In the swirl of revelations, contradictions and confusion about the United States data mining program, Mr. President, you have called for a national debate on liberty and security in post 9/11 America.
I welcome this call, but the difficulties with your proposal include: how to have a debate on a subject you don’t know exists; and how to have a debate if the facts necessary to engage in an informed discussion are withheld?
As reported over many months in the U.S. and abroad — notably in the Miami Herald and BrowardBulldog.com — a 9/11 series of events that go to the heart of the issue of how to ensure that security is compatible with liberty have arisen from Sarasota.
At the core of this episode is a central, lingering question. Saddled with linguistic and cultural ignorance and limited personal experience, could the 19 hijackers have conducted such a complex operation alone? The co-chair of the 9/11 commission said it was “implausible.” Did the terrorists have the support of a network, perhaps directed by elements of a foreign nation state?
The events in Sarasota are directly relevant to those questions. Prior to 9/11, according to law enforcement investigators, neighbors and other witnesses, a prominent Saudi family living in Sarasota had extensive contacts with several of the future hijackers — including key operatives training to be pilots at a nearby flight school. About 10 days before 9/11, apparently in great haste, these Saudis left their Sarasota home and — accompanied by the occupant’s father-in-law who had long been an aide to a senior Saudi prince — returned to Saudi Arabia.
When these allegations were disclosed 10 years later, the FBI stated publicly that a thorough investigation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 revealed no connections between the family and the hijackers. And further, that all of the information derived from the investigation had been made available to the 9/11 commission and the joint congressional inquiry.
Recently released primary source documentation (uncovered through a Freedom of Information request) based on evidence collected by law enforcement agents who participated in the investigation disclosed there had been “many connections between the (name of family redacted) and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 . . .” The leadership of the 9/11 commission and the congressional joint inquiry have affirmed they were unaware of the pre-9/11 events or the subsequent investigation.
Neither of the FBI’s public assertions appears to be correct. The FBI has declared all the remaining documentation of the Sarasota events and subsequent investigation classified.
How is the public supposed to know or evaluate the truth of the matter?
One way to start would be to open the debate with questions that would illuminate the context of specific actions — such as the recently disclosed National Security Agency’s Prism program — but would not necessitate access to classified information.
• Under what circumstances is it acceptable for the government to withhold information from — even deceive — the public?
In the summer of 1943, after the Tehran conference attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Churchill’s statement was justified at that time — decisions on the final battle plans of World War II were made at Tehran.
Some would say we have been in a continuous time of war since 9/11. Let’s have a debate as to whether and to what the Churchillian dictum applies today.
• What should be done if it is determined that a governmental agency has deceived the American people and then withheld the evidence of its incompetence or perfidy by the shield of classification? We need a public conversation as to whether it would be salutary to insert provisions in the Freedom of Information Act or elsewhere to sanction an agency which has engaged in this practice.
• Why have the Saudis been treated in a distinctively different manner than other nationalities? This stark difference was highlighted after the Boston marathon bombing in April.
Within hours of the massacre, the FBI was aggressively investigating whether the two Muslim Russian Chechen bombers had acted with the connivance of Muslims from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region. Yet, more than 10 years after 9/11 it appears everything possible is being done to conceal Saudi assistance to the 19 hijackers — 15 of whom were Saudi nationals.
• Should the FBI continue to be the domestic intelligence agency for the United States? MI 5 in the United Kingdom and Shin Bet in Israel are stand alone, non-law enforcement related domestic intelligence agencies. One rationale for this separation is difference of mission. Law enforcement agencies are primarily directed to gather sufficient evidence after a crime has been committed to convict the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt. Domestic intelligence is structured to gather information to detect a peril and avoid it.
• Has the performance of the FBI been such as to convince Americans we are best protected by an agency that combines these goals?
Mr. President, those are some of the questions that concern Americans. We recall President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s call to duty in his 1961 farewell address:
“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Today the situation is different. But, the challenge to properly mesh security concerns with the protection of our liberties continues.
Let the debate begin.
Bob Graham served for 18 years in the U.S. Senate and eight years as governor of Florida. He was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (2001-2003) and co-chair of the congressional joint inquiry into the role of the intelligence community in 9/11. He is the author of the novel “Keys to the Kingdom.”