Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Commission by Philip Shenon

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9-11 Commission, by Philip Shenon, came out earlier this year. Shenon was a NY Times reporter assigned to the 9-11 Commission beat. The book does an excellent job discussing the creation and work of the 9-11 Commission.

Reading the book, I was struck by several observations:

1. Philip Zelikow was clearly the most qualified person to be the executive director of the 9-11 Commission. According to the book, there was nobody else in the same ballpark. Zelikow had been the executive director of a commission on the Florida election fiasco of 2000, where his work was praised by former Presidents Carter and Ford. Zelikow was a skilled writer and historian. He had pre-existing security clearances from his time at the NSA.

2. At the same time, his selection was probably a mistake politically, because his background and his association with the White House created potential conflicts of interest. Zelikow did pursue his work with diligence; Shenon recounts that at one point he threatened to quit if the Presidential Daily Briefs were not released to the Commission. However, Shenon also indicates that Zelikow tried to carry water for the administration in terms of pushing the Iraq/9-11 connection with the testimony of Laurie Mylroie. Update: Several members of the 9-11 Commission staff addressed this claim here:

It was not Zelikow, however, who invited Mylroie to participate in the hearing. It was Doug MacEachin, a former intelligence official who led the Commission’s team investigating the history of al-Qaeda and was very familiar with the arguments Mylroie had been propagating.

3. Max Cleland, who is frequently portrayed as a hero by the "Truthers", was a disaster as a commissioner. Cleland wanted the commission to look into the stated reasons for the Iraq War, which the rest of the commission felt was outside of its mandate. In addition, his frequent juvenile outbursts against the Bush Administration, which he blamed for his election defeat in 2002, were a distraction that made his exit from the Commission necessary.

4. Shenon mostly gives a fair accounting of the work of the commission, although he occasionally reveals bias. For example, he claims that Condoleezza Rice's description of the August 6, 2001 PDB as "historical in nature" was untrue. But in fact an analysis of the PDB does reveal it to be mostly focused on the past. Here's a transcript from CNN:

Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."

After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -- -- service.

An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told - - service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike.

The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S.

Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that in ---, Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own U.S. attack.

Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation. Although Bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.

Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.

Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.

A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ---- service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

The only parts in there that do not discuss historical threats are in the last two paragraphs, and those clearly do not presage 9-11. Federal buildings in New York were not attacked, and a group of bin Laden supporters in the U.S. did not attack with explosives.

5. Shenon also gives a little too much credibility to Richard Clarke, whose self-serving accounts of his actions on 9-11 and before conflict with other evidence. For example, Clarke claims to have participated in a teleconference with Rumsfeld and Myers on 9-11, but it is clear that neither of them were there. Although the NORAD lies get highlighted, Clarke's misstatements get swept under the rug. Shenon also repeats Clarke's claim that the last time he had voted in a primary election (in Virginia in 2000) that he asked for a Republican ballot. But as I noted years ago, Clarke could not have asked for a Democratic ballot in 2000; the Democrats did not have a primary in Virginia that year.

6. There is very little in the book that the "Truthers" can use, other than the information about Zelikow's conflicts of interest. The much-ballyhooed Sibel Edmonds is not mentioned at all in the book. Shenon dismisses the most common conspiracy theories on page 118:

But by the time the 9/11 Commission opened its doors in 2003, many of the most outrageous, if well-circulated, of the theories--that the attacks were an inside job by the Bush Administration, that the Twin Towers were brought down by preplaced explosives, that the Pentagon was hit by a missile and not a plane--had been well debunked.

7. Shenon does provide evidence that debunks at least one major "Truther" claim; the supposed "stand-down" order. On the topic of the actual shoot-down order, Shenon indicates that Cheney probably made the decision on his own that any hijacked aircraft approaching DC should be engaged, without getting clearance from President Bush. Shenon notes that this is probably unconstitutional, although of course it would have been recognized by all as a responsible decision. But get this note from Scooter Libby at 10:15-10:18 that morning:

Aircraft 60 miles out, confirmed as hijack--engage? VP? Yes. JB [Joshua Bolten]: Get President and confirm engage order.

So now the, "Do the orders still stand?" question makes a bit more sense.

Overall, my judgment of the book is that it's generally good as history, a little less strong on analysis. It's pretty obvious that Shenon is a Democrat; when talking about the Democratic members of the commission it's all about how smart and qualified they are; when talking about the Republican members, the focus is on whether or not they were carrying water for the Bush Administration. Compare and contrast:

(Pg 284) Slate Gorton was up next in the questioning. His tone, as usual, was less partisan than that of some of the other Republicans....

Richard Ben-Veniste opened his questioning with praise for Clarke's apology...

Then it was Jim Thompson's turn for questions, The mood in the room chilled instantly....

(Pg 285) There was another series of attacks from John Lehman, another Republican commissioner.

But if you adjust for the writer's bias, the book is a very readable account of the 9-11 Commission. I recommend also (for balance) Kean and Hamilton's Without Precedent.

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