Secrecy News

Inside the 9/11 Commission

“Senior investigators on the 9/11 Commission believed their work was being manipulated by the executive director to minimize criticism of the Bush Administration,” according to a new book on the Commission.

“Investigative staffers at the Commission believe [executive director] Philip Zelikow repeatedly sought to minimize the administration’s intelligence failures in the months leading up to 9/11, which had the effect of helping to ensure President Bush’s re-election in 2004,” no less.

That is the sensational thesis of “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation” by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon.

The claim was immediately disputed by the former Commissioners and by former staff.

“The author is mistaken in his criticism of the role of Executive Director Philip Zelikow. The proper standard for judgment is the quality of the report, and there is no basis for the allegations of bias he asserts,” according to a February 8 statement (pdf) issued jointly by the Commissioners (except White House counsel Fred Fielding).

Michael Hurley, a Commission staff member who led the team on counterterrorism policy, concurred in an email message to Secrecy News.

“The Shenon book depicts Philip Zelikow as a manager who bullied the 9/11 Commission staff. He didn’t bully the staff. Zelikow assembled a stellar group of independent-minded professionals, many of whom had substantial and distinguished careers in their fields. They were not the sort who could be bullied or manipulated,” said Mr. Hurley, a former CIA operations officer who served in Afghanistan after September 11.

“No piece of evidence, no matter how damning to Bush, Rice, or Richard Clarke got left on the cutting room floor,” he added.

Mr. Shenon’s engaging book provides new details on the efforts of former national security adviser Sandy Berger to destroy documents at the National Archive; the discovery of a highly classified Memorandum of Notification authorizing the killing of Osama bin Laden that was signed by President Clinton on December 24, 1998 then modified a few months later for reasons that remain obscure; John Ashcroft’s attempt to embarrass Commissioner Jamie Gorelick, which had the unintended effect of unifying the Commission; and lots of interesting, gossipy details about the internal dynamics of the Commission, some of which, as noted, have been disputed.

Last week, Mr. Shenon posted his extensive email exchanges with Mr. Zelikow on the book’s web site. Mr. Zelikow also released almost the identical material, in slightly different format and with a bit of material not included by Mr. Shenon (such as a memo sent to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post regarding a paper by Paul Pillar). The Zelikow release is here (pdf).

In either version, Zelikow’s detailed messages, which are neither defensive nor vindictive, tend to deflate the more breathless allegations of his critics, and add a dimension of understanding to the Commission report and its public reception.

“One of the most neglected observations in the report was in our section comparing the Millenium period (end 1999) with the ‘summer of threat’ in 2001,” Mr. Zelikow wrote to Mr. Shenon on September 20, 2007 in a passage that was not included in the book.

“We made the point there that the main driver in all the attention in the earlier period was the massive publicity surrounding the Ressam arrest. [Ahmed Ressam was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999.] We contrasted that with the muffling secrecy of Summer 2001.”

“Imagine what might have happened if the Moussaoui arrest had gotten the kind of publicity and extended coverage that accompanied the Ressam arrest. We had evidence from [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] that, had he known of the Moussaoui arrest, he might have cancelled the operation,” Mr. Zelikow wrote.