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Philip Shenon, Scrutinizing the 9/11 Investigation

Missed evidence, ignored clues, political considerations--investigative journalist Philip Shenon examines the shortcomings of the 9/11 Commission.

41:30

Other segments from the episode on February 4, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 4, 2008: Interview with Philip Shennon; Interview with John Diiulio Jr.

Transcript

DATE February 4, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Reporter Philip Shenon on new book "The Commission:
The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Philip Shenon, is the author of the new book "The Commission: The
Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation." The book is about what happened
behind the scenes at the 9/11 Commission, the disagreements within the
commission, the political pressure on it and the obstructions and deceptions
the commission faced.

Shenon is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He covered the
9/11 Commission for the Times from the day of its first meeting in January
2003 until it closed down in August 2004. Then Shenon covered how Congress
and the White House responded to the commission's recommendations. Eight of
the 10 commissioners gave him interviews for the book. He also interviewed
commission staff members who had been told not to speak to reporters during
the investigation.

Philip Shenon, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk a little bit about
Philip Zelikow, who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and he
was chosen in spite of his ties to people in the Bush administration. Just
run through for us before we go further what some of his connections were to
the Bush administration and to certain key activities within the
administration.

Mr. PHILIP SHENON: Well, he has and had lots of ties to the Bush
administration. He had been a member of the 2001 transition team for the
current President Bush, part of the transition that specifically looked at the
operations of the counterterrorism team at the White House. He had previously
worked for the first President Bush on the National Security Council staff
with a young staffer by the name of Condoleezza Rice, and they formed a very
close friendship--Zelikow and Rice--and went on after the end of the first
Bush administration to write a book together.

He had many other contacts within the administration. He had been a supporter
of the incumbent President Bush's, and there had been a lot of speculation
that he was suppose to end up on the Bush administration White House team. It
didn't happen, but there had been a lot of assumptions that he would.

GROSS: Well, two key connections I want to mention here is that he was--you
write that he was the architect of the demotion of Richard Clarke and his
counterterrorism team within the National Security Council, and that Zelikow
wrote the White House's doctrine for pre-emptive defense, which was used to
justify the invasion of Iraq. So there was a lot of skepticism within the
commission about appointing Zelikow to such a high position on the commission.
Now, you say in your book that while he was the executive director of the 9/11
Commission, he spoke both with Condoleezza Rice and with Karl Rove. Was that
against the rules?

Mr. SHENON: Well, early on there had been an awful lot of suspicion, early
on in the investigation about Zelikow's ties to the White House, and he
insisted to the commissioners and to the commission's leaders that he was
going to go out of his way to avoid even the appearance of conflict of
interest and that he would essentially cut his ties to most of his people. I
think--I have certainly learned over the course of the last two years that he
was maintaining some of these relationships, in fact, and that he had, on
several occasions, it appears, had some sort of contact with Rove. Both the
White House and Zelikow insist that those contacts were entirely innocent and
involved Zelikow's old work at the University of Virginia.

But when it became known on the staff of the commission that Zelikow was in
contact with Karl Rove, there was a great sense of alarm. Why would the
executive director of the commission be in touch with the president's top
political adviser? What possible explanation for that could there be?

It also became known shortly thereafter that Zelikow had called in his
secretary and ordered her to stop keeping a log book of his contacts with the
White House; and this was reported thereafter to the general counsel of the
commission. And we don't really know what--I can't tell you what was said
between Karl Rove and Philip Zelikow. I can tell you, though, that the fact
that there were those contacts created a huge amount of suspicion on the part
of the staff.

GROSS: And there were also concerns, you say, on the part of the staff that
Zelikow was using the commission to justify the war in Iraq in the early days
of the commission.

Mr. SHENON: I think we should point out that, early on, people knew about
some of Zelikow's ties to the White House. I don't think people knew all of
them. I'm quite convinced they didn't know all of them. It really wasn't
until the final months of the commission's investigation that it became know
that Zelikow was the principal author of a very important document that was
released by the White House in September of 2002 that sort of turned military
doctrine on its head and justified a pre-emptive war. The United States could
go to war against a nation that did not necessarily pose an immediate military
threat to this country. And obviously there was a belief at the time that
that document was being written in anticipation of the invasion of Iraq the
following year.

The fact that Zelikow had written that document and the fact that that had not
been widely known on the commission until the very late stages of the
investigation created a concern that Zelikow had attempted to use the
investigation as a way of finding ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda that might
have justified that invasion.

At the end of the commission's work, Zelikow signed on to the staff opinion
that indeed there were no clear ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but there
certainly had been a view early on that Zelikow was interested in trying to
publicly find such a connection.

GROSS: You write about how Vice President Dick Cheney tried to limit what the
commission could do. He didn't like the idea of there being a 9/11
Commission. Did the vice president try to do anything to limit the scope of
the investigation or to prevent it from happening?

Mr. SHENON: Well, he was clearly at the forefront of the White House efforts
to try to stop the commission from being created in the first place. There's
an anecdote in the book. In 2002 the vice president made what seemed to be a
very threatening phone call to Tom Daschle, who was then the Democratic
majority leader in the Senate, suggesting that the Democratic Party would pay
a real price if it attempted to air some of these pre-9/11 intelligence issues
in the public. The vice president said that, you know, this would damage
national security if there was such an open investigation and suggested
strongly that the Democratic Party would pay a price in the elections in
November 2002. And you'll recall in those elections the Democrats took a real
drubbing. They lost the Senate.

And it was a formidable threat at that point because at that moment President
Bush and his team were riding high in opinion polls. They were about as
popular as they would ever be ultimately.

GROSS: Well, you write that Cheney said the White House would portray the
Democrats as undermining the war on terror by holding the investigation on
what went wrong on 9/11.

Mr. SHENON: Right. Right. And Daschle was clever enough to allow--he was
being interviewed at that moment by a reporter from Newsweek, and he was
clever enough to have the reporter remain in the room to listen to this
conversation.

GROSS: Vice President Cheney was one of the witnesses questioned by the 9/11
Commission and the commission had some questions about the accuracy of what he
told them. What was the specific things that they questioned?

Mr. SHENON: On the morning of 9/11, Cheney issued an order to the Pentagon
to be prepared to shoot down any commercial plane that approached
Washington--this is after the initial strikes in New York and Washington--and
the information was relayed to jet fighters, and the pilots were apparently
ready to begin shooting down passenger planes if any came near the capital.
Cheney insisted that he had given this order with the approval and after
consultation with the president, but in fact the commission staff over time
believed there hadn't been any such consultation and that the vice president
had given this order without any approval. It would have been an
unconstitutional act for the vice president to give such an authorization, but
it certainly seemed to be the case.

At the end of the commission's work, Vice President Cheney apparently places
quite an angry phone call to both the chairman and vice chairman of the
commission to tell them to remove this material from the report. They don't.
And I think if you read between the lines of the report, you can see that the
commission is suggesting that it doesn't believe the vice president's account.

GROSS: One of the more famous moments of the 9/11 Commission is--and this is
featured in Michael Moore's documentary about the invasion of Iraq and the
Bush administration--Condoleezza Rice says that there was no real warning
about 9/11. And then she's asked to read the title of an August 6th
presidential daily briefing, and the title is "Bin Laden Determined to Attack
Inside the US." You say that it was very difficult for the 9/11 Commission to
get its hands on these presidential daily briefings that were used as evidence
by the commission. Why was it so difficult?

Mr. SHENON: These documents, they're called the president's daily
brief--otherwise known as a PDB--and they're sort of the crown jewels of the
intelligence community. They're an overnight digest, really sort of super
secret newspaper prepared for the Oval Office every day in which the CIA tells
the president what is sort of the hottest or latest news from around the world
on a variety of national security issues. And up until the 9/11 Commission,
these documents had almost never been shared outside the executive branch.
The readership of the PDBs is, you know, just a handful of people. The 9/11
Commission felt very strongly that--and Zelikow in particular--felt strongly
that the commission had to get access to all of those PDBs, certainly the PDBs
that were given to President Bush and President Clinton about al-Qaeda.

And this became sort of the biggest of the public showdowns between the
commission and the White House. The White House refusing to make these
available. The commission demanding it. There was even very serious concern
on the commission--or very serious move on the commission to issue a subpoena
to the White House, which would have been quite an explosive development if it
had occurred.

At the end of the day, the White House agree to make some of the PDBs
available, including this PDB you referred to, which was from August 2001, and
was a reasonably clear warning to the president that al-Qaeda intended to
strike within American borders. And the disclosure of the name of that PDB
was indeed one of the sort of landmark moments in the history of the
investigation.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter for The New York
Times and author of the new book "The Commission." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Shenon. He's an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. He covered the 9/11 Commission
from start to finish. When the 9/11 Commission's work was finished, he
continued to investigate what happened behind the scenes at the commission.
Now he's written a new book called "The Commission: The Uncensored History of
the 9/11 Investigation."

Some of the staff of the 9/11 Commission, you write, thinks that the
commission did an insufficient job researching the National Security Agency
documents, the National Security Agency archives. What's the problem there?

Mr. SHENON: Well, I'll tell you, that in terms of the failings of the 9/11
Commission, in terms of its research, I think this is almost certainly the
most serious one. The commission got access to an awful lot of material of
the CIA. It got access to an awful lot of material of the FBI and other
agencies, and it was given access--or the National Security Agency, the big
eavesdropping agency, said it welcomed the commission to come review its
terrorism archives. But for reasons that escaped a lot of the staff, there
seemed to be no interest in getting into the NSA and its, you know, vast, vast
archives of information about al-Qaeda and terrorist threats. And it's really
only at the very last minute that somebody decides that they need to get in
there to review them. And when they do, they find quite explosive material.

The NSA, you know, is the agency that, through its satellites and its
ground-based wiretapping equipment, really gathers most of the government's
raw intelligence on national security threats and al-Qaeda and bin Laden in
particular. And when a CIA analyst issues a report, that is often done on the
basis of the raw information gathered by the NSA. The NSA--so I'm just trying
to say the NSA is very, very important agency in terms of if you want to
understand the history of the government's response to al-Qaeda; and if you
want to understand al-Qaeda's history, you need to get into the NSA to start
reviewing the raw data. But the raw data really--or much of it--was just
never reviewed by the commission.

And the sort of realization at the last minute that they hadn't done that
leads to a very frantic weekend trip by some of the commission staffers to the
NSA's headquarters up in Maryland, where they try their darndest to get into
the weeds of this material but really can't do that in the very limited amount
of time they have left on the investigation. There is a lot of concern that
there are a lot of secrets still at the NSA that the 9/11 Commission knew
nothing about.

GROSS: Even so, you say that they did find explosive material at the NSA in
the limited time that they had there. What did they find?

Mr. SHENON: They found evidence that seemed to suggest that the government
of Iran and the militant group Hezbollah had provided really important
assistance to some of the 9/11 hijackers in the year and a half before the
attacks. You know, the Bush administration--most of the government--had been
focused for so long on ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, that some of the
members of the commission staff were surprised to discover that apparently
there might have been a much closer link between al-Qaeda and Iran and nobody
knew about it. Nobody had seen this material out of the NSA until the very
last stages of the 9/11 Commission investigation.

GROSS: So do you know if anybody's investigating that material now and what
the NSA is doing with that material?

Mr. SHENON: Well, the NSA, to its credit, apparently has always been willing
to share this information with, you know, legitimate government investigators.
It doesn't appear to have hidden anything from the 9/11 Commission. I don't
have any sense that anybody's gone into review this material since. Certainly
some of the staff members of the 9/11 Commission believes that some other
body, some other group of investigators should try to get in there some day
and look at it.

GROSS: Is the problem that there's just so much of it?

Mr. SHENON: There's a huge amount of it. But, you know, the commission did
have 20 months, and the NSA offered up this material very early on in the
process. And if they had begun the search earlier, perhaps they would have
gotten through the bulk of it.

GROSS: So why do you think they didn't?

Mr. SHENON: Well, there are a variety of theories on the commission staff.
One is that, you know, the CIA was just the sexier agency to investigate.
There was certainly a feeling that Dr. Zelikow and the leadership of the
commission were really fixated on the CIA and, to a less extent, the FBI, and
was really insistent that they get into their files. But the NSA, you know,
which is--I actually I think I offer a comparison in the book from one of the
staff members, who said, `You know, the CIA was like Hollywood and the NSA is
like a bunch of Silicon Valley geeks. And wouldn't you prefer to spend your
time in Hollywood?' And so there's great interest in getting into Langley, to
the files at the CIA's headquarters in Langley. There's just no similar
interest in going and speaking to the guys who run satellites up in Fort
Meade, Maryland, at the NSA.

GROSS: You write a little bit about Bob Graham, the former Democratic senator
from Florida, who headed a congressional committee that investigated
intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. And one of the things that this
committee found was connections between the Saudi government and at least two
of the 9/11 hijackers. What were those connections?

Mr. SHENON: Two of the hijackers go to San Diego in 2000, more than a year
before the attacks, and settle in there. And they're settled in by this
network of Arab expatriate men who sort of appear from nowhere to help them
out. And some of those men, the people most involved in helping them out,
seem to have been on the payroll of the Saudi government in one way or
another; and they're also tied into a Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles, working
out of the consulate there.

And the question is, why would these men sort of appear from nowhere to help
these two bad guys as they prepared to carry out the terrorist attack? And
Senator Graham, I think, felt that these sort of low-level intelligence
operatives of the Saudi government had been tasked by somebody in Saudi Arabia
to help out these al-Qaeda men. Senator Graham and the other members of his
congressional investigation aren't alleging that the senior members of the
Saudi royal family knew about 9/11 or had any involvement in al-Qaeda, but
they are saying that somebody within the Saudi government--and remember, you
know, bin Laden at this point had a lot of support in the Saudi
public--somebody within the Saudi government tasked these people in Southern
California to help out these two men as they prepared to carry out 9/11.

GROSS: Did the 9/11 Commission follow up this investigation?

Mr. SHENON: It did. It had some terrific young investigators, including one
who had been the principal investigator on these issues on the congressional
investigation. He moves over to the 9/11 Commission and picks up the trail.
And they develop an awful lot of evidence to show these ties, and they want
the commission to produce them in its final report. You know, among the
evidence they turn up--they review, at least--is information suggesting that
money from the checking account of the Saudi ambassador's wife in Washington
finished up in the hands of some of these sort of middlemen in Southern
California. I mean, just incredible evidence of some sort of connection. And
yet, at the end of the day, the commission chose not to put that in its final
report for a variety of reasons that don't involve the commissioners
themselves but a debate on the commission staff.

GROSS: What was the debate?

Mr. SHENON: The leader of the team that was investigating the 9/11 plot was
a very much admired former prosecutor, but who demanded a standard of proof
before he would make allegations that couldn't be met by this evidence that
his investigators had gathered in San Diego. So his insistence that sort of
100 percent proof of guilt needed to met in order to get it into the report
meant that much of that material didn't get into the report.

GROSS: Some critics of the Bush administration think the Bush administration
has been too protective of the Saudi government, including too protective in
the story of 9/11. Is there any implication that the Bush administration
didn't want this part of the story to be included in the 9/11 Commission
report?

Mr. SHENON: I think there's a lot of concern about that, and there are 28
pages of material in the original congressional report that to this day have
not been made public because the Bush administration insists that it not be
made public. And my understanding is that that material focuses specifically
on these questions of what happened between the Saudi government its possible
operatives in Southern California.

GROSS: So where is that part of the report now?

Mr. SHENON: I assume it is sitting in a safe on Capitol Hill, unavailable to
all of us.

GROSS: And everyone on the 9/11 Commission had a chance to read it, that
part?

Mr. SHENON: Yes. The full classified congressional report was made
available to the 9/11 Commission. In fact, the author of those 28 pages was
an investigator on the 9/11 Commission as well.

GROSS: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter at The New York Times and
author of the new book "The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11
Investigation." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Shenon, author of
the new book "The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11
Investigation." Shenon is an investigative reporter for "The New York Times."
He covered the 9/11 Commission for the "Times," but much of the research for
the book is based on what he learned after the commission's work was over
through interviews with commissioners and staff members.

You write a little bit about how the Bush administration tried to undermine
Richard Clarke's credibility after he testified before the commission. And
just to refresh everybody's memories, Richard Clarke was a counterterrorism
expert in the Bush administration and he told the 9/11 Commission and
everybody who was willing to listen that he tried to warn the Bush
administration early on about the threat of al-Qaeda and they just weren't
willing to give him the time and the attention that he believed it deserved.
What did you learn about how the Bush administration tried to undermine
Richard Clarke's credibility after he testified to the 9/11 Commission?

Mr. SHENON: Well, when Clarke went public in 2004, there was real panic at
the White House. They thought this was a real threat to the president's
re-election hopes and a real threat to the reputation of Condoleezza Rice.
And they went all-out in public and behind the scenes to destroy his
credibility. And on the eve of Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 Commission,
the White House agreed to release a background briefing that Clarke had given
two years earlier in which he appeared to support--offered very qualified
support--for the president's record on terrorism. This had been a briefing
that Clarke had given to a few reporters on the understanding that his name
would never be revealed. On the eve of his appearance before the 9/11
Commission the White House agreed, with reporters, to allow his name to be
revealed in an effort to show that, you know, what he said two years ago is
not what he is saying today. He is therefore a liar, don't believe what he's
about to tell the 9/11 Commission.

GROSS: Do you think that that undermined his credibility in the eyes of
anyone on the commission?

Mr. SHENON: Clarke had left behind at the White House a vast record of his
efforts in dealing with terrorist threats both in the Clinton and in the Bush
administrations. And the staff knew that Clarke's records backed up most of
what he was saying to the 9/11 Commission and, as you say, to anybody else who
would listen. You know, the record showed that Clarke had repeatedly, daily,
hourly, warned his boss, Condi Rice, that, you know, something terrible was
about to happen. And it appeared that the White House didn't often take him
seriously.

GROSS: When the report was being written, you write that the executive
director, Philip Zelikow, said that the report reflected Richard Clarke's
point of view too much and Condoleezza Rice's too little, and Zelikow wanted
more balance in the report. Was the balance of the report changed as a result
of that?

Mr. SHENON: The short answer is, yes. I mean, there was--I think some of
the most tortured passages of the 9/11 Commission report are its treatment of
the central question: Who's telling the truth, Dick Clarke or Condi Rice?
Was the White House reacting quickly and appropriately to terrorist threats or
was it not? And what you have in the report is sort of Clarke says this, Rice
says this, Clarke says this, Rice says this, you know, and dear reader, we're
not going to tell you who's telling the truth. When, in fact, the staff
believed very strongly that the documentary record and the information they
were receiving from elsewhere showed that Clarke's account was essentially
correct. Yet, again, there's no judgement made by the commission in its final
report about what the truth is. And I don't think that would have happened
had it not been for this insistence by Zelikow--and, in fairness, insistence
from others on the commission--that all this information be balanced out. An
allegation was made to be answered.

GROSS: Well, you also say that Kean and Hamilton didn't want finger pointing
in the report.

Mr. SHENON: No. And I think, you know, I think in fairness to Dr. Zelikow,
this decision not to have personal accountability, not to finger point, is a
direction set very early on by Tom Kean, the chairman, and Lee Hamilton the
vice chairman. And they repeated that at the end of the investigation as the
report was being written, that they weren't in the business of finding
individual human beings to blame for 9/11, even though many members of the
staff and certainly a lot of 9/11 families and a lot of pundits believed that
there was clearly some blame to go around.

GROSS: Your book begins with Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton's
national security adviser, smuggling confidential documents out of the
National Archives by stuffing them into his clothes. This is an infamous
story. Why do you start there, and what did you learn about why he smuggled
out the documents?

Mr. SHENON: It's been a parlor game in Washington for a long time. Why
would Sandy Berger destroy his reputation like this? It has an awful lot to
do with Sandy Berger's personality. I believe he thought that if some of
these documents found their way to the public or to Republicans on Capitol
Hill that he would somehow be blamed for 9/11 when, in fact, a lot of his
friends and his colleagues will tell you that, you know, nobody was on top of
the al-Qaeda threat like Sandy Berger. And he did a lot of admirable work in
trying to prepare for terrorist attacks as they rose up. The answer seems to
be, as to why he stole these documents, that, again, he thought that some of
these documents might somehow implicate him in not having acted fast enough or
done enough to deal with the bin Laden threat over time.

GROSS: And were these the only copies that he took?

Mr. SHENON: He kept stealing the same document. It was a report prepared by
Dick Clarke shortly after the millennium threats. During the millennium, the
intelligence community was absolutely convinced something terrible was about
to happen. In fact, there was apparently a plot to blow up parts of Los
Angeles airport. After the millennium period passed and there hadn't been a
major attack, Berger tasked Clarke to put together a lengthy memo saying sort
of what can we do better in the future, what have we learned from this? And
Clarke came up with a long series of recommendations for future action. And
it's this memo, copies of this memo that Berger keeps stealing. Every time he
comes across it, he puts it in his coat or he puts it in his socks or he
somehow gets it out of the archives. And the belief is, among his friends,
that he thought if that document became public in some forum, it would be seen
as a variety of actions that he could have taken to prevent 9/11 but didn't
take.

Again, I think that may reflect Sandy Berger's a catastrophizer. People who
know Sandy Berger and know his record suggest that he's one of the people who
might well have been saluted in the 9/11 Commission report for having been on
top of al-Qaeda.

GROSS: So did the 9/11 Commission end up with a copy of this document
anyways?

Mr. SHENON: They did. There were a variety--I mean, this is one more
mystery--that if he believed that no one would ever see this document if he
stole every copy of it, he was wrong because there were copies elsewhere.

GROSS: There's been a new development related to the 9/11 Commission that
coincides with the publication of your book. The Justice Department announced
that they're starting a criminal investigation of the CIA's destruction of
tapes that showed harsh interrogations of two al-Qaeda terrorists and, you
know, the question is did the 9/11 Commission want these tapes, could they
have used these tapes, would it have been important to the commission.

And the co-chairs of the commission, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, had an op-ed
in The New York Times, and I'll just quote some of it. They said "The
commission did not have a mandate to investigate how detainees were treated.
Our role was to investigate the history and evolution of al-Qaeda and the 9/11
plot. As a legal matter, it is not up to us to examine the CIA's failure to
disclose the existence of these tapes. That is for others. What we do know
is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body
created by Congress and the president to investigate one of the greatest
tragedies to confront this country. We call that obstruction."

So Hamilton and Kean are saying that the CIA destroying these tapes, that's
obstruction of justice. What do you think is the significance of this story?

Mr. SHENON: I think we're going to be learning over the next several weeks
and months what the significance is. You know, this question of the al-Qaeda
detainees and the information they provided to their interrogators, this was a
big debate between the commission and the CIA with the White House on the
sidelines. The commission went in early and said it wanted to talk to the
detainees, you know, see them face to face wherever they were. And the CIA
turned that down flat. There were a variety of negotiations that went on over
months that led to a decision that the commission would be allowed to have
written reports of what was being said by the al-Qaeda detainees overseas
about 9/11, about the plot, and the commission would be allowed to submit
questions to the CIA that would be asked of the detainees, and that the
answers would be provided in written form.

Every document I've seen suggests that the commission, under this negotiation,
requested documents, paper, computer files. I didn't see any indication that
they had ever specifically demanded videotapes, and it could be argued the CIA
was operating in bad faith if it didn't alert the commission that it also had
videotapes beyond whatever interrogation reports it had, but it doesn't appear
that the 9/11 Commission specifically asked for the videotapes. And, you
know, I think the allegation could now be made against the commission, `why
didn't you?'

GROSS: My guest is Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter for The New York
Times and author of a new book about the 9/11 Commission called "The
Commission." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Shenon. He's an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. He covered the 9/11 Commission
from start to finish. When the 9/11 Commission's work was finished, he
continued to investigate what happened behind the scenes at the commission.
Now he's written a new book called "The Commission: The Uncensored History of
the 9/11 Investigation."

Rudy Giuliani recently dropped out of the Republican presidential primary
race, but while he was in the race, everybody was joking about how every
sentence would have a reference to 9/11, that so much of his campaign was
based on his kind of heroic actions on September 11th and in the days
following. But you say that the co-chairs of the commission, Tom Kean and Lee
Hamilton, thought that Giuliani's hearing was a low point for the commission
and that the commission had abdicated its responsibility to ask him tough
questions about 9/11. What kind of questions did they want to ask but didn't?

Mr. SHENON: The staff--and I think the commissioners, as well--felt very
strongly that Giuliani's performance on the day of 9/11 was indeed heroic and
that he really comforted the city and the nation in a way that even the
president wasn't able to do in those initial, you know, hours and days. But
the staff was really astounded to discover how little the Giuliani
administration had done to prepare the city for a terrorist attack. The city
had been attacked. It had been attacked in 1993 by Islamic extremists, and
what was their target? Their target was the World Trade Center. So why was
it terribly surprising that eight years later they would try again? And why,
in those eight years, had the Giuliani administration, with the understanding
that terrorists were bound to try something someday, why had they not done
more to respond to it?

And they were prepared to ask Giuliani a host of questions about the city's
core preparation, but for a variety of reasons, they really asked Giuliani
mostly softballs when he finally appeared before the commission. This was a
time when, of course, Giuliani was about as popular a political figure as
there was in this country. You know, people were talking about him as
President Bush's obvious successor, and it was a very scary thing for the
commission to try to tackle somebody like that and, in the end, they choose
not to.

GROSS: Well, Hamilton and Kean wrote that it proved difficult, if not
impossible to raise hard questions about 9/11 in New York without being
perceived as being critical of the individual police and firefighters or of
Mayor Giuliani. So that inhibited them from asking questions they wanted to
ask?

Mr. SHENON: Well, it's a little more complicated, but it was an interesting
scene to watch, which is, the day before Giuliani's testimony before the 9/11
Commission, the city's former fire department chief and police chief testified
and really gave it to commissioners, really gave it in particular to John
Lehman, who would ask some questions about the poor preparations, and I think
they were particularly concerned about the potential for a showdown with
Giuliani that would make the commission look bad. You know, at that point,
Giuliani is so popular and he has, you know, the city's tabloids right behind
him, that the commission feared that if they gave Giuliani questions that were
considered too tough, that they, the commissioners, would come under attack.
And so therefore most of the questioning of Giuliani was extraordinarily
gentle.

GROSS: Meanwhile, it was recently reported that Giuliani's own terrorism
experts warned him not to put the command center in Building 7 of the World
Trade Center for a lot of reasons, including that there was a huge fuel tank
at the World Trade Center, and that the World Trade Center had already been a
target of a terrorist attack, and it might be a target again of an attack. Do
you have anything to say about that?

Mr. SHENON: Oh, well, I will say that--and in truth, I didn't fully
understand this until I got into the research on the book--but just imagine
this. The Giuliani administration decides they're going to create this $15
million emergency command post--this is after the '93 attacks on the World
Trade Center--and they're going to put it someplace reasonably close to city
hall, but at a safe location. And Giuliani's aides recommend that the command
center be placed in Brooklyn or Queens, where it presumably would be safer
than Manhattan, which would more likely be a terrorist target. But Giuliani
overrules them and decides that he's going to place his command center in, of
all places on earth, the World Trade Center. And he's not going to put it on
the ground--or underground, for that matter--he's going to put it on the 23rd
floor of a skyscraper.

And, you know, what happened on 9/11 was almost too predictable. The command
center had to be closed down almost immediately because there was a threat
that it would itself come under attacks, as the Twin Towers were then burning.
So the command center had to be evacuated. The crisis center had to be
evacuated because there was a crisis.

GROSS: Do you think, having covered the 9/11 Commission and then written this
new book about what happened behind the scenes at the commission, are there
lessons that you've learned that you think subsequent commissions should learn
when they start their work?

Mr. SHENON: Well, I mean, there's some obvious lessons in terms of, if
you're not careful in the selection of staff, you can finish up with just
these sorts of controversies about conflicts of interest. I think as long as
people talk about the 9/11 Commission, they're going to talk to some degree
about Philip Zelikow and his connections to, and his friendships with many of
the people who should have been the targets of the investigation and whether
or not that had any effect on the final report and the commission's findings.
You know, I think, at the end of the day, I wonder how much about Dr. Zelikow
Governor Kean and Mr. Hamilton really knew and why it was that after all of
Zelikow's ties to the White House were pointed out to them, why they continued
to stand by him.

GROSS: Philip Shenon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHENON: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter at The New York Times and
author of the new book "The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11
Investigation."

In response to the book, the commission's former executive director Philip
Zelikow told ABC News that he was under no prohibition that barred his
conversations with Karl Rove and he did not recall asking his assistant
to...(unintelligible)...his calls. Zelikow says he did not discuss the
commission's work with Rove.

Coming up, John DiIulio, the first director of the White House Office of
Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and author of the book "Godly Republic."
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: John DiIulio, author of "Godly Republic" and first
director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives on church and state
TERRY GROSS, host:

John DiIulio was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based
and Community Initiatives, which was created by President Bush shortly after
he moved into the White House. The office gives grants and vouchers to
nonprofit religious organizations that provide job training, affordable
housing, after-school programs and other social services. The office is
controversial among people who say it blurs the line between church and state.
But DiIulio hopes that whoever the next president is that he or she continues
this initiative.

DiIulio is the author of the book "Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for
America's Faith-Based Future." He's a professor of politics, religion and
civil society at the University of Pennsylvania.

John DiIulio, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JOHN DiIULIO: Thank you.

GROSS: You were set apart in your White House work by two things. One, that
you were a Democrat in a Republican administration; and two, you were Catholic
in a group of religious leaders that were largely Protestant evangelicals.

Mr. DiIULIO: Yeah.

GROSS: How did being a Catholic set you apart? What do you think they
perceived as the differences between you and them?

Mr. DiIULIO: I think the evangelical Christian leaders, many of them I knew
very well, good friends with and served on their boards, nonetheless perceived
a difference, and I think there is a real difference here, and it's not
necessarily a bad thing on one side or the other. But Catholics tend to be
more in the spirit of Saint James, faith without works is dead, or Saint
Ignatius, you know, it's deeds not words that matter most. And so, you know,
we could have--you know, a Catholic inner city school will have 400, 500 kids,
none of them Catholic, serving people who are not Catholic, not trying to
convert them to Catholicism, per se, but basically doing it because we're
Catholic, not because they're Catholic, which is a different perspective than
a perspective that says evangelism, per se, is the thing; or, you know, that
the endgame, as it were, really needs to be, you know, a gospel presentation
or, you know, wiring that into everything you do. A Catholic perspective has
always been more one of, you know, doing it, witnessing through your works.

GROSS: While you were in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, while you
were directing it, did any evangelical leaders try to convert you?

Mr. DiIULIO: Well, any evangelical--let's put it this way, when I started
doing the research in the early to mid-'90s the all the way through my time in
the White House for sure and even in fairly recent years, I don't think a week
went by when somebody didn't ask me to sort of, you know, have a born again
experience or make--you know, in my view, I prefer to myself as a born again
Catholic because, you know, cradle Catholic, grew up Catholic, never was much
of a high octane or practicing Catholic in my earlier years. And then in my
30s and whatnot I became more serious about the faith of my childhood. And so
I had, I guess, my equivalent of a born again moment. But, yes, people would
always pop that--a lot of people pop that question at a lot of different
times.

GROSS: And how would you handle that?

Mr. DiIULIO: I would tell them that `thank you very much,' and depending on
the nature of the relationship whether I knew them or not and just say, `look,
I think I'm exactly where God wants me to be in both civic and intellectual
and theological and political terms,' at least for the purposes of their
particular question.

GROSS: Now, you write in your new book that before you'd completed your first
week in the White House as the director of the Faith-Based Initiatives, a
small but vocal cadre of evangelical Christian leaders had called for your
resignation. Over what?

Mr. DiIULIO: Over the fact that I was taking this position, that the
initiative had to be open to all without regard to religion, that, you know,
it wasn't first and foremost only about religious organizations, A; and B,
that it would be open to Methodists, Muslims, Mormons, Quakers, Catholics,
Jews, people of no particular religious faith. And that it would be measured
in the end by the results, that is could we partner with faith-based
organizations in a way, staying between the double yellow constitutional lines
established by charitable choice laws passed under President Clinton and
supported in a bipartisan way, that that was really what this was about.

And that drew a certain amount if ire and upset on the part of people for whom
this initiative was to go beyond charitable choice, who viewed charitable
choice as kind of a weak tea brewed to suit the tastes of secular liberals or
whatnot, which of whom I was most certainly not one, but nonetheless they took
exception to that.

GROSS: I want to quote what was maybe your most famous quote...

Mr. DiIULIO: OK.

GROSS: ...about the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and this is the
Mayberry Machiavelli line.

Mr. DiIULIO: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Yes. And this was for an article that Ron Suskind was writing about
you for Esquire magazine. And you said, about the Bush White House, "what
you've got is everything--and I mean everything--being run by the political
arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." And you explain that what
you meant by Mayberry Machiavellis was staff--senior and junior--who
consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication
consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms for
public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals
as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessor in previous
administrations, but in the Bush administration, they were particularly
unfettered. So you say that, that really reverberated, and then you expressed
your regrets about having said it.

Mr. DiIULIO: I did. I did.

GROSS: And I guess I'd like you to reflect on that whole process...

Mr. DiIULIO: Sure.

GROSS: ...of being outspoken of something, of making a very pointed criticism
of the Bush administration and then kind of backing down from it?

Mr. DiIULIO: Well, actually, it never--it's not a complicated tale, but it
has a lot of movable parts. In December of 2002 a memo that I had written
became public, and Ron and other journalists grabbed hold of it and used it in
various ways. But if you read the actual memo, there are--it's a long memo
and there are parts of it that talk about other aspects of the administration.
Now, the criticism, however, was pretty sweeping, pretty broad brushed and
pretty harsh. And it was made really--I felt at the time--even before the
memo became public before these other related stories appeared, I felt that I
had been hasty, overly harsh, wasn't going to pass my annual Catholic
self-examination of conscience.

Now, that said--you asked me to reflect some five years later--as sorry as I
am and I remain and for the way that thing played out, I'm sad to say that
over the past half decade, especially with regard to particular issues like
children's health insurance and so forth, certainly with regard to the
response to Katrina. I've been down to New Orleans a half dozen times since
the levees broke, and, you know, that city is still trying to recover. But
the recovery would have gone much better if the initial response were better,
etc. With regard to all those things, I'm sad to say that those criticisms
have proven righter than I felt they were immediately in the aftermath having
made them, where I felt that I had been, you know, had been too harsh and too
hasty and too broad brushed.

GROSS: I'm sure you've been following the presidential campaigns, Republican
and Democrat.

Mr. DiIULIO: Yes.

GROSS: I think a lot of the Democrats and Republicans have been influenced by
President Bush's public assertion of his faith, and there's a lot of talk
about faith in this election.

Mr. DiIULIO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm wondering what your reaction to that is, and if you think any
of it's going too far?

Mr. DiIULIO: I think that this presidential election year is unique for a
lot of reasons. I guess I'd better have some ideas--as an American government
textbook author, I've got to have some ideas about this, right?--to do the
revisions. But, you know, the faith in politics is here to stay. Faith base
is a permanent part of the policy and the public discourse and vernacular, for
good or for ill. I think it's one that's good. I think that some of the
candidates, like Senator Clinton in particular, and Governor Huckabee in
particular, have done an especially laudable job of laying out how they think
about their religion in relation to their public policy personas and their
public policy positions. I think other candidates have been less clear about
that. I don't think it's going too far in the sense of them bringing it up at
all.

I think, you know, as my friend David Kuo says, you've got to be careful not
to get into a pastor in chief politics mode. It has a place. It helps to
explain and flesh out why people believe what they believe. It's also part of
the transparency we hope to have in our candidates, you know, `why do you take
this position on a particular cultural issue or why are you, you know, so
strong and concerned about the poor?' That also could also have obviously a
religious basis or motivation.

GROSS: John DiIulio, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DiIULIO: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: John DiIulio was the first director of the Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives and is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
His new book is called "Godly Republic."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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