Lifting the veil to understand the 9/11 Commission

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published February 17, 2008

It's no wonder the 9/11 attacks have spawned a vigorous community of conspiracy theorists. As Philip Shenon's new book makes clear, the reaction to the attacks in just about every branch of the federal government was a gigantic round of "cover your butt," a massive scurry to hide information, avert responsibility and guard turf that was guaranteed to feed every paranoid nightmare imaginable.

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation is a clearly written, meticulously detailed, exhaustively reported account of the work of the unhandily named National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Better known as the 9/11 Commission, it was created by Congress in 2002 as an independent, bipartisan investigative body headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.

The commission's final report, issued in 2004, became a bestseller and was nominated for a National Book Award. It laid little blame on anyone in the government and, despite fears it would become a political football in an election year, had no discernible effect on George W. Bush's re-election.

Shenon, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, was its lead reporter on the 9/11 Commission. This book includes some of the material that got in the paper and a lot that didn't; most valuably, it compiles several years of reporting on the commission's work into a single complex but coherent narrative.

Written in brief, tightly focused chapters, the book spotlights the territorial imperatives and personal animosities that made the commission's task - to record the history of the attacks and determine whether the government had done all it could have to prevent them - enormously difficult.

Much of what Shenon writes about has been covered before, but the cumulative effect of reading all of it in one book is stunning. For example, the fact that in 2001 the FBI made almost no use of the Internet - agents didn't even have e-mail - is astounding, but Shenon adds the telling details: "In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, FBI agents sent around copies of photographs of the suspected hijackers by Express Mail ... because they did not have computer scanners in the bureau's field offices."

The commission's investigation led it to many government agencies: the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the White House. It met resistance, secrecy and downright hostility at almost every turn.

Given the level of bungling, incompetence and cluelessness the commission managed to discover anyway, it's no wonder these people covered their tracks - though no less appalling.

Shenon focuses much of the book on the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow. A historian at the University of Virginia, Zelikow had a reputation for brilliance. He is also notoriously abrasive: Shenon recounts his shouting matches with everyone from commission staffers to families of 9/11 victims.

But questions about whether he was the man to lead the investigation - and, ultimately, exert the most control over what appeared in the final report -run far deeper than his disposition.

Zelikow was a longtime friend and associate of Condoleezza Rice, with whom he had written a book, and other Bush administration officials. He had served on Bush's 2000 transition team and written a policy paper that would be used to justify the invasion of Iraq. During his tenure on the commission he not only had frequent phone conversations with Karl Rove, he instructed his secretary to stop keeping a log of them.

Released in July 2004, the commission's report was widely praised by everyone from the Saudi ambassador to John Updike. It led to some changes in the top levels of agencies such as the CIA and FBI. But it assigned virtually no specific blame for failure to anticipate and prevent the attacks, despite mountains of evidence that warnings of al-Qaida's activities had been at fever pitch. That infamous president's daily brief on Aug. 6, 2001, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," was the tip of a very large iceberg.

Bush was re-elected in November 2004 and named Rice as secretary of state in January 2005.

A month later, she "announced that she had decided to re-establish the job of State Department counselor, a sort of all-purpose adviser who would have her ear at all times."

The man for the job? Philip Zelikow.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Excerpts from The Commission The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

Many commission members and staff came to believe that Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush's national security adviser, had ignored many warnings about a terrorist attack before 9/11 and done little to bring them to the president's attention. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey was one of the commission members who questioned Rice in February 20004.

Kerrey recalled a comment that Rice made about her responsibilities as national security adviser - and how troubling her description was. She said something like "I took the president's thoughts, and I helped the president describe what he was thinking," Kerrey remembered.

Kerrey thought that was a rare, unguarded acknowledgement from Rice, and it captured what she had done wrong as national security adviser. ... Rice's job was not simply to repackage and prettify the thoughts of a president whose understanding of national security issues was limited enough in 2001. Her job was to wake up in the morning, review the raw intelligence presented to the White House by the government's spy agencies and the Pentagon, and then advise the president what to do. Condi Rice had turned the definition of her job on its head.

Thomas Pickard, a longtime FBI agent, served as the acting director of the FBI in the summer of 2001. He testified before the commission about his first briefings of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had jurisdiction over the FBI, in the months before the attacks.

During the briefing, Ashcroft suggested he knew little about al-Qaida, so Pickard offered a primer on the terrorist network and its murderous history. "I told him about al-Qaida and bin Laden, a little history about the World Trade Center bombing (in 1993) and East Africa." Ashcroft listened, but he seemed far more intrigued by other items on the agenda, especially the latest on the FBI's efforts to end delays on background checks for gun buyers. ...

Pickard opened the next briefing, on July 12, 2001, with the latest on the CIA warnings about an al-Qaida attack.

"We're at a very high level of chatter that something big is about to happen," Pickard began. "The CIA is very alarmed -"

He had barely begun the presentation when Ashcroft jumped in angrily. "I don't want to hear about that anymore," he said. "There's nothing I can do about that. ...

"I don't want you to ever talk to me about al-Qaida, about these threats," Ashcroft said. "I don't want to hear about al-Qaida anymore."

On Sept. 16, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and told Tim Russert that on Sept. 11 President Bush gave the order to shoot down the plane that would crash in Pennsylvania. The commission staff found evidence in White House logs from that day that contradicted Cheney's version. Cheney would later demand the commission remove this part of its report; it did not.

The staff was convinced that "the horrendous decision" was not made by Bush; it was made by Cheney, and the vice president had almost certainly made it alone. If (John) Farmer's team was right, the shoot-down order was almost certainly unconstitutional, a violation of the military chain of command, which has no role for the vice president. ...

Whatever the constitutional issues, it would have been difficult to second-guess Cheney about a decision to save the White House if a suicide hijacker was bearing down on the capital and there were only seconds to act.

"If Cheney orders a shoot-down of a plane that he thinks is coming at the White House, who'd blame him?" (commission general counsel Daniel) Marcus said. "But his staff was obsessed with showing that he didn't give the order."

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

By Philip Shenon

Twelve, 457 pages, $27