Reports on Attacks Are Gripping, Not Dry

By CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS

The New York Times

June 20, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 19 - In contrast to the plodding or self-promoting style of so many government documents, the staff reports of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have provided something truly rare in official Washington: a good read.

In 17 crisply worded reports, the commission staff laid out facts from the events that shook and marred the lives of millions. Using a style that is remarkably free of artifice, the authors achieved a high point in detail, clarity and coherence.

It is early yet to know if readability translates into influence. And staff members warn that there is still time for commissioners to clutter their prose before next month's final report and recommendation. But the reviews of the reports, including three more released this week, have been favorable.

"People are reading them," said Kristen Breitweiser, of Middletown, N.J., whose husband died in the World Trade Center. "I have been very surprised about how much interest there has been and how closely people are following along. We have received e-mails from all over the world."

A publisher, PublicAffairs, has already compiled the first 12 staff reports in a book.

"There are two points that make these reports unique," said Mark Danner, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California, Berkeley, and a contributor to The New Yorker. "One, there's a solid, clear narrative that provides a sense of drama, which makes it easier for reporters to do their jobs. Second, they not only have narrative drive, but they have official standing."

Commissions have been writing reports since government began. There are heavy tomes summing up the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Warren Commission's investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Iran-contra scandal and the independent counsel's inquiry into the Clinton administration. But usually it has taken historians, biographers and filmmakers to make the topics come alive.

The Sept. 11 staff reports, in contrast, offer a gripping story the first time around. They are richly detailed and colorful, peppered with actual dialogue, gleaned from audiotapes, that provides an intimate view of that day's events.

The reports eavesdrop on a hijacker. ("Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport; don't try any stupid moves.") They visited an air traffic controller being pressed for a momentous decision. ("Uh, you know, everybody just left the room.") And they sat at Vice President Dick Cheney's elbow when he reported, coolly but mistakenly, that his order had downed two airplanes. ("That is correct. And it's my understanding they've already taken a couple of aircraft out.")

Being presented in installments gave the reports a real-time excitement that was enhanced by the public hearings that accompanied them. For those truly steeped in the mysteries of the investigation, the incremental unveiling of the facts was akin to watching a television serial.

Peter Osnos, the publisher of PublicAffairs, said the chapter-like reports provided an unusual glimpse into an investigation still in progress.

Also rare for government documents on sensitive matters, the reports are mercifully devoid of redactions. Their language is precise, economical and highly authoritative.

For example, one report dismisses the Bush administration's assertion of an encounter in Prague between a Qaeda operative and an Iraqi intelligence official. ("We do not believe that such a meeting occurred.")

Mr. Osnos said the reports reflected the frank and nonpartisan style of the commission's chairmen, Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey; and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

"We were fortunate to have two absolute straight-talkers in the second row," Mr. Osnos said. "They're not grandstanders."

Philip D. Zelikow, the commission's executive director, said the authors wanted their reports to be read.

"We wanted to draft material that people will want to read themselves," said Mr. Zelikow, who managed dozens of investigators researching and writing about Sept. 11. Part of the challenge, he said, was to produce a text from numerous authors and to make it uniform.

"You're both writing by committee and trying to avoid all the vices of writing by committee," he said.

Mr. Zelikow is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a former State Department official and National Security Council staff member. He has written books based on the taped recordings of the Kennedy presidency and on German reunification.

His co-author on the second book, which is now a decade old, was Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and that collaboration raised concern among some Sept. 11 family members about a potential conflict of interest.

Working at Mr. Zelikow's side was a deputy, Chris Kojm, a former aide to Mr. Hamilton, who was a writer and editor with the Foreign Policy Association in New York; and Daniel Marcus, the commission's general counsel, who is a former Justice Department official.

"There is no single, literary giant lurking behind our shoulders," Mr. Zelikow said.

John Files contributed reporting for this article.