9/11 Report As An Award-Winning Historical Narrative

Roundup: Media's Take

Thomas Crampton, The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2004

If the authors of ''The 9/11 Commission Report'' end up winning a National Book Award on Nov. 17, their acceptance speech should include a thank you to partisan politics.

But first they will have to figure out who among the 10 commissioners and 80 staff members should be ready to walk on stage that day to accept the prize -- a bronze scroll and $10,000.

Even before the book was chosen this month as a nonfiction finalist in the competition, it had inspired critical praise for a writing style that is rare in a government report. ''Sometimes electrifying,'' said Vanity Fair. ''Riveting,'' said Time magazine. ''Chilling, fascinating and instructive,'' said The Chicago Tribune.

The report's 585-page narrative overlays a sweeping investigation of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- 2.5 million pages of documents and 1,200 interviews in 10 countries. Sales in excess of one million copies of the first authorized version kept the book at No. 1 for 11 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Other editions, in English and other languages, have been sold or in production.

''We set out to break every rule and precedent for this sort of work,'' said Thomas H. Kean, the commission chairman and a former New Jersey governor. ''Not only did we want to conduct our work in open but the writing had to grip like something that people would not only buy, they would read.''

But representatives of the commission are more willing to discuss how the writing was done than who actually did it.

''Democrats pushed for adjectives to support President Clinton while Republicans pushed for adjectives to support President Bush,'' said Lee H. Hamilton, the vice chairman of the commission and president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. ''It was such a minefield that we finally cut all adjectives and ended up with a sparse narrative style.''

From Page One, the report takes a thriller's tone.

''Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work,'' the report begins, before quickly introducing the main characters. ''In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al-Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine.''

By comparison, the Starr Report on the investigation into President Bill Clinton was written in a monotone, beginning, ''This Referral presents substantial and credible information that President Clinton criminally obstructed the judicial process, first in a sexual harassment lawsuit in which he was the defendant and then in a grand jury investigation.''

In ''The 9/11 Commission Report,'' the narrative alternates between the perspectives of the terrorists and the government. Chapters take their titles from the words spoken by leading characters (''We have some planes'') and conclude with the terse phrases of a cliffhanger (''Time ran out'').

Commissioners and staff members say the closest anyone came to being the principal author was Philip D. Zelikow, a history professor at the University of Virginia who was executive director of the commission.

''Call me an author surrogate, not an author,'' Mr. Zelikow said moments before speaking about the book before the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles. ''This really is not my book tour since it is not my book.''

Mr. Zelikow credits Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton for the report's approach and readable style.

Staff members described it as Hemingway meets Tom Clancy, but Mr. Hamilton denied they served as inspiration. ''I'm not that literate and have not read either of those two authors,'' he said. ''We didn't want something literary; we just scrubbed each sentence for clarity.''

The work began by dividing the staff into teams to investigate and draft statements on such topics as border security and terrorist financing. Those were often released as scene setters before the commission's 12 public hearings. The reports were then cannibalized and woven together following an outline drawn up by Mr. Zelikow and Ernest R. May, a history professor at Harvard.

''Not everyone agreed with the principle of an accessible narrative style,'' Mr. May said, recalling arguments made by F.B.I. agents, public prosecutors, politicians and others.

''Historians kept insisting on chronology, the lawyers wanted to present evidence and argument, while the intelligence officials just love getting into details on how they acquired information,'' Mr. May said. ''The commissioners kept the broad view and repeatedly reminded us to make it a story.''

It was the commissioners, for example, who insisted on opening the book with the hijackers boarding the planes instead of a chapter recounting the history of Al Qaeda.

Style questions often prompted debates.

Should the 19 hijackers be described as such from Page One, like a lawyer's brief, or should another term be used until events merited such a description? (The commission mainly settled on ''conspirators'' or ''terrorists'' until after the act.)

Some said the decision to declassify the report also helped the writing.

''In fighting to declassify things we were forced to concentrate only on what was needed for the story,'' said John Roth, a criminal prosecutor from the Justice Department who led the terror finance team. ''You cut out references to Osama bin Laden's bank number, just to say he had an account in Khartoum.''

The battle against bureaucratic language reached a point where staffers joked that they probably needed Mr. Hamilton's personal sign-off to include any new acronym.

The whole approach required an adjustment for Bonnie D. Jenkins, a staff member formerly employed by the Department of Defense.

''In the D.O.D. we always talk about Centcom, Socom, J.C.S. and O.S.D.,'' she said. ''After being in D.C. for so long, I'd totally forgotten you can write without acronyms.''

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