Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2004

By Thomas A. Kean, et al.
W.W. Norton & Company ($10)

Formed against the wishes of the current president, who stalled for more than a year before allowing any kind of formal investigation into the atrocities that on September 11, 2001, ended approximately 3,000 lives on American soil, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is a bipartisan group of ten Congresspersons who, after more than a year of public and private hearings (including an informal meeting with the President and Vice-President, who stipulated that they wouldn’t have to testify in public or under oath), has now published its findings—or at least an “Authorized Edition” of its findings.

As a self-contained text, this Report is an almost endlessly fascinating document. Broken down into several sections and subsections, it reads in some parts like a spy novel, in some like a dry government manual, and in others like a disaster movie, its severally fragmenting facets adding up to something like a broken cross between Citizen Kane and Infinite Jest. With its copious notes and its prismatic search through so many shifting narrative frames, it keeps the reader constantly uneasy and on edge and in relentless struggle to unravel and interpret its deliberately sophisticated manipulations and obfuscations. And as with those two prodigious works, perhaps its puzzle parts don’t add up at the end, either.

The Report begins with a detailed account of what happened on that terrible morning, as seen through the perspectives of the air traffic controllers, the government, the military, and several passenger-callers aboard the planes. As many commentators have already pointed out, the Report is soft on assigning responsibility, and in no place is this as apparent as in the minute-by-minute description of what the President was doing in Florida while the rest of the government and military was running amok: absolutely nothing. In an astounding gift of slack, the Commission doesn’t press our Commander-in-Chief on his nearly ten minutes of inactivity after learning of the second World Trade Center hit, and when reconstructing the Vice President’s decision an hour later to shoot down any further planes, the President fabricates an earlier phone call in which he okays the decision—a phone call that doesn’t exist in the White House switchboard log, isn’t corroborated by staff notes on either end of the call, and which was clearly invented and agreed upon to make it seem as if he’d made any of the decisions that his staff made for him that day.

It’s patently unfair to assign blame for such a monumental system breakdown on one man’s inability to act when faced with an on-the-ground crisis, though, and it’s this viewpoint that then leads the text of the Report into a retrospective examination of the rising threat of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and of the failures of the intelligence community to address that threat. But in this approach, too, the Commission once again employs soft-focus—or perhaps simply diverts us by focusing our attention on a barrage of surface issues rather than on what lies beneath. As seen from the Commission’s point of view, the root of the problem is simply that our country’s reactive powers are too weak and disorganized to respond to the relentless and irrational threats of fundamentalist terror. In several sections they lament the nonexistence of an agency in charge of both external and internal counterespionage, a division of power that was made in 1947 in response to the just fear of creating a “U.S. Gestapo,” and they never once address the problem of the U.S.’s own campaigns of terror and assassination, which they routinely treat as a legitimate response and privilege of power. There’s no sincere inquiry into “why they hate us,” and when the Commission addresses the question of “what can we do to stop [al Qaeda’s] attacks,” all they offer is a cynically derisive non-answer: “Abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of [our] society and culture.” Apparently they never thought to look into our policy of propping up and encouraging terrorist states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, or of supporting Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine—issues that are cited almost unanimously in the Islamic world as the reason why bin Laden has so much sympathy and support, not some nonsense about “hating freedom.”

Rather than simply strengthening our defenses and offenses, perhaps we should more deeply reflect on how we see our place in the world. The failure of our current aggressiveness finds a potent illustration in our own 1998 terrorist missile strike on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in the Sudan (a strike that the Commission actually defends, and which Noam Chomsky discusses in great detail in his book 9-11). Just before the strike, the Sudan had detained two al Qaeda members in connection with the embassy bombings in east Africa and had contritely offered them to the U.S., along with a vast database of al Qaeda information, only to be rebuffed by our State Department with contempt. Then after we bombed the Al-Shifa plant, which had supplied virtually all of the impoverished nation’s medicine, the Sudanese simply let the men go, effectively cutting off our best inroad into the world of al Qaeda. In the eyes of the Commission (which never once mentions the existence of the two al Qaeda suspects in its Report), the bombing is seen as a justified preemption, but to bin Laden and his network of accomplices and sympathizers (as well as to many ordinary Muslims throughout the world, whose donations to al Qaeda incrementally trickled into a sizeable stream), it was a call to action.

Rather than address any kind of sincere policy shift, the Commission (which is only bipartisan within the right-wing sphere of Washington politics) largely focuses its recommendations on a systematic reshuffling and consolidation of forces—a response that anyone who understands the situation at all can only liken to holding back the ocean with a precision rifle. As we all know, decapitations—even of bin Laden himself—can only lead to more Hydra heads. What the 9/11 Commission has done with this “Authorized Edition” is merely divert our attention from the true face of terrorism, which is in fact our own face (perhaps we should call it the 9/11 Omission), and produced a bona fide infinite jest.

—David Wiley