In ‘500 Days,’ Kurt Eichenwald outlines critical decisions and events that followed 9/11

June 25, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 24, 2013

In 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, veteran journalist Kurt Eichenwald sets out a history of the turmoil triggered by al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. This impressive 2012 book is focused on how the administration of President George W. Bush responded to the terrorist strike, although its scope is hardly limited to that.

Eichenwald retells many events that are both terrible and familiar. In the prologue, CIA and FBI officials find themselves frustrated as bureaucrats and Bush appointees, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, show little to no reaction to various signs that some kind of terrorist operation is in the works. (500 Days implies, and Eichenwald has explicitly argued elsewhere, that chances to foil the 9/11 attacks were squandered due to Bush administration inattention.) The first chapter begins with a spontaneous evacuation of the White House following the second collision between an airliner and the World Trade Center in New York City.

That impact triggered an immediate and massive response, setting in motion events that continue to have ramifications to the present day. We see this, for instance, in the reaction to recent revelations about the scope of data collection by the National Security Agency. As Eichenwald demonstrates, the NSA’s efforts were hastily and significantly expanded in the Stellar Wind initiative just weeks after the terrorist strikes.

One storyline in the book involves the largely ineffectual efforts by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, to channel the Bush administration’s preparations for war with Iraq in ways that will be acceptable to the British public and the international community. Tellingly, U.S. officials began considering Iraq involvement within hours of the tragedy.

Eichenwald also explores in depth efforts by administration lawyers to craft policies for overseeing the capture, interrogation and possible trial of individuals suspected of conducting or supporting terrorist operations. The work leads in different directions; at around the same time a former United Nations war crimes prosecutor is recruited to form a study group on the matter, David Addington, chief lawyer to Vice President Dick Cheney, launches a fast-track effort to bypass the judiciary with military tribunals. Ultimately, public opinion and the Supreme Court would find administration detention, interrogation and trial policies both morally and legally wanting.

The author delves into many lesser-known episodes, including the “rendition” of innocent Canadian residents with Middle Eastern origins. Thanks to a combination of incompetence and paranoia by U.S. and Canadian officials, Abdullah Almalki, Maher Arar and Ahmad El-Maati were sent to be tortured overseas even though there was no reliable evidence that they had any links to terrorist organizations. (Shamefully, the Canadian government has offered a formal apology and compensation only to Arar, Eichenwald writes.)

The deadliest terror attack of 2002, the horrific Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 people, receives treatment. So too do the anthrax attacks of the preceding year, which claimed just five lives but unsettled many Americans, including President Bush himself; Eichenwald convincingly makes the case for the guilt of microbiologist Bruce Ivins. Other passages deal with the evidently misguided U.S. kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar in Milan, which resulted in 23 Americans being convicted of crimes by an Italian judge. (Omar himself spent about five years in an Egyptian prison, but allegations against him were deemed to be unfounded by a court in that nation.)

There are a number of riveting episodes in the book. Eichenwald takes us inside the operation to capture 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He also describes how the FBI identified and authorities interrogated Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called missing 20th hijacker. An account of the attempted Richard Reid bombing of an American Airlines flight is also gripping.

And Eichenwald describes a number of dead-end episodes, thereby aptly capturing some of the fears and challenges Americans faced after the 9/11 terror strikes. For instance, he describes a secret White House meeting at which Ground Zero cleanup officials said that the site’s retaining walls were on the verge of collapsing — a catastrophic failure that potentially might have claimed as many lives as the initial assault on the World Trade Center. Another startling story that ultimately goes nowhere is a discovery by CIA counterterrorism official Ben Bonk, who was given information by Libyan intelligence showing that the White House might harbor a Qaeda mole; this, of course, turned out to be a false lead. So did most of the plots described in a classified threat matrix distributed daily to top American officials around the world, some of which were patently ludicrous but surfaced time and again due to bureaucratic inefficiency.

The American official who arguably comes off looking the worst in 500 Days is Ashcroft. Before 9/11, he demonstrates virtually zero interest in combatting terrorism, even as Tom Pickard, the acting head of the FBI, tried to warn of a major imminent al Qaeda operation.

Following the attacks, the attorney general “gave his after-the-fact certification of the [Stellar Wind] program’s legality on the same day he learned of it. He conducted no legal research to verify his conclusion.”

The attorney general’s focus regarding the controversial military commission system is also faulted in this account of a meeting between Ashcroft and attorney John Yoo:

This was weird. They had been in Ashcroft’s office for five minuters, and every question had been about turf. Nothing about constitutionality, nothing about how the commissions would work, nothing about their history. Many department lawyers whispered that Ashcroft had no interest in law, only politics, and Yoo had seen that for himself. But on a matter of such import, he thought the attorney general would ask something about the law. No such luck.

“The person who did this is the spawn of the devil!” Eichenwald reports Ashcroft as shouting at a discussion of military commissions with senior White House attorneys. In another gathering on the same topic, Ashcroft interrupts Dick Cheney mid-sentence to contradict the vice president.

Ashcroft is also criticized for his spring 2002 announcement that made the potential terrorist plot in wich José Padilla was involved seem far closer to being realized than it actually was. “It’s never easy to walk a cat backward,” Eichenwald writes. “But somehow, the White House had to undo Ashcroft’s alarmist talk without suggesting that the administration didn’t know what it was doing.”

Despite the size of this volume — a main section of 522 pages, plus an additional 52 small-type pages devoted to notes and sources — Eichenwald omits a number of topics that arguably deserve coverage. There’s no mention, for instance, of the sniper attacks that threatened to paralyze Washington, D.C., in October 2002. (They claimed 10 lives, twice as many as Ivins’ anthrax attacks.) There is also no reference to the establishment that year of the Department of Homeland Security, which was the subject of no small contention.

Eichenwald is clearly familiar with the efforts devoted to establishing facts and accountability for the 9/11 attacks themselves, of course, for their various efforts comprise a number of his sources. Yet none of them are even alluded to in the body of the book, despite their being the locus of a great deal of political maneuvering.

Most striking of all, to my mind, is the wholesale exclusion of Congressional debate over the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq. (Nearly as surprising: Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, the infamous and ultimately misguided justification for war, is mentioned in just one paragraph in the epilogue.)

Given how much is in 500 Days, it seems petty to quibble about what isn’t there; after all, readers can refer to contemporary accounts of the formation of Homeland Security and Congress’ authorization of the Iraq war. True, but the historian’s duty is both to describe what happened and to place events in context. Eichenwald’s omissions undermine the book’s ability to be a definitive history of the start of America’s so-called war on terror.

Still, what is in the book seems to be set forth fairly and accurately. On balance, 500 Days is a useful reminder and exploration of decisions and events that are still reverberating today.

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