Still, about 300 pages in, I wondered if it was necessary to know the first names of the Bali bombers who never appear again or the exact address of Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s safe house in Pakistan. At the same time, one can’t help marveling that Eichenwald uncovered them.
The book’s best section has to be Eichenwald’s deconstruction of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing. It crackles. He begins with a close-up on the mastermind, then pulls back to describe the luckless suicide bombers, then cuts to the nightclubs targeted in the attacks and the young people partying there. Readers know what is coming. And you can almost hear the explosion when it happens. Havoc. Body parts. Panic.
Eichenwald’s narrative is mostly even-handed, but I had some concerns. He presents the anthrax-mailing case, for example, as if it were without controversy, portraying Army researcher Bruce Ivins as a deranged man and the unequivocal killer. But Ivins committed suicide before he was charged with any crime, and plenty of people think there is enough wiggle room in the FBI’s circumstantial case against him to provide the benefit of the doubt. For Eichenwald (and the FBI), however, that case is closed.
But that is a niggling detail when one considers the expanse of the book. Eichenwald deftly dodges the obvious pitfall in chronicling the 500 days after 9/11: using the book as an after-the-fact brickbat against the Bush administration. Instead, he has a clear-eyed view of the pressure under which officials were operating. “However the decisions on the interrogation tactics are viewed,” he writes, “they have to be considered in context.”
He quotes Jack Goldsmith, who replaced John Yoo as the Bush administration’s top lawyer at the Office of Legal Counsel. This was not a “struggle between the forces of good and evil,” Goldsmith wrote.
“No one wanted to shred the Constitution,” Eichenwald concludes. “Administration lawyers began formulating analyses when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were still burning and the number of dead was still unknown. . . . Lawyers were caught up in an almost unbearable dilemma of being forced to make rulings, on the fly, that might deflect an unimaginably destructive second blow by al-Qaeda, but perhaps at the cost of sacrificing, if only for a time, certain of America’s founding principles. Those who believe such decisions would be easy, Goldsmith argued, are fooling themselves.”
is NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent and the author of four books, including “The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in an Age of Terror,” about homegrown terrorism in America.