The 9/11 Panel Report
The Washington Post
July 30, 2004
If the 9/11 report had been written as a novel, nobody would believe it. The
story is too far-fetched: an attack by a group of Islamic fanatics that the CIA
saw coming, had been warning about for years but could do nothing to stop; the
murder of nearly 3,000 people to which investigators had the necessary clues
before the event but couldn't see the pattern; a multiple airplane hijacking in
which a computer system identified 10 of the 19 hijackers as potentially
suspicious but prevented none from boarding; a morning of mayhem that knocked
the United States so far off balance that, nearly three years later, it still
Think about it this way: Imagine that key details of al Qaeda's plot had
been known beforehand -- the names of several operatives, their possible method
of attack, their likely timing. Suppose one backup member of the team, Zacarias
Moussaoui, had actually been arrested beforehand. How could the terrorists
still have succeeded, and with such devastating consequences?
The 9/11 commission was charged with unraveling this mystery -- with
making sense of an implausible, heartrending story. For months, its hearings
provided a kind of national theater, in which witnesses tried to explain how the
tragedy happened and why they had failed to avert it. Now, in its final report,
the commission has compiled its findings in a book that is something of a
literary phenomenon. In the 10 days since it was published, the report has
become a runaway bestseller. And deservedly so. For in its meticulous
compilation of fact, the report makes the horrors of 9/11 even more shocking.
Try to read the story as a narrative, a nonfiction thriller in which the
characters move inexorably toward the cataclysm of that cloudless morning. The
strength of the report is precisely in its narrative power; by telling all the
little stories, it reveals the big story in a different way. We see the bland
evil of the plotters, the Hamlet-like indecision of government officials, the
bravery amid chaos of the f irefighters.
The report draws authority from the fact that it compiles some of the most
secret information ever gathered by the U.S. government. Unlike the Warren
Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which was
instantly implausible partly because the authors hid the secrets they knew (and
ignored the ones they didn't), this book has a comprehensiveness that seems
likely to stand the test of time. New facts about 9/11 may emerge to supplement
this account, but they won't challenge its basic integrity. It may be the
history that is read and remembered by future generations of Americans. As
Janet Malcolm once said of the narrative voice of a novel: The reader feels it
could only have happened the way it's described on the page.
Like all great tragedies, this one seems at once inevitable and freakishly
accidental. The leader of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, was selected by a
computerized system called CAPPS for special pre-boarding screening at the
airport; yet that security measure only required confirmation that he (and the
nine other hijackers who were similarly identified) board their planes before
their bags were loaded. It seems the hijackers didn't have any backup plan if
the pilots had kept the cockpit doors locked, yet all the doors opened to them
soon after takeoff.
When you know how a story is going to turn out, the voices of the doomed
have a special poignancy. On American Flight 11, a flight attendant named
Madeline "Amy" Sweeney told a contact on the ground: "We are flying very, very
low. We are flying way too low. Oh my God we are way too low." A moment
later, the plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. On
United Flight 175, a man named Peter Hanson called his father: "Don't worry,
Dad -- If it happens it'll be very fast -- My God, my God." The call ended.
The father turned on his television set and saw United 175 hit the South
The sheer brutality of the hijackers -- their lust for a martyrdom that
would kill as many Americans as possible -- emerges in a small detail: American
Flight 77 was flying at the gut-churning speed of 530 miles an hour when it hit
the Pentagon. The heroism of the victims is clear in the tale of how the
unarmed passengers of United Flight 93 took a vote and stormed the hijackers.
The last words of one passenger capture the reflexive nature of bravery:
"Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye." Their actions
probably saved the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
The inability of the American government to deal with this threat is clear
in every page of the report. When FAA officials realize (late) that planes are
being hijacked, they can't monitor them -- or decide what to do. The vice
president thinks he has issued orders to shoot down civilian planes, but the
pilots in the air don't get the word. The military's air-defense command isn't
sure whether it's dealing with an exercise or a real event. Incredibly,
according to a little-noticed footnote in the report, "On 9/11, NORAD was
scheduled to conduct a military exercise, Vigilant Guardian, which postulated a
bomber attack from the former Soviet Union." That pretty much sums it up, in
terms of the government's state of preparedness for fighting the war against
terrorism that dawned on 9/11.
"We're at war," President Bush told Vice President Cheney that morning.
"Somebody's going to pay." What makes his statement haunting is that CIA
Director George Tenet had written of the al Qaeda threat in a secret memo nearly
three years earlier: "We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in
this effort, either inside the CIA or the Community." And yet very little was
done to avert the catastrophe that Tenet had seen ahead. The major actors --
the principals of the Clinton and Bush administrations, the wary operatives of
the CIA, the all-or-nothing generals at the Pentagon, the don't-cross-the-"wall"
bureaucrats at the FBI -- all failed to take actions that might have prevented
disaster. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion.
The report's tone is evenhanded and nonpartisan, but the facts gathered
here are devastating for the Bush administration. The Clinton team may have
dithered over plans to kidnap (or kill) Osama bin Laden in 1998 and '99, but
they did manage to mobilize the government at every level to deal with al
Qaeda's Millennium Plot. The Clinton administration gathered a small crisis
group at the White House that made sure every agency worked to thwart al Qaeda's
planned terrorist attack. The Bush team, in contrast, didn't get serious about
bin Laden until those planes hit their targets. Indeed, it's shattering to read
the report's account of the summer of 2001, well before the assault, when al
Qaeda operatives couldn't stop chattering about the big, big terrorist attack
they were planning -- and the Bush administration never went into full crisis
mode. "Many officials told us they knew something terrible was planned, and
they were desperate to stop it," the report notes. But they didn't, in part
because the White House didn't take control.
Even after 9/11, some senior Bush officials didn't seem to get it.
Another of those little-noticed footnotes describes a Sept. 20, 2001, memo
prepared by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, apparently for his
boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld. According to the commission, "the author expressed
disappointment at the limited options immediately available in Afghanistan and
the lack of ground options. The author suggested instead hitting terrorists
outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting
a non-al Qaeda target like Iraq. Since U.S. attacks were expected in
Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a
surprise to the terrorists." If Feith really wrote such a memo, how is it
possible that he is still in his job?
For all its power, the 9/11 report also has its weaknesses. In any
narrative, the reader wants to understand the motivation of the characters. Yet
despite sections that try to elucidate the history of Islamic extremism, the
face of the enemy remains opaque here. What drove Atta, the middle-class son of
an Egyptian attorney, to turn himself into a human missile? The question is not
only unanswered but largely unaddressed. And it's odd, in a report that aims to
be comprehensive, to find almost no mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a
source of tension in the Middle East -- and no urging of a revived American role
in peace negotiations among the overlong list of policy recommendations.
Indeed, the report is at its weakest when it leaves the narrative behind
and offers two final chapters on "What to Do" and "How to Do It." Although
President Bush and his challenger, John F. Kerry, have been trying to outdo
each other in their enthusiasm to implement the report, its recommendations are
questionable -- and ignore some of the lessons of the report itself. The panel
calls for a national intelligence director in the White House, for example. But
shorn of the bureaucratic leverage the CIA director now has, that official might
actually have less clout. In truth, nothing would have prevented the national
security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, from mobilizing anti-terrorism policy
against al Qaeda in the months before 9/11. That's what makes this story a
tragedy -- that existing institutions of government might have averted the
disaster, if they had taken action.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post, former
executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and author of many spy
novels, among them "Agents of Innocence."