The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

by Philip Shenon

all know how frustrating dealing with government bureaucracy can
be. The miles of red tape. The cynicism. The paranoia.

Philip Shenon, a Washington, DC-based reporter for The New York
, provides all this and more as he recreates the
chronology of The 9/11 Commission Report.

In the months following the attack on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, a frightened nation demanded answers. Who was to
blame for the failure to anticipate such a monumental deed? And the
search for a process to investigate and report on these issues was
slowly, haltingly underway.

Such a massive project brings to mind the “too many
cooks…” adage. The Commission --- co-chaired by Thomas
Kean, the ex-governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former
Congressman from Indiana, and with Philip Zelikow installed as
executive director --- seemed almost doomed to failure from the
start. Shortages of the most elementary infrastructure, such as
office space, phones and faxes, even message pads, set the tone for
what was to come.

Zelikow, a brilliant if egotistical and Machiavellian historian,
demanded total fealty and his brusque manner rubbed many the wrong
way, not the least of whom were the families of those killed in the
attacks. Any member of his staff who dared question his orders was
subject to immediate dismissal. His relationships (and hoped-for
relationships) with those in the Bush administration were deemed an
impediment to honest criticism, but despite these seeming conflicts
of interest, nothing was done to remove him from his post, even as
he superseded his authority with his draconian decisions.

The problems the Commission faced came from within --- Kean,
Hamilton and the other commissioners were concerned that Zelikow
was too interested in insinuating himself into the story, rather
than objectively serving the cause --- and without, as
administration officials constantly thwarted attempts to obtain
classified material that might shed light on the catastrophe,
seeking to protect Bush (and each other) as he pursued a second
term by refusing to provide testimony or materials that would aid
in the investigation.

Shenon offers his narrative in an almost-straightforward
chronology, with a few flashbacks along the way, marking every
pothole on the road to the truth, as everyone in power --- the CIA,
the FBI, Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, etc. ---
tried to cover their posteriors, with dismaying results.

The report, published at the end of the 19-month process, was
ultimately unsatisfying for many. It received praise for
“reading like a novel,” as opposed to previous
mind-numbing reports. But no one was found to be “personally
responsible,” although government agencies such as the FBI
took lumps.

THE COMMISSION ends Godfather-like: with Zelikow being
appointed as State Department counselor by Rice, who had been named
Secretary of State in the new Bush administration: “Zelikow
told his new colleagues…that it was the sort of job he always

It is somewhat disappointing, yet completely understandable, that
there is an amazing dearth of citations in Shenon’s
worthwhile but depressing book. “I don’t like anonymous
sources either,” he writes in the “notes”
section. “But in any sort of reporting on the inner workings
of the government, especially when it involves intelligence
agencies and classified information, there is almost always a need
to depend on sources who cannot be identified.”

While this very well may be true, the inclusion of such sources
inevitably will raise questions of accuracy and credibility in an
already-paranoid world.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 7, 2011

The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation
by Philip Shenon

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2008
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 0446580759
  • ISBN-13: 9780446580755