I've just finished reading 'The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation' by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. This fascinating book gives a behind the scenes insight into the 9/11 commission's investigation, and provides a context for the well-documented omissions and distortions in the final report that continue to fire the 9/11 conspiracy theories.
The book itself is a gripping read. Many of the chapters read like a novel; particularly in the first chapter which tells the story of how Sandy Berger, former National Security Advisor to President Clinton, stole classified documents from the National Archives.
The main point you get from the book is that because of the bi-partisan make-up of the commission, and the determination of the Commission's Republican Chairman and Democrat Vice-Chairman to produce a report that rises above partisan politics and does not assign blame, some of the significant facts found during the investigation, which would certainly have damaged Bush and his top echelon, were merely assigned to footnotes in the final report.
The chapter that amazed me the most was the one that covered the emergency response to the World Trade Centre attacks in New York and in particular the acts of Rudy Giuliani - the Mayor of New York on Sept 11th 2001.
If you remember, Rudy Giuliani became a local and national hero after 9/11. Seen by the public as the great leader who led New York, and America, through the tragedy of 9/11 while George Bush fled to the skies in the safety of Air Force One.
As it turns out, according to Philip Shenon, Rudy Giuliani's hero status was a fortunate consequence of his own inept actions. In 1998 Mayor Giuliani was building a forty six thousand square foot Emergency Command Centre for himself and his senior staff dubbed "The Bunker". The press at the time had a field day lambasting the project, criticising the cost of the construction as an example of Giuliani's oversized ego. The press also criticised the planned location of "The Bunker". The command centre was going to be built in, of all places, the World Trade Centre complex - the site of a terrorist bombing only 5 years earlier and what was still regarded as top of the list on many terrorist's target lists. The building would be built in WTC building 7 - directly across from the twin towers. Not only that, even though it was dubbed "The Bunker", the command centre was actually to be situated on the 23rd floor, with panoramic views out to lower Manhattan.
So as Philip Shennon points out in the book, what was to happen on September 11th was all too predictable:
"Giuliani never managed to get to the command center in the chaos of the attacks that morning. By about 9:30am, before either of the twin towers collapsed, everyone in the command center was ordered to evacuate to the street because of fears that more hijacked planes were heading for Manhattan. The crisis center was shut down because there was a crisis. In a final bit of irony, it was determined that a fire that later destroyed WTC 7 on September 11 was probably caused by the rupture of the building's special diesel fuel tanks; the tanks that had been installed to provide emergency power the mayor's command center.
On September 11, with the command center shut down, Giuliani and his top aides were left with no obvious place to gather away from City Hall. That left the mayor on the street, resulting in the heroically iconic image of the soot-covered Giuliani leading hundreds of other New Yorkers to safety as he walked north through the gray clouds of debris unleashed by the collapse of the Twin Towers."
On May 19th 2004, the Commission had the opportunity to tackle Giuliani about this in the commission's public hearing which interviewed Giuliani and the chiefs of the emergency services. However, the commissioners wimped out because of what happened the day before. On the 18th May the commissioners interviewed the chiefs of the emergency services and heavily criticised them for the disastrous crisis plan and mis-management on the day of the attacks. The overt criticisms galvanised the press and public, as the hearings were being held in New York, to lambast the Commission. How dare they criticise 'our hero's of 9/11'. So after the scathing attacks back at them, when it came to interviewing Giuliani in the public hearing on May 19th, instead of criticising Giuliani and challenging him, the Commission heaped praise on him for being a great leader.
That response on May 19th was evocative of the entire handling of the investigation and the final report; no one was to be assigned blame.
The area that the book focuses most on though, and the story which I believe has had most criticism since Philip Shenon published this book, is Philip Shenon's portrayal of Philip Zelikow - the Executive Director of the Commission - and his obvious conflicts of interest and his attempts, in Shenon's view, to manipulate the investigation and the final report into avoiding any criticisms of the Bush presidency and his senior staff.
The conflicts of interest are obvious and according to Shenon, it was due to a lack of proper background checks on Zelikow by the Commission's chairman and vice-chairman, that meant his conflicts of interest were unknown to the commission when they appointed him as Executive Director. The conflicts of interest were made even more significant due to the way Zelikow ran the investigation. As much as the 10 commissioner's (5 Republican, 5 Democrat) were the public face of the commission, it was ultimately Zelikow who ran the investigation; deciding who was to be interviewed, what line the investigation would take, and ultimately what was to be included in the final report.
It comes as no surprise then that the final report lacked any criticism of Bush and particularly, Condoleezza Rice, when you learn that not only was Zelikow a close friend of Condoleeza Rice, but he was also on the transition team when Bush took office in the White House, and was the main contributor the to paper that changed America's National Security Strategy, which for the first time introduced the doctrine of pre-emptive attacks. These facts are significant and, according to Shennon, help explain why Zekikow:
- Broke the Commission rules and repeatedly telephoned both Rice and Karl Rove, Bush's chief advisor', behind the back of the commission.
- Attempted to steer the commission into making links between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein even though there was no evidence to support the links.
- Managed to shield Rice from criticism in the final report even though there was clear evidence that, as Bush's National Security Advisor, Rice received clear warnings from the CIA in the months leading up to 9/11 about an imminent attack by Al Qaeda against America, yet did absolutely nothing to act on those warnings. Including the now famous August 6th PDB (Presidential Daily Briefing) which warned of possible terrorist hijackings of commercial airliners and intelligence that terrorists were carrying out surveillance on buildings in Manhattan.
Other revelations in the book included: the fact that the commission left the investigation of the the NSA's vast archives until the last minute and therefore only managed to read a fraction of the intelligence; how Dick Cheney, as the Vice-President, gave a shoot-down order on the morning of 9/11 which was unconstitutional (Dick Cheney claims that he was acting on behalf of Bush but there was no evidence to corroborate Cheney's assertion); and how the final report failed to fully emphasise the abysmal failings of the FBI largely because the new FBI Director managed to schmooze the commissioners into believing that he could change the FBI for the better and there was no reason to break it up, which was certainly in the minds of the commissioners when they first learned of the FBI's bumblings.
All in all the book is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it if, like me, you're intrigued by everything surrounding 9/11.