Philip Shenon and Ryan Goodman
What follows is an interview by Ryan Goodman with Philip Shenon, author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. The interview touches on the internal operations and informal powers of the 9/11 commission, and how these dynamics may work with an independent commission to investigate the January 6 attack.
Goodman:One of the many lessons I drew from The Commission is the potential outsized role of senior staff positions – individuals who received less public scrutiny but who were highly influential in directing the course of the investigation and drafting the final report. Do you think that was potentially unique to the 9/11 Commission due to its particular officeholders and its particular circumstances?
Shenon: The staff of the 9/11 commission was exceptionally talented. Lots of policy experts and smart lawyers. But when it came to influence, only one staffer had real power – the intelligent and abrasive executive director, Philip Zelikow, the University of Virginia history professor. I’d argue he was more influential than several of the 10 commissioners when it came to writing the final report. At the end of the investigation, many staffers felt their most important and controversial conclusions were not reflected in the report’s findings, especially when it came to demanding accountability in the Bush administration for the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. That was also true about the evidence of possible Saudi government ties to the conspiracy. The choice of an executive director – to run the day-to-day investigation—is vital. I think the 1/6 commission should be on the lookout for someone as smart as Zelikow but more willing to share authority and with fewer conflicts of interest. (Zelikow was close to Condi Rice and had been on the Bush administration’s White House transition team in 2000, with responsibility for national-security issues. That still astonishes me.) Certainly the staffers of the 1/6 commission should have much greater — maybe even guaranteed — access to the 10 commissioners.