I would like to welcome Philip Shenon. His new book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, is a superb book. You should absolutely read it. Among its many accomplishments is that it makes a narrative of bureaucratic process enormously compelling. It helps, of course, that the bureaucratic process Shenon is writing about is the production of the 9/11 Commission’s report on the first of the pair of disastrous events that seems destined to define the soon-to-be-over Bush era. But Shenon turns the bureaucratic narrative of the 9/11 Commission and its report into a compelling read also because he is an extraordinary journalistic writer. The Commission is one of the best-written books by a journalist I have ever read.
The book is a page-turning and impressively perceptive telling of the internal dynamics and research of the Commission, with its ten prominent commissioners headed up by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, its exceptional and colorful staff and, in the middle of it all, the Commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, who is the central character in the book. Even when the book recounts the already well-known, most dramatic public episodes in its production – most notably Richard Clarke’s public testimony and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s public response – they are told in new and genuinely gripping detail. In the process of recounting the story of the report’s production, from different pivotal choices for how to proceed to encountering witnesses who were less than truthful, a list that not surprisingly prominently includes George Tenet, Vice President Cheney, and President Bush, to the clashes of staff members with the notoriously difficult personality Zelikow (on whom more in a moment), The book offers a pretty comprehensive account of the major issues at stake in the investigation of the attacks of September 11, 2001; and it makes a number of really interesting analytic insights/judgments. In a sense, the book is a really good, critical and contextual reading of the 9/11 report itself, which is an important accomplishment in its own right. As the Shenon himself shows, the public reception of the report was shaped by a focus on a few dimensions of it: the powerful narrative of the awful day itself; the recommendation for creating a Director of National Intelligence, undercutting the head of the CIA, which Shenon shows probably had too much to do with the rather quirky facts that George Tenet lied extensively to the Commission while the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, undertook a massive, and eventually successful, charm offensive with the commissioners that persuaded them to leave the dysfunctional FBI mostly alone; and the marquee judgment that Iraq and Al Qaeda had no meaningful operational relationship and that there was no evidence of any Iraqi role in September 11, 2001.
Those are, to be sure, important aspects of the report, but Shenon’s book explores the many others that may turn out to be of greater historical significance. For instance, Shenon recounts – again in gripping detail – the Commission’s eventual discovery of President Clinton’s December 24, 1998 Memorandum of Notification authorizing a covert operation by CIA and its allies in Afghanistan that could legally include the killing of Osama bin Laden. As James Baker, in his fascinating book, In the Common Defense, explains, this kind of authorization had to involve a shift to a law-of-armed-conflict basis on the part of the U.S. toward bin Laden – and sharply qualifies the notion that the Clinton’s administration’s pre-9/11 mindset and approach to the threat from Al Qaeda was limited to law enforcement plus diplomacy.
There are many other narrative and analytic threads that Shenon weaves gracefully together, too many to go through. Let me just mention one other, because I think it is similarly revealing about questions of larger significance. Shenon explains how the Commission staff, including Zelikow, and the Commission’s report ended up concluding that Vice President Cheney had lied to them about whether he had received prior authorization from President Bush to order the shoot-down of incoming commercial flights on September 11, 2001. Cheney was, of course, outraged that the Commission did not believe him, as though his power as Vice President meant his word vouched for itself despite being contradicted by all the available documentary evidence and the overwhelming majority of testimony. But Shenon raises the question of why Cheney went to so much trouble to construct a lie at all – most people, Shenon rightly notes, would probably forgive the Vice President for having ordered the shoot-down, even though it was unconstitutional. Shenon suggests that an open acknowledgement of Cheney’s circumvention of the chain of command on that day would have been politically damaging in the context of the 2004 presidential election (when the report was released). But I would suggest an alternative, more principled explanation. One of the main features of the outlandish, Addington-Cheney theory of executive power is the claim that essentially any action the executive takes is constitutional, at least in the national security arena. As Jack Goldsmith has shown in his very important book, The Terror Presidency, Addington has rejected the alternative view that in genuine emergency circumstances, the executive may take extraordinary, even extra-constitutional, actions, while incurring the attendant obligation to openly acknowledge to the country and the Congress having broken the law under necessity and throwing him- or herself upon the justice of the country. Well, if you reject that notion, there is simply no way to legitimize and explain what Cheney had done. It was flatly impossible to justify the action as constitutional, since it violated the military chain of command.
So instead they lied to protect the principle that the Constitution provided for all circumstances, and that everything they did could be squared within the constitutional powers allotted to the executive branch. To admit the truth would be to admit that they had violated their own most deeply held convictions about executive power.
I do not mean to suggest that these are the central lessons of Shenon’s book. As I said, the book is rather composed of many compelling narrative and analytic threads, and it is far too rich to easily summarize them. I only mean to illustrate the genuine importance of the book. I do want to end by noting one peculiarity of Shenon’s book: the thread that he proposes as the central one is also the least persuasive. I am talking about the book’s treatment of Philip Zelikow. Perhaps in part out of the desire to put a controversial, even explosive, theme at the heart of the book, Shenon’s book seeks to show that Zelikow was a kind of White House mole who produced a report designed to protect the Bush administration. But the book demonstrates almost the opposite, and the Zelikow who emerges is rather a determined historian. There are no doubt a lot of criticisms of the Commission’s report to be made. And Zelikow’s friend, colleague and – at the time of the report – once and future boss Condoleezza Rice has escaped, to a stunning degree, broad public accountability for her failure before and after September 11, 2001. But as a more settled judgment of her tenure as National Security Adviser is pursued in the years to come, I have little doubt that a considerable part of the evidence for the case against her will be drawn from the 9/11 Report itself. And more generally, from his early, aggressive stance toward getting information out of the White House – which led Alberto Gonzales to refuse to work with him – to his late, ingenious and courageous approach to declassification issues (which Shenon seems to try to spin negatively, because it led to a no doubt politicized effort to investigate Zelikow himself for his handling of classified information), Zelikow emerges as a sharp-elbowed, difficult and ultimately pretty successful pursuer of as much of the whole story as he could get and tell. And I think if you look at the various reports on the Bush era’s most controversial national security developments, the 9/11 Report is far and away the most reliable. Indeed, one of the many virtues of Shenon’s book is that it demonstrates how and why that should be so.
I look forward to the discussion. And once again, buy this book and read it!