Slate reads Philip Shenon's The Commission.

Slate reads Philip Shenon's The Commission.

Slate reads Philip Shenon's The Commission.

How to read juicy books.
Feb. 6 2008 4:46 PM

Sept. 11 Spin Control

The creation of the 9/11Commission Report.

Philip Shenon's The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

The 9/11 Commission Report received almost universal acclaim upon its publication in 2004. Bush and John Kerry (both on the campaign trail at the time) praised the report, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it a "tour de force," and it was nominated for a National Book Award. In a new behind-the-scenes history, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon reveals how investigators compiled the fabled report, often with tough resistance from the White House. He also argues that political considerations may have influenced the commission's findings.

Although The Commissionis well worth reading (unlike some of the other books reviewed in this column), you may not have time to go page by page. So, follow Slate's handy guide straight to the cocktail chatter.

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The Trouble With Zelikow

Philip Zelikow was distinctly qualified to serve as executive director of the 9/11 Commission. He'd written a 1998 article for Foreign Affairs titled "Catastrophic Terrorism," worked for a blue-ribbon panel on electoral reform, and directed the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He also had some serious conflicts of interest: He'd co-written a book in 1995 with Condi Rice, worked on Bush's transition team in early 2001, and wrote a policy paper for the White House on pre-emptive strikes that was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and one-time Rep. Lee Hamilton, the chairman and vice-chairman of the commission, insist that Zelikow remained impartial. Shenon, however, writes that Zelikow tried to shield the Bush administration from criticism.

Page 106—107: Zelikow "promised the commissioners he would cut off all unnecessary contact with senior Bush administration officials," but he didn't. His secretary, Karen Heitkotter, says Rove called Zelikow at least four times from June to September 2003. She was also "asked to arrange a gate pass so Zelikow could enter the White House to visit the national security adviser [Condi Rice] in her offices in the West Wing."

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Page 375: The commission had a strict rule requiring that significant interviews be conducted in the presence of at least two staffers. Yet Zelikow made a private call to CIA headquarters to ask about the famed Aug. 6 President's Daily Brief (titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S."). A young investigator who overheard the conversation claims "Zelikow was pressuring the CIA analyst to accept Rice's version of events. He was trying to get the analyst to say that the intelligence in the document was mostly 'historical,' the word Rice used so often in trying to downplay the PDB's significance."

Page 321—323: Scott Allan, a young lawyer who drafted an interim report on diplomatic efforts against al-Qaida, says Zelikow "inserted sentences that tried to link al-Qaeda to Iraq—to suggest that the terrorist network had repeatedly communicated with the government of Saddam Hussein in the years before 9/11 and that bin Laden had seriously weighed moving to Iraq after the Clinton administration pressured the Taliban to oust him from Afghanistan." When Allan balked, Zelikow agreed to tone down the paragraph, but he retained "a more general reference to bin Laden's thoughts of leaving Afghanistan in the late 1990s."

Page 396-397: Alexis Albion, the commission's CIA specialist, compiled "a roster of how often Clinton and Bush had addressed terrorist threats in their speeches" before 9/11. She found that Clinton often described terrorism as "the enemy of our generation," while Bush almost never mentioned the subject. Zelikow flipped out: "This is totally unreasonable," he yelled. "We cannot do this." Ultimately, Zelikow got his way, and the comparison was removed from the final draft (although Albion managed to sneak some of her data into footnotes).

Pressure From the White House

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Page 37: When Andrew Card and other top Bush aides met with Tom Kean to discuss plans for the commission, they tried "to deliver a political message." They kept repeating the same three phrases: "We want you to stand up. You've got to stand up," "You've got to have courage," and "We don't want a runaway commission." At the time, Kean thought they meant "stand up" for truth, but he realized later that they meant "stand up for the president."

Page 412—413: The 9/11Commission Report suggests that Cheney issued an unconstitutional shoot-down order without the president's knowledge. When Cheney saw that section of the report, he tried to censor it: "Governor, this is not true, just not fair," Cheney told Kean. "The president has told you, I have told you, that the president issued the order. I was following his directions." Apparently, Cheney "thought it was startling that the commission did not accept the word of the president of the United States and the Vice President."

Resistance From the White House

Page 124: Alberto Gonzales did his best to stonewall the investigation. Shenon says "the script" for meetings between Gonzo, Kean, and Hamilton was always the same: He would greet the chairmen "cordially and invite them into his West Wing office. Coffee, tea, a glass of spring water? He was usually in shirtsleeves and invited his visitors to take a seat around his coffee table. Then he would spend thirty minutes saying no to all of Kean and Hamilton's requests."

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Page 215: Gonzo tried to deny the commission access to the President's Daily Brief. At one point, he provided the commissioners with a "comically inadequate" overview to get them off his back. White House lawyers offered "a general description of what the documents were, how they were prepared, the choreography of the CIA's morning briefings in the Oval Office. The lawyers disclosed that about three hundred PDBs from the Clinton and Bush administrations contained the sort of information about al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that the commission was looking for. And that was where the briefing stopped. The White House lawyers were silent. They said they were barred from saying anything more. They refused to answer any other questions about what might actually be in the hundreds of PDBs."

What's Not in the Report?

Page 399: Mike Jacobson and Raj De, two commission staffers, uncovered "explosive material on the Saudis: the actions by Omar al-Bayoumi, the Saudi 'ghost employee' who played host to the two hijackers in San Diego, and Fahad al-Thumairy, the shadowy Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles. … [T]he unusual cash transfers from the wife of the Saudi ambassador in Washington to the family of another mysterious Saudi who was tied to al-Bayoumi." The two staffers drafted a chapter with their findings, but their team leader, Dieter Snell, felt they hadn't backed up their allegations conclusively. He excised some of the most damning material and relegated the rest to the report's footnotes.

Page 373: The commission didn't have sufficient manpower to adequately review the NSA's voluminous archives. As a result, the 9/11 Commission Report may have some serious holes. Zelikow (who for all his shortcomings did feel some commitment to the historical record) said he "was worried that important classified information had never been reviewed at the NSA and elsewhere in the government before the 9/11 commission shut its doors, that critical evidence about bin Laden's terrorist network sat buried in government files, unread to this day."

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Table Scraps

Shenon interviewed tons of insiders for his book, so he came away with a few great anecdotes.

Page 96: Mayor Michael Bloomberg was reluctant to comply with the commission. When Zelikow first arrived at City Hall, a Bloomberg senior aide barked, "What the fuck are you doing here?"

Page 243: Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno was very popular with her security detail. According to Thomas Pickard, the FBI agent who ran the bureau as acting director before 9/11, "the agents loved working with her. She was very good about making sure that they got something to eat." On one occasion, Pickard arrived at her apartment to find no agent on duty: "I draw my weapon, thinking that there's something wrong. … I knock on the door. I go inside. Reno is there. She's making chicken soup because the agent is not feeling well."

Page 245: Pickard wasn't too impressed with Reno's successor, John Ashcroft. He says the following story made the rounds at the FBI: "[A]n obviously pregnant Justice Department lawyer was forced to fly to Missouri, where Ashcroft had kept a home, during a storm to obtain his signature. … The lawyer knocked on his door and was amazed when Ashcroft did not invite her in. For the next thirty minutes, the big-bellied Justice Department lawyer remained on the porch, in the bitter cold and rain, while he read the wiretap application. He would not invite her in."