Nearly 15 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, too many questions remain unanswered, including this one: Were the mostly Saudi hijackers aided by any officials in their government and, if so, how high up did that help extend? Leads and clues to some of those answers are kept under lock and key by the federal government, including 28 classified pages of the congressional inquiry into 9/11. President Barack Obama has the ultimate authority to declassify these documents so Americans can see what they hide. Before he travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, he should make clear that he will promptly do so.
Two eminently qualified and sober-minded Floridians, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, were co-chairs of the joint congressional inquiry. When their 838-page report was released years ago, they strongly argued that the 28 pages should be included. The FBI refused. As both men made clear in a 60 Minutes report Sunday night, they still feel that way.
Graham, a Democrat who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Goss, a Republican who later became director of the Central Intelligence Agency, can both be trusted with state secrets, and neither sees anything in the report that should be classified. In fact, they and a host of other officials who have read the 28 pages emphatically want them released. Keeping them secret only feeds suspicion and raises doubts about the official U.S. position, which is that the 19 hijackers acted without assistance.
Graham finds it inconceivable that these men, strangers in a strange land, could have acted alone. And his concerns go beyond the 28 secret pages, which apparently focus mostly on questions and evidence — some verified, some not — about how the hijackers were financed and by whom. He is equally troubled by what he says are 80,000 pages of FBI investigative work into a mysterious Saudi family in Sarasota who fled shortly before 9/11 and who he believes may have had contact with the terrorists who were doing flight training in Venice. He says this information was never given to the investigation he co-chaired and he learned about it only years later after continually prodding the FBI. Currently, a federal judge is reviewing those files. Graham correctly believes that this information should be rapidly processed and the bulk of it released to the public. If the FBI has checked out these claims and found nothing, as it has asserted, it should be happy to make the papers public.
Since he retired from the U.S. Senate in 2005, Graham has repeatedly pushed for more disclosure. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, he said, "It is inexplicable to me that this has been withheld from the public." He believes that keeping these reports classified doesn't protect national security but rather undermines it. He is right.
Secrecy for its own sake is corrosive in an open society. Making public the full fruits of the 9/11 investigation would allow Obama to have the "frank discussion," as Graham puts it, with the Saudis that the United States should have insisted on right after the attacks. As Graham said bluntly to the Times, "The truth is a good place to start." But it's hard for Americans to know the truth when clues to it are hidden away by their own government. A democracy only functions fully when its citizens are well-informed. It's long past time for these documents to be declassified.