Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” interviews New York Times investigative reporter, Philip Shenon, about his new book on the 9/11 Commission findings, “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.”
Shortly after this interview, Shenon was also interviewed by CNN's Frank Sesno, substituting for the host on NPR's Diane Rehm show. Some excerpts from that interview have been added here -- in italics and indented -- because of their value in amplifying and clarifying certain aspects of the 9/11 Commission's staff and investigations.
Terry Gross: … The book is about what happened behind the scenes at the 9/11 Commission, the disagreements within the commission, the political pressure on it, and the obstructions and deceptions the commission faced. Shenon is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He covered the 9/11 Commission for the Times from the day of its first meeting in January 2003 until it closed down in August 2004. Then Shenon covered how Congress and the White House responded to the commission’s recommendations. Eight of the ten commissioners gave him interviews for the book. He also interviewed commission staff members who had been told not to speak to reporters during the investigation. … Philip Shenon, welcome back to “Fresh Air.” Let’s talk a little about Philip Zelikow who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission. He was chosen in spite of his ties to people in the Bush administration. Just run through for us, before we go further, what his connections were to the Bush administration and to certain key activities within the administration.
Philip Shenon: Well, he has and had lots of ties to the Bush administration, and he had been a member of the 2001 transition team for the current president Bush. As part of the transition, it specifically looked at the operations of the counter-terrorism team at the White House. He had previously worked for the first president Bush on the National Security Council staff with a young staffer by the name of Condoleezza Rice. They formed a very close friendship, Zelikow and Rice, and went on after the end of the first Bush administration to write a book together. He had many other contacts within the administration. He had been a supporter of the incumbent President Bush’s and there had been a lot of speculation that he was supposed to end up on the Bush administration White House team. It didn’t happen, but there had been a lot of assumptions that he would.
TG: Two key connections I want to mention here is that he was, you write, the “architect of the demotion of Richard Clarke and his counter-terrorism team” within the National Security Council and that Zelikow wrote the White House’s doctrine for preemptive defense used to justify the invasion of Iraq. So there was a lot of skepticism within the commission about appointing Zelikow to such a high position in the commission. You say in your book that while he was executive director of the 9/11 Commission he spoke both of Condoleezza Rice and with Karl Rove. Was that against the rules?
PS: Early on, there had been an awful lot of suspicion about Zelikow’s ties to the White House. He insisted to the commissioners – to the commission’s leaders – that he was going to go out of his way to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. And that he would essentially cut his ties to most of these people. I have certainly learned over the course of the last two years that he was maintaining some of these relationships in fact, and that he had on several occasions – it appears – had some sort of contact with Rove. Both the White House and Zelikow insist that the contacts were entirely innocent and involved Zelikow’s old work at the University of Virginia. But when it became known on the staff of the commission that Zelikow was in contact with Karl Rove there was a great sense of alarm. Why would the executive director of the commission be in touch with the president’s top political advisor? What possible explanation for that could there be? It also became known, shortly thereafter, that Zelikow had called in his secretary and ordered her to stop keeping a log book of his contacts with the White House. This was reported thereafter to the general counsel of the commission. I can’t tell you what was said between Karl Rove and Philip Zelikow. I can tell you, though, that the fact that there were those contacts created a huge amount of suspicion on the part of the staff.
PS: ...There's an odd moment after the disclosure when Zelikow calls his secretary into his office, closes the door, and apparently orders here to stop keeping logs of his contacts with the White House. ...It may be [very serious]. He denies that this happened. He denies that he ever issued such an order. He denies there were phone logs. ...To his credit, he was hugely forthcoming about taking my questions. We didn't meet in person. We had an extended email conversation. The website for this book will have the entire extended email conversation between myself and Dr. Zelikow. ...He says he was talking about activities involving the [University of Virginia] Miller Center...
TG: There are also concerns on the part of the staff, you say, that Zelikow was using the commission to justify the war Iraq during the early days of the commission.
PS: I think we should point out that early on people knew about some of Zelikow’s ties to the White House. I don’t think people knew about all of them. I’m quite convinced they didn’t know all of them. It really wasn’t until the final months of the commission’s investigations that it became known that Zelikow was the principle author of a very important document released by the White House in September 2002 that sort of turned military doctrine on its head and justified a preemptive war. The US would go to war against a nation which did not necessarily pose an immediate military threat to the country. Obviously there was a belief at the time that the document was being written in anticipation of the invasion of Iraq the following year. The fact that Zelikow had written that document, and the fact that that had not been widely known on the commission until the very late stages of the investigation, created a concern that Zelikow had attempted to use the investigation as a way of finding ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda that might have justified that invasion. AT the end of the commission’s work, Zelikow signed on to the staff opinion that there indeed were no clear ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. But there certainly had been a view earlier on that Zelikow was interested in trying to publicly find such a connection.
PS: ...There were [also] absolutely people who thought at the end of the day that his instincts as an historian overwhelmed any instincts he might have had as a partisan. There were real battles for Zelikow with the White House. Alberto Gonzales apparently meets him one time and then announced to Kean and Hamilton that he will never meet him again! Because Zelikow was so aggressive in trying to get information out of the White House...
TG: You write about how Vice President Dick Cheney tried to limit what the commission could do. He didn’t like the idea of there being a 9/11 commission. Did the vice president do anything to limit the scope of the investigation or to prevent it from happening?
PS: Well, he was clearly at the forefront of White House efforts to stop the commission from being created in the first place. There’s an anecdote in the book. In 2002, the vice president made what seemed to be a very threatening phone call to Tom Daschle who was then the Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate suggesting that the Democratic party would pay a real price if it attempted to air some of these pre-9/11 intelligence issues in public. The vice president said that this would damage national security if there were such an open investigation and suggested strongly that the Democratic party would pay a price in the elections of November 2002. You’ll recall that in those elections the Democrats took a real drubbing. They lost the Senate. It was a formidable threat at that point because at that moment president Bush and his team were riding high in opinion polls. They were about as popular as they would ever be.
TG: You write that Cheney said the White House would portray the Democrats as undermining the war on terror by holding the investigation on what went wrong on 9/11.
PS: Right. Daschle was clever enough to allow… he was being interviewed at that moment by a reporter from Newsweek and he was clever enough to have the reporter remain in the room to listen to this conversation!
TG: Vice President Cheney was one of the witnesses questioned by the 9/11 Commission. And the commission had some questions about the accuracy of what he told them. What were the specific things they questioned?
PS: On the morning of 9/11, Cheney issued an order to the Pentagon to be prepared to shoot down any commercial plane that approached Washington. This is after the initial strikes in New York and Washington. The information was relayed to jet fighters and the pilots were apparently ready to begin shooting down passenger planes if any came near the capitol. Cheney insisted that he had given this order with the approval of– and after consultation with – the president. But in fact the commission staff over time believed that there hadn’t been any such consultation, that the vice president had given this order without any approval. It would have been an unconstitutional act for the vice president to give such an authorization. But it certainly seemed to be the case. At the end of the commission’s work, Vice President Cheney apparently placed quite an angry phone call to both the chairman and vice-chairman of the commission to tell them to remove this material from the report. They didn’t. And I think if you read between the lines of the report, you can see that the commission is suggesting it doesn’t believe the vice president’s account.
TG: One of the more famous moments of the 9/11 Commission – and this is featured in Michael Moore’s documentary about the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration – is that Condoleezza Rice says there was no real warning about 9/11 and then she’s asked to read the title of an August 6th Presidential Daily Briefing. And the title is, “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the US.” You say it was very hard for the 9/11 Commission to get its hands on these presidential daily briefings that were used as evidence by the commission. Why was it so difficult?
PS: These documents, called the “president’s daily brief” or “pdb,” are sort of the crown jewels of the intelligence community. They’re an overnight digest, like a super-secret newspaper prepared for the Oval Office every day, in which the CIA tells the president what’s the hottest or latest news from around the world on a variety of national security issues. Up until the 9/11 Commission, these documents had almost never been shared outside the executive branch. The readership of the pdb’s is just a handful of people. The 9/11 Commission felt very strongly – and Zelikow in particular felt very strongly – that the commission had to get access to all of those pdb’s – certainly the pdb’s that were given to President Bush and President Clinton about Al Qaeda. This became the biggest of the public showdowns between the commission and the White House, the White House refusing to make these available and the commission demanding them. There is even very serious concern, or a very serious move on the commission, to issue a subpoena to the White House. Which would have been quite an explosive development if it had occurred! At the end of the day, the White House agreed to make some of the pdb’s available, including the pdb you referred to, which was from August 2001 and which was a reasonably clear warning to the president that Al Qaeda intended to strike within American borders. The disclosure of the name of that pdb was, indeed, one of the landmark moments in the history of the investigation.
TG: … Some of the staff of the 9/11 commission, you write, think that the commission did an insufficient job researching the National Security Agency documents, the archives. What’s the problem there?
PS: I’ll tell you – that in terms of failings of the 9/11 Commission, in terms of its research, I think this is almost certainly the most serious one. The commission got access to an awful lot of materials at the CIA. It got access to an awful lot of materials at the FBI and other agencies. And it was given access – the big eavesdropping agency, the NSA, welcomed the commission to come and review its terrorism archives, but for reasons which escaped a lot of the staff, there seemed to be no interest in getting into the NSA and its vast, vast archives of information about Al Qaeda and terrorist threats. It’s really only at the very last minute that somebody decides that they need to get in there to review them. When they do, they find quite explosive material. The NSA is the agency that, through its satellites and its ground-based wiretapping equipment, really gathers most of the government’s raw intelligence on national security threats, and on Al Qaeda and bin Laden in particular. When a CIA analyst issues a report, it is often done on the basis of the raw information gathered by the NSA. What I’m trying to say is that the NSA is a very, very important agency if you want to understand the history of the government’s response to Al Qaeda, and if you want to understand Al Qaeda’s history. You need to get into the NSA to start reviewing the raw data. But the raw data – much of it – was never reviewed by the commission. The realization at the last minute that they hadn’t done that leads to a very frantic, last minute weekend trip by some of the commission staffers to the NSA’s headquarters up in Maryland where they try their darnedest to get into the weeds of this material. But they really can’t do that in the very limited time they have left in the investigation. There’s a lot of concern that there are a lot of secrets still at the NSA that the 9/11 Commission knew nothing about.
TG: Even so, you say that they did find explosive material at the NSA in the limited time that they had there. What did they find?
PS: They found evidence that seemed to suggest that the government of Iran and the military group, Hezbollah, had provided really important assistance to some of the 9/11 highjackers in the year and a half before the attack. The Bush administration – most of the government – had been focused so long on ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq that some of the members of the commission staff were surprised to discover that apparently there was a much closer link between Al Qaeda and Iran and nobody knew about it. Nobody knew about this material out of the NSA until the very last stages of the 9/11 Commission investigation.
PS: ...At the very end of the investigation, the staff gets into these files and finds there's an awful lot of evidence suggesting recently close ties between the government of Iran and some of the 9/11 highjackers -- that the government of Iran gave assistance to the highjackers. Actually, much more direct assistance than had ever been suggested about the government of Iraq. You'll have to remember that in this time period the focus is on Iraq and the potential ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda when in fact the ties with Iran may have been closer. ... [The information was] "jarring." That's how it was described to me. ...Thanks to the diligence of a handful of staffers who conducted this last-minute search at Ford Mead where the NSA is located, they got a good amount of it into the report...
TG: So do you know if anybody’s investigating that material now? And what the NSA is doing with that material?
PS: Well, the NSA, to its credit, apparently has always been willing to share this information with legitimate government investigators. It doesn’t appear to have hidden anything from the 9/11 Commission. I don’t have the sense that anybody’s gone in to review this material since. Certainly some of the staff members of the 9/11 Commission believe that some other body – some other group of investigators – should try to get in there someday and look at it.
TG: Is the problem that there’s just so much of it?
PS: There’s a huge amount of it. But you know the commission did have twenty months. And the NSA offered up this material very early on in the process. And if they’d begun to search earlier, they would have gotten through the bulk of it.
TG: So why do you think they didn’t?
PS: There’s a variety of theories on the commission staff. One is that the CIA is just the sexier agency to investigate. There was certainly a feeling that Dr. Zelikow and the leadership of the commission were really fixated on the CIA and to a lesser extent the FBI and were really insistent that they get into their files. But the NSA, which is… I offer a comparison in the book from one of the staff members who said that the CIA was like Hollywood and the NSA is like a bunch of Silicon Valley geeks and wouldn’t you rather spend your time in Hollywood? So there’s great interest in getting into Langley, into the files at the CIA’s headquarters. There’s just not a similar interest in going in and speaking to the guys who run satellites up in Fort Mead, Maryland, at the NSA.
TG: You write a little bit about Bob Graham, the former Democratic senator from Florida, who headed a Congressional committee that investigated intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. And one of the things that this committee found was connections between the Saudi government and at least two of the 9/11 highjackers. What were those connections?
PS: Two of the highjackers go to San Diego in 2000, more than a year before the attacks, and settle in there. They’re settled in by this network of Arab expatriate men who sort of appear from nowhere to help them out. Some of those men, the people most involved in helping them out, seem to have been on the payroll of the Saudi government in one way or another. They’re also tied into a Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles, working out of the consulate there. And the question is, why would these men appear from nowhere to help these two bad guys as they prepared to carry out the terrorist attack. Senator Graham, I think, felt that these low-level intelligence operatives of the Saudi government had been tasked by somebody in Saudi Arabia to help out these Al Qaeda men. Senator Graham and the other members of his Congressional investigation aren’t alleging that the senior members of the Saudi royal family knew about 9/11 or had involvement in Al Qaeda, but they are saying that somebody within the Saudi government – and remember, bin Laden had a lot of support in the Saudi public – tasked these people in southern California to help out these two men as they prepared to carry out 9/11.
TG: Did the 9/11 Commission follow up this investigation?
PS: It did. It had some terrific young investigators, including one who had been the principal investigator in these issues in the Congressional investigations. He moves over to the 9/11 Commission and picks up the trail. They develop an awful lot of evidence to show these ties. They want the commission to produce them in its final report. Among the evidence they turn up or they at least review is information suggesting that money from the checking account of the Saudi ambassador’s wife in Washington finished up in the hands of these middle men in southern California – just incredible evidence of some sort of connection. And yet, at the end of the day, the commission chose not to put that in its final report for a variety of reasons that don’t involve the commissioners themselves but a debate on the commission staff.
TG: What was the debate?
PS: The leader of the team that was investigating the 9/11 plot was a much admired former prosecutor but who demanded a standard of proof before he would make allegations that couldn’t be met by the evidence that his investigators had gathered in San Diego. So his insistence that 100% proof of guilt needed to be met in order to get it into the report meant that much of that material didn’t get into the report.
TG: Some critics of the Bush administration think the administration has been too protective of the Saudi government, including too protective in the story of 9/11. Is there any implication that the Bush administration didn’t want this part of the story to be included in the 9/11 Commission report?
PS: I think there’s a lot of concern about that. There are 28 pages of material in the original Congressional report that, to this day, have not been made public because the Bush administration insists that it not be made public. My understanding is that the material focuses specifically on the question of what happened between the Saudi government and its possible operatives in southern California.
TG: So where is that part of the report now?
PS: I assume it’s sitting in a safe on Capitol Hill, unavailable to all of us.
TG: And everyone on the 9/11 Commission had a chance to read it?
PS: Yes. The whole classified Congressional report was made available to the 9/11 Commission. In fact, the author of those 28 pages was an investigator on the 9/11 Commission as well.
TG: …You write a little bit about how the Bush administration tried to undermine Richard Clarke’s credibility after he testified before the commission. … Richard Clarke was counter-terrorism expert in the Bush administration. He told the 9/11 Commission – and everyone who was willing to listen – that he tried to warn the administration early on about the threat of Al Qaeda but they just weren’t willing to give it the time and attention he believed it deserved. What did you learn about how the Bush administration tried to undermine Richard Clarke’s credibility after he testified to the 9/11 Commission?
PS: When Clarke went public in 2004, there was real panic at the White House. They thought this was a real threat to the president’s reelection hopes and a real threat to the reputation of Condoleezza Rice. They went all out in public and behind the scenes to destroy his credibility. On the eve of Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission, the White House agreed to release a background briefing that Clarke had given two years earlier which appeared to offer very qualified support for the president’s record on terrorism. This had been a briefing that Clarke had given to a few reporters on the understanding that his name would never be revealed. On the eve of his appearance before the 9/11 Commission, the White House agreed with reporters to allow his name to be revealed in an effort to show that “what he said two years ago is not what he’s saying today. He is therefore a liar. Don’t believe what he’s about to tell the 9/11 Commission.
TG: Do you think that undermined his credibility in the eyes of anyone on the commission?
PS: Clarke had left behind at the White House a vast record of his efforts in dealing with terrorist threats, both in the Clinton and in the Bush administrations. And the staff knew that Clarke’s records backed up most of what he was saying to the 9/11 Commission and (as you said) to anyone else who would listen! The record showed that Clarke had repeatedly, daily, hourly, warned his boss, Condi Rice, that something terrible was about to happen. It appeared that the White House didn’t often take him seriously.
TG: When the report was being written, you write that the executive director, Philip Zelikow, said that the report reflected Richard Clarke’s point of view too much and Condoleezza Rice’s too little. Zelikow wanted more balance in the report. Was the balance in the report changed as a result of that?
PS: The short answer is yes. I think some of the most tortured passages of the 9/11 report are its treatment of the central question: who’s telling the truth, Dick Clarke or Condi Rice? Was the White House acting quickly and appropriately to terrorist threats, or was it not? What you have in the report is, “Clarke said this, Rice says this, Clarke says this, Rice says this. And, dear reader, we’re not going to tell you who’s telling the truth.” When in fact the staff believed very strongly that the documentary record and the information they were receiving from elsewhere showed that Clarke’s account was essentially correct. Yet again, there’s no judgment made by the commission in its final report about what the truth is. I don’t think that would have happened had it not been for this insistence by Zelikow and, in fairness, the insistence from others on the commission that all this information be balanced out. The allegation made was to be answered.
TG: You also say that Kean and Hamilton didn’t want finger pointing in the report.
PS: No. I think, in fairness to Dr. Zelikow, this decision not to have personal accountability, not to finger-point, is a direction set very early on by Tom Kean, the chairman, and Lee Hamilton, the vice-chairman. They repeated that at the end of the investigation as the report was being written – that they weren’t in the business of finding individual human beings to blame for 9/11 even though many members of the staff and certainly a lot of 9/11 families and a lot of pundits believed that there was clearly some blame to go around.
TG: Your book begins with Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton’s National Security Advisor, smuggling confidential documents out of the National Archives by stuffing them into his clothes. This is an infamous story! Why do you start there? What did you learn about why he smuggled out the documents?
PS: It’s been a parlor game in Washington for a long time: why would Sandy Berger destroy his reputation like this? It has an awful lot to do with Sandy Berger’s personality. I believe he thought that if some of these documents found their way to the public or to Republicans on Capitol Hill that he would somehow be blamed for 9/11. When, in fact, a lot of his friends and colleagues will tell you that nobody was on top of the Al Qaeda threat like Sandy Berger. He did a lot of admirable work in trying to prepare for terrorist attacks as they rose up. The answer appears to be, as to why he stole the documents, that – again – he thought some of these documents might somehow implicate him in not having acted fast enough or done enough to deal with the bin Laden threat over time.
TG: And were these the only copies that he took?
PS: He kept stealing the same document! It was a report prepared by Dick Clarke shortly after the millennium threats. During the millennium, the intelligence community was absolutely convinced that something terrible was about to happen. In fact, there was apparently a plot to blow up parts of Los Angeles airport. After the millennium period passed and there hadn’t been a major attack, Berger tasked Clarke to put together a lengthy memo saying, “What can we do better in the future? What did we learn from this?” Clarke came up with a long series of recommendations for future action. And it’s copies of this memo that Berger keeps stealing. Every time he comes across it, he puts it in his coat, or puts it in his socks, or he somehow gets it out of the Archives. The belief is among his friends that he thought if that document became public in some form, it would be seen as a variety of actions that he could have taken to prevent 9/11 but didn’t take. Again, I think that may reflect Sandy Berger as a catastrophizer. People who know Sandy Berger and know his record suggest that he’s one of the people who might well have been saluted in the 9/11 report for having been on top of Al Qaeda.
TG: So did the 9/11 Commission end up with a copy of this document anyway?
PS: They did. There was a variety… This is one more mystery… If he believed that no one would ever see this document if he stole every copy of it, he was wrong because there were copies elsewhere.
TG: There’s been a new development related to the 9/11 Commission that coincides with the publication of your book. The Justice Department announced that they’re starting a criminal investigation of the CIA’s destruction of tapes that showed “harsh interrogations” of two Al Qaeda terrorists. The question is, did the 9/11 want these tapes? Could they have used these tapes? Would they have been important to the commission? The co-chairs of the commission, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean had an op-ed in the New York Times. They say, “The commission did not have a mandate to investigate how detainees were treated. Our role was to investigate the history and evolution of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. As a legal matter, it is not up to us to examine the CIA’s failure to disclose the existence of these tapes. That is for others. What we do know is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the President, to investigate one of the greatest tragedies to confront this country. We call that ‘obstruction.’” So Hamilton and Kean are saying that the CIA’s destroying of these tapes is obstruction of justice. What do you think is the significance of this story?
PS: I think we’re going to be learning over the next several weeks and months what the significance is. You know, this question of the Al Qaeda detainees and the information they provided to their interrogators, this was a big debate between the commission and the CIA with the White House on the sidelines. The commission went in early and said it wanted to talk to the detainees, see them face to face wherever they were. And the CIA turned that down flat. There were a variety of negotiations that went on for months that led to a decision that the commission would be allowed to have written reports of what was being said by the Al Qaeda detainees overseas about 9/11 and about the plot. The commission would be allowed to submit questions to the CIA that would be asked of the detainees and that the answers would be provided in a written form. Every document I’ve seen suggests that the commission, under this negotiation, requested documents – paper, computer files. I didn’t see an indication that they’d ever specifically demanded videotapes. It could be argued that the CIA was operating in bad faith if it didn’t alert the commission that it also had videotapes beyond whatever interrogation reports it had. But it doesn’t appear that the 9/11 Commission specifically asked for videotapes. I think the allegation could now be made against the commission, “Why didn’t you?”
TG: … Rudy Giuliani recently dropped out of the Republican primary race. But while he was in the race, everybody was joking about how every sentence would have a reference to 9/11 and so much of his campaign was based on his kind of heroic actions on September 11th and in the days following. But you say that the co-chairs of the commission thought that Giuliani’s hearing was a low point for the commission and that the commission had abdicated its responsibility to ask him tough questions about 9/11. What kind of questions did they want to ask but didn’t?
PS: The staff – and I think the commissioners as well – felt very strongly that Giuliani’s performance on the day of 9/11 was indeed heroic and that he really comforted the city and the nation in a way that even the president wasn’t able to do in those initial hours and days. But the staff was really astounded to discover how little the Giuliani administration had done to prepare the city for a terrorist attack. The city had been attacked. It had been attacked in 1993 by Islamic extremists. What was their target? The World Trade Center. So why was it terribly surprising that eight years later they would try it again? And why, in those eight years, had the Giuliani administration, with the understanding that terrorists were bound to try something someday – why had they not done more to respond to it? They were prepared to ask Giuliani a host of questions about the city’s poor preparation. But, for a variety of reasons, they really asked Giuliani mostly softballs when he appeared before the commission. This was a time, of course, when Giuliani was about as popular a political figure as there was in this country. People were talking about him as President Bush’s obvious successor. It was a very scary thing for the commission to try to tackle somebody like that. In the end, they chose not to.
TG: Hamilton and Kean wrote that it proved difficult if not impossible to raise hard questions about 9/11 in New York without being seen as being critical of the individual police and firefighters or of Mayor Giuliani. That inhibited them from asking questions they wanted to ask?
PS: It’s a little more complicated. But it’s an interesting scene to watch. The day before Giuliani’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission, the city’s former fire department chief and police chief testified and really gave it to the commissioners. Really gave it in particular to John Lehmann who had asked some questions about the poor preparation. I think they were particularly concerned about the potential for a showdown with Giuliani that would make the commission look bad. At that point Giuliani is so popular and he has the city’s tabloids right behind him. The commission feared that if they gave Giuliani questions that were considered too tough, that the commissioners would come under attack. Therefore, most of the questioning of Giuliani was extraordinarily gentle.
TG: Meanwhile, it was recently reported that Giuliani’s own terrorism experts warned him not to put the command center in building #7 of the World Trade Center for a lot of reasons, including that there was a huge fuel tank at the WTC and that the WTC had already been a target of a terrorist attack and might be a target again… Do you have anything to say about that?
PS: I will say – and in truth I didn’t fully understand this until I got into research for the book -- but just imagine this! The Giuliani administration decides they’re going to create this $15 million emergency command post. This is after the ’93 attacks on the WTC. And they’re going to put it some place reasonably close to City Hall but at a safe location. And Giuliani’s aides recommend that the command center be place in Brooklyn or Queens where it would presumably be safer than Manhattan – which was more likely to be a terrorist target. But Giuliani overrules them and decides that he’s going to place his command center in – of all places on earth! – the World Trade Center! And he’s not going to put it on the ground. Or underground, for that matter! He’s going to put it on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper. What happened on 9/11 was almost too predictable. The command center had to be closed down almost immediately because there was a threat that it, itself, would come under attack since the twin towers were then burning. So the command center had to be evacuated. The crisis center had to be evacuated because there was a crisis!
TG: Do you think, having covered the 9/11 Commission and then written this new book about what happened behind the scenes at the commission, are there lessons you’ve learned that you think subsequent commissions should learn when they start their work?
PS: Well, there are some obvious lessons in terms of if you’re not careful in the selection of staff, you can finish up with just these sorts of controversies about conflicts of interest. As long as people talk about the 9/11 Commission, they’re going to talk to some degree about Philip Zelikow and his connections to – and his friendships with – many of the people who should have been the targets of the investigation. And whether or not that had any effect on the final report and the commission’s findings. I think at the end of the day I wonder how much Dr. Zelikow, Governor Kean, and Mr. Hamilton really knew. And why it was that after all of Zelikow’s ties to the White House were pointed out to them, why they continued to stand by him.