Book Review: “The Eleventh Day; The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden”

A disclaimer for the record.  I was interviewed by Robbyn Swan and have maintained a continuous dialogue with her since, including a meeting recently in Washington D.C.  I was a reader for a final version of the Summers/Swan book prior to a late revision to account for the death of bin Laden.

The Eleventh Day, by “New York Times” best selling authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, is a game changer.  Published by Ballantine Books, Random House Publishing Group, the book, according to the publishers,  “is the first panoramic, authoritative account of 9/11.”

The Eleventh Day is the new definitive timeline for 9/11, a superb and detailed extension of the work of the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry.  Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s work is peerless in the depth, breadth, and accuracy of their research and reporting. Together, this experienced team has cleared the air of suspect research and speculation, an invaluable service to future researchers and historians.

The game change comes on page 118.  Citing investigative writer David Corn, the author’s conclude a detailed examination of conspiracy theories with this summary:

The legacy of the spurious doubts, though, has been that far too little attention has been given to the very real omissions and distortions in the official reporting. The conspiracy theorizing in which the skeptics indulged, David Corn has rightly said, “distracts people from the actual malfeasance, mistakes and misdeeds of the U.S. government and the intelligence community.” There were certainly mistakes, and there may have been wrong doing.

The Authors’ Road Map

“The Attack,” Part I. is a succinct retelling of a by now familiar story as first told by the Commission in Staff Statement 17 and then in its final report. Those familiar with the past work of, first, Summers and then Summers and Swan, as a team, will recognize a familiar pattern of detail after detail woven together in a compelling story that leaves no room for doubt as to the thoroughness of the underlying research.

The authors then pause their story for two chapters to undertake a necessary chore at the beginning of Part II, “Distrust and Deceit.”  Their impeccable writing style is nowhere more evident than in the bridge to Part II.  Concluding Part I, they wrote: “An American apocalyse,  a catastrophe with consequences–in blood spilled and global political upheaval–that continues to this day.”

Part II begins: “One consequence, a national and international phenomenon, is that countless citizens do not believe the story of September 11 as we have just told it.”  Here, Summers and Swan take direct aim at the conspiracy theorists. The necessary chore was to sweep the decks clean of the detritus from years of innuendo, speculation, and, in some cases, outright intellectual dishonesty.  Again in their words, “9/11 is mired in “conspiracy theory” like no previous event in American history…”

In rapier-sharp strokes they skewer the conspiracy theories with authority, leaving no stones unturned.  They borrowed a useful construct from David Rostcheck, a software consultant with a physics degree.  Rostcheck described a bifurcated America, “America 1 and America 2,” the first shaped by “broadcast media,” the latter by the “Internet domain.”  One gets the distinct impression from the authors that the two Americas are like ships passing in the night, each unaware of the other.

Citing their demonstrably thorough research after more than four years of work Summers and Swan conclude:

Wonder one may, but the authors have seen not a jot of evidence that anything like a false flag scenario was used on 9/11.  Nor…have we encountered a shred of real information indicating that the Bush administration was complicit in 9/11.  Subjected to any serious probing, the suspicions raised by Professor Griffin and his fellow “truthers” simply vanish on the wind.

That housecleaning, a high-powered vacuuming, set the stage for their own thesis, the game change described earlier. They spend the remainder of part II concluding the story of the day of 9/11 but with a specific predicate, a Team 8 (my team) memo to the front office questioning the accuracy of FAA and NORAD statements. They also draw extensively on the published work of the Team 8 leader, John Farmer, the author of Ground Truth.

The author’s conclude Part II with a direct quote from Farmer.  “‘”History,” Farmer wrote later in his book, “should record that, whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.””

In Part III, “America Responds,” the authors focus on “The Arabs,” faulting the Commission Report and Commission Staff supplemental documents for failure to speak to a found document, a  “Spiritual Manual.”  “The omission in extraordinary, unconscionable, for the telltale pages were important evidence.”  The authors consider the “Manual” or “Handbook” the key piece of evidence, concluding that, “the “Spiritual Manual” must surely close off all doubt as to whether Atta and his comrades committed the hijacking.”

I cannot speak to the omission from the Commission Report.  I do recall from my work on both staffs that the document was known and considered.  It was not as central, then, as the author’s have it now.  They use it as a springboard to discuss the equivocation of bin Laden, himself, about whether or not he was ultimately responsible.

“The truth,” beginning chapter 15, “that officialdom gave us, that young men loyal to al Qaeda and bin Laden were responsible…is not the full story. The 9/11 Commission varnished the story for public consumption…”

Here, the author’s strip away the facade of “skeptics’ ramblings.”  They, again, cite David Corn, “Without conspiracy theories…there is much to wonder about September 11…”  Summers and Swan then patiently build the case that there was a support network in the United States for the hijackers and, ultimately that network extended to Saudi Arabia, to include members of the royal family.  “The Saudi factor is one of the wild cards….The possibility of Saudi involvement, a vital issue, will be a major focus in the closing chapters of this book.”

First, though, the authors take us through the hunt for bin Laden and a resultant “sea change” when by March 2002 the focus turned from that hunt to “a war plan for Iraq.”  And that led to a discussion of “The Plotters” in part IV.

The authors begin Part IV by recounting in precise detail a story told by others, the life of bin Laden and his father before him.  In that recounting they established a relationship between bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, a lecturer and prayer leader at King Abdul Aiz University in Jeddah.  Azzam was a Palestinian who was “on his way to becoming the “Emir of Jihad.”  According to the authors, bin Laden met with Azzam in Los Angeles in 1979 during a visit not firmly established until 2009.

The year 1979 was critical.  It “marked the start of a new century in the Islamic calendar, a time said to herald change.”  And change there was.  Religious zealots seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a revolt that was crushed.  A month later Soviet troops poured into Afghanistan which began a secret war to “push back communism.”  According to the authors, the conflict was “orchestrated by the intelligence agencies of three nations: America, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.”  And that was when “the nightmare started,” quoting a friend of bin Laden.

Thereafter in their narrative, the authors establish a relationship between bin Laden and the GID (Saudi intelligence service), and a trilateral relationship among the CIA, the GID, and the ISI (Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence), intertwined with the activities of the jihadist, Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor.

Azzam, assassinated along with his sons in a murder with no known assailant or motive, had already passed the “vanguard” of leadership to bin Laden.  According to the authors, “Azzam had said jihad needed a “vanguard” that would give a dreamed-of future Islamic society a “strong foundation.””  That foundation was “al-qaeda al-sulbah” and its military base “al-qa’ida al’askariyya.” Al-qaeda was neither a foundation or a base.  The authors credit bin Laden as telling a journalist that “al Qaeda was an organization to record the names of the mujahideen and all their contact details: a database.”

After a detailing of the future cast of 9/11 characters–bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et. al.–the authors move to the principle grievance, one “at least as large as Palestine,” the Saudi response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  Oil was the issue and it brought the United States to the defense of Saudi Arabia and the introduction of “a foreign and overwhelmingly Christian army” to the “sacred land of the prophet.”  It was a “cultural thunderbolt” for bin Laden.

In the end it was not the United States that left Saudi Arabia, it was bin Laden.  His departure for Sudan left him “free to pursue jihad.  That, in the context of fighting for Islam, would be very much in line with Saudi foreign policy.”  The authors pose the question of “just who did launch bin Laden on his career as international terroist?”  Citing the Commission Report the answer is “he had gotten out of Saudi Arabia “with the help from a dissident member of the royal family.””

And that began the Sudan exodus, a “place and a time for training—and hatching plots.” Among the budding jihadists, according to the authors was an individual who said he was an “emissary from bin Laden,” Ramzi Yousef, who led the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993.  Yousef was also responsible for a plot against the Pope and a plot against American airlines, bojinka.

The authors linked Yousef to his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who credits the Manila-based plot to down airliners as giving him the “idea of using planes as missiles.”  Mohammed is then linked with Ramsi Binalshibh and the authors relate a meeting between the two and an Arab television journalist, Yosri Fouda.  The important point made is that story told to Fouda “largely matches the version subsequent extracted from Mohammed by the CIA under interrogation.  The authors consider Fouda’s interview as “breakthrough” and take the Commission to task for “unaccountably” failing to interview him.  Important to the interview was the presence of a mystery man, Sheikh Abu Abdullah, a name used to refer to Osama bin Laden.

Concerning the plot and the plotters, the authors conclude that had al Qaeda been a company KSM would have been the CEO and bin Laden the Chairman.  But the plotters were not the perpetrators, a different story which the authors tell in Part V.

In Part V, “Perpetrators,” the authors build the case that bin Laden was, in the words of Michael Scheuer, the chief of the uniquely chartered “Alec Station,” “a truly, dangerous, dangerous, man.”  After the Embassy bombing in Africa the bin Laden threat was raised to the highest level, “Tier Zero.”  And it was soon thereafter that CIA Director George Tenet said “we are at war.”

Thereafter, the authors lead us through the development of the planes operation and the recruitment and formation of the individuals who would carry it out, the perpetrators.

While it is a familiar story, Summers and Swan uniquely tell it with the advantage of four years of research across multiple countries and languages, leaving few, if any leads not followed.  They interviewed two of the most knowledgeable investigators, Eleanor Hill, the staff Director of the Joint Inquiry and her primary investigator for the San Diego story, Michael Jacobson, who was also a member of the Commission staff.  They portray, as have others before them, a dysfunctional national level effort, one that transcended administrations.  Nevertheless, the attack did occur on President Bush’s watch and the new administration proceeded by fits and starts (and stops) as spelled out in detail by the authors.

The authors summed things up nicely near the end of Chapter 27.  Quoting Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek: “The question is…not so much what the President knew and when he knew it.  The question is whether the administration was really paying attention.”

As the tempo of hijacker activity picked up in late August and early September, the administration was just then getting started with a “long-delayed, very first meeting [of Principals] to discuss the bin Laden problem.”  Under consideration was a draft National Security Presidential Directive agreed upon well before by the Deputies.  There was considerable discussion about use of the Predator, who had the mission and, more importantly, who was going to pay for it.  There was no substantive resolution.  In the end, the Directive was approved, “it would be ready for the president’s signature—soon.”

In a short Part VI, “Twenty-Four Hours,” the authors take us through the final hours before the attack, detailing a series of facts that, retrospectively in the aggregate, are far more ominous than they were in real time.

Among the events were: the Moussaoui probe running “into the ground;” a last ditch attempt by Senator Feinstein to get the Vice President’s attention; the assassination of Ahmed Shad Massoud, which triggered a personal call to President Bush from President Putin; the leisurely search for Hazmi and Mihdhar; and, most seriously, late intercept of two critical messages by NSA that went untranslated.”  The gist was, “Tomorrow is zero hour,” and “The match begins tomorrow.”

The authors tied things together in a concluding Part VII, “Unanswered Questions.”  Recall that they earlier said that, “The Saudi factor is one of the wild cards….The possibility of Saudi involvement, a vital issue, will be a major focus in the closing chapters of this book.”  They did weave that theme in their subsequent narrative and returned to it in Part VII.

First, however, their summation of earlier chapters is worth a verbatim quote.

The story of September 11, 2001 — that of the victims and of the terrorists — is told. The identify of the perpetrators is not in doubt. As told in these pages, the essential elements are as described in the conclusions of the two official inquiries.

The authors define two areas in which the 9/11 Commission “fudged or dodged” the issue:  “the full truth about U.S. and Western intelligence before the attacks; and whether the terrorist operation…had the support of other nation-states or of powerful individuals within those nation-states.”  Here, “Western intelligence” refers primarily to Germany.

And it is on those points that the authors establish themselves as the pre-eminent 9/11 investigators.  Agree with them, or not, they are meticulous in their sourcing, fearless in their analysis, and precise in their prose.

I remain personally skeptical of the story that “U. S. intelligence officials had had a face-to-face meeting with Osama bin Laden [in Dubai] in early July 2001.” First, there is no accounting for the movement of a bin Laden entourage to and from Dubai other than that he “traveled secretly from Pakistan to Dubai…”  Second, to my knowledge, the staffs of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Joint Inquiry staff knew nothing about this event, even though the Inquiry had a team devoted to CIA with office space at CIA Headquarters.

Dubai aside, the authors speak briefly to Iran and Iraq as potential nation-state sponsors and then focus on their real candidate, Saudi Arabia.  Summers and Swan conclude Chapter 32 with this statement as a partial summation of their investigation: “In 2001, sympathy for al Qaeda and bin Laden was widespread across the spectrum of Saudi society.  It extended, even, to approval of the strikes on America.”  That is an unequivocal statement with no caveats.

The authors continued the Saudi thesis as they discuss the aftermath of the attacks.  There was a “struggle” by both the Saudis and the Bush administration to “keep the fabled U.S.-Saudi “friendship” from falling apart.”  Oil flowed, to the tune of nine million barrels over two weeks.  The President met with Prince Bandar.  Saudi nationals hastened to depart the county midstream of the FBI’s investigative work.  The Bush administration sought “rapprochement” not confrontation.  And, in 2002, Crown Prince Abdullah was the President’s guest in Texas.

There were five key Saudi individuals: Fahad al-Thumairy, an accredited diplomat; the San Diego resident Omar al-Bayoumi; on the money front, Osama Basnan; a Saudi religious official, Saleh al-Hussayen; and the American-born imam, Anwar Aulaqi.

The authors conclude: “Taken together the roles and activities [of the five]…heightened suspicion that the perpetrators of 9/11 had support and sponsorship from backers never clearly identified.”

Summers and Swan consulted extensively with Senator Bob Graham, a co-chair of the Joint Inquiry. In Graham’s opinion, “9/11 could not have occurred but for the existence of an infrastructure of support within the United States.  By ‘the Saudis,’ I mean the Saudi government….[and that] included the royal family.”

Central to the author’s thesis, apart from input from Senator Graham, is the 28-page redaction in the Joint Inquiry report.  I read the pages in the final draft report and my vague recall is that they had to do, in part, with the San Diego events.  I’m with Eleanor Hill on this one.  “Know what,” she told the authors, “I can’t tell you [this far removed] what’s in those pages.”

Summers and Swan report a bipartisan finding.  Both co-chairs of the Joint Inquiry, Senators Graham and Shelby, considered the pages withheld for reasons other than national security.  Graham was explicit, according to the authors.  “In Graham’s view, Bush’s role in suppressing important information…should have led to his impeachment and removal from office.”  The pages remain unreleased to this day, despite a President Obama  expression of willingness to Kristin Breitweiser to “get the suppressed material released.”

Bluntly, Summers and Swan concluded that “The 9/11 Commission Report blurred the truth about the Saudi role…[but also reported that Iraq] had nothing to do with 9/11.”  And because of Iraq, “the real evidence that linked other nations to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 faded from the public consciousness.”

After covering “Saudi Arabia’s murky role,” Summers and Swan turn their final attention to a nation “deserv[ing] equally close scrutiny,” Pakistan.  Not long into that narrative they tied everything together in the words of former U.S. special envoy Peter Tomsen.  According to the authors, “Tomsen told the 9/11 Commission that the Taliban “actually were the junior partners in an unholy alliance” —ISI, al Qaeda, and the Taliban.  As it grew in influence the ISI liaised closely with Saudi intelligence…”

Things in perspective

The authors, consistent with the state of other current research and writing about 9/11, do not place the event in the context of what else was happening in the world.  Terrorism, to include al Qaeda, was just one of multiple issues on the nation’s and the President’s plate.  They do provide a metric that allows some insight into the larger context.  On page 309, they wrote: “Every day, too, the President received a CIA briefing knows as the PDB—the President’s Daily Brief.  Between the inauguration and September 10, bin Laden was mentioned in forty PDBs.”

There were, therefore, some 234 PDBs.  In perspective, bin Laden was mentioned in one of every six or so PDB, approximately once a week.  Further, each PDB contained multiple articles.  Assuming a low figure of six articles per PDB, there were about 1400 articles, about three in one hundred mentioned bin Laden.  That small percentage is consistent with an analysis of the SEIB (Senior Executive Intelligence Brief) I did while a member of the Joint Inquiry.  The SEIB is a PDB-like document for a slightly larger audience, but one without law enforcement information.  I found that terrorism articles, whether or not they mentioned bin Laden, were a small percentage of the total SEIB articles.

So what was going on?  There were the continuing international situations, generally briefed daily, including the Middle East, Iran and Iraq separately, Central Europe and so forth.  There was the matter of a resurgent Russia that,  according to the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence briefings for the same period (which I also reviewed), was flexing a military muscle not seen for ten years or not seen since the fall of the former Soviet Union.  That flexing was a front burner issue on 9-11, the Russians had scheduled an air-launched cruise missile live-fire launch for the day and for which a NOTAM had been issued.  However, above all other issues the one that garnered the plurality of SEIB articles (and, by extension, PDB articles) was an emerging China.  Of specific importance, on April 1, 2001, the Chinese forced down an U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, a serious international event.

International events aside, there was also the domestic issue of transition.  While the authors wrote about bits and pieces of the transition from Clinton to Bush, they did not address the larger issue of transition time, in general.  Each inauguration year, spring and well beyond, brings with it a struggle between a new administration to get its team in place and the Senate to confirm the key members of that team.  2001 was no different, with an additional constraint.  Because of the contested election the whole nomination and confirmation process was delayed.  There is no evidence that bin Laden’s insistence that the date of the attack be moved up had to do with the transition, but it would have been helpful if the authors had addressed the subject in a larger context.

In military terms, bin Laden was operating within the decision cycle of his enemy, a fundamental advantage, one that virtually assures success.  When Mihdhar reentered the United States on Independence Day, July 4, 2001, the perpetrators swung into action.  Six days later the administration met to discuss things.  My recall is that one outcome was a request to put things in perspective for the President.  The answer to that request became the August 6 PDB, in my recollection.  Thereafter, the administration’s leisurely pace stands in stark contrast to the accelerated pace of the preparation for the attack.  It is that contrast and comparison, discussed implicitly in The Eleventh Day, that warrants separate treatment.

Depth of research

In my estimation, no one knows more about the day of 9/11 than Robbyn Swan and no one knows more about the body of information, pre-event, event, and post-event necessary to competently discuss 9/11 than Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.

Here are just a few examples of the thoroughness of their meticulous work.

  • Obtained, prior to publication, a copy of Kevin Fenton’s contemporary book, Disconnecting the Dots
  • Filed multiple FOIA actions, to include a critical request for a mandatory declassification review. That action surfaced a Commission staff iteration of the Air Threat Conference transcript
  • Developed a close and continuing relationship with NARA staff to facilitate exploitation of Commission files
  • Sought out Erik Larson, the single public person most knowledgeable about the contents of the 9/11 Commission files as uploaded to the History Commons Scribd account, and obtained a searchable DVD that greatly facilitated exploitation of the Commission files
  • Sought and obtained responsive foreign language documents and interviewed comprable sources, if at all possible
  • Called on a vast number of sources cultivated over the decades of previous work
  • In March 2010, printed out every document in the archives of my website and added to that compilation over time

Chaos considered

As is the universal case, the authors use the word chaos, or quote others who do, without definition.  Chaos is a word whose meaning is simply understood without explanation.  My purpose here is to document for future reference their mention of the word.

On page 50, in the context of a discussion of the fate of UA 93, the authors wrote: “FAR BELOW, ALL WAS CHAOS [capitalized by the authors].  At the very moment that the attendant in 93’s cockpit had fallen ominously silent…Flight 77 had slammed into the Pentagon.  On his first day of duty in the post, FAA national operations manager, Ben Sliney and his senior colleagues had no way of knowing what new calamity might be imminent.”

On page 125 they cite a Commission analyst.  “The challenge in relating the history of one of the most chaotic days in our history…is to avoid replicating that chaos in writing about it.”

On page 128, in the context of the false report of AA 11 still airborne, the authors wrote, “The information was a red herring.  In the chaos of the moment, however, no one knew for certain that is was Flight 11…”

On page 268 they cite the writer Peggy Noonan.  “If someone does  the terrible big thing to New York or Washington, there will be a lot of chaos….The psychic blow—and that is what it will be to the people who absorb it, a blow, an insult that reorders and changes—will shift our perspective and priorities, dramatically, and for longer than a while….”