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Work that gave Graham expertise muzzles him

The Floridian, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is hampered by agencies' refusal to declassify papers.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2003

WASHINGTON - Two years ago, after a reporter congratulated Bob Graham on being named vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Florida Democrat rose from his office chair and got down on his hands and knees.

Graham lowered his head beneath a coffee table and began talking to the furniture.

"I have with me a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times," the senator said to the table, as if talking into a CIA listening device. "He has just congratulated me on becoming vice chairman. He is wearing a blue blazer and khaki slacks."

Graham, who became chairman in June 2001 and served until his term ended four months ago, liked to make fun of the cloak and dagger nature of his committee.

After all, the group meets in a vaultlike room. Cell phones are prohibited because of fears they might transmit secret conversations. Outside the room, vintage posters remind members that "Loose Lips Sink Ships."

The committee's secrecy has made Graham's work a double-edged sword in his presidential campaign. It has given him experience in foreign policy and national security that could help him appeal to voters. But it also limits what he can say.

As Graham speaks around the nation, a paradox has emerged. The very group he is criticizing - the Bush administration - has stifled him by refusing to release hundreds of documents to his former committee.

By law, the Bush administration and its intelligence agencies determine which documents they can declassify. They have refused to release dozens that Graham and others in Congress want released. That has prevented Graham's committee and its counterpart in the House from publishing an 800-page report on the Sept. 11 attacks.

No one - not even Graham - has suggested that his candidacy has played a role in the Bush administration's refusal to release the documents. Graham and others blame it on the intelligence agencies' deep-rooted culture of secrecy and their desire to avoid embarrassing disclosures.

But with so much of his committee work still classified, Graham must talk in generalities.

In speeches and interviews, he has often been vague when he criticizes the administration about its response to terrorism. And he has increasingly complained that the Bush administration is being overly secretive.

"This administration has practiced pervasive secrecy and put millions of documents under seal," Graham told trial lawyers in Los Angeles two weeks ago.

In a Senate speech, he warned that "excessive secrecy will undermine the public's confidence in our government and its essential institutions."

His congressional committee finished its voluminous report in December but could release only a 26-page summary because U.S. intelligence agencies had declassified so little material. The agencies - primarily the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI - have told the committee they do not want to reveal methods of intelligence gathering and do not want to harm national security.

CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said Friday that the agency wants to open the report without compromising its sources and the methods used for gathering information.

"While we are anxious to meet the committee's needs, we do not want to rush to the point that we put lives at risk," he said.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the Bush administration "has certainly worked closely with members of the joint inquiry to make sure no stone was left unturned in reviewing the facts surrounding 9/11. We believe, as most everyone believes, that we should do so - and have done so - in a way that does not compromise sources or methods."

For the past four months, congressional staffers have negotiated with the agencies about which documents can be declassified and cited in the report. Those negotiations have gone very slowly. Graham and Porter Goss, his House counterpart, wanted to release the report next month. But they now say it will be several more months, at the earliest.

In some cases, the agencies are balking at releasing already-published documents, according to congressional staffers. A case in point: the famous "Phoenix memo" from an FBI agent who raised questions about Arab students taking flight lessons. Much of the memo has appeared in newspapers and magazines, but the intelligence agencies are reluctant to declassify it.

"The process is horrendous," said Goss, the Sanibel Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. "It is much more troublesome than it need be. There is a cultural divide" between Congress and the intelligence agencies.

Goss said the agencies "are quibbling about things that have been discussed" in public hearings.

Graham said last week that the Bush administration is paralyzed by "an excessive sense of what constitutes national security."

He said the administration is also afraid of embarrassment: "They do not want to have documents released that indicate in detail some of the missteps that led to Sept. 11."

Steven V. Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, agreed: "They don't see this as a winner for them. No matter how it turns out it is not going to help them."

Goss said the Bush administration "is ultracautious about that because of the "gotcha' politics out there. All of that puts people on guard."

The Bush administration has said it has been as open as possible but does not want to jeopardize national security.

Graham now mentions White House secrecy in virtually every campaign speech. He complains not only about the documents related to the Sept. 11 report, but about an executive order Bush signed in March that keeps sealed millions of other executive documents.

Aftergood said Graham has picked an issue that could strike a chord with the public.

"I think it has the potential to be a winning issue for the Democratic nominee because official secrecy has been one of the defining characteristics of the Bush administration," he said.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said Graham's committee experience means, "This is the first time in a couple of decades that voters probably are going to look for a candidate who has credentials in foreign policy."

But Duffy is not sure whether Graham can get voters to care about secrecy.

"I don't think you are going to get people jumping up and down about these issues," she said. "The whole notion of this administration being secretive isn't a bad message point. It just has to be articulated well."

- Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com To read his dispatches from the campaign trail, go to www.sptimes.com/adairjournal

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