Sept. 11 Comes Back to Life, with Lessons

This is a non-commercial commercial for a book that just hit the stores. It's the paperback edition of the published report of the 9-11 commission and it is an extraordinary document. It ought to be available in bookstores near you, or, of course, on the Internet. The first version available costs about 10 bucks and it's cheap at twice the price. Go get it. By the grace of God you will never again read anything like it.

I go back with commissions and special committees and investigations in Washington. I can't claim to have covered the Pearl Harbor report or the Warren Commission, but I was there when Sen. Howard Baker repeatedly asked what the president knew and when he knew it. I was there when members of the House Judiciary Committee, many of them in tears, voted to impeach President Nixon. I've been around for every big investigation since, and I've never seen anything like the 9-11 commission.

First of all, its extraordinary performance tells us something about what happens when none of the members of a special commission is keeping one eye on the proceedings and another on his or her re-election. This group, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats but with plenty of partisans on board, seems to have put aside everything else and taken a very hard and comprehensive look at what happened, why it was not prevented, and what happened next.

After months of investigating on its own, the commission held a series of hearings, in New York and Washington, to go over what it had discovered in the presence of some of the people who were involved. Witnesses ranged from cabinet secretaries to military commanders to bereaved family members and the people we've all learned to call "first responders."

Before each session began, the staff read a report of its findings, laying out the facts they had found, setting a kind of parameter for the testimony. Very few witnesses disputed the staff reports, I assume because they had no reason to do so. Instead, most witnesses entered into the spirit of the commission's inquiry, explaining rather than defending. There were exceptions, of course, but the staff reports seem to have reined in much of the blah-blah that generally accompanies a long look at a big event.

Moreover, the 9-11 commission report itself is a riveting read. It recasts many of the myths of that tragedy; adding facts in the retelling, many of which constitute wholly new information. For example, I learned some uncomfortable facts about this country's air defenses on that morning.

The report changes our views of some things and confirms our views of others. We knew the police and firefighters were heroes at the World Trade Center — the report lays out just how handicapped they were in wrenching detail. It vivifies some of the critical moments of that terrible day with quotations from tape recordings that the commission made public for the first time. We hear the voices of the hijackers, of air traffic controllers, of a flight attendant calmly relating what had happened, a short time before her hijacked aircraft crashed.

The 9-11 commission fought major battles with organizations determined to keep certain things secret. And it appears for the most part to have succeeded in separating secrets involving the nation's security from efforts to conceal institutional failures.

We've all read about the presidential Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, which warns of Osama bin Laden and possible hijacking, but the report goes further into the origins of that information and what officials did with it. The report explores what was known about suspicious people learning to fly planes and it asks why that information did not trigger an investigation, why it was not widely shared.

Finally, the commission put together a bracing set of ideas for going forward from the tragedy. Its recommendations on "unity of effort," chains of command, information sharing and consulting tread on all sorts of bureaucratic and traditional ways of doing things and will clearly be difficult to implement. The commissioners have declared that they will remain active in the effort to explain why they believe their recommendations could make the nation safer and its leaders smarter. They don't want the report to gather dust on bureaucratic shelves.

That's one reason why it is available in bookstores; another is the public's right to know, however uncomfortable the knowledge may be. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to read it.

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