September 11, 2001 was a terrible day, not only for citizens of the United States, but for everyone in the world. Because of the enormous emotional, social, political, economic, and religious impact of the events of that September morning, it is extremely challenging to discuss what happened that day, what led up to it, and what came after it without becoming emotionally and personally involved in the discussion. Please keep that in mind while reading this writeup and, hopefully, reading the report itself. The report is available for free download at http://www.9-11commission.gov/ and can be easily found at your better bookstores in a handy printed form (ISBN 0-393-32671-3).
We were invincible-- we were the smart, the young, Wall Street cocky-ass hotshots. We'd work crazy hours and take crazy positions on the capital markets, go drinking after and wake up the next morning at 5:30 with the options properly hedged. We were invincible, and I just saw them all die, everything dead, all in 4 seconds from the roof of Stern.
- Jennifer, The Three Men I Admired Most: Manhattan, 9/11/01
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) was created by Public Law 107-306, signed by President George W. Bush on November 27, 2002. This commission was created to prepare a comprehensive report concerning the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and provide recommendations to guard against future attacks. The commission was bipartisan in nature, consisting of the following people:
Thomas H. Kean, chairman
Former New Jersey governor; current president of Drew University
Lee H. Hamilton, vice chair
Former seventeen term congressman from Indiana
Author and lawyer
Fred F. Fielding
Jamie S. Gorelick
Lawyer; former vice-chairman of Fannie Mae
Lawyer; former three term senator from Washington
Former governor and two term senator from Nebraska
John F. Lehman
Chairman, J.F. Lehman (equity investments)
Timothy J. Roemer
President, Center for National Policy
James R. Thompson
Lawyer, former four term governor of Illinois
On July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its final report to the public, making it available for download at http://www.9-11commission.gov/ and also making book-bound editions available in book stores across the United States.
Contents of the Report
The report itself is written to be as accessible as possible to the average reader. The language is not tied up in legalese and many portions are written in a cohesive and almost narrative structure. While this does not mean that many portions are not dry, it does mean that the report is quite readable by the average citizen.
Aside from a number of appendices and extensive reference notes which refer to specific source materials (i.e., pre-existing reports, interviews conducted by the commission, and so on), the report is divided into thirteen distinct sections, which effectively build on one another to report on the events of September 11, 2001, the causes and effects of the events, and recommendations on how to fix the problem. The book is divided into thirteen sections, which are discussed below.
"We Have Some Planes"
According to notes of the call, at about 9:45 (AM) the President told the Vice President: "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war... someone's going to pay."
No other statement in this entire volume stood out at me like the brief statement provided above, almost hidden in the middle of a section of details about George W. Bush flying about the country immediately after the attack. To me, this one statement alone sums up the events after September 11, 2001, as well as the attitudes that led up to the attacks, and likely, one's reaction to this statement belies the way one feels about the status of the United States today.
Just like that statement, the first section is a big attention grabber. It provides a simplified walkthrough of the events of the morning of September 11, 2001, following the terrorists as well as the President and Vice President on that morning. This is the section of the report that most citizens of the United States are most familiar with in many ways, but the straightforward retelling of the story without spin bring back, at least to me, some of the horror of that dreadful day.
Another important part of this walkthrough is that it immediately exposes some flaws in the governmental organization that led to improper response to the attacks as they went on. This theme of holes in the organization of the government of the United States, as well as bureaucratic flaws, is one that will hold throughout the rest of the report.
The Foundation of the New Terrorism
This section discusses the founding and buildup of al-Qaeda up to the terrorist attacks on the United States embassy in Nairobi, Kenya on August 7, 1998. A major portion of this chapter is devoted to a detailed biography of Osama bin Laden, including a detailed explanation of his worldview and the tenets on which this view is founded.
This section contains one of the most important parts of the report, one that should be read by all citizens: beyond merely explaining bin Laden's worldview, several pages are directly devoted to Osama bin Laden's appeal to the Islamic world. In many ways, this war on terror is a philosophical one, and it is one we cannot win while sticking to preconceived notions; abandonment of these notions is another major theme of this report.
Personally, this section opened my eyes to the level of worldwide terrorism conducted by al-Qaeda over literally decades; it had been my impression prior to the reading of this report that al-Qaeda was a relatively new organization.
Here, we begin to see the first brushstrokes of the figurative hero of this book, Richard Clarke. This section focuses heavily on the birth of real counterterrorism policy inside of the United States government throughout the Bill Clinton administration, including the installation of Richard Clarke as National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism. This birth of modern counterterrorism came as a result of the original 1993 World Trade Center bombing and thus this chapter mostly focuses on the Clinton administration policies on battling terrorism.
It is clear, even in this early state, that the United States federal government was quite worried about al-Qaeda, but the problem that prevented the government from doing anything about al-Qaeda also rears its ugly head: bureaucracy. This bureaucracy takes many forms: lack of communication channels between governmental units, lack of authority for people like Richard Clarke or George Tenet (CIA director during this period and through 9/11), and individuals more interested in their own pet projects than the greater good.
It is clear that the Clinton administration had no real concept of the type of threat that would come: most of their planning described in this section revolved around protecting the foreign interests of the United States from such attacks abroad and clearly defining rogue groups within the United States planning such attacks; 9/11 was neither.
Responses to Al-Qaeda's Initial Assaults
This chapter comes off much like a broken record. At several points in the late 1990s, the United States was provided clear opportunities to eliminate Osama bin Laden as a threat and, for various reasons, these opportunities were allowed to pass by.
The reasons for these were numerous. Most of the opportunities didn't really provide a strong chance for success, for starters; they usually involved targeting suspected places where al-Qaeda leaders might be. There was also great hesitation for diplomatic reasons: negotiating with Pakistan and Afghanistan about bin Laden proved to be very tricky due to the nature of the culture prevalent there. Beyond this, quick strike opportunities based on sound intelligence were also missed due to lack of clear communication between government branches and sometimes because of the lack of real authority given to George Tenet.
This section, more than any other, makes the case for the need of a more centralized organization within the government to deal with counterterrorism.
Al-Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland
Here, we have a discussion about the nucleus of a multi-layered attack against the United States around the time of the millennium and how these plans grew into the general 9/11 plan.
The real "star" in this section is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who comes off as the evil mastermind behind the specifics of the 9/11 attacks. In many ways, KSM (as he is identified throughout the report) comes off as scarier than bin Laden; it is clear that KSM was the real mastermind behind 9/11, while bin Laden merely made it possible for KSM's plan and management to come to fruition. We are also provided with summaries of several other principal players in the planning of the 9/11 attacks, many of whom have lengthy "resumes" of terrorist activities.
There is also lengthy discussion here about the methods for the funding of the 9/11 plot. Contrary to popular belief, bin Laden is not the funder of much of al-Qaeda's activities; he doesn't have very much money of his own. His role is as money collector and facilitator; he gets money from supportive parties and then makes sure it winds up in the hands of individuals who conduct various operations. In other words, in terms of 9/11, bin Laden made sure KSM had the money he needed, which originally came from various sources in the Islamic fundamentalist community.
From Threat to Threat
In late 1999, the United States anticipated a major terrorist act to coincide with the dawning of the year 2000. To prevent this attack, the government worked very tightly to disrupt various attacks, and the rush of this success seemed to create a sense within the government that perhaps the terrorist threat wasn't as big as Clarke and others had made it seem.
When the attack on the USS Cole occurred on October 12, 2000, this served as something of a wake up call, but then the debacle of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the ensuing overly quick transition from the Clinton team to the Bush team quelled any sort of counterterrorism momentum that might have come out of the attack.
It is my perception that the 2000 U.S. presidential election mess was extremely detrimental to an orderly change from Clinton to Bush and the lack of a clean change of power caused a disruption in the needed growth of counterterrorism in the United States.
The Attack Looms
I found this section to be the driest in the entire report, as it discussed the final months of preparation for 9/11, mostly dealing with individuals moving around the United States and assembling the teams that would perform the attacks.
This section seems to be the hardest section to draw real conclusions from. Ignoring the missions of these men, it is very hard to see what they did that was terribly unusual for a citizen. They went to church regularly, attended school, and didn't violate any laws. Perhaps the biggest impression that I took from this chapter was the difficulty of preventing domestic terrorism in the short run.
In discussions with others on this section, the concept that the activities of these individuals should have been more clearly monitored was raised; in this way, the suggestion was made that the USA PATRIOT Act was justified. It is true that the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act would make it easier to hunt down such people already within the United States, but at what cost to individual liberties of all?
"The System Was Blinking Red"
This outlines the huge wave of intelligence gathered by the United States government just prior to September 11, 2001, just as the Bush people were getting organized in terms of forming general counterterrorism plans. Again, bureaucracy becomes a major opponent to stopping terrorism.
Within this huge wave of intelligence was more than enough information to piece together what was about to happen. Intelligence provided by Zacarias Moussaoui, identification of several known terrorists suddenly in the United States, and some last minute tidbits about KSM and money exchange all provided enough pieces to the puzzle to be able to fizzle the attacks, but these pieces of information were too far spread to be able to do anything about them.
Just as the pieces were about to fall into place, the attack happened.
Heroism and Horror
This section details the immediate responses to the attacks by the FDNY and NYPD, as well as the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. This section is quite fascinating, particularly to anyone who is unfamiliar with the organizational needs of response to a disaster.
It is without doubt that there were countless heroes that day, who charged into the scene and actively saved thousands of lives. Here, the heroism is assumed, and instead the focus is on criticism of the overall organization of the rescue effort: communications failures and a lack of chain of command were two of the biggest problems that day. These problems led directly to loss of life.
By the end of this section, a great appreciation for the logistics of the rescue effort becomes quite clear. The heroism shown that day goes beyond individuals who ran into buildings to save people; there were heroes from the top of the organization to the bottom. Many people were crucial, and many of these people were often overlooked as heroes in the aftermath of the disaster.
Here, the report deals with the immediate response of the United States to the attacks. This report tries desperately hard to avoid being partisan in any way and thus often skates by deep discussion of several efforts of the post-9/11 United States.
The issues that are discussed here (Department of Homeland Security, the war in Afghanistan) are interesting, but what is really telling is the lack of discussion of the USA PATRIOT Act and the war with Iraq. These issues are full of political sensitivity and discussion of these in any more than the perfunctory method used would likely have caused problems; thus, the lack of weight given to these issues is probably appropriate.
A more philosophical approach is given in the next section.
Foresight - and Hindsight
This is the first of three sections that deals with analysis and recommendations stemming from 9/11. This section discusses the fact that there were four distinct failures that caused 9/11: lack of imagination, poor policy, unclear capabilities, and bureaucratic management.
In essence, this portion merely lays the philosophical groundwork for the more concrete recommendations to come in the next section, yet this chapter, much like the statement from George W. Bush tucked away in the first chapter, is very politically sensitive and can be read in many different ways by people with different political perspectives.
The portion discussing major holes in policy is particularly sensitive and critical of both the Clinton and Bush presidencies; the report keeps this section short and again rides a very sensitive line very carefully.
What To Do? A Global Strategy
This section makes a large number of rather specific policy recommendations and, in doing this, makes a clear political stance for the first time. Many of the policies suggested here fly in the face of post-9/11 Bush administration policy and thus it would be quite surprising to see any of these suggestions implemented.
For example, the report repeatedly suggests directly working with the existing governments in states that harbor terrorists in a clear attempt to encourage them to peaceably give up those who would commit terrorist acts, leaving acts of war as a last resort. Here, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are given as examples of how foreign policy should work; note no mention of Iraq, but the implications are clear to the critical reader.
This section is full of great ideas, but many of these ideas are simply not palatable to the George W. Bush presidency. Thus, in the weeks following the release of the report, there has been no discussion on implementing any of these policy concepts.
How To Do It? A Different Way of Organizing the Government
Building on the policy concepts from the previous section, the report concludes by recommending several changes in government organizational structure to handle these policy changes. Many of these revolve around giving the positions previously held by Richard Clarke and George Tenet much more power compared to their responsibility, which is unquestionably sensible given their crucial roles throughout this tale.
The other major recommendation is the unification of various pieces of intelligence machinery within the government, including the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA, into a cohesive counterterrorism unit. This instinctively makes sense and falls in line with recent military changes, in which the branches of the United States armed forces are required to be more cooperative.
The report concludes with the following line: We look forward to a national debate on the merits of what we have recommended, and we will participate vigorously in that debate. So far, there has been little debate. Hopefully, that will change with the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
This report is very effective in staying out of the political fray that engulfs the United States in the post-9/11 era. Instead, it takes the high road and sticks mostly to the facts of what happened without much spin and, because of that, it is worth the effort for both the pro-Bush and anti-Bush camps to read this report and analyze its contents.
The report is well written, well constructed, and palatable to anyone, and I consider it to be the first truly important document of the twenty first century, if for no other reason than the detailed and unbiased reporting of what exactly happened that September morning.