Kurt Eichenwald is a master at making complicated stories easily understood. In the past, he has focused on business, notably the implosion of Enron and price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland. In his latest effort, the former New York Times reporter turns his attention to the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the decisions its officials made in the course of 18 months that changed the world.
“500 Days” opens at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Tex., more than a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush had just won the Republican nomination for president, and a lineup of experts had begun making pilgrimages to Crawford to brief him.
The deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Ben Bonk, arrived with a ruse in mind. Because of Bush’s reputation for folksiness, Bonk decided to provide him with a vivid example of the terrorist threat. He smuggled a fake briefcase bomb into the briefing room, and while he had let the Secret Service in on what he was doing, the future president was left in the dark. The briefcase contained no poison gas, but the device was real enough. It was based on a design by a Japanese cult that had released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
When it was Bonk’s turn to speak, he began laying out the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. He singled out al-Qaeda in particular, saying it was the group most likely to succeed in getting chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. These weapons of mass destruction didn’t have to be large or cumbersome to transport, he told the future president.
Then he “reached for his briefcase, stood, and walked toward Bush. As he approached, Bonk popped it open and tilted the case forward. Bush saw the red digits counting down. ‘Don’t worry,’ Bonk said. ‘This is harmless. But it is exactly the kind of chemical device that people can bring into a room and kill everybody.’ He glanced down at the timer. ‘And this one would be going off in two minutes.’ Bush looked at [his senior adviser] Josh Bolten. ‘You got one and a half minutes to get that thing out of here,’ he said.”
So begins Eichenwald’s epic addition to what has become a very crowded field: terrorism narrative nonfiction. “500 Days” is premised on the idea that nearly every aspect of Bush’s war on terror — from Afghanistan and Iraq to warrantless wiretapping, rendition and the harsh interrogation of prisoners — grew out of decisions made in the first 500 days after the 2001 attacks. Eichenwald meticulously dissects nearly every one.
Although much of what he covers is familiar ground, he has managed to produce a page-turner because of his journalistic attention to detail. Readers get fly-on-the-wall accounts as Bush administration officials weigh life-and-death decisions. In some cases, there are jaw-dropping illustrations of executive overreach — including new details about the warrantless wiretapping program — and in others, the book depicts a seemingly cavalier disregard for the consequences of decisions. In a discussion about torture, for example, a CIA lawyer says: “It basically is a matter of perception. If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”
Eichenwald uses the literary equivalent of direct cinema to tell his story. The chapters are set up as a series of ever-changing vignettes: Readers are in the White House dining room one moment and then taken to a Long Island church and soon to the hills of Afghanistan, whisked from one place to another all in the space of a few pages. Most of the time, the literary device works, but I found myself wondering if someone less steeped in the names and places Eichenwald includes might feel a bit whipsawed — or worse, a bit lost. (If there is any doubt about the volume of cameo appearances, a tip-off may be the 11 pages of “Characters” included right after the introduction. The roster can be a lot to handle.)
That said, Eichenwald’s reporting provides some wonderful nuggets. He describes two FBI agents from New York hiding in a utility closet at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to listen in on an interview with terroristsuspect Jose Padilla. A broken teleprompter at the United Nations forced Bush to make up a key statement about Iraq as he went along, and it ended up changing U.S. policy. And late in the book, Eichenwald tells a poignant story of how a reluctant Guantanamo detainee decided to talk after an interrogator offered him a Filet-o-Fish sandwich.
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.”
Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars
By Kurt Eichenwald
Touchstone. 611 pp. $30