Journalist Philip Shenon: Omissions of the commission

Full of holes?

In 2004, the 9-11 Commission issued what it deemed as the most complete, final, and authoritative report examining the events and history of that fateful day. However, according to the new, controversial best selling book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9-11 Investigation, the report suffers from drastic omissions and oversights that distort the reality of the tragedy and protect powerful individuals in the White House Administration from facing accountability for their negligent actions. We recently spoke with the author, veteran New York Times investigative journalist Phillip Shenon, to find out more about the commission and why the report they produced was so flawed.

In their book “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission,” Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton recounted their experience serving as co-chairs of the 9-11 Commission, and how they felt that the Commission was set up for failure from the beginning. How accurate is that statement?

SHENON: There is a strong argument for it. They had 5 pretty partisan Democrats and 5 pretty partisan Republicans, and they were asked to reach an agreement on who was responsible for 9-11. And, they were asked to do this at one of the most poisonous, partisan times any of us had ever known in Washington. They also had to do it during the run up to the 2004 Presidential elections, which was sort of the worst of times do it, because the atmosphere at that time was so charged.

The White House, however, claimed it gave “unprecedented cooperation” to the 9-11 commission, yet your book indicates the Administration, especially President Bush and Cheney, were loathe to create the commission in the first place. Why the hesitation and such a strong cloak of secrecy? I recall they both didn’t want their testimony made public, recorded, transcribed, nor subject to an oath.

That wasn’t so surprising because Presidents are almost never required to be put under oath under that sort of questioning, and they usually don’t participate with blue ribbon commissions – at least not face to face. The White House probably did give unprecedented cooperation to the 9-11 Commission, but it had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it.

They argued that they were just trying to protect the prerogatives of the President – this thing called “Executive Privilege.” Lot of the Commissioners believed they [The White House] were just trying to cover their backside and trying to make sure that no embarrassing information got out on how the White House had dealt with terrorist threats before 9-11.

Let’s talk about the Commission itself. We have this interesting character on board named Phil Zelikow, a bright scholar from University of Virginia, who served on the 2000 Election Reform Commission. First, let’s explain his relationship to Condi Rice.

That relationship goes back many years. They had been young staffers together at the National Security Council with the White House. When the first President Bush leaves office, Zelikow and Rice stay in close touch and write a book together. After the second Bush comes to office, Condi Rice is named his National Security Advisor; she sets up the transition team for the National Security Council and brings on Zelikow to be on it. And Zelikow is given responsibility to look over the Counter-Terrorism Operations in the White House. One of the things he does is that he pretty much demotes Richard Clarke [Former Chief Counter-Terrorism Advisor and author of the book Against All Enemies], who becomes very famous later on. Those are just some of his ties to Rice and the White House.

You mention Zelikow had closer ties with the White House than what was originally disclosed to the public. He had written a report: “National Security Strategy of the United States,” published in September 2002. Explain this document and the importance of it concerning Zelikow’s “neutrality”?

This document sort of turned military doctrine on its head and said that in the future the United States could invade a nation that did not necessarily pose a military threat to this country: it was called a pre-emptive war, or pre-emptive defense doctrine. It was pretty clear to everybody in September 2002 that it was written with Iraq in mind: it would be an intellectual justification for the invasion of Iraq. Now, when it came out in 2002, people didn’t know who the author was. We learn 2 years later when the 9-11 Commission was really coming close to the end with its investigation, that Zelikow was the principal author.

When that was found out, some of the staff wondered whether or not Zelikow ‘s efforts earlier in trying to tie Al Qaeda and Iraq – you know, whether he was motivated there by trying to justify a war he, in some way, set the path to.

This screams out “conflict of interest.” How come nobody else saw this?

It sure screams it. I think a lot of the staffers saw the same thing. Certainly, some of the critics of the Commission, then and now, saw the same thing.

Help me with the timeline. When Zelikow was asked to write this report in 2002, how knee-deep was he in his 9-11 Commission responsibilities?

It was published in September 2002, and this was months before the 9-11 Commission was even created, which was November 2002, and Zelikow came on in, I believe, January 2003.

Max Cleland, one of the first members appointed to the Commission, said he was going to resign based on Zelikow’s placement on the Commission, right?

Right. Cleland was one of the 5 Democrats appointed to the Commission, and he leaves about a year later. He said he left because he was so frustrated with the potential that all of this was going to simply be a “white wash.”

Speaking of “white wash,” you make a pretty damning accusation that Zelikow had personal phone calls with Karl Rove during the investigation – 4 times I believe – and ordered his secretary to remove the logs of the phone calls. What was said between the two, and why the need to erase and remove the evidence?

I can tell you what I’m told. Zelikow comes on the Commission, and everyone understands he has these potential conflicts of interests, and Zelikow promises the Commissioners that he is going to do his best to even avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest by really cutting off his unnecessary ties to the White House.

And then in June 2003, the phone ring in Zelikow’s office, the secretary picks up and it’s Karl Rove. And, she’s surprised by this, I mean, why is the Executive Director of the 9-11 Commission in touch with President Bush’s chief political operative? Then, Rove calls again the next day and he calls again a couple more times in September. It becomes known as a fact that these contacts are happening between the two, and staff becomes alarmed by this.

Now, Zelikow and the White House insist these were pretty completely innocent conversations that involved Zelikow’s old work with the University of Virginia, and at the University he ran a presidential history program, so maybe there was some reason for these two men to talk. But, if you think about it, it’s pretty alarming that Rove is in contact with Zelikow.

Then, Zelikow calls in his secretary and closes the door, and apparently tells her he doesn’t want her to keep telephone logs in the future of his contacts with anybody at the White House. She’s so upset by this, she goes to the chief lawyer of the Commission and reports it. And I talked to the chief lawyer, and he confirmed what happened.

Recently, Zelikow responded to your accusations with the following:

“I was authorized by the Commission to talk to White House officials regularly, as was the general counsel, Dan Marcus. But on this business of Rove, it’s a little ironic, since I don’t even really know Rove. We had two brief contacts that had to do with University of Virginia business, because I used to direct a presidential research center. In both cases, we handed off the issues to others. The university actually has records on this matter. I told Shenon all of this.”

Later, when defending allegations regarding his bullying nature and attempts at influencing the commission, Zelikow says:

“Another member of the staff who plays a very prominent role in Shenon’s account wrote to all the commissioners, reached out to all of them, and described Shenon’s account as, quote, “a case study in hype.”

Respond to both of Zelikow’s statements please.

I tell you that my book is just chalk full of anecdotes of Zelikow’s staffers believing Zelikow was bullying them for one reason or another. So, I find that a little hard to imagine that was what the second statement was in reference to.

But, on the first quotation with the phone logs and the contacts, I mean the book reports that he says he made innocent conversations regarding the University of Virginia – that’s all in my book. The fact that Zelikow saw no problem with having several contacts with the President’s political advisor at a time when Zelikow was already under suspicion for his ties with the White House, that does create an appearance problem. It sure did for a lot of members of the staff.

You’re saying he called four times, and he says he barely knows Rove. Is someone lying?

No, not necessarily. I can’t exactly parse out what he’s trying to say there, he said he doesn’t know Rove very well. That this is all involving University of Virginia business, and that’s in the book. That’s what he says.

I want to talk about some of the big players now. Let’s start with Vice President Cheney, who always has this stereotypical image of a man with his fingers always in the cookie jar; he’s always involved in everything. How is he involved, specifically, with this report? You cite an interesting example of how Cheney issued an unauthorized “Strike-down” order of the airplanes on 9-11 before they hit the towers. That’s an illegal action for a Vice President to take, right?

If you read between the lines of the 9-11 Report, they are pretty much saying they don’t believe what Cheney said regarding his actions on the morning of September 11th. Cheney is in the White House that day, and President Bush is in Florida. After the first hits in New York and Washington, Cheney issues an order to the Pentagon to begin to prepare the “shoot down” of the passenger planes if they approach the Capitol. Now, the Vice President doesn’t have military authority under the Constitution. If not the President deciding to order the military to do something, then that decision is supposed to be made by the Defense Secretary.

In this case, Cheney said he issued the order, because he had talked to the President and the President had authorized the “shoot down.” Now, the staff becomes very convinced over the course of the investigation that, no, the Vice President issued this order on his own. He didn’t talk to the President or get his approval. This order was almost certainly unconstitutional. Now, the President and Vice President tell the Commission otherwise, but if you read the report, you can see Commission suggests it doesn’t believe the Vice President.

In your book, and I’m paraphrasing now, you mention that many of the staffers did not have a high, valued opinion of Condi Rice. In fact, they believed she was of the most incompetent National Security Advisors in recent years. What’s the final analysis on Condi’s actions: how’d she do if you had to rate her performance?

Not much analysis in the final report, which critics say is part of the problem. The central question remains between Condi Rice and her Counter Terrorism Director, Richard Clarke. He came forward and said, listen, Condi Rice and President Bush ignored terrorism warnings throughout 2001, months before 9-11.

Rice says, “No, no, no. We were acting promptly on these threats and taking them very seriously.” So, who was telling the truth: Clarke or Rice? The Commission doesn’t make a judgment at the end of the day. They only said, “Clarke says this, Rice says this, Clarke says this, Rice says this” without any judgment to where the truth was. But, the staff pretty much believes Clarke’s account was the truthful one.

There was a lot of concern on part of the 10 Commissioners, both Republican and Democrats, that Rice’s performance before 9-11 was incompetent or not far from it. She was such a rock star in Washington that nobody wanted to go up against her and make that allegation directly.

Why didn’t anyone want to confront her, or call her out basically on these blundering actions?

Several reasons, I mean you hear her described as a “rock star.” She sort of rises above any allegations that she doesn’t do her job well. She’s a real celebrity in Washington, and people don’t want to attack someone like that. Number 2: I think a bunch of middle aged, white people find it difficult to go up against a very articulate, very poised, very attractive, African American woman. The appearances did not look good.

What was the fear they had if they had confronted her?

That there was a sort of racial tension to this that everybody was sort of uncomfortable with.

Here’s a part that fascinates me the most. Let’s talk about Richard Clarke, the former Counter Terrorism Director. Here’s a guy who is basically doing his job, he comes in and hands in a report about a week before 9-11 saying, “listen, Al Qaeda is coming. Terrorists are going to strike.” Why such hostility and animosity towards his predictions, and why the rush to discredit him by the Administration?

Well, the rush to discredit him is because he was so dangerous. He was essentially saying 9-11 didn’t have to happen, and that if the Bush Administration had acted on the intelligence that was sitting in front of them, there was at least a shot that 9-11 could’ve been prevented. In Bush’s re-election campaign, he was basically running as the decisive leader on terrorism. If Clarke was right and the White House bungled the intelligence and had some responsibility for 9-11, that could’ve sunk Bush’s election hopes.

Was it pure negligence on the part of the White House? Was it structural and procedural inadequacies and lack of communication between agencies, such as the CIA and FBI? How could such vital information just be ignored?

It wasn’t being ignored in some places. Richard Clarke, I mean, wasn’t certainly ignoring it; he was at the White House sitting right there. It does appear that above Richard Clarke there wasn’t much interest in the subject. The new President saw terrorism as sort of a Clinton Administration issue that they weren’t interested in. Bush Administration was interested in missile defense, American relationship with Russia and China, rogue states like Korea and Iraq; they just couldn’t their arms around this concept of terrorism. And, many people would argue, we all paid a price for that.

What’s your take on Rudy Giuliani? Specifically, was he able to make New York secure and safe pre 9-11? Is his successful image as mayor during that time overblown?

The Commissioners and the staff believe he did a really fine job on the day of 9-11 and the hours and days that followed. He really comforted the nation in a way that President Bush wasn’t able to do. But, the Commission investigators found that for the 8 years before that, Giuliani and his administration in New York really did shockingly little to prepare New York City for a terrorist attack. That seemed particularly upsetting since New York City was attacked before: it was attacked in 1993 when a bomb was set off at the World Trade Center. Why should anybody be shocked that 8 years later a related group of people would come back and attack the World Trade Center? The city did very little to prepare itself for that.

Here’s an interesting aspect regarding the makeup of the Commission, which is supposed to be neutral: 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats. But, there was this decision to make Henry Kissinger, of all people, the Chairman of the Commission; a man who is one of the most well connected people in Washington, and – as you mentioned – one of the most paranoid. So, why choose Kissinger?

He was chosen by the White House, they could choose the Chairman. Certainly, the 9-11 families and the Bush Administration’s critics say that Kissinger was chosen because he was very close to the Bush family and the Republican party, and that he would “protect” the President in this 9-11 investigation.

You have this telling recounting of an episode where Kissinger spills coffee over himself, becomes flustered, and quickly ends the meeting when of the victim’s family members asks him about his connections to Saudi Arabia and the Bin Ladens. Let’s use this as a microcosm as Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Bin Ladens. Illuminate this relationship, because most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and the country is an exporter of Wahhabism. How deep does this history run?

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States runs real deep. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the oil supply U.S. gets from the Saudis. A lot of the big conspiracy theories that run to this day involve the actions of the Bush Administration, the Saudis, and Prince Bandar, and what went on. Specifically, what went on in Southern California, whether or not there were Saudi officials who were providing important logistical support to a couple of the hijackers who lived, really, in the open in San Diego a year before the attack. So, there remain a lot of unanswered questions in the report to this day about Saudi Arabia and the possibility that some people in the Saudi government were helping some of these bad guys in South California.

Did the final report gloss over this you think?

The Commission’s staff, a bunch of really talented young investigators, became really concerned that there was a lot of evidence tying some elements of the Saudi government to this network in Southern California, this logistical support network. But, they were overwhelmed not by Zelikow but by their team leader, who demanded that there be a 100% proof of guilty before he was going to make an allegation in the final report. You know, when you’re dealing with an authoritarian government like Saudi Arabia and a shadowy terrorist group like Al Qaeda, it’s hard to get 100% proof of anything. So, a lot of that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Ok, so 9-11 happened nearly 7 years ago. The 9-11 Commission Report was finished nearly 4 years ago. You, yourself, mention the Report as the most authoritative and comprehensive document analyzing that event. Many will say, “Ok, it’s done. Move on. Why should we still care about this now? Why still keep digging?”

A lot of reasons. One is that a lot of people who may have had some blame for 9-11, for having allowed 9-11 to occur are still in power in Washington. They were never ever held accountable for what they did. Maybe someday some of those people should be held accountable – certainly in the history books.

Name me some names.

I think a lot of people have a lot of questions about Condi Rice. They have a lot of questions about the current leadership of the FBI. You know, at the end of all of this, not one person anywhere in the federal government was either fired or demoted for having bungled their jobs before 9-11. And Pearl Harbor? The Navy Commander in the Pacific and the Army Commanders were forced out of their jobs in disgrace: nothing like that for 9-11.

Finally, will the family of the victims ever get the whole truth?

Like every big tragedy in American history, you’re probably never going to get the full truth. It’s probably going to be a judgment that history is going to have to make long after we’ve all passed from the scene.

Photo: George Szakall via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com.


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