Tuesday, July 19, 2005

9/11 Commission Report, 9/11 Commission

Title: 9/11 Commission Report
Author: 9/11 Commission
Rating: Good

I have finally completed reading this document. I fear that my review of it will say far more about me than I have to say about it, but here goes...

Reading the 9/11 report is not for the feint of heart. The main body of the report is over 400 pages long. There are over 100 pages of end notes as well.

It has taken me months (literally) to read it. I acquired it in August of 2004, shortly after it was released. Only now, in July of 2005, did I finish it. There were whole months when I didn't touch it during that time, though, so actual reading time is much less than that, obviously.

Why did it take so long? Part of that is due to the subject. The first chapter, which describes the actual 9/11 attacks in some detail, was a quick read. It reminded me of reading any number of spy thrillers. Later chapters, though, get into much more detail, documenting things like how various hijackers moved around the world, who they contacted, and how the US's various intelligence agencies did or did not handle these events.

All that detail gets hard to manage (for me at least) without charts and graphs and time lines. I've managed tons of technical detail in my job, but this is different, and it was harder for me to keep track of it all, which made it somewhat frustrating to read.

I found the description of the initial response - particularly at the WTC towers - to be both humbling and frustrating. People were doing incredibly heroic things, but they were (sometimes literally) fumbling around in the dark for lack of the basics, like communications, information, plans and even flashlights. I'm in the process of joining my local volunteer fire department right now. I know I will never have to respond to a disaster of the 9/11 sort where I live, but we do have wild fires. If the level of chaos I see in this book is accurate in other places, I'm in for a wild ride at times.

The last chapter of the book is a list of specific recommendations that the committee wanted to see happen. The most controversial of these was the creation of the national intelligence director. I remember all kinds of arguments in the news about that, but that was just one of many recommendations. The nastiest items in the list require various government branches to give up some of their (then) current responsibilities in the name of overall efficiency in the fight against terrorism, and large changes in congressional oversight of the various intelligence agencies.

Question: have these changes been made? I wish I knew the answer. This stuff fell out of the news at some point, and I have no idea where we stand on these issues as a nation. I find that very disturbing.

Finally, this book prompts some interesting thought on the trade off between civil liberties and the ability to find those that would cause us great harm. There will always be people who believe that the US is the pinnacle of evil and that it should be destroyed, but how much am I (or are we) willing to surrender (in terms of privacy and anonymity) to avoid their attacks? In the Internet age, that is a very interesting question.

What the government does in my name to keep me safe may or may not be something I am comfortable knowing, but I think I should know. Towards the end of the chapter on recommendations, I found a single paragraph that stopped me for a minute. I quote it here, because it still bothers me:
Whether the price is measured in either money or people, the United States cannot afford to build two separate capabilities for carrying out secret military operations, secretly operating standoff missiles, and secretly training foreign military or paramilitary forces. The United States should concentrate responsibility and necessary legal authorities in one entity.
Apparently we currently have two places we do this sort of thing now: the CIA and the military. Intellectually, I know this. And as a practical matter, I'd guess that any large nation will have something setup like this, to try and head off political changes in foreign countries that it doesn't agree with, etc. However, since I've been old enough to pay attention, I think that just about every time this sort of thing has come to light, we've screwed it up entirely. If the targets were just terrorist organizations, and if we could reliably predict the outcome of our actions, I'd be less concerned. But that's a very big "if". How many places in the world are we disliked now by the government that we put into place, or by the government that threw out the one we installed?

On the other hand, if we could kill Osama Bin Laden with an action along these lines, shouldn't we do it?

As I say, some of the things I found in this book made me think, and not always in the ways I wanted or expected.

If you can make the time, I recommend it.