For generations we will be studying the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with the same intense scrutiny that we studied the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and the Revolutionary war. There will be scholars who will agree and disagree about this decision or that decision. There are several books that have already addressed the atmosphere before 9/11 and immediately afterward. One of the best books, in my opinion, was Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies. This book was a personal yet comprehensive account of how the United States throughout the 1990s and early in the Bush administration struggled to get a handle on the growing threat from terrorism. Whether you like Richard Clarke or not, this is not the issue. His information has stood the test of time. The second book, less popular, but no less important, is Bob Graham’s book, Intelligence Matters. Sen. Bob Graham was chairman of the Senate intelligence committee during 9/11. His book focuses more on intelligence failures or lapses. He looks for ways in which the intelligence community could have connected the dots and possibly prevented the 9/11 tragedy. Another book that I would like to put on this list is Bob Woodward’s Bush at War. The reason that I am hesitant to place this book on this list is that Bob Woodward’s work has become so politicized. Some of his work is excellent, as in Bush at War. Some of his work is more sensational and, in my opinion, designed to sell books rather than to deliver information. Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side, must also be placed on this list.
500 Days belongs in this same category. It is a fantastic work which looks at the first 500 days of the Bush administration. If you’re looking for a book that either praises or condemns President George W. Bush, then you need to find another book. This book, instead of heaping superficial praise on any one individual, examines specific policies and attempts to figure out who made the decision, why the decision was made and on what evidence the decision was made. If you’re looking for a definitive answer, or whether a particular decision was great or awful, those sorts of judgments are not in this book.
There are several themes developed in 500 Days. One of the most important themes is how the United States conducted the War on Terror. The War on Terror is multifaceted. It involves the military, the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Border Patrol and the Department of the Treasury, just to name a few. This book discusses the decisions made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in order to try to prevent a second attack. George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, was convinced tate 9/11 was the first in a series of attacks. The FBI and the CIA were convinced that there were sleeper cells here in the United States and abroad and that these cells were ready to act. Because of this, the Bush administration always felt that they were behind the eight ball. The Bush administration felt that they needed to catch up in order to prevent the next attack.
One of the tangential themes in 500 Days is detainees; what to do with them, how to interrogate them. An outsider, like me or you, would probably figure that there was a big meeting in the White House with the president, vice president and other principles sitting around discussing how to take care of detainees and how to interrogate detainees. That never happened. Instead, a series of lower-level meetings occurred on the fly. The complexity of this issue is well demonstrated in this book. The central roles of John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, Dr. Jim Mitchell, psychologist for the SERE program, David Addington and William “Jim” Haynes are painstakingly described. The amount of detail on who did what, in my mind, is unprecedented. Kurt Eichenwald is to be commended.
One of the simplistic arguments that has been perpetuated in the mainstream media concerns the decision to torture or not torture a particular detainee. The mainstream media has told us that “no actionable intelligence” has come from torturing detainees. Kurt Eichenwald was thrown a wrench in this simplistic view of the world. He has shown us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was tortured while in US custody, gave us a ton of actionable intelligence. (Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia was almost completely wrapped up, disabled, because of the information that came from KSM.) On the other hand, Abu Zubaydah, initially interviewed by the FBI, gave them excellent intelligence before he was subjected to harsh interrogation (torture). The issue is not black and white. The problem is extremely complex. I tip my hat to Kurt Eichenwald for letting us see that these decisions aren’t so black and white.
One of the other themes that Kurt Eichenwald develops in this book is the brutality of terrorism. Kurt Eichenwald places us in that room. Like flies on the wall, we are in those meetings. We are in Afghanistan. We are being tortured by Syrian intelligence officials. We feel the anxiety, the pain, the indecision and the joy of the characters in this book. One of the terrorist attacks that has slipped from the consciousness of most Americans is the bombing of the nightclub in Bali. This bombing was done by an Al Qaeda group. This book puts the reader in the nightclub in Bali as those two bombs ripped through innocent, unsuspecting tourists. The description of this horrendous act is so vivid, so lifelike, it is almost like watching it on your 55-inch high definition television in the middle of your living room. (Do you remember the opening scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan? If you watched that DVD on a good television with an excellent stereo, you felt those bullets whiz by your head. You felt as if you were in the battle. Kurt Eichenwald engenders the same feeling reading his description of the Bali bombing.)
If you’re looking for a book that is going to fill in a lot of the blanks and discuss what really happened just before and after 9/11, this is the perfect book for you. If, instead, you would like to read something that either praises or denigrates the Bush administration, this book is not for you. 500 Days is the best effort by any author, to date, to describe exactly what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. This is an historical book and not a political one. This is a must-read for all Americans who are curious about what happened and why. There are over 50 pages of footnotes. This was a huge undertaking and well written by Kurt Eichenwald. This book gets my highest praise.