Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton








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The co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, have co-authored a book titled, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. Thanks to their added time in putting this book together, citizens can examine what took place outside the open meetings, and what had to happen for the work of the commission to move forward. Conspiracy theorists may never be satisfied, but most readers will come away from this book with confidence that the commission worked effectively, and had access to the best and most complete information available. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, “A Start-Up,” pp. 34-40:




I am one of the handful of lucky ones. Just blocks away from here lay the unrecovered remains of many friends and colleagues, some dear friends. They can no longer speak for themselves and I am left with the unchosen, unhappy task of trying to speak for them.


Harry Waizer, Cantor Fitzgerald employee and 9/11 survivor, testifying at the 9/11 Commission’s first public hearing, March 31, 2003


There is no road map for how to set up a commission. We spent the first few months of 2003 jumping over logistical and administrative hurdles so we could get to work. Meanwhile, pressure to get going increased. Families of victims who had waited more than a year for answers did not understand why they had to wait longer. Members of Con­gress who had supported our creation asked what we were doing. Com­missioners and staff were frustrated.

To understand our dilemma, it is helpful to think of the commission as a start-up business. We had to hire and organize a staff, which grew to nearly eighty people; plan how to organize our inquiry; locate and equip office space; and like any start-up, we had to form a budget and seek financing. Add to this, though, the fact that this start-up was being created within the U.S. government: our office space and employees had to be cleared by the FBI and CIA to handle top-secret information; we had to seek financing from Congress and the White House; and we had to be wary both of political concerns and of bureaucratic red tape.

The initial task was to hire a staff. Our agreement was that as chair and vice-chair, we had to concur on every person hired. After Philip Zelikow came on board as executive director, he began recruiting and interview­ing candidates. Finding applicants was no chore—each commissioner had received hundreds of résumés; the chore was choosing people for the top jobs.

Zelikow was selected with little consultation with the rest of the commission, but several commissioners had concerns about the kind of inquiry he would lead. Since he was an academic, they worried that he would conduct a professorial study of U.S. policy. To balance that approach, they wanted a more prosecutorial investigator as the commis­sion’s general counsel—a lawyer who would chase down the facts, serve subpoenas, and interrogate witnesses; someone with experience running major litigations or congressional inquiries. Under this model, two peo­ple would effectively be in charge of the staff: Zelikow, driving policy analysis, and a general counsel, getting to the bottom of the 9/11 story.

The choice of a general counsel had strong political undertones. Because Zelikow had credentials as a Republican—indeed, one who had collaborated with Condoleezza Rice and aided the Bush transition— Democratic commissioners pressed for a powerful general counsel who could assure them and the American people that the commission wasn’t soft-pedaling aspects of the investigation that might embarrass the Bush administration. Zelikow had recused himself from dealing with issues that involved Rice and the National Security Council transition of 2000—2001. But many people inside and outside of the commission still felt strongly that since the executive director was a Republican, other top staff posi­tions had to be reserved for Democrats.

This understandable concern was somewhat assuaged when we hired Chris Kojm as deputy director. Chris was Lee’s call. He had worked for Lee for fifteen years on the House International Relations Committee, including assisting with the Iran-Contra investigation, and had spent 1999-2002 serving as deputy assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Chris is an unflappable professional, and an extraordinary organizer and editor skills that would be invaluable in setting up public hearings and Preparing the final report. With a patient manner, a sympathetic ear, and an understated style, Chris was a perfect complement to Zelikow—if Philip could roil the waters a bit, Chris could smooth them over. As deputy director, Chris took on much of the day-to-day management of the Commission’s staff, and helped recruit new talent when the commis­sion Was in need of different expertise. For commissioners and congressional staff, Chris was often the go-to guy when you needed to get some­thing done.

But the fact that Kojm was a Democrat did not smooth the waters within the commission. He was not a lawyer, and thus did not have attri­butes that Democratic commissioners were looking for to balance Zelikow. So, for a few weeks, as the rest of the staff filled out, the contro­versy over the general counsel position persisted. Throughout this process, general counsel candidates were introduced by individual com­missioners and vetted by the full commission. On a few occasions, a very able lawyer supported by one side of the commission was deemed unac­ceptable by others—usually because the lawyer in question had done high-profile work for the Democratic Party or for Democratic political campaigns, or had worked on the Watergate Task Force. This provoked accusations on both sides—that the White House was vetoing Democrats through the Republican commissioners, or that the Democrats were putting forward highly partisan lawyers.

At one point, Republicans within and around the commission suggested that a partisan Democratic general counsel would necessitate the hiring of a Republican general counsel, and even provided us a list of candidates that could be considered for this position. This would have caused pre­cisely the kind of division within the commission and the staff that we were determined to avoid. Two lawyers looking out for the interests of their respective political parties would have guaranteed a divided commission.

This stalemate began to prompt whispers around Washington. The skepticism that had surrounded the 9/11 Commission’s creation re­emerged, with Republicans grumbling that the commission was out to get the president, and Democrats countering that the Republicans wanted the work of the commission to be a whitewash.

Uncertainty lasted well into March as candidates came and went. Above all, we became focused on temperament—finding a lawyer who would be tough and persistent, but not overly confrontational or parti­san. Matters were complicated when Zelikow met with Judge Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s White House counsel, to discuss the kind of access he envisioned for the commission. The meeting did not go partic­ularly well, as Gonzales found Zelikow aggressive and overly expansive in laying out his expectations for access, and from that point on Gonzales refused to meet with Zelikow. So the very executive director whose ties to the White House some on the commission were looking to balance with a general counsel had already strained his own relations at the counsel’s office—our primary point of contact with the White House.

In mid-March, we found the right man for general counsel. Daniel Marcus was well recommended by several people we trusted, particularly Lloyd Cutler, the former White House counsel for Presidents Carter and Clinton. Dan had spent many years at a prominent Washington law firm and had served in senior positions in the White House counsel’s office and the Justice Department in the latter years of the Clinton admini­stration. He was viewed as a Democrat, which was certainly helpful in calming Democratic concerns. But Dan is more a professional than he is a partisan—the work he had done for Democrats was in government, not in politics.

Dan’s personal manner is very lawyerly. His inclination is to talk and work things out. But his agreeable nature is buttressed by toughness: he was not afraid to take people on, including some commissioners who were experienced lawyers. Off the bat, it helped that the one commis­sioner whom Dan did know was Jamie Gorelick, who was able to assure the other Democratic commissioners that Dan was a good choice.

Dan recruited an extraordinarily able deputy, Steve Dunne, an experi­enced prosecutor at the Justice Department. Later on, Dan and Steve would continue trying to work things out with executive agencies even after we had served them with subpoenas.

The divisions that emerged over the hiring of the counsel did not go away. Instead, they reappeared in questions about how to negotiate with the White House and whether to use the power of subpoena to get access to documents and people. Always there was tension between those in the commission who wanted to push harder—often backed by the 9/11 families—and those who thought we were pushing too hard; this division was often split down partisan lines. Ultimately, though, this tension served us well. To succeed, we had to be both conciliatory and confrontational at times, and these two approaches helped us steer an effective middle course that got us the access we needed without drawn-out legal battles or partisan fights—though there were some close calls.

Several commissioners also disagreed with our decision not to hire an individual aide on the staff for each commissioner. Most commissioners as­sumed that the commission would follow the model of congressional com­mittees, in which each member tends to have an aide who reports to him or her. Several commissioners came to us and said, “This is who I want to work for me on the commission staff.” We had to explain that this was not how the Commission was going to do business. It helped, in those early days, that we were so underfunded. A tight budget made a good excuse for disabusing Commissioners of the idea that they were going to have personal assistants.

We did not want any staff organization that would create competing centers of power: we wanted one nonpartisan staff working for the whole commission. Our basic organizational structure comprised a front-office triumvirate: Zelikow drove and organized the staff’s work; Kojm worked closely with Zelikow, while handling much of the hands-on daily manage­ment of the staff; and Marcus, working closely with Dunne, pursued the documents and interviews we needed, weighing in often on policy ques­tions. Working with this front office were a special assistant, a deputy for administration, and a deputy for communications.

The rest of the staff hiring was less political~ though no less important. Underneath the front office were nine staff teams organized around the areas specified in our congressional mandate. We started with teams look­ing at al Qaeda; intelligence; counterterrorism policy; terrorist financing; border security; law enforcement; aviation and transportation security; national response on 9/11; and the emergency response in New York and northern Virginia on 9/11. These last two teams eventually merged into one, whose job it was to assess the local and national response on the day of 9/11, and the first team split into two, with one assessing al Qaeda and the other focused specifically on the 9/11 plot. Each staff team had a leader who supervised several staffers, setting up something of a pyramid struc­ture: team members reported to team leaders; team leaders reported to the staff front office; the staff front office reported to the chair and vice-chair.

To staff these teams, we looked for the best experts in the United States. We wanted to hire eclectically: people from inside and outside of govern­ment; people who had immersed themselves in these issues on the con­gressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11; and people who could bring a fresh perspective. We hired lawyers and historians, government workers and congressional aides. We did not ask about the candidates’ politics. Indeed, when staff came on board, they got a set speech about how the commission was going to be run on a nonpartisan basis. Disagreement and debate were welcome on issues of fact and interpretation, but we wanted the staff to leave their politics at the door. Fierce arguments about how to proceed did occur—it was not unusual for one of us to receive a phone call from Kojm that began with the words “We’ve got a problem.” This was indicative of the strong personalities we had on staff, and foreshadowed some of the tension we had to manage throughout the commission.

We ended up with an extraordinary breadth of expertise: John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey; Dietrich Snell, a sitting deputy attorney general of New York; Douglas MacEachin, a former deputy direc­tor for intelligence at the CIA; Mike Hurley, a CIA officer who had run major operations in the war in Afghanistan; John Roth, a former chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering division at the justice Depart­ment; Sam Brinkley, a former air marshal; Ernest May, a professor at Har­vard University; and a long list of specialists with experience in the areas under our mandate.

We also had a close connection to 9/11 on the staff: Kevin Shaeffer. On the morning of September 11, Kevin was working as a lieutenant in the Naval Command Center at the Pentagon, and was tracking and reporting on the attacks at the World Trade Center. When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon and sent flames and jet fuel in all direc­tions, twenty-nine people in the command center were killed, including all of those in Kevin’s section. Having ingested jet fuel and inhaled smoke, Kevin pulled himself out of the Pentagon, his body on fire, and was taken to the burn facility at the Washington Hospital Center with burns over 40 percent of his body. His final memory of that day, just before he went under, is insisting that the doctor remove his wedding and navy class rings from his finger instead of cutting them off.

Weeks of excruciating pain ensued. On October 4, 2001, Kevin suffered two heart attacks, and his doctors were not certain he would make it through the night. His wife, Blanca, signed his military retirement papers to increase the benefits that would go to his family. Kevin did survive but endured months of rehabilitation and many skin grafts, while relearning basic skills such as how to tie his shoes and button his shirts. Over the sum­mer of 2002, he recovered at home, where he closely tracked the news about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission. The idea of looking back and learning lessons through something of an after-action report suited Kevin’s military disposition. That fall, he attended the ceremony marking the signing of the legisla­tion creating the Department of Homeland Security.

In mid-December, soon after the commission was appointed, Lee and several other commissioners received e-mails from Kevin, in which he recounted his personal story and to which he attached news articles that had been written about him. Max Cleland, who knew firsthand about overcoming traumatic injuries, had met with Kevin for lunch, and he rec­ommended him to the commission highly. Lee had his own meeting with Kevin, at the Wilson Center, and was impressed by Kevin’s calm and per­sistent focus on rebuilding his professional life by working with the com­mission, even as the scars of his burns and skin grafts were still visible on his neck and face. Lee referred him to Zelikow and Kojm, who were run­ning the hiring.

But Kevin’s hiring did not come easy. He had been in the navy since age nineteen, and had never had a job interview until he met with Zelikow and Kojm about working on the commission. He told his story, and Zelikow’s response was that he wasn’t going to give him a free ride. He asked, “Why should I hire you? The commission does not really have a role for you.” Kevin answered persuasively: he was young, with military experience and a particular determination to review the response to the attacks. His references from the Pentagon were ex­ceptional.

After all the uncertainty Kevin was finally hired to work with the commission on the review of the emergency response in New York, and the emergency response at the Pentagon that had saved his life. He ended all of his e-mails with “Never Forget.”


If you’ve read the 9/11 commission report, and valued the plain language used there, you’re likely to enjoy the straightforward manner in which the co-chairs and co-authors reflect on what it was like to do the work of leading the commission. Without Precedent describes the processes the commission used to ensure that its work would be the best possible. Readers who felt the commission didn’t point fingers in its report at those accountable will find many villains on the pages of Without Precedent, especially those who stalled and blocked access to the documents the commission needed. I especially recommend this book for those readers who like to know what happens to get things done behind the scenes, especially in Washington, as well as how to use public opinion as a weapon.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2006



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