Sen. Bob Graham on His New Novel, a Saudi Nuclear Program, and Killing Off His Fictional Alter Ego

Former Sen. Bob Graham has long been a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, whether he was using his chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee as a bully pulpit, taking to the pages of the Washington Post to decry the dangers of going to war on flimsy intelligence, and publishing Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America’s War on Terror in 2004. Now, he’s turned to a new medium. Graham’s first novel, Keys to the Kingdom, hits bookstores today. A political thriller informed by Graham’s extensive knowledge of intelligence bureaucracy, Keys to the Kingdom follows its Cuban-immigrant hero around the globe as he tries to figure out who killed his mentor—a former senator and governor of Florida—and what Osama bin Laden’s plotting from a surprisingly comfortable refuge. I spoke with Graham about what he could say in a novel that he couldn’t say in op-eds, what it’s like to kill off your fictional alter ego, and how America’s engagement with India and Pakistan will change after bin Laden’s death.

You’ve written serious policy books, an activist’s guide to the democratic process. Why write a novel?

Anger. I was very distressed at the way in which the 9/11 issue was handled by the [Bush] administration. In my opinion there were a number of important issues for which there was an answer, but where that answer was consciously and to date largely effectively been withheld and I wanted to tell that story.

Do you think fiction gives you a better shot of reaching more people than op-eds or policy books do?

That was part of it…While I was a senior fellow at the Kennedy School, Joe Nye, who had been a director of the Kennedy School and then was an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, told me a story that when he came back to Harvard, he had wanted to write a nonfiction academic book about his experiences in the Defense Department and make a series of recommendations. As he got into the book, he realized that in order to do that he would have to use classified information which was not going to be available to him. So he shifted from writing the book that he thought [he wanted to write] to writing The Power Game, which is a novel about his experiences in the Pentagon. I’ve indicated in [Keys to the Kingdom] that the report of the Congressional inquiry into 9/11 was fairly heavily censored, particularly as it related to the role of the Saudis. So I decided I would see if I could write this. I am a member of the external advisory board to Director Leon Panetta at the CIA. We have a fairly high security clearance and anything we write that touches on the agency, we’re required to submit it for prior approval. So at three or four occasions while I was working on this book over a period of 5 years, I submitted manuscripts to the review board and it always got a clean bill. I think I was able to tell the story without being restricted by censorship.

What were your inspirations? Do you read thrillers?

I would have to say because there’s so much material as a Senator that you have to read, I would not call myself an extensive reader of novels. I’ve read airplane paperbacks of Grisham and Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen and a few other people, but I wouldn’t say I had one that was my model of how to write a suspense novel.

Tony, your main character, seems to be tailor-made to appeal to a lot of different constituencies: What was your inspiration for him? Is he based on anyone real?

He’s a composite character. I have a friend who was from Guanabacoa, and he talks a lot about his former home in Cuba, so I gave Tony that same home. I talk in there about the fact that Tony’s father and grandfather were both good baseball players. I’ve known some of those Cuban former athletes. And one scene in the book was going to a game with my father and seeing a Cuban baseball team. So it was a composite character. I’m not going to start putting names on the fictional characters in my book.

Tony seems to have a tough time with women. He’s a risky guy to date…

Of the women in the book, [Carol, Tony’s girlfriend] was the one I thought was the most affecting. And [Laura Billington, the daughter of the character who stands in for Graham] also is a composite character. Without mentioning it, there’s probably one person to whom she is quite similar.

Well, with the financial problems she seems a little like Annie Leibovitz…

No comment.

The character who most resembles you gets killed off fairly early in the book. Was that to avoid putting yourself too much in the novel?

[Sen. Billington] is not a perfect person but he tries his best. Actually, my wife has had some difficulty with the novel precisely for that reason. It makes her sad when she reads of my passing and then the funeral and those things. But that’s life.

How intentional is the juxtaposition between career civil servants and political appointees? The novel really establishes a trust in those who have spent their careers in civil service.

Well, my experience is that, unfortunately, that’s not an infrequent situation where you have a political appointee who has a particular agenda and frequently is under the close supervision of a political superior.

Since you wrote the book, Osama bin Laden’s been killed, in a way that makes Keys to the Kingdom look prescient: the country may be different, but he was kind of hiding out in plain sight, and there’s a real sense that he betrayed his children. How did you come up with the scenario for bin Laden’s post-September 11 life?

There’s one section in the book where Tony has gotten this assignment of trying to find these bombs. He goes to the Air Force counter-proliferation center in Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama, which is a real place. In fact, I had a briefing from one of the people at that center while I was writing the book. She didn’t know that she was briefing me, but she was. And I think that chapter is the best reflection of the best intelligence of what Al Qaeda would do if it came into possession of a nuclear weapon.

In terms of the scenario of bin Laden hanging out at the Saudi Court, was that based on conversations you had?

I don’t have any empirical evidence that bin Laden ever had an experience like the one that I described where he goes into the back room with the king and cuts a deal.

Since bin Laden’s capture, we’ve reevaluated our relationship with the Pakistani government. Do we need to reevaluate our relationships with the Saudi government as well?

Yes, and I think that such a reassessment may be under way now. It’s hard for me to believe that Saudi Arabia, let’s just say 25 years from now, in light of what is going on in North Africa and the Middle East today, is going to be the same kind of authoritarian regime that we’ve known for most of the 20th century.

As we’re reassessing our relationship with Pakistan, what needs to change about how we see the region as a whole?

I chaired the weapons of mass destruction commission, which issued a report called World at Risk and one of the things we commented on is the fact that the types of relationships which developed during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, such as the red phone where presidents could pick up the phone and talk directly to each other, none of that exists between Pakistan and India. The chance of an accidental nuclear war where someone misinterprets what the other side is doing, as I suggest in this novel where the Indians assumed that that nuclear attack on Mumbai on Sept. 19 was the result of the Pakistani government and actually they had no role, it was a bin Laden event, and yet they almost went to nuclear war over that.

How realistic are the scenarios? Do you want your readers to walk away feeling that they’ve read a concrete warning?

I hope they walk away feeling they’ve been entertained, but I also hope they feel they’ve been educated. As Billington says in that opening op-ed in the New York Times, is it realistic to think that Saudi [Saudi Arabia] would have some aspirations to become a nuclear power? I think the answer is that it is realistic. They have two principal adversaries, one of which is Israel, which according to a recent column in the Washington Post is now estimated to have 200 nuclear devices. And Iran is their other enemy, and it hasn’t been successful but it is aspiring to become a nuclear power. With the amount of financial resources that the Saudis have, and it has been escalating in recent years, the idea that they’d want to go nuclear and they could do so fairly quickly, associating themselves with some entity, in this case, a private firm with heavy connections to the government of the United States, is not an irrational set of possibilities.