I finally got a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report and I just finished reading it. I was pleasantly surprised how readable it was, and I can see why it has been so popular. The first printing was 800,000, and those are almost sold out. I spotted about 50 copies in an independent bookstore at an airport, but when I returned there 3 days later they were no longer there. I understand a second printing of 200,000 is underway. It is available online, but I much prefer reading from a book, and $10 seems like a bargain.
In some ways it reads like a novel. It starts with the activities of the hijackers on the morning of 9/11, then backs up and then proceeds chronologically. I found the chapters on Al Qaeda’s foundations and activities the most interesting, and had to struggle through the chapters on the US response. The recommendations towards the back of the book seemed well thought out, but I am not familiar enough with the internal workings of the US government to know if they are reasonable or not.
There were several refreshing aspects to the book. It was written in the first person plural, as though the members of the commission, all of whom signed the front, were taking personal responsibility for the Report. When was the last time anyone took responsibility for anything? During the hearings I remember accusations that the panel was being partisan, mostly from critics who themselves had partisan interests. If there was any partisanship in the Report, I didn’t find it. The Report does not try to fix blame anywhere. I think most of us realize that our failings were larger than any one agency, let alone any one person.
Although they didn’t play the blame game, they certainly had some thoughts on the structural deficiencies that gave the US very slim odds of preventing the attack. “Some of the saddest aspects of the 9/11 story are the outstanding efforts of so many individual officials straining, often without success, against the boundaries of the possible.” It noted that Richard Clarke had the best vision of what Al Qaeda might do (he had written some spookily accurate memos), but even he was pessimistic that we could have prevented the attacks.
Over time I plan to write a short series on my reactions to different parts of the Report. In the meantime, I’d encourage all my legions of readers (ha!), assuming they have any interest in the nature of the attacks or what we might be doing to prevent a recurrence, to take the time to read the report.
August 8, 2004