February 4, 2008
Books of The Times
Tragicomic Tale of the 9/11 Report

The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission
By Philip Shenon

457 pp. Twelve. $27.

Journalists like to talk about the back story, the story behind the story. The back story can be nothing more than vaguely sourced gossip traded among pundits and politicos before they go on talk shows. But sometimes the back story is the real, whole truth, a tale of conniving or official blundering that the headlines can only hint at. Journalists often conceal the whole truth because they need to protect their sources.

Philip Shenon, a reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, set out to get behind the scenes of the 9/11 Commission. The inside story of a government commission doesn’t sound very promising; most commission reports wind up unread on dusty shelves.

When the 9/11 Commission announced its findings in the summer of 2004, the response was by and large respectful. Reprinted as a book, “The 9/11 Commission Report” was an instant best seller, unusual for a document written by committee. But its popularity was owed mostly to a spare, riveting narrative of the shocking events on Sept. 11, 2001, not to its policy recommendations or revelations about official malfeasance. So why go over it all again?

Mr. Shenon is a skillful writer and storyteller as well as a dogged reporter. In “The Commission” he makes bureaucratic warfare exciting, largely because he has a keen grasp of human frailty and folly. He opens with a desperate, almost pathetic scene of Samuel R. Berger, President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, sneaking documents out of the National Archives.

Mr. Berger had actually been more attentive to the threat of Al Qaeda than most government officials, including his successors in the Bush administration, but he apparently feared that he and his boss would become scapegoats. “Beneath his gruff amiability,” Mr. Shenon writes of Mr. Berger, “there was deep insecurity that, even he admitted, bordered on paranoia.”

In a memorable scene Mr. Shenon depicts the widows of 9/11 victims, a group that called itself the Jersey Girls, meeting Henry A. Kissinger, President Bush’s choice to be chairman of the 9/11 Commission, in the posh offices of Mr. Kissinger’s international consulting firm in New York. When one of the Jersey Girls asks Mr. Kissinger if he has any clients named bin Laden, Mr. Kissinger spills his coffee and nearly falls off his sofa. “It’s my bad eye,” Mr. Kissinger explains, as the women rush to clean up the mess — “like good suburban moms,” Mr. Shenon says one widow recalls. The next morning Mr. Kissinger telephoned the White House to resign from the commission.

The black hat of Mr. Shenon’s story is the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow. Brilliant but abrasive and secretive, he is regarded by some commission staff members as a White House mole, compromised by his close ties to Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush’s national security adviser. The book’s portrait of Mr. Zelikow is harsh, but Mr. Shenon seems to have reached out to Mr. Zelikow to get both sides of the story. (Mr. Zelikow scoffs at charges of conflict and conspiracy made by Mr. Shenon’s sources.)

The official ineptitude uncovered by the commission is shocking. Dubbed “Kinda-Lies-a-Lot” by the Jersey Girls, Ms. Rice comes across as almost clueless about the terrorist threat. “Whatever her job title, Rice seemed uninterested in actually advising the president,” Mr. Shenon writes. “Instead, she wanted to be his closest confidante — specifically on foreign policy — and to simply translate his words into action.”

The C.I.A. has some inkling that Osama bin Laden is stirring to strike the United States, but for many crucial months fails to tell the F.B.I. that two terrorists (who later turned out to be 9/11 hijackers) are actually in the United States. The popular image of the C.I.A. as dashing and all-knowing is for the movies only. After much dickering with the White House, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the mild-mannered patrician who succeeded Mr. Kissinger as commission chairman, is allowed to read pre-9/11 copies of the President’s Daily Brief, the C.I.A.’s digest of its most important secrets. “He found himself terrified by what he was reading, really terrified,” Mr. Shenon writes. “There was almost nothing in them.”

Of the briefings, Mr. Kean said, “They were garbage,” adding, “There really was nothing there — nothing, nothing.”

The C.I.A. director George J. Tenet is depicted as evasive and exhausted, both from chasing Al Qaeda and trying too hard to please everyone he worked with. The F.B.I. bumbling verges on the tragicomic. Haunted by missed chances to stop the 9/11 hijackers, the F.B.I.’s acting director, Thomas J. Pickard, keeps a list of the bureau’s numerous mistakes. At least Mr. Pickard was bothered by his agency’s ineptitude.

Attorney General John Ashcroft appears more interested in protecting gun owners from government intrusion than in stopping terrorism, and dismissively tells Mr. Pickard that he doesn’t want to hear any more about threats of attacks.

Not wanting to point fingers and name names — and set off partisan wrangling among the commissioners — the 9/11 Commission shied away from holding anyone personally accountable. The commission ended up blaming structural flaws for the government’s failure to protect the nation and recommended appointing a national intelligence director to ride herd.

The nation now has such a director, but with weaker authority than what the commission proposed, and the position may turn out to be no more than another layer of bureaucracy. Ultimately, as Mr. Shenon shows, the failure at the highest levels of the United States government was human. That is the real back story of 9/11.

Evan Thomas is editor at large at Newsweek.