The Commission: The Uncensored History
of the 9/11 Investigation
By Philip Shenon
TWELVE. 457 pp. $27
By Max Holland
The citizens who lost beloved ones on September 11, 2001 were once like most Americans: politically disengaged if not disenchanted, preoccupied with family and friends, earning a living, and life’s pleasures. On 9/10, a majority of them would undoubtedly have been hard pressed to name George Bush’s national security adviser. “Is it Colin Powell?” But her identity hardly seemed to matter outside the beltway until precisely 9:03:11 AM on September 11. At that moment a second passenger jet crashed into the World Trade Center, and it instantly became apparent that the federal government had failed miserably in a most fundamental obligation.
There are a hundred different ways to write about 9/11’s impact, but surely one of the most revealing is the unwanted civics lesson the bereaved families received after the terrorist attacks. For many of them, their last exposure to how federal government works was probably a high school class, and they only dimly remembered “how a bill becomes law.” But they naturally wanted answers and accountability from their government in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Why had fathers, sons, and brothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters—non-combatants all—been killed, most of them pulverized beyond recognition, for the crime of showing up on time?
What these families received instead of prompt answers was an advanced and protracted course in high-stakes Washington politics. To denizens of the nation’s capital, who have devoted their lives to working in or covering government, none of this came as a particular surprise. To the families, particularly the so-called “Jersey Girls” who spear-headed the search for answers and accountability, it was in many ways a bitter education.
This clash is at the heart of Philip Shenon’s book on the 9/11 Commission. Shenon, who was the lead reporter on the panel for The New York Times, has written an account of the commission’s 20-month investigation from start to finish. In the process, The Commission unavoidably lays bare the difference between what we are taught to think about how the government works, and the actual, often deflating, reality. After reading it, one cannot help but think back to Attorney General Janet Reno’s response to the 1993 debacle at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Reno did the unimaginable: she promptly took responsibility for a decision that turned out to have terrible consequences. But her public contrition was the exception that proved the rule. In Washington, the single hardest thing to do is to get a government official or agency to own up to a mistake—the finely-honed strategies of avoidance would tax the imagination of any great novelist.
Shenon skips the first semester in the education, i.e., the protracted political wrangling that lasted more than a year before President Bush reluctantly signed the legislation creating the commission on November 27, 2002. The White House’s opposition was comprehensible if untenable, and almost certainly reflected the then-dominant mentality of Vice President Dick Cheney. Experienced Washington hands know that commissions tend to take on a life of their own and can be unpredictable. Besides, any bipartisan commission would be an irresistible vehicle for Democrats bent on making the Bush administration bear the lion’s share of responsibility for 9/11. And if they succeeded, George Bush could presumably kiss good-bye his chances of being re-elected.
Shenon’s basic argument, however, is that rather than becoming an instrument of Bush’s demise, the commission helped reelect George Bush. As the panel’s general counsel, Daniel Marcus, a liberal Democrat, put it to Shenon, the August 2004 final report, by “pulling its punches” to achieve unanimity, mainly served to remind Americans of a dire threat to their security and well-being. It thus played into the hands of the White House’s re-election strategy, which was to depict George Bush as far more reliable and steady than John Kerry in the face of this existential menace.
At least one commissioner, though, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (D), takes strong exception to the view Shenon posits. Kerrey argues that the 9/11 Report provided plenty of fodder for the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, and that the real problem was John Kerry’s failure to exploit fully what was in the final report. Rather than harp on the warnings that went unheeded inside the White House, Kerry stupidly (from a political point of view) concentrated on trying to express more enthusiasm for the report than did the White House, which abruptly decided it liked the final document after all. Kerry was also content with trying to outbid Bush in terms of the haste with which a Democrat would implement the panel’s recommendations.
Bob Kerrey may have a point. Any Democratic nominee with a sure instinct for the jugular—say, John F. Kennedy, who based his 1960 campaign on a non-existent “missile gap”—might easily have turned the 9/11 Report to partisan advantage. That John Kerry did not says more about his political instincts than about the report.
Shenon ignores this nuance, perhaps because it clashes with his major theme, which is a very dramatic one: that the commission’s ability to report the truth was neutered and neutralized by an executive director, Philip Zelikow, who was allowed to serve despite deep conflicts-of-interest, as well as surreptitious ties to the White House, including with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Although there are other revelations, the book’s axis of criticism is almost entirely about Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor and former director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Shenon’s book is a blistering critique of Zelikow’s performance, and a not-very-veiled criticism of the commission co-chairmen (Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton) who hired him in the first place, and then allowed Zelikow to stay on even after his multi-faceted conflicts-of-interest were fully revealed under oath.
Kean and Hamilton’s seeming obliviousness to appearances, which can be more important than private realities when the political and historical stakes are so high, certainly gnawed at the 9/11 relatives, several of whom called for Zelikow’s resignation or recusal from the most sensitive aspects of the inquiry about half-way through the commission’s term. In this regard, Shenon’s critique closely parallels the perspective of these 9/11 families, who believe the investigation they had to fight for tooth and nail was fatally compromised after Zelikow assumed the commission’s most important job.
Shenon goes to some pains to refute the most extreme interpretation of Zelikow’s hiring: that he was a “mole” emplaced by the White House to thwart the issuance of a devastating report. In fact, his name was put into play by former Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington). Zelikow then quickly dazzled the co-chairmen, Tom Kean (R), a former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton (D), a former Indiana congressman, who were responsible for hiring an executive director. One measure of the suspicion generated by Zelikow’s appointment, however, is that this “mole” allegation is widely circulated and given credence (particularly on conspiracy-oriented websites) despite its falsity.
Shenon’s portrait of Zelikow is depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked under him, as I did. A lawyer and foreign service officer before entering academia, Zelikow has many of the traits once ascribed to a young Henry Kissinger, minus the accent and Central European charm. Zelikow is routinely described, and rightly so, as having a keen and quick mind. He speaks in complete paragraphs, and has a striking capacity for boiling down a complicated problem, conveying its essence, and proposing a solution. He is also, as Shenon depicts, tightly wound, arrogant, unctuous, and prone to bullying. Kissinger himself probably summed up Zelikow best when Kean asked him what he thought about appointing the University of Virginia professor. “[Zelikow’s] one of the most brilliant men I know,” Kissinger responded. “But you will not like him. Nobody does.”