'The Commission' by Philip Shenon

Investigating 9/11 is a tale of partisanship and patriotism

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Published July 22, 2004, less than three years after the Islamic terrorist attacks on America, the report of the independent investigation of those attacks became a best-seller and was nominated for a National Book Award.

"The 9/11 Commission Report" is likely to be read for some time to come, unlike the batches of such ponderous government "blue-ribbon" inquiries of the past on the Kennedy assassination and the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

   
"THE COMMISSION: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY OF THE 9/11 INVESTIGATION"

By Philip Shenon
Twelve ($27)

   

This report is tautly written, especially its description of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It strives for objectivity, points no fingers and offers reasonable, limited suggestions to address weak points in the government's security system.

Although there were two directors, 10 commissioners, evenly divided by political party, and an extensive staff of experienced researchers, the form and content of the book were determined by one man, executive director Philip Zelikow.

Zelikow's influence and iron-fisted control of the investigation is one of several revelations in New York Timesman Philip Shenon's fast-paced, complex history of the commission.

It's a history that's both reassuring and disturbing, a compelling primer on how Washington works -- and doesn't -- in times of crisis.

An abrasive, aggressive historian, Zelikow long admired Condoleezza Rice before she became President George W. Bush's national security adviser. The two co-authored a book in 1995. He also consulted with the Bush team on the transition and wrote a 31-page paper for the White House in 2002 justifying a preemptive attack on Iraq.

In 2005-06, he joined Rice as an adviser when she became U.S. secretary of state.

As boss of the investigators, Zelikow "made it clear to the commission's staff that he wanted the issue of al-Qaeda-Iraq links pursued aggressively," writes Shenon, who adds a series of other clear signs, including phone calls from Karl Rove, that Zelikow had a serious conflict of interest, one he initially failed to disclose and that he continues to deny to this day.

Fierce partisanship raged behind the scenes, usually tamped down by co-directors Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic U.S. House member from Indiana, and Thomas Kean, ex-Republican governor of New Jersey.

Both struggled gallantly to preserve at least the appearance of unity and cooperation among the board.

The two, Kean especially, are the heroes of Shenon's book. They worked conscientiously to run a thorough, objective investigation despite a small budget of $3 million, a tight deadline and constant criticism and hostility from Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Bush's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales.

All were worried about the effects of a negative report on their boss's re-election prospects.

Zelikow's ability to soften and deflect solid proof that the administration -- including Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the president himself -- were uninterested in al-Qaeda threats, dispelled their fears.

Yet Shenon is careful to include positive contributions by Zelikow, who could be relentless in pursuing documents, even angering the placid Gonzales and letting the historian, now back at the University of Virginia, offer his side of the story. (Zelikow would answer questions only by e-mail.)

The bland conclusions of the report -- nobody's at fault, everybody's at fault -- helped the Bush re-election campaign, writes Shenon.

"The report, by reminding everybody about 9/11 and the terrorist threat, re-elected him," concluded Daniel Marcus, the commission's general counsel and a Democrat.

Heroes and villains of all stripes appear in "The Commission."

The good guys include "the Jersey Girls," widows of the World Trade Center attack, who forced the issue of a investigation and even trapped the wily Henry Kissinger in his Manhattan lair.

The former secretary of state was earning a fortune representing wealthy clients seeking government favors when he was picked by Bush as the probe's first director. The widows were granted an audience in his overheated office, where Lorie Van Auken asked him, "Do you have any clients named bin Laden?"

He reacted by spilling coffee and stumbling nearly to the floor. Kissinger resigned the next day.

The bad guys take in the obsequious Gonzales who blandly denied every request for information, and Max Cleland, former U.S. senator from Georgia who was defeated by a Republican campaign questioning the patriotism of the man who had lost both legs and his right arm fighting the Vietnam War.

Shenon believes Cleland was so embittered by his loss that he was ineffective and disruptive as a commissioner. He eventually quit, replaced by another Democratic war veteran, Bob Kerrey, who turned out to be a harsh critic of former President Bill Clinton.

Shenon saves much of his praise for the beleaguered staffers who soldiered on despite the abrasive, partisan Zelikow, inadequate resources, bureaucratic stonewalling and a steady stream of attacks by Republicans, including two defensive New York mayors, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

The Ashcroft chapter is particularly damaging to the former head of the U.S. Justice Department, who made unjustified allegations about Commissioner Jane Gorelick in open testimony.

Ashcroft, who told one of his staffers before 9/11 that he was tired of hearing about terrorists, was reprimanded by Bush and replaced by Gonzales.

Compiled in short chapters and written with a brisk directness, once started, "The Commission" is hard to put down

The "dogged deceits and creative criminalities of our rulers," as Gore Vidal describes government behavior, are on brilliant display here, as well as the dedicated and nonpartisan patriotism of thousands of others who put the truth ahead of politics.

Shenon's conclusion, reflected by the work of the commission, casts a plague on all the houses:

"The Clinton administration could not duck blame for having failed to stop bin Laden before 2001. But what happened in the White House in the first eight months of George Bush's presidency had all but guaranteed that nineteen young Arab men with little more than pocket knives, a few cans of mace and a misunderstanding of the tenets of Islam could bring the United States to its knees."


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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