WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Graham on Sunday accused the Bush administration of engaging in a "coverup" of intelligence failures before and after the Sept. 11 attacks to shield it from embarrassment, and said the war with Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to become a greater threat to Americans than ever before.
Graham, a presidential candidate and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also accused the administration of jeopardizing the safety of Americans by blocking the release of a landmark congressional report on the government failures that preceded the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Florida Democrat said the White House has withheld from the public important information about the continued existence of terrorist cells in the United States -- including some with ties to foreign governments that the U.S. has been afraid to go after.
"By continuing to classify that information ... the American people have been denied important information for their own protection, for the protection of the communities," Graham said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."
"Local agencies have been denied information which would help them be more effective. First responders and the American people do not have the information upon which they can hold the administration and responsible agencies accountable," Graham said, adding: "I call that a coverup."
Even before announcing his candidacy for president last week, Graham had been outspoken in criticizing the Bush administration's record on counter-terrorism, saying its focus on war with Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda to regroup and Hezbollah and other terrorist networks to flourish.
But Sunday's remarks appeared to be the first time that Graham has publicly accused the White House of trying to cover up such ongoing threats -- and its own intelligence failures -- by refusing to declassify information about them.
Graham said he was basing his accusations on classified information he has received as a ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, and as a leader of last year's joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
That inquiry by the intelligence committees of the House and Senate focused on missteps made by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the years and months before the attacks, and on ways to prevent terrorist acts on U.S. soil. It reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of CIA, FBI and National Security Agency files, interviewed hundreds of front-line law enforcement and intelligence agents and held a series of public and closed-door hearings before adjourning to complete its final report.
Graham said the joint inquiry report was completed more than five months ago and provides very detailed information on "the buildup to Sept. 11." It also raises policy questions as to whether "those lessons have been applied since."
Graham said the public needs to know those details, but that the joint inquiry staff has been blocked from releasing large segments of the final report because the Bush administration has insisted that it remain classified --including information already disclosed in public hearings.
"I think what they are shooting at is to cover up the failures that occurred before Sept. 11 [as well as] the failure to utilize the information that we have gained to avoid a future Sept. 11," Graham said on the talk show.
"I think the American people should be informed about what kind of capability terrorists have inside the United States. They should be informed about the prospect that foreign governments have been aiding the terrorists in the United States. They should be informed of why we are not using that information to do a more effective job of dealing with terrorists where they live, and when they've been placed in the United States," Graham said. He added that such information remains "currently classified for the American people, unnecessarily so."
Bush administration officials on Sunday denied that they have engaged in any kind of coverup. They said it takes time to carefully declassify such a lengthy and sensitive report.
The report in question is based on more than 400,000 pages of highly classified material that, if released, could jeopardize national security, White House spokesman Tucker Eskew said.
"We have been working cooperatively with the joint inquiry from the beginning so that the American people will know what happened," Eskew said.
"I don't think the American people want their government to release operational details or sources and methods that could compromise our national security."