Investigating the Investigators

Reviewed by Michael Dobbs
Sunday, March 2, 2008


The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

By Philip Shenon

Twelve. 457 pp. $27

The report of the government commission investigating the events of 9/11 was published in July 2004 to bipartisan acclaim. "A tour de force," commented historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "Riveting, disturbing, and revealing," wrote Time magazine. Democratic candidate John Kerry joined President Bush in praising the 567-page report, which sold more than 1.5 million copies.

Now, it's the revisionists' turn. In The Commission, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon claims to have discovered "stunning shortcomings in the Commission's work -- a series of oversights, omissions, and distortions that raise fundamental questions about 9/11 and the government's failure to prevent it." Readers are promised the inside scoop on "how the Commission was used to justify the invasion of Iraq" and why senior investigators felt "their work was being manipulated by the executive director to minimize criticism of the Bush administration."

Shenon's book has caused a minor furor in Washington. The commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, has released his e-mail exchanges with Shenon in an attempt to disprove the charges. Former 9/11 commissioners, both Democrats and Republicans, leaped to Zelikow's defense, arguing in a Feb. 8 statement that there is "no basis for the allegations of bias." Thirteen senior members of the commission's staff, including some of Shenon's sources, also penned a statement of outrage over "the book's clear implication that Zelikow . . . used his position to try to distort the findings of the commission in order to protect the administration."

Shenon has provided a detailed narrative of the most important government investigative body since the Warren Commission. The Commission is full of vivid anecdotes, beginning with Sandy Berger, a former national security adviser to President Clinton, stuffing secret documents down his pants and smuggling them out of the National Archives. Shenon believes Berger acted from bureaucratic "paranoia": He wanted to avoid giving the Bush White House any ammunition to accuse Clinton of failing to prevent 9/11. Shenon goes on to describe how the Bush administration's first choice to head the commission, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, was unable to answer a simple question from a relative of a 9/11 victim -- "Dr. Kissinger, do you have any clients named Bin Laden?" -- and resigned the following day.

But the hero, or anti-hero, of The Commission is Zelikow, a history professor at the University of Virginia, former State Department counselor and author of several books on foreign policy, including one written with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Shenon recounts several conflicts of interest that might have raised questions about Zelikow's suitability to direct the 9/11 investigation, such as his friendship with Rice, his role on Bush's transition team in 2000, and his authorship of a strategy paper justifying "preemptive war." Shenon also pounces on telephone calls between Zelikow and Bush adviser Karl Rove that Zelikow claims had nothing to do with the 9/11 investigation.

The Commission relates numerous rows that pitted staffers against each other and against Zelikow as they attempted to draft a report that would satisfy the commissioners, five Republicans and five Democrats. He makes a good case that Zelikow, for all his brilliance, was often arrogant and abrasive. Shenon is less convincing when he argues that Zelikow used his position to try to skew the final report. As the commissioners noted in their statement defending Zelikow, the "proper standard for judgment is the quality of the report" itself.

Take the question of ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Shenon contends that Zelikow bent over backward to promote the administration's claim of a relationship between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. He invited the "intellectual godmother" of the Iraq invasion, American Enterprise Institute scholar Laurie Mylroie, to expound her theories about an Iraq-bin Laden connection at a hearing. According to Shenon, "some members of the staff" suspected Zelikow of sharing Mylroie's views.

As it turned out, Mylroie's theories were rejected. To the dismay of commentators such as William Safire, the Republican commissioners joined the Democrats in finding no evidence of a "collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Given that top administration officials believed in the connection, the commission was right to hear Mylroie out. But far from justifying the invasion of Iraq, as Shenon claims, the commission ended up dismissing -- in a dispassionate, nonpartisan way -- one of the Bush administration's central arguments for war.

While Shenon has interviewed many commissioners and staffers, his sourcing falls short of the standard set by the 9/11 commission. His book includes 14 pages of often vague notes, compared to 114 pages in the 9/11 report. It can be difficult to tell who is drawing the key conclusions in Shenon's book: a named source, an anonymous source or the author.

The 9/11 report was not without its failings. Shenon argues that Zelikow shielded his friend Rice from harsh criticism. But Rice was not alone. As Shenon notes, the commission's chairman, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R-N.J.), and vice chairman, former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), wanted no "finger-pointing" at individuals. You have to read between the lines to find criticism of senior officials under either Bush or Clinton. Harvard professor Ernest May, who helped draft the report, was correct in concluding that the commission was overly "indulgent" toward both administrations.

The non-judgmental tone is the 9/11 report's weakness and its strength. The narrative was stripped of anything that smacked of partisan controversy. Given the commission's makeup and the requirement that every word of its report be approved by all the commissioners, it was naive to expect anything else. What the 9/11 investigation did extremely well was assemble a large body of agreed-upon facts. The business of passing judgment was left to others. Future historians will almost certainly come across evidence that the commission overlooked. But four years later, the 9/11 report stands up pretty well -- despite Shenon's dogged revisionism. *

Michael Dobbs is a reporter for The Post. His study of the Cuban missile crisis, "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," will be published in June.

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