Bob Kerrey Reviews “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation” by Philip Shenon


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By Bob Kerrey The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation by Philip ShenonThe Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation
Philip Shenon
Twelve (an imprint of Grand Central Publishing)
Philip Shenon’s “The Commission” is a well-researched and written account of the deliberations of the “9/11 Commission” which investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Mr. Shenon was a reporter who covered the deliberations of the commission from its creation on November 27, 2002, through the August 21, 2004, expiration of the federal law that gave the commission the legal authority to do its work. He had a front-row seat on the political process that created the commission, the firestorms that often surrounded it, and the largely favorable response to the commission’s report, which was released on July 21, 2004. I was a member of the commission. Reading Mr. Shenon’s book was both illuminating, because I discovered things I did not know, and disconcerting, because his view of our performance is not always favorable. I always find it much easier to feel good when somebody else’s work is criticized than I do when it is mine being examined. In spite of this discomfort this book is a very worthwhile read for those who wonder if the commission’s version of the conspiracy is accurate or who wonder if we were as thorough or fair as possible. To the first question Mr. Shenon answers emphatically yes. To the second, my reading is that his answer is somewhere between a qualified yes and a qualified no. I do not want to nitpick Mr. Shenon’s facts. Commissioners and staff will no doubt see many of things that he gets wrong. For example, in my case he states that it is well known I do not like former President Clinton. Just the opposite is the case. He cites a derogatory statement I made about the president but attributes it to our presidential primary campaign of 1992. I actually said it in December 1994 after the president told a wealthy Texas audience: “It may surprise you to know that I didn’t want to raise your taxes; Congress made me do it.” Since the Democrats in the Senate had just gone from 57 to 47 in part because we voted for his tax increase, this speech upset me a little and produced the most famous quote of my life: a declaration that Bill Clinton is an “unusually good liar.” Mr. Shenon raises legitimate questions about the impartiality and fairness of the commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow. There is some basis in doubting whether Mr. Zelikow could be impartial. In December 2003, after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle asked me if I would serve as the replacement for Sen. Max Cleland, I thought seriously about turning down the offer because I did not know if I could devote the time needed to do the job well. Prior to meeting Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton for lunch to discuss the matter, I went to the commission’s offices to read several documents, including Mr. Zelikow’s memorandum, for the record. This memorandum detailed the important role he had in 2001 in drafting many of the new administration’s national security directives. His friendship with Condoleezza Rice, among other things, appeared to me to pose a fatal conflict of interest. Had I been on the commission from the beginning and known his work history, I would not have hired him. Coupled with Mr. Zelikow’s strong, forceful and occasionally offensive personality, it seemed to me that there must have been better choices. However, I overcame my doubt and joined the commission. Over the next eight months Mr. Zelikow’s overall performance persuaded me that Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton had made the right choice. Mr. Zelikow assembled the most talented, experienced and patriotic team of staff that I have ever had the pleasure to be associated with in or out of government. I have been on many government commissions and I have never experienced a group like the men and women he hired. They worked longer hours, protected highly classified secrets without a single leak, kept their word and their egos in check, and served the cause of truth in an admirable and heroic fashion. He could have assembled a team of Bush partisans, but he didn't. If he were trying to protect either himself or his friends in the White House, he would have hired much, much differently than he did. Mr. Shenon makes it clear that Mr. Zelikow was not a White House mole. He was not on the list of people the White House preferred. On several occasions, detailed clearly in this book, Mr. Zelikow took positions that were at odds with the best political interests of the president. Still, in politics perception becomes reality, and though Mr. Shenon tries to be a fair critic, reading this book adds to the perception that Mr. Zelikow’s bias hindered more than it helped. Three facts about the conditions under which this commission operated add to this perception. The first is the external political rancor that existed through the commission’s life. The heat from outside was as intense as any I have experienced in 16 years of public service. We were being whipped from the left and the right for being a bunch of grandstanding partisans. Daily efforts were made to discredit us before we got close to a final report. Partisans for and against Presidents Clinton and Bush were on alert for any statement they regarded as detrimental to their cause. No doubt Karl Rove wanted to do all he could to make certain the report did as little damage to his boss as possible. No doubt he called Mr. Zelikow just as the Democratic majority leader in the Senate called me from time to time. No doubt Mr. Zelikow and I both returned the calls. Mr. Rove and Sen. Daschle were only doing their jobs. The test of whether this outside pressure affected our judgment is whether or not the commission’s final report was unfairly critical or lenient in our commentary of the actions of any responsible party. The second fact about this commission is the language of the federal law that created it. Those who believe the commission failed because we did not identify by name or names individuals we felt were responsible for permitting the attack to occur should read the statute. Such an investigation was outside of our scope. Furthermore, the first qualification mentioned in the law for selecting commissioners was our political party not our expertise. Philip Zelikow did not write the law. He had to operate within the boundaries of the law and serve the needs of those who were selected to be commissioners. The third fact is that it was the decision of the commissioners, not Mr. Zelikow, to make the decision not to file dissenting views or minority opinions. Mr. Shenon is absolutely correct in asserting Mr. Zelikow’s central role in writing this report. However, each section of the report was intensely debated by commissioners before it was assembled into a final report. The commissioners went line by line through the final product making significant changes and alterations. We decided to achieve a unity of purpose that no commission I have served on has ever done. This enabled us to produce a narrative of the history of a 20-year-old conspiracy—as well as the web of mistakes and negligence—which allowed this attack on the United States to be a success. The details of our report allow a careful reader to blame quite a large number of people. It also allows a biased reader to blame a smaller number. And it allows a very biased reader to blame one or two people. Mr. Shenon quotes our general counsel as saying that the report re-elected President Bush. Nonsense. If Sen. John Kerry had read and used the narrative we provided, there were plenty of facts to use against President Bush. Instead he chose to quickly embrace every recommendation we made and not to cite any of the details in any of his debates, including this statement: “In spite of repeated warnings in the summer of 2001 that al-Qaida was going to attack the United States, the government of the United States did nothing to make an attack less likely.” The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation by Philip Shenon Mr. Shenon makes it very clear that he believes the final report accurately describes the essence of the conspiracy itself. That it began long ago as a political and religious movement among radical Islamists who regard the United States of America as an enemy. That this movement was given focus, training and experience in the 1979 to 1989 war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That it became a military organization in the early 1990s, declared war on the United States and carried out a series of attacks against us. He also makes it clear why so many people have come to believe alternative conspiracy theories. Most important were a series of decisions and statements following September 11 which seemed to suggest something was going on other than what we were being told. Mr. Shenon tells this story very well. He begins with the remarkable decision to allow Saudi Arabian nationals, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, to leave the United States shortly after September 11 on special planes without being interviewed by the FBI. The idea that we let them leave because the Saudis were concerned for their safety is offensive. Sixteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. We had reason to fear them, not the other way around. Mr. Shenon follows the details of the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration decision not to tell the truth for nearly two years following the attacks. These lies generated many of the alternative conspiracy theories. It is painful to read Mr. Shenon’s very good account of this. One thing he left out that makes matters worse, not better: the official Air Force history originally included a very favorable account of what they did on that day. When the commission uncovered what had actually happened, the Air Force was forced to rewrite its own history. Among this book’s most important scenes is the description of a presentation to the commission in 2004 made by a former CIA analyst who was a part of the team responsible for investigating the plot itself. He showed us PowerPoint slides that he said were part of a 1997 CIA briefing. The brief made clear that Osama bin Laden was the leader of a military organization called al-Qaida; that he had already carried out a number of military successes, including training Somali insurgents that contributed to the deaths of U.S. Army Rangers in the October 1993 battle of Mogadishu; that he had declared war on the United States; and that the threat was growing. This briefing connected the dots and, in so doing, made clear that the United States was at considerable risk from a relatively small non-nation-state organization that was using suicide terrorism as a tactic. Unfortunately, the 1997 briefing never took place because no one connected those dots beforehand. The former CIA analyst was trying to make the point of what might have happened if the president and Congress had seen the complete picture, let’s say, after August 7, 1998, when al-Qaida simultaneously attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Every significant national security witness in the Clinton and Bush administrations testified that it wasn’t possible to do more to stop al-Qaida until September 11, 2001. I believe strongly that would have changed if the facts contained in this hypothetical briefing—which could have been declassified without compromising sources and methods—had been presented to the American people and the international community. To be clear, it wasn’t as if the CIA wasn’t doing something; they were. They had formed a special unit to track al-Qaida, were including the danger of terrorism in their reports to the president and Congress, and were mobilizing as many resources as they could against this new enemy. They had declared war on bin Laden. But the CIA doesn’t declare war; Congress does. If either President Clinton or President Bush had requested such a declaration and had included the details of this briefing, Congress would have voted in the affirmative. Our system of classifying and compartmentalizing knowledge as secrets does make us safer, but there are times when secrecy makes us less safe. The full story of al-Qaida, which was only told after September 11, is an instance where secrecy increased the danger to the American people. This same system also made it much more difficult for this commission to do its work. Most of the documents we had to read were highly classified and stored in and around the Washington, D.C., area. We were asked to read as much as possible. We could take notes as we read. However, the notes remained in each location and could only be reviewed if we had time for a return visit. It was simply too time-consuming for part-time service. Congress should have specified that no appointment could be made unless an individual could devote all their waking hours to the effort. Mr. Shenon spends a great deal of his book examining the commission’s recommendations. He appears to believe that Mr. Zelikow’s strongly held views influenced some of our conclusions. The problem with this is that most of us on this commission brought strongly held views about what should or shouldn’t be done to protect us in the future. Mr. Shenon says that Mr. Zelikow wanted to create a powerful director of national intelligence from the beginning. Perhaps that's true, but so did I. In fact, I tried without success to get the Senate Select Committee to do the same in 1997 following the Aldridge Ames scandal. Likewise, Mr. Shenon leaves the impression that FBI Director Robert Mueller sweet-talked the commission into not recommending that Congress create a domestic intelligence agency like Britain’s MI5. I would never have signed off on this no matter how incompetent the FBI had been. Director Mueller didn't talk me out of this as Mr. Shenon suggests. I began and ended with the same opinion. Mr. Shenon also suggests that there was work left undone. On this I couldn’t agree more with him. The most important area of concern is the involvement of Iran in supporting the hijackers. The commission discovered this involvement too late to examine the details. It was one of our mistakes, which should be corrected with extensive Congressional investigation. We made it clear in the report that there were a number of things that Congress needed to follow up on. The Iranian al-Qaida connection is only one of them. Congress should demand direct access to those who organized the attacks; our indirect interviews were at best inadequate. And Congress should pursue question of whether the Saudi government aided the conspiracy. Congress has all the subpoena power it needs to do these things and more. They can summon any witness and secure any document. The 535 members of Congress are not part-time volunteers as all of us were. They are paid (poorly in my view) to pursue many things we uncovered but did not have time to examine closely enough. The examination of this conspiracy should go on, though not by the 9/11 Commission, which was given an appropriate but arbitrary time limit during which we were given subpoena powers. There are others things that Congress and the president should do. Congress watered down the powers of the director of national intelligence. It failed to reduce the number of oversight committees for Homeland Security from 88 to four. And it did not strengthen the current weak oversight of intelligence by giving the House and Senate authorizing committees the power to appropriate. In short, they were much more enthusiastic about reforming the executive branch than they were the legislative. I was in New York City when we were attacked and remember how unified we all were in the aftermath. We came together as a country. We came together as a free world against an enemy that views our freedom as an evil perversion. The 9/11 Commission tried to recapture that same unity of purpose. The unity did not last long. In short order Congress returned to the view that holding onto committee chairmanships (or getting them back) was more important than keeping the country safe. I have always believed that too much attention was focused on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and too little on the story itself. My hope is that Mr. Shenon’s book becomes a bestseller and that enough individuals will reread the story of this conspiracy that we do not forget either the source of the danger or what we must do to defeat it.


Submitted by Michael McCoy (not verified) on

What an artform the high-level whitewash has become. Pretty words, carefully arranged into a beautiful story that reduces to footnotes or outright ignores crucial elements of the crime that no second rate insurance investigator would dare to tolerate. The "official story", a grand and miraculous sequence of stunning coincidences that boggles the critical mind, was strongly and adamantly supported from the start. Any evidence, whether witness testimony or contradictory documentation, not fitting into the pre-arranged conclusion was simply and blatantly ommitted from the report. Again and again and again. An infection from the start. Independent investigative commission? What a cruel joke. Effective, realistic examination of the failures on 911? Absurd. I try to imagine a more critical body of lies and altered accounts given the commission in it's "offical purpose" than that from the offials at the Pentagon and NORAD. I can't. And the tour de force in the investigation of any crime, especially - supposedly - regarding the largest mass murder in US history, is the "why", which goes to motive. And the commission officially concludes that the financing of the suicide hijacking on 911 was, ultimately of little consequence? I still, after 3 years, shake my head in disbelief. Regarding the opening statement to the American public: "... We're not out to blame anyone..." it is the one truthful, compelling conclusion as a result of this government financed farce known as the 9/11 Commission.

Submitted by Alan Cabal (not verified) on

Bob Kerrey must think the American public is as stupid as he is. The outlandish conspiracy theory promoted by the Bush Regime, the corporate media, the 911 Commission, and all other stooges of the appalling plutocracy currently in charge of this blatantly sham democracy is the silliest thing I've heard since Arlen Specter promoted the Magic Bullet (WE 399). What caused the collapse of WTC7, Bob? Means, motive, and opportunity point to several possible culprits in the 911 unsolved. None of them are Arabs, although quite a few are from the Middle East.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

yes it is easier to feel good when somebody else’s work is criticized

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