In his time on the intelligence committee -- he finally rotated off this year -- Graham saw a lot of classified material that the public has not seen. He learned many specific things that the public does not know. But none of that supersecret skinny seems to explain why Graham has become such an alarmist.
"I don't think it's anything special that he knows," Cannistraro says. "I think he's just using common sense." Goss says most big intelligence secrets end up in the newspaper anyway. "Bob isn't concerned because he knows more than you," Goss says. "Bob is concerned because he used to spend 24 hours a day thinking: What can go wrong? If I was a terrorist, what could I exploit? It wears on you."
So it could be that Graham's constant focus on vulnerabilities produced exaggerated fears of terrorism. Ex-senator Bob Kerrey, a Graham admirer who now runs New School University in New York, agrees with Graham that America is almost infinitely vulnerable, but he's not nearly as worried about more attacks. "Why aren't they happening?" he asks. "Maybe people don't hate us as much as we think!"
Kerrey works a few blocks from Ground Zero, and he's sick of buy-duct-tape-or-die newscasts, sick of his friends avoiding the city because of terrorism alerts. "Oh, gimme a break," he says. "I think America needs to regain its nerve about terrorism. You're much more likely to die of food poisoning."
It must be said, however, that Kerrey's Americans-gone-wimpy theory is not widely held, and that Kerrey concedes he might not subscribe to it if he were still serving in the Senate. More common is the Americans-gone-oblivious theory: Graham and other officials whose job has required them to focus on vulnerabilities are simply unable to enjoy the day-to-day denial available to most Americans. Kyl actually argues that America is so inescapably vulnerable that Graham's pronouncements of doom are practically meaningless. "It does not take a genius to predict more attacks in the United States," says Kyl. "We all know that. I'd like to see him predict how it's going to happen."
It was March 19, D-Day in Iraq. President Bush had given Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of Baghdad, and 43 of those hours had passed. In an interview in his Capitol hideaway, Graham was calmly explaining that it makes sense to expect the worst. "In terms of the potential for Americans to get killed on American soil, I can't think of a time in our history when we've been as exposed as we'll be in a few hours," he said with a blank expression.
If Graham's bleak assessment of American vulnerability is disturbingly uncontroversial, his outraged finger-pointing at President Bush is highly controversial. Graham admired Bush's response to September 11, when he vowed to hunt down terrorists and destroy their training camps. Graham even defended Bush from criticism that he should have done more to prevent the attacks. But for more than a year, Graham has been baffled by Bush's intense focus on Iraq. He saw no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with September 11, and no evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat to Americans. "Saddam is evil, but he's not the most dangerous evil," Graham said that day in March, unaware that the war had already begun. "Iraq's not in the top 10."
Last October, two days before his blood-on-your-hands moment, Graham had persuaded the CIA to say in a declassified letter what it had said in classified briefings: A war in Iraq would increase the chances of a terrorist attack on American soil. CIA officials even quantified the risk at about 75 percent. "But the Bush administration has done nothing to reduce the threat!" he said, his voice finally rising. "They've been stunningly passive. Their only focus is Iraq."
This, Graham says, is what turned him into a freakout guy. "I just don't seem to be freaking out the right people," he grumbles. America's military success in Iraq has not made Graham feel any more sympathetic to Bush or his war effort. And it hasn't made Graham feel any safer. "You can drive across country on threadbare tires and maybe they won't blow out the first time," he says. "That doesn't mean you should drive back on the same tires." The most dangerous sources of evil, he says, are still unconquered, still undaunted and angrier than ever.
This, Graham says, is why he decided to run for president. (He says Bush's domestic focus on huge tax cuts played a role as well, but Graham's friends all agree that national security drove his decision to run.)
Graham argues that the Bush administration has shifted resources from al Qaeda and Afghanistan to Hussein and Iraq, downgrading the war on terrorism abroad to a scattershot manhunt while increasing the risk of terrorism at home. Graham also believes that Bush has ignored the threat of Hezbollah, which runs terrorist training camps in Syria and Syrian-controlled areas of southern Lebanon. Graham charges that Bush eased the pressure on Syria, a member of the United Nations Security Council, in order to mute its opposition to war in Iraq, and he was not appeased when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly accused Syria of smuggling night-vision goggles to Iraqi forces.
"I've never heard him talk about Syria supporting the training camps that will graduate the next generation of terrorists," Graham says. "I think that's a much greater threat than goggles." Graham also accuses the administration of going soft on Saudi Arabia, an ally that Graham hints may have had financial links to the September 11 hijackers.
In general, Graham wants America to go on the offensive almost everywhere in the Middle East -- even as he argues that Iraq was not a proper target. He doesn't think Bush is doing enough on terrorism defense, either -- he says seaport security, for example, has been woefully underfunded in the president's budget -- but he doesn't really think defense is the answer. He thinks the answer is what Bush said was going to be the answer after September 11, the so-called Bush Doctrine: Go after the terrorists and the states that harbor them. "This battle is going to be won on offense," Graham says.
The obvious criticism of Graham resembles dovish criticisms of Bush: Can the United States really police the world? Wouldn't military action in Arab countries like Syria and Lebanon provoke more anti-Americanism and more attacks? "Yes, probably," Graham says. "But at least we'd be going after the real problem: terrorism." He simply thinks the war in Iraq has made the problem worse, not better.
"The probability of terrorism is much more serious today than it was a year ago," Graham says. "We're not pursuing it with the kind of aggressiveness we'd use if we were really fighting a war."
This is the point where many Republicans start to sniff politics. The war on terrorism, they say, is as aggressive as ever, as the recent capture of reputed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed showed. They acknowledge that Hezbollah has a frightening U.S. presence, but say the group is more of a threat to Israel than to the United States. They argue that Hussein's ouster has liberated millions of Iraqis, spreading seeds of freedom throughout the Middle East. They point out that the Bush administration, after toppling Hussein, has started talking tough with Syria after all. And they wonder: Is America really looking for a president who says he is willing to take the war on terrorism, as Graham proposed in an interview, "to the streets of Cairo"? If the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia are not to Graham's liking, with what does he propose to replace them?
"This isn't the Bob Graham I know," says Florida Congressman Mark Foley, a Republican who hopes to succeed Graham in the Senate. "He's always been a cautious guy, never overreacting, usually plain vanilla. And now he's accusing President Bush of sleepwalking? That's just ridiculous."
So far, insiders have not taken Graham's presidential bid too seriously. He got a late start, and the double-bypass surgery that left a cow valve in his heart was not Graham's choice for a campaign kickoff. He's never been overly telegenic, and his hyperdetailed notebook entries have fueled perceptions that he's just too weird for prime time. Before Bush's State of the Union address this year, CNN listed every Democratic member of Congress who was even thinking about running -- including Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd -- but forgot Graham. Many observers suspect that if he ever does make a presidential ticket it would be as a running mate, given Florida's current status as the ultimate swing state. It's hard to picture a President Doodle.
But Graham points out that he has been underestimated before. He remembers the brutal day in 1977, not long after he commissioned a statewide poll for his governor's race, when he found out that he had only 3 percent name recognition and 1 percent popular support. He then reported to a workday with a marine services crew; while swabbing down a $700,000 yacht, it occurred to him that there might be better uses for the $700,000 he was planning to spend on his campaign. But he was 40, and if he was going to do it, he was going to do it then.
"My life has been a progression, with a run for president being a logical conclusion," he says. "What I had lacked before September 11 was the ingredient of passion."
He pauses. His droopy jaw hardens ever so slightly.
"Now I have the passion."
Michael Grunwald, a Post reporter, is on leave to write a book about the Everglades. He'll be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company