August 03, 2004,
The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission's report have been the most-talked-about portion of the report. They may also be the least interesting. The major discussion has been about the creation of a National Intelligence Director (NID). A new executive-branch position will amuse Beltway insiders as they speculate on the horse race to fill it. Whether or not the NID will make any difference is an open question.
Many of the other recommendations may seem obvious, but as the books previous 350 pages demonstrate governments cannot be relied on to do the obvious. The commissioners will perform a public service if they use their status as an ongoing bully pulpit to press the government to remain committed in Afghanistan, adequately fund public diplomacy, develop integrated intelligence databases, set infrastructure protection priorities, etc., etc.
But the report's real achievement is that it is both a readable and comprehensive documentation of the build-up to, the events on, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001. A friend of mine, who is not professionally involved in researching terrorism or foreign affairs, opened pages at random and was absorbed no matter where she started. (For terrorism wonks even the footnotes are fascinating check footnote 91, Chapter 7, from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: "...operatives' ethnicity was important for symbolic reasons... [for 9/11] Bin Laden selected operatives from Mecca...and would have used more if they had been available.")
The clarity of the writing is exceptional for a report produced by a government committee. It even shows flashes of (black) humor. On page 345, after describing how FAA analysts dismissed the possibility of suicide hijackings because they did not "offer an opportunity for dialogue" the report authors note "Analysts could have shed some light on what kind of 'opportunity for dialogue' al Qaeda desired." At other points a potential novel appears, packed into a single, stark sentence such as this one from page 300, "The first FDNY fatality of the day occurred at approximately 9:30, when a civilian landed on and killed a fireman near the intersection of West and Liberty streets."
Having written a heavily detailed book on terrorism myself (coming soon), I know the challenge of getting it right: sifting through and organizing mountains of material, presenting it clearly, and placing it in context. The staff did a great job, under far more scrutiny then I will face. It will be the primary resource for scholars studying 9/11 and it is an essential to our national effort to understand 9/11.
No report of this nature can be all-inclusion, but two items worthy of mention caught my attention. The report does an excellent job of documenting Iran's support for al Qaeda, but it does not mention Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's top killer mastermind of numerous terror attacks including the 1983 Marines Barracks bombing, the hostage-taking in Lebanon in the late 1980s, and the bombings of Israel's embassy and the Jewish Community offices in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. On page 61 when the report mentions senior Hezbollah and al Qaeda figures meeting one of those meetings was between Mughniyah and bin Laden. Mughniyah, a Lebanese Shiite, started his terrorism career in Force 17 Arafat's personal bodyguard. They remain in contact. Mughniyah has provided the Palestinians with technical assistance throughout the al-Aqsa Intifada and Force 17 officers headed the first Hezbollah cells in the West Bank and Gaza. Presenting these connections between the leading terrorists of the late 20th century would have helped to illustrate the nature of the terrorist threat.
The report also does not address a deeper question how the United States failed to grasp the broad and deep hatred of the United States and Western civilization that was convulsing so much of the Muslim world. The ideologies dominating the Middle East, from Baathism to the Muslim Brotherhood's radical Islam and to the PLO's Palestinian nationalism are all viciously anti-American. Any objective analysis of the rhetoric of these movements, and of the popular press in the region would have made this conclusion inescapable. Somehow analysts, diplomats, and academics always brushed this radicalism aside as mere rhetoric. If it had been taken seriously, the entire American posture toward the region might have been different.
Finally the report does remind us of the importance of books. Several years ago when I was a graduate student at St. John's College our dean, Eva Brann, gave a lecture on the future of books. St. John's is devoted to the Great Books program. When Brann spoke the Internet was just appearing to the general public and yet St. John's had just invested in a new library a commitment to an old technology just as the world was embracing something new. I was disappointed with Brann's remarks. Where I expected Platonic forms and Aristotelian logic Brann spoke practically. The book is easier on the eyes, easier to mark-up, flip from page to page, and turn into a sort of unique computer.
Now I see the wisdom of her words. Although it is available free online, I purchased a copy of the report immediately. The ease of use, ability to make notes, and portability make the bound copy essential for serious research and preferable for casual perusal. (That being said, an index would be very useful. Hopefully future editions will include one, and it could also be posted online.)
A study recently showed that fewer Americans are reading books, although more books are being published than ever before. That the 9/11 Commission's report became an instant bestseller shows that maybe Americans just needed something important to read.