Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The 9/11 Commission

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation is a very readable book. It paints a story of not very knowledgeable Commissioners supervising a staff run by a partisan executive director, operating in a highly politicized environment. While Al Qaeda terrorists are the real villains, the book paints Bush and Rice as failing to provide needed leadership and government agencies fumbling in their counter-terrorist efforts. The Bush administration and their Republican supporters in Congress appear more determined to limit damages to their 2004 campaign than interested in finding how better to protect the nation.

We are conditioned to think of the narrator of a novel as omniscient, but Philip Shenon, a reporter who covered the 9/11 Commission for the New York Times and followed up with this book based in part on extensive interviews with commissioners, staff and principles, has only his own conclusions on which to base this book; moreover, he has selected information and created an engrossing narrative intended to both inform and interest the reader. Shenon's information is largely drawn from interviews of people who often disagree among themselves and who are selective in what they told him; they too are far from omniscient. The people interviewed by the commissioners and staff of the Commission, correctly portrayed by Shenon, were depending on faulty memories, were politicized, and often provided the most self-serving narratives of what had happened. Commission staff went through reams and reams of data, with major gaps of withheld classified information and data that they failed to find, sometimes unable to take notes, trying to make sense of it all. Of course, at the moment of the 9/11 attack the victems and responders were confused and under pressure; the terrorists worked hard to keep their secrets and were never interviewed by commissioners nor staff, much less Shenon. Few books so force the reader to confront the difficulty of understanding what really happened.

The Congress chartered the Commission, giving it only a couple of years to prepare its report. Each party named five members of the Commission, with a Republican Chair and Democratic Vice Chair. The Chair and Vice Chair resigned and were replaced very early in the life of the Commission.

As the Bush White House became more and more concerned about the damage that might be done to it by the Commission report, its spokespeople and Congressional Republican leaders went to the attack, as did Officials of New York City when their interests appeared to be threatened. The organized 9/11 survivors groups lobbied fiercely, and the media (when not otherwise occupied with the invasions and wars) was covering the controversies on front pages.

Philip Zelikow, the Executive Director of the Commission staff, while a brilliant, highly qualified expert on the U.S. government and foreign and security policy, also had apparent conflicts of interest. He was close to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a member of the Bush administration transition team, and the author of a key policy paper used by the Bush administration in justifying the invasion of Iraq. Shenon describes Zelikow's phone conversations with Bush political adviser Carl Rove and Zelikow's efforts to hide them; Zelikow is portrayed as very controversial, believed by many of the staff as seeking to defend the Bush administration.

The Commission staff was recruited to include young PhD historians, people with long experience in government and intelligence services, and notably for a government report, people who write well. They clearly worked very hard, against tight time limits. Their interactions with each other are portrayed as complex, sometimes adversarial, especially with Zilikow.

The Commission and its staff had great difficulties getting information. They had subpeona powers, but chose not to use them until late in their work and in only very specific cases. Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Adviser seems to have stolen secret documents from government archives in an effort to keep them out of the Commissions vision. The Bush administration invoked executive privilege to withhold information from the Commission, and the staff failed to fully investigate the files of the National Security Agency. The book portrays some agencies as withholding information, and describes Commission staff as wanting to bring up some government witnesses on charges of perjury.

The book makes the case that, in spite of the claims of the Bush administration, there was no involvement of the Iraqi government in support of Al Qaeda's attack on the United States. Rather, the book traces links to Saudis and Iranians, although the case was not fully investigated nor so strong as to be pushed in the Commission report.

New York City had an emergency command center that could not be used during 9/11 because it was located near the Twin Towers and not in a hardened facility; the emergency fuel supply of the center apparently caused a fire that destroyed the building in which the center was located. Radios did not work and their was a lack of clarity in command structure; Shenon suggests that first responders died as a result of such failings.

The federal government is portrayed as responding badly. The intelligence services may well have had enough information to prevent the attacks, but failed to pull that information together in such a way that it could be acted on. Shenon attaches considerable blame to Condoleezza Rice and George Bush, writing that they focused on problems from the Cold War, did not organize the NSC staff in such a way as to bring terrorism the attention it merited, and failed to take action when warned of the pending attack.

Shenon seems to believe that the FBI should have been the subject of major reform, perhaps separating the responsibility of domestic intelligence and counter terrorism from that of fighting organized crime and law enforcement. The Commission believed that the FBI reforms would be made by the current director, and gave greater priority to upgrading the overall direction of intelligence from the CIA to the post of Director of Central Intelligence. This together with the combining of various agencies into the Department of Homeland Security were perhaps the major reforms in response to 9/11.

The Commission chose not to point to people who failed the public trust, and now a decade after 9/11 any such people are no doubt out of office. Perhaps the election of 2004 would have been different if the Commission had targeted specific people as culpable for the failures of government. More to the point, making people more accountable for failures might have had a salutary effect on future officials. On the other hand, the Bush White House was pleased with the report.

Dana Priest in her new book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, makes the case that we now have 1,200 top secret facilities, 2000 contractors with top secret projects, and a million people with top secret clearances. The huge size of the post 9/11 bureaucracy, built largely after the 9/11 Commission finished its work, makes it more difficult to bring together enough of the meaningful bits of intelligence to understand threats and make appropriate plans to thwart them. I would also guess that it is extremely unlikely that a million people can keep top secrets secret. Moreover, the cost of this structure seems too high for the protection it provides.

Shenon's book seems more negative about the leadership of Bush, Cheney and Rice, about the behavior toward the Commission of John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and the New York police and fire department officials who testified before the Commission, and the roles of CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller than does the report of the Commission.

After the reelection of George Bush he nominated Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and shortly after she took that office she reestablished the long vacant position of State Department counselor and appointed Philip Zelikow to the job.

I worked in the White House on a couple of studies in 1977, and in government agencies for many years on other studies. My experience suggests that the studies done at the agency levels were much less political. The studies in the White House, while they had much less visibility than that of the 9/11 Commission, were influenced by political considerations. We worked hard on the agency studies and put in even longer hours on the White House ones. While some personalities in the agency work could be prickly, I think people who showed up in the White House were sometimes more personally ambitious and perhaps more prickly. Thus I found the book to have a feeling of verisimilitude with my own experience.

I found this book with its many short chapters very readable. In some ways I think it might be put on your shelf next to The Good Soldier and The Alexandria Quartet, exposing the multifaceted views of reality that can exist complementing and conflicting with each other in the same volume. I wished that the story it told was more reassuring, but in spite of that I recommend it highly.

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