Ernest R. May: Why the 9-11 Commission Succeeded

Roundup: Historians' Take

Ernest R. May, writing in the New Republic about his experience as a consultant to the 9-11 Commission (3-16-05):

... My job was to help produce the historical narrative.

For this task, I had two comparative advantages. The first was a long career as a historian. The second was a lack of partisan bias. Many years earlier, I had been a commissioner myself. The commission was to recommend laws making presidential papers public property. (From Washington's time to Nixon's, they had been private property.) The statute required that one commissioner be a Republican, one a Democrat, and one nonpartisan. I was the last, and was so certified by a 100-0 vote in the Senate. For commissioners and staff who suspected that some part of the 9/11 report might get a political or ideological slant, my OK seemed to be something like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. What follows is my own brief and blinkered account of how that narrative came into being.

On January 2003, Zelikow phoned me at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to say that Hamilton had approached him about becoming executive director, and that he wanted to discuss the pros and cons. Zelikow had been a trial lawyer in Texas, a fast-track foreign service officer, a faculty member at Harvard, and then a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He had served on the National Security Council staff with Condoleezza Rice, at that time Bush's national security adviser, and he and Rice had coauthored a scholarly book on the post-Cold War unification of Germany. At Harvard, Zelikow and I and the late Richard Neustadt had taught courses together. He and I had collaborated on a number of projects, among them the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which became the basis for the movie Thirteen Days.

On that January evening, we talked on the phone for more than an hour. We agreed that prospects for the 9/11 Commission were anything but bright. But we also agreed that a thorough government inquiry was urgently important. September 11, 2001 was a watershed moment, on a par at least with Pearl Harbor. We discussed the three investigations of Pearl Harbor, all of which had focused on blaming Americans, and had left the Japanese role to be reconstructed by scholars years later. Since the commission's charter called for it to investigate all "facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks" and gave it subpoena powers, and since many leaders in Al Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist network behind the sinister plot, had been captured in Afghanistan or elsewhere, along with hard disks and other files, here was an opportunity to try to tell the whole story from both sides.

Typically, government reports focus on "findings" and array the evidence accordingly. None, to our knowledge, had ever attempted simply to produce professional-quality narrative history. None, certainly, had been conceived as international history, not just American history. None had aspired to deal not only with the immediate past but also with the long background that would be needed if, as we said to each other, the report was to remain the reference volume on September 11 sitting on the shelves of high school and college teachers a generation hence.

Zelikow subsequently spoke with Kean. He reported back that Kean saw the opportunity exactly as we did. A Hudson Valley aristocrat who graduated from Princeton, Kean taught for three years at his Massachusetts prep school, St. Mark's, and then studied for a doctorate at Columbia, working with Richard Hofstadter and our later colleague Neustadt. Zelikow found that Kean already had in mind a concept much like ours. Kean would later say that "we want a report that our grandchildren can take off the shelf in fifty years and say, 'This is what happened.'"

Lee Hamilton had no difficulty accepting this ambitious concept. He always attached more importance to the commission's recommendations than to its report. Based on his long experience, he predicted that members of Congress and officials would read only an executive summary. Still, he saw at once that couching the report as a history might at least delay a partisan split within the commission, for the commissioners could begin by debating the facts of the story rather than their conclusions or their recommendations.

After Zelikow agreed to become executive director and I signed on as a consultant, he and I worked up an outline for a sixteen-chapter report. By the middle of March 2003, the outline had chapter headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings. We discussed this outline with Kean and then with Hamilton and Kojm (who had been Hamilton's assistant on Capitol Hill and was his alter ego within the commission). They all approved, but agreed that for the moment it should be shared with no one else except Marcus. We said to one another that for the time being the outline should be treated as if it were the most highly classified document the commission possessed, for premature debate about the shape of the report could easily dissolve into a partisan wrangle. ...

It seemed significant sometimes if an individual had no recollection at all of a document or meeting. We had seen, for example, an elaborate plan called"Plan Delenda" that was developed by Clarke in 1998. (As our staff statement explained,"the term 'Delenda' is from the Latin 'to destroy,' evoking the famous Roman vow to erase rival Carthage.") It outlined a program of active measures against Al Qaeda. In his private and public testimony for the commission, Clarke made much of this plan. But we found that neither President Clinton nor any individual high up in his administration, including Sandy Berger and his deputy James Steinberg, recalled ever having heard of"Plan Delenda." Similarly, we learned that many documents in SOLIC files never reached--or at least made no impression on--secretaries or deputy secretaries or other assistant secretaries of defense or senior military officers. Pentagon witnesses reminded us that they had had a lot of other matters on their minds, including military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and the reshaping of forces to fit a post-Cold War world.  

A telling moment in an interview came in October 2003. Army Major General Russell Honoré, though he had been vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had known almost nothing about Al Qaeda. As the commission report summarizes his testimony, Honoré" commented to us that intelligence and planning documents relating to al Qaeda arrived in a ziplock red package and that many flag and general officers never had the clearances to see its contents." ...

Composing a report that all commissioners could endorse carried costs. The report has weaknesses; and these weaknesses diminish somewhat the extent to which it fulfills Kean's goal of telling future generations, "This is how it happened."

For one thing, the report skirts the question of whether American policies and actions fed the anger that manifested itself on September 11. I think myself that the report is right in saying that Al Qaeda attacked the United States because of what the nation was rather than because of what it did. Still, the report is weak in laying out evidence for the alternative argument that the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol might not have been targeted absent America's identification with Israel, support for regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and insensitivity to Muslims' feelings about their holy places. The commissioners believed that American foreign policy was too controversial to be discussed except in recommendations written in the future tense. Here we compromised our commitment to set forth the full story.

Second, the report often pairs contradictory assertions without helping the reader to evaluate them. This was the case, for example, in the report's discussion of U.S. cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998. These were the Clinton administration's response to Al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The text notes glancingly that the strikes coincided with the worst moments of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that this contributed to public skepticism--the "Wag the Dog" canard. The report goes on to say that this "likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against Bin Ladin." And it adds immediately: "Berger told us that he did not feel any sense of constraint." Which statement is more believable? The reader has to guess.

Third, and most troubling to me, the report is probably too balanced. Its harshest criticism is directed at institutions and procedures, particularly the CIA, the FBI, and communications links within the counterterrorist community. But many on the staff had worked in these or other national security agencies. They felt loyal to them and some of them expected to return to work there. Collective drafting led to the introduction of passages that offset criticism of an agency with words of praise. Not all these words were deserved.

Individuals, especially the two presidents and their intimate advisers, received even more indulgent treatment. The text does not describe Clinton's crippling handicaps as leader of his own national security community. Extraordinarily quick and intelligent, he, more than almost anyone else, had an imaginative grasp of the threat posed by Al Qaeda. But he had almost no authority enabling him to get his government to address this threat. His Vietnam record and the controversy over gays in the military, among other things, made him an object of scorn in much of the Pentagon. All elements in the CIA felt alienated when he failed to attend the ceremony for two employees shot down outside headquarters by a Pakistani terrorist, sending his wife in his place. And that was only the beginning of a parade of Clinton's offenses against the intelligence community. His relations with the FBI started badly and became worse. He and director Louis Freeh did not speak to each other. Of course, officials in all these agencies would have obeyed the president's orders, but few were prepared to help him figure out what those orders might be. The report veils all this.

Passages in the report dealing with the Bush administration can be read as preoccupied with avoiding even implicit endorsement of Clarke's public charge that the president and his aides "considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue." I think myself that the charge was manifestly true--for both administrations. But the language that shields Bush's advisers may be unfair to the president himself. Deeply buried in a footnote is evidence that Bush called for action against Al Qaeda well before any of his high-level advisers. The footnote cites Clarke as affirming and re-affirming that he heard Bush in March 2001 complain that current policy for coping with terrorism amounted to little more than swatting flies. This was two months before anyone else in his administration exhibited serious concern about shortcomings in American counterterrorist strategy....

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Vernon Clayson - 5/16/2005

Ernest May, two years after his participation in whatever he is talking about, I got vertigo trying to comprehend his article, asks if America perhaps invited the 9/11 attack. Or he may not be asking that, I just read it again to see if it made any more sense the second time, nope, and I got vertigo again. Trying to explain an act of barbarism of this magnitude and the hatred and cruelty involved in undertaking the act is beyond normal understanding, and even worse, it still continues on almost an hourly basis in their homelands.
What's to understand, they are murderous and suicidal of mind and ungovernable unless governed by an individual like Saddam Hussein who was even more murderous and single minded. As nearly as I can see, the family of a car bomber now is a martyr for Islam and his family is rewarded, with Saddam Hussein an offender's family would have been exterminated to the 4th or 5th generation - they understood that and were far more peaceful.