Q&A: Philip Zelikow Looks Back at the 9/11 Commission Report He Guided

July 30, 2021 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Philip Zelikow remembers having an idyllic September day shattered by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was as shocked and riveted as all Americans were,” said Zelikow, who at the time directed the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Zelikow, who had been a lawyer and a diplomat and served on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff, became heavily involved in the aftermath of the attacks. In 2003, he became executive director of the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan assemblage empaneled to investigate the attacks. Zelikow, now UVA’s White Burkett Miller Professor of History, served in that role from 2003 to 2004. He also was a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Zelikow, who also has advised the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s program in global development, recently sat down with UVA Today to look back on the 9/11 Commission’s report.

Q. You said in the 9/11 report, “We hope that the terrible losses chronicled in this report can create something positive – an America that is safer, stronger, and wiser.” Has that occurred?

A. All three of those things are true with respect to terrorism and the global terrorist threat, both because of the commission’s report and legislation enacted as a result of the report, and other things that were already underway reacting to the tragedies. The United States is much safer against the global terrorist threat than it was before 9/11.

The reason the U.S. has not suffered another global terrorist attack by Islamist extremists is not because they haven’t wanted to do it. It is because they are no longer able to organize effectively to mount such as attack. The U.S. and its allies and friends have built a series of layered defenses at every stage that make it harder for such an attack to be organized and mounted successfully in the United States. The U.S. is much stronger and more capable than it was, both on the intelligence side and with all instruments of government, in combating these Islamist extremist groups.

I also think the United States is wiser than it was, in the sense that American experts and scholars and students have a much greater appreciation not only of what the Islamist threat is, but also putting it in context of the turmoil in the Muslim world so that Americans don’t simplistically assume that Islam is the enemy. Actually, they understand that it is a particular segment of Islam that is in fact at war with other parts of the Muslim world, inside the Muslim world. It is not a result of the commission report, but it is partly a result of the convulsions of 2011 that, basically, the Muslim civil war has returned home.

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Philip Zelikow headshot
Philip Zelikow said the United States is much safer against the global terrorist threat than it was before 9/11. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Americans see the attacks on the United States through an American-centered eye. That is natural and understandable. But the whole existence of these groups comes out of turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world, wars of religion and wars about how Islam should adapt to the modern world. These debates have been wracking the Arab and Muslim world, at least since 1978, 1979. And these groups can only be understood as an outgrowth of that struggle, in which some of these extremist groups blamed the United States for the problems in their societies and therefore wanted to bring the United States into their fight. This was not a common view throughout the Muslim world.

Americans thought this was all about Islam versus America. In fact, it’s mainly a small group of Islamist extremists who are trying to overthrow their own governments at home and who blamed the United States for propping up those governments and who think they can achieve their goals by attacking us and by globalizing the struggle.

Also, it is a cultural way of symbolically demonstrating empowerment against what they regard as a dominating, globalized Western elite, led by the Americans.

What has happened then is that that struggle inside the Arab and Muslim world at the time of 9/11, when a few people were externalizing on us, has mostly returned home. So those struggles are mostly still going on all the way from Morocco to Indonesia, but those are mostly struggles that are occurring inside those countries. The United States has significantly insulated itself from those struggles now, partly because we are stronger, safer and wiser; and then as we rebuff these attacks, basically the problem comes back home. Some of it is spilling over into Europe.

Q. Should the United States get involved in these Middle East conflicts?

A. That question is partly separate from how to protect ourselves from international terrorist groups. It overlaps, but is partly separate. It really comes down to two questions, and the answers vary from country to country.

Do we care how the internal struggle turns out in a country – fill in the blank, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Philippines? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes other countries care a lot more about it than we do. Libya, for example – the United States is barely involved, but countries such as Turkey and countries across the Mediterranean and Europe care quite a lot about who wins the civil war in Libya.

If we do care who wins, do we think we can actually, meaningfully change the odds on the outcome? And if the answer to that is “yes,” it turns out most of the answers where we can change the odds don’t turn on traditional heavy military tools. Even where we can provide a little edge in an internal civil war using what looked like military instruments, even those instruments are often things such as intelligence, medical services, supplies of key equipment, certain kinds of very specific fire support. The notion that Washington needs to send tens of thousands of American soldiers into these places to help sort out their civil wars is substantially discredited.

The United States ended up being successful in helping defeat ISIS, mainly in eastern Syria, because we actually developed strategies in which we used fairly small packages of civil and military support to help empower an Arab and Kurdish side in that fight against another Arab side in that fight.

Whether we can have a net useful and constructive effect will vary from place to place. We are having a debate right now as to whether the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan really helps. I think a lot of Americans, including the Biden administration, have decided “not so much,” at least not so much with traditional military tools. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care who wins in Afghanistan; it just means we have decided that we care some, but we don’t view it as a vital interest of the United States, and we are also increasingly skeptical about the ability of the American military to decide the outcome of the Afghan civil war. And many Americans believe that there are other people in other countries closer to Afghanistan who will take more of an interest and will have more influence over the outcome of that civil war.

Q. What influence did the 9/11 report have on making the U.S. safer, stronger, and wiser?

A. I think the 9/11 report had its influence in a number of ways – some obvious, some not so obvious. It was a way for the country to take stock of what happened and make sense of a terrible trauma. This is an enormously healthy and constructive role. And it helps us come to terms with the trauma in a healthier way than all the alternatives. By coming to terms with the trauma, it helped us make sense of what the problem was, ways that problem could be bounded and understood and ways it could be approached.

A key recommendation emphasized the significance of not allowing violent Islamist groups to obtain large, uncontested sanctuaries around the world in which they could organize at will at the scale of thousands of operatives, training camps and all the rest. That is not a formal legislative recommendation; it was a way the commission tried to help people take stock and understand our strategy. That reinforced what the government was already thinking and solidified it. And that has been a fundamental approach in our strategy ever since. It has worked reasonably well.

Before the attack, there was a lot of concern about tracking terrorists’ money, which in this attack was a trivial consideration. What our investigation showed and what turned out to be extremely interesting was not tracking terrorist money, but tracking terrorist travel. To launch an intercontinental operation, these people had to pass through several international portals in which they had to have documents that had to be examined, and those were the places they were most fearful of being caught. In fact, one of the would-be hijackers was turned back by an immigration inspector in Florida and did not participate in the hijacking, but he was the only one who got stopped.

After 9/11, the whole approach to regulating travel and travel documents changed. People are barely aware of it now, but they supply travel information before they board airplanes and that information is actually examined by government authorities to see if anyone suspicious is on the airplane, and the result is that intercontinental travel by these operatives, especially if they are carrying suspect documents, is now somewhat hazardous. For them, a relatively small risk can be catastrophic because, if they are caught, they might spend the rest of their lives in prison. So, the focus on terrorist travel became a key part of our layered defense system. But the whole significance of that was not well understood until the whole commission report came out. By taking stock of this thing and helping people rethink this problem, you actually change the whole way strategies adjust to the threat and make us safer in ways that don’t get into the creation of this or that institution.

Q. Is it true that terrorists need only to succeed once, while the defenders need to succeed all the time?

A. It almost works the exact opposite in reality, because when the terrorists move and operate, they are the ones who need to succeed all the time. If they make one misstep, they can be killed or captured.

Therefore, what has happened is they have tended to fall back on suicide attacks close to home – where they can launch their operatives without much interference, where they don’t have to cross borders and get past customs inspectors and take their chances at getting caught because they are going into foreign, strange places.

It doesn’t mean that those attacks are impossible. They are still possible; they are just harder. There are a lot more people looking for them, and the consequences of being found can frequently be career-ending.

Q. What were your expectations going into the commission and how does it appear looking back?

A. I was blessed to be the leader of such a capable staff. We were working for 10 commissioners and I was the leading full-time employee, but there were more than 80 staffers involved. At the time we took on the job, we did not realize the work would be as stressful as it became, partly because of difficulties with the [President George W.] Bush administration and a fraught political environment.

On the other hand, I think my fellow staffers share a strong and enduring sense of pride for the quality of what we produced. The actual fact-finding we produced has held up astonishingly well. Now, 17 years after the report came out, there is hardly a full sentence in the report that needs to be revised in light of subsequent information. That may change as some of the people captured are put on trial and maybe some new facts will come out.

We never thought the report would be the last word on the attack. We thought it would provide a good foundation for further work and understanding, but the fact-finding in the report has held up very well.

The report turned out better than many of us might have anticipated going in. The quality of the collective work turned out to be very good and the report was very widely read and still is today.

I think if you asked any of the commissioners or any of the former staffers how they feel about it, I think almost all feel a great sense of pride. And I certainly share that. I am proud to have led such an extraordinary group of professionals.

Q. What did you learn in preparing the report that surprised you?

A. There were a lot of things. Going in, the understanding of what happened was actually not very clear. And a lot of the preliminary work that had been done by congressional committees had focused overwhelmingly on the intelligence community, assuming that was the source of the major issues, but a lot of the key issues were not actually intelligence issues. Some were policy issues that had been overlooked. This is often the case; people focus on things and they develop immediate narratives, and the narratives turn out to be substantially misleading or incomplete.

We didn’t realize that the basic narrative of what had happened that morning, put out by the United States Air Force, was wrong. This is the narrative the Air Force had made public and even told the president. Just the simple timeline of exactly what happened, when jets were scrambled, what those jets did, just the fundamental nuts and bolts of what happened that morning, was wrong. The Air Force and parts of the FAA had not done sufficient homework to reconstruct accurately what had happened. They made it sound as if their response was really quite coherent and that they almost got there in time and that they would definitely have intercepted United 93. None of those things were true.

And some substantive details about where jets went were wrong. And we ended up having to reconstruct that story. We had to use subpoenas, go back to the actual tapes and a lot of the raw technical information and reconstruct that story – and then oblige the Air Force to publicly correct it, admitting that our reconstruction was correct.

We had understood, and the country had understood, virtually nothing about what had happened in covert action plans or potential strike plans to try to defeat al Qaeda before 9/11. Almost nothing was known about the covert actions, approved and not approved. And the stories behind that turned out to be stranger than fiction. Nor did anyone know the details of the previous strikes that had been developed against bin Laden before 9/11 and then not authorized for various reasons.

Even a fairly specific illustration of a surprise we didn’t know – that at the beginning of August of 2001, an intelligence item landed on the desk of the director of the CIA headlined – headlined – “Terrorist Learns to Fly.” This is in August of 2001. And this was an item reporting on the arrest of a puzzling suspect in Minnesota named Zacarias Moussaoui, who, we later learned, was in training to be part of a second wave of pilot hijackers. Zacarias Moussaoui was a problem person, he had not been well-selected by bin Laden for this mission. He messed up in flight school and drew the suspicion of everyone around him and was arrested by the FBI about a month before the 9/11 attacks. This arrest was reported with that headline to the director of the CIA at a time when the director of the CIA was very worried that terrorists were going to attack us somehow, somewhere. But no one made a connection between that item, that arrest and the general worries about an al Qaeda attack somewhere. So there was no aggressive response to the Zacarias Moussaoui arrest until after 9/11, when we found out immediately about his various ties. That was a surprise.

And also we found out, including from interrogations of captured terrorists, that had the leaders of the 9/11 operation known that Moussaoui had been arrested, they probably would have cancelled the operation. But they didn’t know that. They didn’t know he’d been arrested, and they didn’t know how vulnerable they were – because as soon as Moussaoui was arrested, the communications and financial links from Moussaoui go back to the same people who were communicating and financing the 9/11 hijack team, and they would have known that was discoverable. These are all illustrations of the many things that we discovered in the course of our work that had not been discovered before.

The commission is a real testament to massive, serious investigations of these major events. People should not assume that even the best journalists who interview a handful of sources can achieve what a massive, systematic investigation can, if it is properly organized and run.

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Matt Kelly

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