In 2004, the much-anticipated “9/11 Commission Report” was released by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which was created by President George W. Bush and Congress to figure out what the hell had happened — and how it could have happened. The report was a must-read in those days, a best-seller.
Sept. 11, 2001, was still an open wound. We had invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, which seemed to make sense, but also Iraq in 2003, which didn’t. The nation was divided — albeit less starkly and more evenly than it is today. When the 9/11 report was released in July 2004, a presidential election was a few months away. People were eager to connect dots, to read an orderly and factual narrative of what had happened, so “The 9/11 Commission Report” flew off the shelves.
The report was widely criticized for all kinds of reasons, including how the commission approached the work. (For an example of vigorous contemporaneous dissent, read this analysis by Richard A. Posner in The New York Times.) And “The 9/11 Commission Report” was not revelatory in any broad sense. But it had the virtue of being a methodical recitation.
It also had the virtue of being a compelling read, which sort of stunned everyone. In fact, if you didn’t know that it was all true, you might mistake “The 9/11 Commission Report” for a novel. It later was a finalist for a National Book Award.
I was the managing editor of Seattle Weekly at the time, and the artful quality of “The 9/11 Commission Report” prompted me to write a review (which apparently only exists in printed form — in a cardboard box somewhere in my basement — because I cannot find my review online).
As I prepared the review, I emailed Al Felzenberg, who was then the chief spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, to ask who was responsible for the lyrical quality of the narrative. “It’s a terrific work,” I wrote on Aug. 18, 2004. “If it was more than one person, whoever did the editing ensured remarkable consistency in the voice.”
The subject line of my email was, “Who wrote it?” He replied immediately.
From: Al Felzenberg <email@example.com>
Date: Wed, Aug 18, 2004 at 6:24 PM
Subject: RE: Who wrote it?
To: Chuck Taylor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
There were many hands and authors. Here are the basics:
We had 7 teams of about a dozen people. Each team had a leader. The leader supervised certain drafts. Then the team met with [9/11 Commission Executive Director] Philip Zelikow and others. They went at it for hours at a time reviewing facts, arguing policy. Philip and company turned it into a first draft and sent it to the commissioners.
Each of the ten commissioners submitted back their drafts with annotations, notes, etc. They would discuss their changes at lengthy meetings. When they agreed on where they came out, they submitted it back to Philip and company, who turned it in to a second draft and recirculated it. This process went on about four or five time per chapter. The final two chapters took even more.
Each staff member can probably point to sections he or she drafted. So can commissioners. But the overall style that reads in one voice was the product of Philip Zelikow with careful touches from Chris Kojm the Deputy Director and Professor Ernest May of Harvard.
I suggest yuo call [former Washington] Senator Slade Gorton for additional thoughts. He was exceptionally active in the drafting of key sections, but he would never claim authorship. The report is a commission document and product.
So you probably know where I’m going with this.
Who will write the inside story of the special counsel’s investigation into interference by Russia in the presidential election of 2016 — and the many related threads?
I don’t mean the official report Robert Mueller will send the U.S. attorney general. Lawyers will write that, without flourish. I mean the inside account of the special counsel’s office itself. It would likely have to be someone with special access, someone perhaps already documenting the investigation in real time. Or someone with access to official records and the private journals of the participants.
Is such an account even possible? Because if it is, it would be one helluva read.