It has always been easy to dismiss Bob Graham. After 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Graham is more famous for his eccentricities than his ideas. He is the senator who wears corny Florida ties and who logs his meals and daily clothing in little notebooks.
When he was a presidential candidate, he often concluded his appearances by singing You've Got a Friend in Bob Graham.
When Graham's book, Intelligence Matters, was published two weeks ago, the Saudi Arabian government and the Republican National Committee were quick to dismiss it. The Saudis said he was irresponsible to allege a link between the Sept. 11 hijackers and the Saudi government. The RNC issued a tart press release headlined "Graham Loses Notebook."
Indeed, there is debate about Graham's claim of a Saudi link. In the book, he offers considerable evidence by documenting suspicious money trails to Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who befriended two of the hijackers in California. The day he transported the hijackers to San Diego, he also spent time at the Saudi consulate. But the 9/11 commission has said the facts don't support Graham's theory.
Still, the Saudi link is just a portion of a provocative book that provides a new perspective about intelligence failures and the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq.
Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been grousing for several years about the problems. His complaints were the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. But his reputation (he's considered an oddity by the Washington press corps) and his trouble speaking in sound bites kept Graham from being taken seriously, both as a candidate and a town crier. His presidential campaign fizzled last fall.
Now, the retiring Florida senator has compiled his ideas in a book _ a better venue for his complex suggestions than the supercharged back-and-forth of cable TV.
He makes many of his points by telling a dramatic story of Sept. 11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. The narrative keeps the book lively and prevents it from sounding like just another government report. Graham then uses their story to illustrate the U.S. government's missed opportunities to prevent the attacks.
He sharply criticizes the Bush administration and the FBI for not revealing links between a government informant and the two hijackers _ and then stonewalling once congressional investigators discovered the links. Graham writes, "The White House was directing the coverup."
He gives a useful overview of the limitations of U.S. intelligence and says the system was effective at spying on communist countries but unprepared to track terrorists. He says the CIA depended too much on satellites and not enough on people. Those complaints have been made by other critics, but Graham illustrates how the problems led the CIA and the FBI to miss a series of clues that an attack was being planned.
Graham provides some interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses of his meetings with top officials. He says the normally gregarious President Bush was "subdued, withdrawn and uncertain" after Sept. 11. "I wasn't sure whether he was tired or felt out of his depth," Graham writes.
Graham also describes a February 2002 meeting in Tampa with Gen. Tommy Franks in which the Central Command leader said key military resources were being pulled away from the war in Afghanistan and redeployed to Iraq. According to Graham, Franks believed the intelligence in Iraq "was very unsatisfactory" and would have preferred to finish the job in Afghanistan and pursue terrorists in Somalia and Yemen.
Graham writes that Franks "was laying out for me how he would fight a true war on terrorism. Instead, his men and resources were being moved to Iraq, where he felt that our intelligence was shoddy."
(In response to an e-mail inquiry last week from the St. Petersburg Times, M.T. Hayes, the chief of staff for Franks, said the retired general "does not agree with Sen. Graham's recollection" and that, "in some cases, what the senator heard is not what Gen. Franks said." However, Hayes did not offer details. By contrast, Graham took notes on the conversation.)
Graham, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has always been a policy wonk. If you want an explanation of intricacies of Medicare reimbursement rates or drug reimportation, call Graham. But his wonkiness has hindered his ability to communicate. He speaks in long sentences that twist and turn before he gets to the verb. Here, his co-author Jeff Nussbaum, a Democratic speechwriter, has sharpened Graham's prose and forced the senator to get to the point.
Graham was limited in what he could say. When his committee released its report last year, the Bush administration required by law that he redact dozens of pages, including many about Saudi Arabia. Graham was so mad about the redactions that he held a news conference standing in front of big poster boards of blanked-out pages.
Because of those restrictions, the book cites public reports and news media accounts. But it's clear from his forceful writing that his conclusions are based on lots of secret material he saw in his 10 years on the committee.
The book is like Fahrenheit 9/11 with footnotes. He makes many of the same points as Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, but without the rock music. Even Graham's title _ Intelligence Matters _ sounds like a Moore wisecrack that the president may be short on brainpower.
Make no mistake, Graham's book is not a balanced account. Before you make up your mind about these issues, you should read the 9/11 commission's report and listen to what the Bush administration has to say. But Graham's book provides new details for our national discussion.
Finally, the man who sang You've Got a Friend in Bob Graham has found his voice.
Bill Adair is a staff writer in the Times Washington bureau.
Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America's War on Terror
By Bob Graham, with Jeff Nussbaum
Random House, $24.95, 296 pp
Sen. Bob Graham will speak on Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton, 1111 Ritz-Carlton Dr. For members of Forum2004, the cost is $12, which includes one ticket and one book; or $22, which includes two tickets and one book; For nonmembers, the cost is $16 for one ticket and one book, or $25 for two tickets and one book. Students are admitted free. Tickets are available at Sarasota News & Books, 1341 Main St. For information, call (941) 922-3080 or log on to: www.forum2004america.org.