By Bob Andelman
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I think everyone remembers where they were when they first heard about the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
But where were you when the horror of the Bush Administration’s handling of 9/11 began settling in? Its inability to scramble jets that fateful day or the President staying in an elementary school, reading to children about a goat rather than getting up and showing some leadership capabilities? Where were you when the Administration resisted a proper investigation of the attack on America?
Philip Shenon, an accomplished and long-time reporter for The New York Times, has written a book that every American should read. The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation is, of all things, a beautifully-written journey into the not-so-bipartisan investigation into the government’s handling of 9/11 and its aftermath. It’s the first book of the 21st Century that could be a proper companion to Woodward and Bernstein’s classic, All the President’s Men.
You should read The Commission, and then you should get very, very mad.
Philip Shenon interview with Mr. Media, Bob Andelman
You can LISTEN to this interview with NEW YORK TIMES investigative reporter PHILIP SHENON, author of THE COMMISSION: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY OF THE 9/11 INVESTIGATION, by clicking the audio player above!
(Please note: Due to a technical problem, only the first half of this live interview recorded on BlogTalk Radio. If anyone privately recorded it in its entirety, please contact Mr. Media.)
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Would you disagree with my assessment that this book should make most Americans pretty damn angry?
PHILIP SHENON: I think it should make an awful lot of people angry if only because I think the one thing the book does demonstrate is that there were a lot of clues to what was about to happen in September 2001 and clues that just weren’t acted on because of just sheer, blistering laziness and incompetence.
ANDELMAN: It’s amazing. We’ve heard the stories, it’s been a couple years now, about how there were documents delivered to Condoleezza Rice, to the President, that an attack was imminent, that the FBI knew about it, but when you start reading it, and you see it in a book like this…I wasn’t kidding. It really is beautifully written. It’s almost like reading fiction. It’s so beautiful because you just can’t believe the incompetence that is going on ahead of us here.
SHENON: I certainly think people in the administration wanted us to believe…They couldn’t connect the dots. There were not enough dots. The dots weren’t clear enough. I think the fact is that, if you just look over the basic documentary record, there was a lot of evidence, a lot of intelligence, to suggest that something like 9/11 was about to happen, and people within the government were raising the alarm, but the people who could act on that information just didn’t seem to be terribly interested in it.
ANDELMAN: That’s the thing that’s always puzzled me about this. I try to think, What’s the motivation? We’re not in Hollywood, but what’s the motivation for all the people who did not act on this information? What were they thinking?
SHENON: Well, a lot of the people we’re talking about here are people who work in giant bureaucracies, and a good example of that is the FBI. And people forget we’re talking about July and August of 2001, and I can tell you that in July and August of 2001, the government was operating on its summer schedule. People were thinking about their holiday weekends and their vacations and their barbecues, and this information that was flooding into Washington, for a lot of people, it just seemed easier to deal with it tomorrow.
ANDELMAN: I have to say, Phil, this is your first book so you may not have discovered this yet, but the book industry operates on the same schedule. They only work till 1:00 on Fridays. They head out early. I’m afraid if a 9/11 hit the book industry in July and August, we wouldn’t know about it until September or October.
SHENON: I hate to break it to you, but the newspaper industry operates in the same fashion.
ANDELMAN: We kid the Europeans for their long summer vacations, but I think we’re right there with them. Now that the book is done, and maybe I’m sort of jumping ahead here a little bit, it’s in your rearview mirror, though: What still leaves you unsettled about the 9/11 Commission?
SHENON: I covered the commission for the two years it was in existence, and I’m a little disquieted to learn how much I didn’t know as it was carrying out the investigation. These are things I’ve learned mostly afterwards, but it’s remarkable to me how much they missed. They largely missed researching the most important government library on terrorism, which is the one maintained by the eavesdropping agency, the National Security Agency. It just appears the commission mostly didn’t pay attention to what was in its files even though what was in its files was obviously very, very important. It was also amazing to me to discover how many battles were really fought, battles between the commission and the Bush Administration and within the commission itself. I didn’t know about a lot of that until I got to work on the book.
ANDELMAN: Journalists have taken a very strong hit in the years since 9/11 for not pressing the Bush Administration, and for being, in some ways, subjugated by the administration, being lap dogs to the administration. This is nothing you haven’t heard before. As you look back, were there mistakes made? Did journalists, because this was such a national emergency — and I say “We” because I don’t cover D.C., but I am a journalist — did we give them too much of a free pass in the period past 9/11?
SHENON: Well, I’ll tell you. As you look back at the spring and summer of 2001, what was the big story on the national radar screen out of Washington? It had nothing to do with terrorism, and it had nothing to do with politics. It all really centered on the Gary Condit scandal. Do you remember that intern who disappeared? That was the big story in Washington that summer. Now, apparently, if we journalists had done a little more digging, the people who covered the intelligence community and the law enforcement community, we would’ve found out that actually the government was, or at least portions of the government, were on red alert that something terrible was about to happen and that many people in the government were expecting it.
ANDELMAN: One of the things you talk about is that the FBI knew that this was imminent, and the FBI kind of fumbled this, but the FAA wasn’t even consulting…Let’s see. The FAA, the Federal Aviation Authority, was not even aware of or relying on the FBI’s list of terrorists? They only had like a handful of people?
SHENON: This is just an explanation of the sheer — again, incompetence I think is the best word. The FAA in the summer of 2001 had a watch-list of potential terrorists, the names of people who should not be allowed to board American passenger planes, and it apparently had something like 20 names on it. And the people at the FAA weren’t aware that actually another government agency was also compiling a list of possible terrorists, the State Department, which was known as the tip-off watch list, and it had something like 60,000 names on it, and the FAA didn’t even know that this list existed. So the FAA was operating on the basis of 20 potential terrorists you should keep off planes when, in fact, there was another list of 60,000, and two of the names on that list were names of men who would be among the 9/11 hijackers.
ANDELMAN: I’m thinking Republican response to this would be that well, instead of saying there’s a lot of incompetence going on, they would say, well, it just shows you that the government is too big, and we need to cut back further.
SHENON: I’m not sure it shows that.
ANDELMAN: Hi, do you have a question for Phil Shenon?
LARRY IN MINNESOTA: About ten days ago, I did not know that there was any debate regarding the official 9/11 story. I’m guessing I’m like a lot of Americans who, shortly after 9/11, just ignored it and possibly because it was too traumatic, but one night I was wasting some time on YouTube.com and decided to look for some video footage from 9/11, and I stumbled upon analysis from engineers, architects, academics regarding the collapse of Trade Centers One, Two, and Seven — and Seven, I had forgotten even happened — and based on the science that I was seeing there, and this is really detailed stuff, and it goes on and on and on, the science, the free-fall speed of the collapses, temperature levels, the molten metal, and the voluminous eye-witness accounts of explosions, it certainly seems to me that a commission would need to investigate what really happened there. And I’m wondering, Phil, how did the 9/11 Commission deal with the issue of the collapse of the WTC buildings, and what was happening behind the scenes with the commission and its staff regarding this issue?
SHENON: Well, we should specify, the World Trade Center One and Two were the Twin Towers, and the World Trade Center Seven is a building nearby that came down the same day, and there are a lot of conspiracy theories that center on the idea that 9/11 was really an inside job, that the Bush administration or people affiliated with the administration wanted the terrorist attacks to be carried out for a variety of reasons and that the World Trade Center buildings were brought down not by the impact from the planes but by some sort of pre-planted explosives there. Now, the 9/11 Commission did have some scientists and engineers associated with it who investigated these issues to some degree. They, I think, relied to a large extent on the work of the others within the government who investigated. There’s an agency called NIS, and I can’t tell you what that acronym stands for, but it is sort of the official architectural scientific agency that looks into these matters, and it is just about to produce a report as I understand it on what happened to World Trade Center Seven, which is the building nearby that came down the same day. As I understand it from the 9/11 Commission staff, they think that it’s very clear to them, they say, that the Twin Towers came down largely from the impact of the planes. World Trade Center Seven has come down, I’ve seen one theory offered, because there were diesel fuel tanks in the basement, diesel fuel tanks that had been placed there, ironically enough, to provide power for an emergency command post that was put in the building for Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor. But I’m going to ‘fess up and say that I am not a scientist, I am not an engineer, and I can only tell you what the investigators on the Commission had to say about this.
LARRY IN MINNESOTA: It is interesting. I’m a freelance writer and have worked in journalism, and gosh, if I was in a position right now to cover what is out there in the scientific community, architects, engineers, regarding the skepticism of the account and really strongly-held opinions that it was a controlled demolition, I would be all over this story. I think it’s absolutely incredible.
SHENON: One problem I have with the controlled demolition argument, or among the problems I have, is the fact that it is amazing to me that if that were really the case, that not a word of it has leaked in all these years. It’s very hard to keep a secret.
LARRY IN MINNESOTA: Oh yeah. I mean, I don’t know where this leads. I don’t know how you explain how it was done, but just looking at the facts and considering the laws of physics, for that WTC Seven to fall at free-fall speed, basically the same speed that if you dropped a marble from the top of it, that’s how fast it fell down, that’s astounding. It’s absolutely astounding.
SHENON: Yes. Again, I’m no technical expert. I think we might all want to hold our breath for a minute and see what this federal agency has to say, because apparently it is, within the architectural/engineering community, it is quite well-respected in its judgments.
LARRY IN MINNESOTA: Right. Okay. Well, that’s what I had, Bob.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Larry, thank you very much for calling. I appreciate it.
LARRY IN MINNESOTA: Thanks. Bye.
ANDELMAN: Phil, along that line, the book’s been out about a month now. Is it too soon for you to be hearing from a legion of conspiracy theorists out there about 9/11, or has that already begun for you?
SHENON: Oh, no, that began almost the first day, and the book has been harshly criticized by those people. There is a large community of people in this country and around the world who believe that this must have been part of a larger conspiracy in which perhaps elements of the Bush Administration cooperated with Al Qaeda in these attacks. It’s true. It’s an amazing thing. I just don’t have the evidence in front of me to demonstrate it.
ANDELMAN: It’s funny. I used to think that the President was just kind of a simpleton and he was being controlled by people around him, and while that hasn’t necessarily changed in all these years, there’s just something about this whole thing, I just feel like there’s a big answer that’s hanging out there that we don’t have yet and that as long as the Bush Administration is in power, we’re not going to have that answer.
SHENON: I see your point. I’ve actually told some of the conspiracy theorists, “I’m not proving what you say is true.” I’m surprised some of them don’t make use of the book as an argument for a new investigation for a variety of reasons.
ANDELMAN: What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked about or challenged on?
SHENON: A lot of them have to do with these questions about whether or not there was a larger conspiracy at work here. I do get asked a lot about, it’s not weird, it’s interesting, though, about Philip Zelikow, who’s the guy who really ran the investigation in many ways. He’s a historian at the University of Virginia who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and as much as anybody, he really ran the day-to-day investigation and as much as anybody else wrote and edited the final report, and I get a lot of questions about all of his ties to the White House and his very close friendship with Condoleezza Rice and whether or not that had any impact on the way the report was presented to the world.
ANDELMAN: And ultimately, do you think that it did?
SHENON: I think it almost had to, if only because he had very strong opinions that he made clear to the people who worked for him, and he was very much the funnel through which all information had to pass between the staff and the commission and vice-versa, and I do think that those of us in the world who have been edited at one point or another know that how our editor feels about a subject makes a big difference in the way our work is presented to the world.
ANDELMAN: That report is biased, but we’re not supposed to show it. It comes through in different ways.
SHENON: And there’s editor’s bias, as well.
ANDELMAN: Now that the book’s been out, the commission was headed by former New Jersey governor Tom Kean and also Lee Hamilton, who I’m thinking was a Representative…
ANDELMAN: And have you heard from them in terms of their thoughts on the book?
SHENON: I haven’t heard from them personally. They joined in a statement, nine of the commissioners joined in a statement essentially saying that the book was too tough on Philip Zelikow and that the report should be judged on its own, not by Philip Zelilow’s ties to the Bush administration.
ANDELMAN: Interesting. I was not aware of that statement. I’m kind of surprised in light of what I’ve read in the book that they would jump to that defense.
SHENON: Well, they feel that, I think that some of the 9/11 commissioners feel that anything that tarnishes the commission somehow tarnishes their own personal legacy, so therefore if the book is critical of the commission, they feel sort of individually criticized here. That’s probably to be expected.ANDELMAN: Hi. Do you have a question for Phil Shenon?
CALLER FROM CANADA: I just tuned in, so I just wanted to know if you guys could bring me up to speed on what was going on here. What are you talking about?
ANDELMAN: We’re talking about Phil Shenon’s book The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Oh. I’m Canadian.
ANDELMAN: Well, thanks for calling.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Yeah. That was a big farce. Do you think it was set up?
PHILIP SHENON: Excuse me? Do you think it was set up?
CALLER FROM CANADA: Yeah.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Well, wasn’t Bush in bed with the Bin Laden family?
SHENON: That’s certainly an argument made that the 9/11 Commission report went very soft on — not so much on the Bin Laden family as on the Saudi government, and the Saudi government is very tied into the Bin Laden family. Bin Laden’s father was one of the big industrialists of Saudi Arabia, ran a huge engineering company that’s still in existence to this day.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Wasn’t Bush involved with them, though, the Bush family?
SHENON: I’ve certainly heard that argument. I don’t know that they were, surely the two families had a lot of similar interests in the oil business and elsewhere.
CALLER FROM CANADA: I think they were in bed together, you know what I mean?
SHENON: There was a big flap after 9/11 with the discovery that the federal government had allowed… The Bin Laden family is a huge family. Osama has a lot of brothers and sisters, and the Bush White House allowed planeloads of Bin Laden family members to leave the country, to evacuate the United States shortly after 9/11.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Geez, I wonder why.
SHENON: There was a lot of concern that this was sort of an inside, this was….
CALLER FROM CANADA: There was a total inside job, I think, anyways. You know, if you owed me a lot of money, I would be driving a plane into your house, too.
SHENON: Gee, I hope not.
CALLER FROM CANADA: Hypothetically. I’d be upset.
ANDELMAN: We appreciate the call. Philip, I’m going to ask you a little about that myself. Most Americans, I think, had thought until 9/11 that the Saudis were our friends, our business partners, that it was a country as a whole that kind of looked out for us at certain times during oil crises, that we had this good relationship with it, and then suddenly 9/11 happens. Bin Laden is revealed to most of the American public for the first time as a Saudi, and first of all, we are suddenly left with questions we’ve never had before about the Saudi government, the royal family, and their intentions to us, things that have never been answered to this day, have they?
SHENON: No, and I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve always had the whole-hearted support of the Saudi people. Osama Bin Laden was and remains a big hero. He was certainly a big hero in Saudi Arabia before 9/11, and after 9/11, there was an awful lot of evidence revealed that suggested that there were some elements of the Saudi government that had actually provided logistical support for Al Qaeda and even more intriguingly may have provided important logistical supports for some of the hijackers when they lived in the U.S. before 9/11. Two of the hijackers lived very much in the open in San Diego for about a year and a half before 9/11, and a group of young Arab ex-patriot men living in southern California stepped forward to help them out. It appeared pretty clearly that some of these men were on the payroll in one way or another of the Saudi government. And some of the investigators on the 9/11 Commission staff felt very strongly that all of that should be pointed out in the final report of the 9/11 Commission, but for reasons involving the leadership of the Commission, most of that material never got into the final report of the 9/11 Commission, though you’ll find it in my book.
ANDELMAN: We talk about the things that give us pause with regard to full trust and respect in government, and it’s things like that where someone is clearly protecting someone, and it’s just hard to imagine that whoever is being protected is more important than the American people’s right to know what happened on that day. If there’s nothing sinister about it, then why shouldn’t we be hearing the details?
SHENON: I agree, and in that case involving the Saudis, the material didn’t go into the final report of the 9/11 Commission because the guy who was leading that particular team of investigators on the Commission was a very well respected but very, very conservative prosecutor who felt that unless you had 100% proof of something, you shouldn’t make the allegation. Well, when you’re talking about a shadowy organization like Al Qaeda in a very authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia is, you’re never going to have 100% proof of almost anything, and his investigators believed very strongly that the commission was making a big mistake by not going forward, not making public the best information it had.
ANDELMAN: Phil, how did you choose this as the topic for your first book? You’ve been with The New York Times a long time, you’ve reported from a lot of foreign countries, you’ve held a lot of big positions at the paper as a correspondent and a reporter, why was this the turn-on to have you write a book?
SHENON: I covered the commission for the better part of two years. That was my beat, and at the end of it, I thought there were probably some good detective stories to tell about the work of the commission. During the investigation by the commission, I didn’t have access to most of the staff. There were 85 people who were mostly barred from talking to reporters. After the commission went out of business, suddenly these people were available to me and had some astonishing stories to tell. And it occurred to me that I was covering the equivalent for our generation of the Warren Commission. This was the big government investigation of our lifetimes, and it occurred to me, with the Warren Commission, if somebody had pretty quickly after it had gone out of business produced some sort of internal history of the Commission, that might have been a big public service and probably would have had some important information to reveal, and I thought this was my opportunity. This turned out to be a great story for me to cover, and there was much more of it to cover that I couldn’t deal with while I was writing for the daily newspaper. It seemed to have the workings of a book.
ANDELMAN: That’s the thing. That’s what I love about the way you tell it. It is a story. It’s not a dead recitation of this happened and that happened. You tell it as a story. A book is a big thing to tackle, and this is a humongous topic. Did you think when the commission ended its work and you had finished covering it that oh, well, I’ve got all this stuff, I’ll do a little more digging and throw the book together and then the story started taking you in other places?
SHENON: I did find that I was learning a tremendous amount I didn’t know before, and also, there was a great human element to this, which is that there were just some phenomenal characters to write about in the course of this book, everybody from Henry Kissinger to Philip Zelikow, the man who ran the thing, to a lot of the young staffers, really quite brilliant young people who did the digging and had these great detective stories to tell, stories that I couldn’t tell at the time I was covering the commission. So as you say, I think people who go into this book will discover there’s a lot in here they had no concept of before. Certainly I had no concept of it until I did the reporting for the book.
ANDELMAN: How many people did you interview for the book?
SHENON: I talked to about two-thirds of the 85 people on the staff. I spoke to eight of the 10 commissioners for the book, and I spoke to probably hundreds of other people involved one way or another with the 9/11 Commission.
ANDELMAN: Which commissioners did you not talk to?
SHENON: Two of the Republicans, Jim Thompson, the former governor of Illinois, who was very helpful to me, in truth, during the course of the investigation; he just didn’t choose to talk to me for the book, and Fred Fielding, who is now the counsel at the White House.
ANDELMAN: Okay. And Thompson had some other ethical problems, didn’t he?
SHENON: Thompson is one of the commissioners who was really least involved in the day-to-day workings of the commission, and that almost certainly has something to do with the fact that he was very tied up in this morass of a criminal investigation in Chicago, his home, over Conrad Black, the media mogul who just went to, has only just gone to jail for stealing billions of dollars from his publishing empire.
ANDELMAN: And Fred Fielding has ties back to the Nixon Administration, doesn’t he?
SHENON: Fred Fielding has been an institution in Washington. He was a depute White House counsel during Watergate for President Nixon, he was then the White House counsel for President Reagan, and he’s recently taken that job up again for President Bush.
ANDELMAN: So usually where Fielding shows up, something smells bad….
SHENON: He would argue that he just shows up when a powerful client needs a powerful lawyer.
ANDELMAN: Interesting. Now Kissinger did not talk to you, is that right?
SHENON: He did not, no.
ANDELMAN: And probably not a surprise there, either.
SHENON: Well, no. I imagine he’s not very comfortable with his portrayal in the book, but one of my favorite anecdotes in the book though, which is a group…. Henry Kissinger was initially named to run the 9/11 Commission. He only lasted in that job about a month before he resigned, and he resigned, I now know, because a day before his resignation, he was confronted by a lot of the 9/11 families in his office, the office of his consulting firm in New York, and the families apparently got him so rattled that he nearly fell off the couch and spilled his coffee.
ANDELMAN: That’s right at the beginning of the book, and it’s one of those retellings where people will know that this is not a typical look at history that’s going to make you weep and fall asleep within minutes. It’s a great retelling. I’m assuming that some of the Jersey Girls were the sources for that information.
SHENON: Oh, no, no. They tell that story, and they tell it, as you can imagine, with great delight, further proof of, really, how the Jersey Girls, which is a group of widows from New Jersey, and the families really made such an important difference. They really got the commission created in the first place, and they better than anybody else really policed the commission as it went forward.
ANDELMAN: These women have been through the ringer in these years. Obviously, they lost their families, they’ve had to become political, they’ve had to lobby and do all kinds of things. They were attacked by Ann Coulter, right, and it’s been a tough time for them. I feel for them even more. A number of them are from East Brunswick, New Jersey. I’m actually from North Brunswick, NJ, so I felt a little kinship there when they were being attacked. Have you heard from them since the book has come out?
SHENON: Sure. No. I think there are very pleased that a lot of these stories have been told. They were really among the people who were most aggressive about trying to monitor what Philip Zelikow was doing or not doing on the commission. They called very early on for his resignation, in fact.
Bob Andelman is the author or co-author of 12 books, including Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman’s Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).