Slate reads Philip Shenon's The Commission.

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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.


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."

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

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


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