A few years ago, I stumbled on a very colorful article from New York magazine about 9/11 conspiracy theories, "The Ground Zero Grassy Knoll." It included the work of one of the theorists, Nick Levis, who categorized our beliefs about why the attacks happened using what he called "HOP" levels. As Mark Jacobson explained it in New York, Levis promoted the idea that what people believed could be broken down into four theories:
"(A) The Official Story (a.k.a. "The Official Conspiracy Theory"). The received Bushian line: Osama, 19 freedom-haters with box cutters, etc. As White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, there was "no warning."
"(B) The Incompetence Theory (also the Stupidity, Arrogance, "Reno Wall" Theory). Accepts the Official Story, adds failure by the White House, FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. to heed ample warnings. This line was advanced, with much ass-covering compensation, in The 9/11 Commission Report.
"(C) LIHOP (or "Let It Happen on Purpose"). Many variations, but primarily that elements of the U.S. government and the private sector were aware of the hijackers' plans and, recognizing that 9/11 suited their policy goals, did nothing to stop it.
"(D) MIHOP ("Made It Happen on Purpose"). The U.S. government or private forces planned and executed the attacks."
Before reading Philip Shenon's spellbinding new book, The Commission, The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission, my own theories about 9/11 straddled the fence between B and C. I certainly believed in the government's incompetence at every level. But I was also willing to believe that those at the top were vile enough to have Let it Happen on Purpose, since, for instance, they proved to be vile enough to take us to war by knowingly promoting false justifications that have resulted in the slaughter and displacement of millions of people -- a clear case of MIHOP. I never attended any conspiracy theory meetings, but I was a soft LIHOP -- unashamed but also willing to be convinced that our leaders were not as vile in this case as so many other policies have shown them to be.
After reading The Commission, which peels back much of the "ass-covering" that the actual Commission did in pursuit of its congressional mandate, I've given up my LIHOP-hood. I'm fully on board with the Incompetence Theorists. Shenon doesn't attack government ineptitude head-on. He reveals the terrifying extent of it -- from the FAA to the CIA -- through a series of gripping vignettes, through the stories and relationships of dozens of people affected by 9/11, from the Jersey Girls But-For-Whom-the-Commission-Would-Never-Have-Been, to Henry Kissinger, who, in a meeting with them, spilled hot coffee and nearly fell off his seat when one of them asked if he had any clients whose last named is Bin Laden.
According to Shenon's blog on the book's website, the conspiracy theorists are mad at him for not promoting their views more fully in his book. But the rest of us (especially us former LIHOPs) should be dazzled by this surprisingly vibrant exposé of the government commission of our time.
Shenon, who came to write the book because he was the New York Times reporter who covered the 9/11 Commission from the time of its establishment, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his work in our recent email exchange.
1. For a book about a government commission, your book is a particular gripping read. It has the pace and drama of a thriller, including short chapters and stark Law and Order-like chapter titles. Did you realize it had that potential when you started writing it or did you begin to write the book in another way and eventually arrive at this story-telling device?
I worried at first about the short chapters -- that a chapter of less than 20 or 30 pages wouldn't be taken seriously as good book-writing, dare I say literature. But I didn't see any other way to do this. I had to juggle a big cast of characters across several cities and several years. I knew the book's structure was going to be mostly chronological, not thematic, and I didn't want artificial transitions to force anecdotes and people into the same chapter when they really didn't belong together.
I'm gratified -- and relieved -- that a lot of people like it this way. People have crazily busy lives, and they're willing to commit themselves to pushing on to the next chapter if they know it means only another eight or 10 pages of reading. A lot of very smart people I know don't have time for much more. I have also spent my career as a newspaper reporter, so bite-size narratives are my life.
2. The 9-11 Commission didn't want to point fingers as to who in government bore the responsibility for the intelligence failures that allowed the attacks to happen, but your reporting points pretty decisively at Condi Rice for consistently, even stubbornly, refusing to pass on the warnings from Richard Clarke and others to the President. It turns out there were dozens of dramatic warnings of attacks, spanning most of 2001. How aware were you of Condi Rice's failings in this regard before you began researching the book? Was it widely known that there were warnings throughout 2001 - in addition to the famous Aug. 6 PDB - that she ignored?
Condoleezza Rice has a lot to answer for about her performance as national security adviser in 2001, and I had no idea how much until I got into the reporting of the book. Like every other reporter covering the 9/11 commission, I focused too much on the infamous Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," as if it were the one and only clear warning to the White House of catastrophe that summer. The truth is that the Aug. 6 PDB was only the tip of the iceberg -- that the White House, and Rice in particular, were being told virtually every day in the spring and summer of 2001 that the United States faced a dire terrorist threat, and that no one ruled out an attack on American soil.
I was really struck by one CIA report to the White House, dated June 30, 2001, with an incredibly stark headline, "Bin Laden Threats Are Real," which seemed a desperate effort to attract somebody's attention in the West Wing. And yet, the documentary records suggests that Rice just wasn't very interested in the threat and, in fact, demoted her counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in the early months of 2001. Compare Rice to her predecessor, Sandy Berger, who pressed Clinton to focus on Al Qaeda and gave Clarke instant access to the Oval Office.
3. What were the three or four biggest surprises that turned up when you did the research for the book that you hadn't known when you were reporting on the 9/11 Commission for the Times?
I was startled to learn of the battles within the commission's staff, particularly between some of the teams of investigators and Philip Zelikow, the executive director. I had no sense at all of those struggles while the commission was in business, if only because the staff was barred by Zelikow from talking to reporters. I also had no understanding of just how much control Zelikow had over the commission's day-to-day investigation. Other surprises: That so many of the commissioners and staff questioned George Tenet's truthfulness, to the point where they required him to testify under oath in private interviews; that the commission had missed so much evidence at the National Security Agency, almost certainly the commission's most grievous research failure; that Zelikow had several contacts with Karl Rove and apparently ordered his secretary to stop logging any phone calls with the White House.
4. If your book were a novel, I'd say that it's "character driven" as much as, if not more than, "plot driven." You make a great many players in this complicated drama come to life, including the controversial Director of the 9-11 Commission, Dr. Philip Zelikow, a serious historian with a great many ties to -- also known as "conflicts of interest" with -- the Bush administration. Insiders and outsiders, including the Jersey Girls, had many objections to him in this position. What's been his reaction to the book, if any?
I understand that Dr. Zelikow is not pleased with the book, although I believe it is much, much fairer to him than has been suggested by some of the news reports about the book. There are pages and pages of him in the book responding to the criticism of his performance and explaining his decision-making, and much of that material is drawn from my extended email interview of him. (He preferred to answer my questions by email, not face-to-face.) And there are several instances in which others are quoted in the book defending him, including the commission's top lawyer - a Democrat - and Democratic commissioners Lee Hamilton and Jamie Gorelick. On my website, I have posted the full email exchange, so readers can decide for themselves if I was fair to Dr. Zelikow.
5. Let's talk about conspiracy theories. The magnitude of the attacks and of the failures of the government to stop them are read by some to this day as evidence that they were "an inside job." That's certainly not the story you're telling here, but there were some events or issues that fueled these suspicions. Can you talk about the NORAD problem in this regard?
I have trouble accepting some of the big conspiracy theories about 9/11 if only because, after 20 years in and out of Washington, I just can't imagine the federal government being nearly competent enough to carry out what would have been such a vast, complicated operation in total secrecy. But there are lots of conspiracy theories out there, and NORAD is responsible for many of them. For more than two years after 9/11, NORAD, which should have been policing the skies that morning, could not come up with a coherent timeline for its actions on Sept. 11 -- why its jet fighters could not reach some of the hijacked planes in order to stop them from reaching the targets. The commission's staff believed that NORAD generals knew that any coherent timeline would show that they had bungled their mission that morning and that it was better to lie about it -- often under oath - than to tell the truth.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of many novels, including Almost and The Practice of Deceit, as well as The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. Please click here if you would like a copy of her recent essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet."