BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: 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.
SHENON: What was set up about it?
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.
© 2008 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2008 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman