I think everyone remembers where they were when they first heard about the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
For our generation, it’s that horrifying moment that matches up with when other generations remember the Kennedy assassination or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
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.
(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.)
You can also LISTEN to this interview by clicking the BlogTalkRadio.com audio player below!
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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.
© 2008 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2008 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman