Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Norton. 567 pp. Paperback, $10 If the 9/11 report had been written as a novel, nobody would believe it. The story is too far-fetched: an attack by a group of Islamic fanatics that the CIA saw coming, had been warning about for years but could do nothing to stop; the murder of nearly 3,000 people to which investigators had the necessary clues before the event but couldn't see the pattern; a multiple airplane hijacking in which a computer system identified 10 of the 19 hijackers as potentially suspicious but prevented none from boarding; a morning of mayhem that knocked the United States so far off balance that, nearly three years later, it still hasn't recovered.

Think about it this way: Imagine that key details of al Qaeda's plot had been known beforehand -- the names of several operatives, their possible method of attack, their likely timing. Suppose one back-up member of the team, Zacarias Moussaoui, had actually been arrested beforehand. How could the terrorists still have succeeded, and with such devastating consequences?

The 9/11 Commission was charged with unraveling this mystery -- with making sense of an implausible, heartrending story. For months, its hearings provided a kind of national theater, in which witnesses tried to explain how the tragedy happened and why they had failed to avert it. Now, in its final report, the commission has compiled its findings in a book that is something of a literary phenomenon. In the 10 days since it was published, the report has become a runaway bestseller. And deservedly so. For in its meticulous compilation of fact, the report makes the horrors of 9/11 even more shocking. Try to read the story as a narrative, a nonfiction thriller in which the characters move inexorably toward the cataclysm of that cloudless morning. The strength of the report is precisely in its narrative power; by telling all the little stories, it reveals the big story in a different way. We see the bland evil of the plotters, the Hamlet-like indecision of government officials, the bravery amid chaos of the firefighters.

The report draws authority from the fact that it compiles some of the most secret information ever gathered by the U.S. government. Unlike the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy, which was instantly implausible partly because the authors hid the secrets they knew (and ignored the ones they didn't), this book has a comprehensiveness that seems likely to stand the test of time. New facts about 9/11 may emerge to supplement this account, but they won't challenge its basic integrity. It may be the history that is read and remembered by future generations of Americans. As Janet Malcolm once said of the narrative voice of a novel: The reader feels it could only have happened the way it's described on the page.

Like all great tragedies, this one seems at once inevitable and freakishly accidental. The leader of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, was selected by a computerized system called CAPPS for special pre-boarding screening at the airport; yet that security measure only required confirmation that he (and the nine other hijackers who were similarly identified) board their planes before their bags were loaded. It seems the hijackers didn't have any backup plan if the pilots had kept the cockpit doors locked, yet all the doors opened to them soon after takeoff.

When you know how a story is going to turn out, the voices of the doomed have a special poignancy. On American Flight 11, a flight attendant named Madeline "Amy" Sweeney told a contact on the ground: "We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low. Oh my God we are way too low." A moment later, the plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. On United Flight 175, a man named Peter Hanson called his father: "Don't worry, Dad -- If it happens it'll be very fast -- My God, my God." The call ended. The father turned on his television set and saw United 175 hit the South Tower.

The sheer brutality of the hijackers -- their lust for a martyrdom that would kill as many Americans as possible -- emerges in a small detail: American Flight 77 was flying at the gut-churning speed of 530 miles an hour when it hit the Pentagon. The heroism of the victims is clear in the tale of how the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93 took a vote and stormed the hijackers. The last words of one passenger capture the reflexive nature of bravery: "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye." Their actions probably saved the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

The inability of the American government to deal with this threat is clear in every page of the report. When FAA officials realize (late) that planes are being hijacked, they can't monitor them -- or decide what to do. The vice president thinks he has issued orders to shoot down civilian planes, but the pilots in the air don't get the word. The military's air-defense command isn't sure whether it's dealing with an exercise or a real event. Incredibly, according to a little-noticed footnote in the report, "On 9/11, NORAD was scheduled to conduct a military exercise, Vigilant Guardian, which postulated a bomber attack from the former Soviet Union." That pretty much sums it up, in terms of the government's state of preparedness for fighting the war against terrorism that dawned on 9/11.

"We're at war," President Bush told Cheney that morning. "Somebody's going to pay." What makes his statement haunting is that CIA Director George Tenet had written of the al Qaeda threat in a secret memo nearly three years earlier: "We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the Community." And yet very little was done to avert the catastrophe that Tenet saw ahead. The major actors -- the principals of the Clinton and Bush administrations, the wary operatives of the CIA, the all-or-nothing generals at the Pentagon, the don't-cross-the-"wall" bureaucrats at the FBI -- all failed to take actions that might have prevented disaster. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion.

The report's tone is evenhanded and nonpartisan, but the facts gathered here are devastating for the Bush administration. The Clinton team may have dithered over plans to kidnap (or kill) Osama bin Laden in 1998 and '99, but they did manage to mobilize the government at every level to deal with al Qaeda's Millennium Plot. The Clinton administration gathered a small crisis group at the White House that made sure every agency worked to thwart al Qaeda's planned terrorist attack. The Bush team, in contrast, didn't get serious about bin Laden until those planes hit their targets. Indeed, it's shattering to read the report's account of the summer of 2001, well before the assault, when al Qaeda operatives couldn't stop chattering about the big, big terrorist attack they were planning -- and the Bush administration never went into full crisis mode. "Many officials told us they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it," the report notes. But they didn't, in part because the White House didn't take control.

Even after 9/11, some senior Bush officials didn't seem to get it. Another of those little-noticed footnotes describes a Sept. 20, 2001 memo prepared by undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith, apparently for his boss, Donald Rumsfeld. According to the commission, "the author expressed disappointment at the limited options immediately available in Afghanistan and the lack of ground options. The author suggested instead hitting terrorists outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non-al Qaeda target like Iraq. Since U.S. attacks were expected in Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists." If Feith really wrote such a memo, how is it possible that he is still in his job?

For all its power, the 9/11 report also has its weaknesses. In any narrative, the reader wants to understand the motivation of the characters. Yet despite sections that try to elucidate the history of Islamic extremism, the face of the enemy remains opaque here. What drove Atta, the middle-class son of an Egyptian attorney, to turn himself into a human missile? The question is not only unanswered but largely unaddressed. And it's odd, in a report that aims to be comprehensive, to find almost no mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a source of tension in the Middle East -- and no urging of a revived American role in peace negotiations among the overlong list of policy recommendations.

Indeed, the report is at its weakest when it leaves the narrative behind and offers two final chapters on "What to Do" and "How to Do It." Though President Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, have been trying to outdo each other in their enthusiasm to implement the report, its recommendations are questionable -- and ignore some of the lessons of the report itself. The panel calls for a national intelligence director in the White House, for example. But shorn of the bureaucratic leverage the CIA director now has, that official might actually have less clout. In truth, nothing would have prevented the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, from mobilizing anti-terrorism policy against al Qaeda in the months before 9/11. That's what makes this story a tragedy -- that existing institutions of government might have averted the disaster, if they had taken action. *

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post, former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and author of many spy novels, among them "Agents of Innocence."

Condoleezza Rice faces Chairman Thomas Kean (left) and Lee Hamilton During the 9/11 hearings, Bruce Decell of Staten Island, N.Y., holds a picture of his son-in-law, Mark Petrocelli, who was killed in the 9/11 attack.