the Saudi family and 11 individuals associated with the terrorists attacks.
The Saudi family was identified as Abdulaziz al-Hiiji and his wife, Anoud. The home was owned by Mrs. al-Hiiji's parents, Esam A. and Deborah Ghazzawi. It was sold in 2003 to a California man. Ghazzawi was an adviser to the Saudi royal family. In a 2012 statement, al-Hiiji denied that Atta or other hijackers visited his home.
Graham said a similar situation was discovered in San Diego where two of the hijackers received substantial assistance from a Saudi resident. The FBI also failed to submit reports on the group in San Diego, Graham added.
Since he retired from the U.S. Senate in 2005, Graham has repeatedly pushed for more disclosure and contends national security has been undermined by the oil rich Saudis as they continue to support violence around the world.
Graham has asked Floridians to push for more disclosure by getting members of Congress to push a resolution asking the president to release the 28 missing pages.
He may be 78 years old, but Graham remains sharp as a tack and full of outrage toward the FBI and two presidents who have ignored the obvious while protecting relations with Saudi Arabia and its oil.
And that FBI training manual? Graham says his wife learned a lot and has been using it against him ever since.
Contact Lucy Morgan at [email protected] Follow @lucytimes.