The 9/11 index

I am now about halfway through The 9/11 Commission Report. It represents the triumph of the footnote. No scholar could fail to envy the fastidiousness and real-world coolness of the sourcing, or the casual way that various bits of misinformation are obliterated. For example, on the alternate name of the Manila air bombing, which was planned in 1994 but never executed (p. 147): “KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] also says bojinka is not Serbo-Croatian for ‘big bang,’ as has been widely reported, but rather a nonsense word he adopted after hearing it on the front lines in Afghanistan” (p. 488, n. 7).

But the report also represents the absence of the index. You can’t turn to the back and look up, say,

Pakistan, complicity of

allows Bin Laden to return to Afghanistan, 64
probably warns Bin Laden of upcoming missile attacks by U.S., 117
called “rogue state” by NSC, 124
hosts Al Qaeda training in Karachi, 157

You have to read the text (or failing that, download the whole PDF and search for keywords, but I haven’t tried that yet). And so, in the confidence that few people will, the Bush administration is adopting the strategy of patting the report on the head and pretending that it says what they’d like it to have said. Like me, Cheney says that he has read about half the report. It is consoling that someone in the executive branch is reading it. I don’t think there’s much chance that Bush will. Consider this entry in the as-yet-unwritten index:

daily intelligence briefings

Clinton is “voracious reader” and annotater of, 200
Bush, “by contrast,” prefers “face-to-face briefings,” 200

Cheney is now claiming that the 9/11 report justifies his administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. So let me do a little more indexing:

Iraq, links to Bin Laden of

Bin Laden proposes to retake Kuwait from Iraq in August 1990, 57
Bin Laden supports anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraq in early 1990s, 61
Bin Laden asks Iraq to host training camps and is refused in 1994-95, 61
meetings between Bin Laden and Iraqi officials in 1998, 66
U.S. attorney accuses Bin Laden of collaborating with Iraq in manufacture of chemical weapons in Sudan in November 1998, then drops charge from indictment, 128; cf. 61, 116
Bin Laden is invited to Iraq but doesn’t go in August 1999, 66, 134
Bin Laden follower Mohamed Atta considers Sadddam “an American stooge,” 161

And that, so far, is it. The definitive statement in the report remains: “But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States” (66). The collusion of Yemen (156, 192), the United Arab Emirates (137), Iran (169), Pakistan (see above), and Sudan (passim) are much more impressive.

The contrast of the Bush administration’s alacrity with the Clinton administration’s wish to be certain that it had correctly identified the perpetrator of the Cole bombing and the East African embassy bombings before retaliating is instructive. As are the differing accounts of the briefing that departing President Clinton gave to incoming President Bush in 2001. Clinton recalls telling Bush that “One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [Bin Ladin] for you, because I tried to” and emphasizing the al Qaeda threat. Bush doesn’t remember that Clinton said anything about al Qaeda. According to the 9/11 report, “Bush recalled that Clinton had emphasized other issues such as North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” (199). The discrepancy hardly matters, in the end; Bush would go on to bungle those subjects, too.

Caveat blogtor

It turns out that Saul Bellow warned aspiring bloggers against themselves in 1964:

You must be out of your mind to write to the Times like this! There are milllions of bitter Voltairean types whose souls are filled with angry satire and who keep looking for the keenest, most poisonous word. You could send in a poem instead, you nitwit. Why should you be more right out of sheer distraction than they are out of organization?


A few months ago I ran into my friend Paul Collins, who was in town in connection with his fascinating, moving memoir of his son’s autism, Not Even Wrong, and I rashly told him that I’d stumbled across an illustration of Banvard’s panorama that I’d email to him. Paul wrote about the rise and precipitous fall of John Banvard and his three-mile painting of the Mississippi in an early issue of McSweeney’s and in his first book, Banvard’s Folly.

I say “rashly,” because when I went back to my desk to check my notes, I couldn’t find it. Months later, thanks to lucky rummaging, here it is. It’s from the New York Atlas of 9 January 1853. The three figures in Renaissance costume beneath the Gothic arches may look like actors in costume on a stage, but in fact they’re part of a painting that’s unrolling from one hidden cylinder and rolling up on another.


Just read the first chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report, which is pretty unputdownable. Full of things I didn’t know. For instance, just five minutes before American 11 crashed into the North Tower, passengers in coach were still “under the impression that there was a routine medical emergency in first class” (6). The probable twentieth hijacker wasn’t Zacarias Moussaoui but someone stopped by an immigration officer in Orlando in August (11). As recently as May 2003, NORAD was wildly exaggerating the advance notice it had received of the hijackings; the embarrassing truth is that they scrambled fighter planes because three-quarters of an hour after American 11 crashed, they believed it was still airborne and headed toward Washington, D.C. (34).

And on page 41, though the phrasing is diplomatic, the commission seems to have caught Bush and Cheney out in a lie. Cheney and Bush recall that in a telephone call that took place shortly after Cheney reached a shelter conference room, Bush “authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft” (40). Rice and a military aide remember a call that would correspond to the one Bush and Cheney describe. But as the commission delicately notes,

Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete. Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the Vice President’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the President and Vice President immediately after the Vice President entered the conference room (41).

The timing of the purported call is wrong, too. Based on other evidence, the commission estimates that Cheney entered the shelter conference room at 9:58 am. Between 10:10 am and 10:18, a military aide told Cheney (erroneously, as it happens) that United 93 was 80 miles, then 60 miles away from Washington. Cheney replied to these alerts by twice issuing the order to shoot down the incoming airliner. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten then “suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order.” This call, documented by Scooter Libby’s notes, the White House’s telephone log, and by notes kept by Ari Fleischer while on board Air Force One with Bush, took place between 10:18 am and 10:20 am.

It’s possible that there was a call between Bush and Cheney “sometime before 10:10 and 10:15,” as the commission politely estimates (40). But if so, why did it go undocumented? To put it another way, how likely is it that the call issuing the order would go undocumented and the later call confirming the order would be documented by three different notetakers? It seems far more likely that Cheney authorized the shootdown on his own, and Bush backed him up on it after the fact. The only perplexity is why they would have felt the need to camouflage this chain of command.

The Prince

I am losing the battle to keep Louis Napoleon out of my book, which I thought had nothing to do with him. Part of the trouble is that he keeps reminding me of George W. Bush. You know: lesser, largely overlooked scion of a political dynasty; early adulthood on the bottle; represents himself before taking power as the nurturing variant of the law-and-order ideology; not exactly elected; afterwards, empire. But the metempsychotic possibilities are beginning to be uncanny.

Consider the impression that Louis Napoleon made on the National Assembly of France in the fall of 1848. The New York Herald of 27 October 1848 reprints a description from the London Chronicle. At the time, every democrat in France was afraid that Louis Napoleon would stage a coup. They had tried to exclude him from the assembly, but the strategy backfired; five different counties elected him as their representative, in protest. Now the assembly was considering an amendment that would exclude from the presidency “the members of all the families which had at any time reigned in France.” Louis Napoleon was the only serious contender the amendment would have inhibited. His parliamentary enemies were once again making a martyr of him—handing him another grand political opportunity.

He seems, however, to have flubbed it. But what’s interesting to me is how he flubbed it.

Prince Louis Napoleon, in directing his steps towards the tribune, showed that he was overwhelmed with his position. On his arrival there, he had some difficulty in commencing at all, and at length he came out, in a hesitating and unconnected manner, with the following words:—

Citizens—I do not come before you to speak against the amendment; certainly I have been sufficiently rewarded in recovering all my rights as a citizen to entertain any other ambition. Neither do I come here to make any complaint against the calumnies of which I have been the object. It is in the name of the 300,000 electors who have twice honored me with their suffrages that I disavow the appellation of pretender, which is constantly brought forward against me.

At this point the Prince stopped, hesitated, and appeared inclined to go on, but at length he descended from the tribune, apparently greatly disconcerted, and amidst marks of great astonishment on the part of a portion of the members, and of annoyance on the part of others. The German accent, the confusion, the vagueness and inanity of the words spoken, the absence of all the qualities of a popular orator, had done their work. . . . He has more damaged his cause by this short attempt to speak than by all the past follies of his life. . . . M. Anthony Thouret rose, and in a tone of contempt which was not even disguised, he said that after the few short words they had heard, he was quite satisfied that his fears from the pretender were exaggerated, and that his amendment was needless, and that he therefore withdrew it. The observation was received with loud plaudits from all sides of the Assembly. . . . The Dˆbats says that the words spoken by the oratorical novice produced a marvelous effefct, for that they set those who most feared him quite at their ease.

In other words, the democrats found his accent so hickish, his syntax so garbled, and his style so rhetorically impoverished that they congratulated themselves and misunderestimated him. Note that whatever the democrats may have thought of the speech, it procured for Louis Napoleon exactly what he wanted: the defeat of the amendment excluding him from the presidency. And his enemies let their guard down.