In the summer of 2003, Warren Bass, an investigator for the 9/11 Commission, was digging through highly classified National Security Council documents when he came across a trove of material that startled him. Buried in the files of former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, the documents seemed to confirm charges that the Bush White House had ignored repeated warnings about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Clarke, it turned out, had bombarded national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the summer of 2001 with impassioned e-mails and memos warning of an Al Qaeda attack—and urging a more forceful U.S. government response. One e-mail jumped out: it pleaded with officials to imagine how they would feel after a tragedy where "hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the U.S.," adding that "that future day could happen at any time." The memo was written on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001—just one week before the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But when Bass tried to impress the significance of what he had discovered upon the panel, he ran into what he thought was a roadblock—his boss. Philip Zelikow, a respected University of Virginia historian hired to be the 9/11 Commission's executive director, had long been friendly with Rice. The two had coauthored a book. Rice had later placed him on a Bush transition team that reorganized the NSC (and ended up diminishing Clarke's role). At Rice's request, Zelikow had also anonymously drafted a new Bush national-security paper in September 2002 that laid out the case for preventive war.
In commission staff meetings, Zelikow disparaged Clarke as an egomaniac and braggart who was unjustly slandering his friend Rice, according to a new book, "The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation," by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. Bass was so disturbed by what he saw as Zelikow's bullying that at one point he threatened to resign. So did a Democratic commissioner, Bob Kerrey, when he discovered Zelikow's ties to the administration. "Look, Tom, either he goes or I go," Kerrey told the panel's chairman, Republican Tom Kean, about Zelikow, according to Shenon.
Shenon's account uncovers a far greater degree of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering and bitter personal clashes than most people associate with the 9/11 panel. Most notably, his book reveals that Zelikow exchanged at least four phone calls in the early stages of the inquiry with White House political adviser Karl Rove. Zelikow (who later worked for Rice at the State Department) is quoted in the book as saying the phone calls had to do with University of Virginia matters, not the commission. In any case, the suggestion by conspiracy theorists—who have seized on the evidence in Shenon's book—that Zelikow was serving as a secret White House "mole" is hard to sustain. As some of the 9/11 commissioners themselves pointed out, Zelikow—despite his occasionally abrasive style—oversaw the production of a hard-hitting report that disclosed an unprecedented amount of previously secret information. Its highly damning revelations exposed negligence in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. "He was totally dedicated to a full airing of the facts," Lee Hamilton, the Democratic vice chairman of the panel, told Newsweek.
Still, Shenon's book is a reminder of just how dysfunctional the entire U.S. government was in the run-up to the terror attacks—and how high the political stakes were for the panel investigating them. Rove himself, according to Shenon, always feared that a report which laid the blame for 9/11 at the president's doorstep was the one development that could most jeopardize Bush's 2004 re-election. That's one reason why White House lawyers tried to stonewall the commission from the outset. When Clarke finally did testify about his warnings to Rice, Shenon reports, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and his aides feverishly drafted tough questions and phoned them in to GOP commissioners to undermine Clarke's credibility. Later, when Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled a memo that seemed to cast the antiterror record of the Clinton Justice Department in an unflattering light, Gonzales and his aides high-fived each other.
Shenon's most damning portrait is of a figure who at the time wasn't seen as terribly political at all: CIA Director George Tenet. Questioned in secret sessions by the panel, Tenet was unable to remember almost anything he said to Bush about Al Qaeda—or even that he had flown to Texas in August 2001 to brief the president at his ranch in Crawford. Tenet also professed to be unaware of a highly classified December 1998 memo, discovered by the commission staff, in which Bill Clinton had authorized the CIA to recruit Afghan tribal leaders to kill bin Laden. To be sure, two months later, Clinton personally wrote out a second order crossing out the "kill bin Laden" directive and inserting more ambiguous language—one reason Tenet's agents might well have been confused about just what they could do. In the end, Rove's concerns about the ultimate impact of the 9/11 commission report was overwrought. There was more than enough blame to go around.