Zelikow hailed for work well done
By Dan Heuchert
The co-chairmen of the commission charged with probing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks saw Philip Zelikow as a talented Washington veteran who, as executive director, could steer the panel’s staff through a difficult and sensitive investigation.
Zelikow, a history professor and director of U.Va.’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, saw a chance to shape the historic record and had ideas about how the job should be done.
Chances are, however, that no one foresaw that the 567-page report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — prepared under the guidance of Zelikow and others — would be nominated for a National Book Award.
The nomination is just the latest accolade to come the way of Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission and its staff since they released their final report in July. There are disagreements about the report’s recommendations, but observers have hailed the unanimous, nonpartisan, just-the-facts
“What a concept: Important writing doesn’t have to be boring writing,” editorialized the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Raved the New York Times: “Using a style that is remarkably free of artifice, the authors achieved a high point in detail, clarity and coherence.”
The commission, and Zelikow’s leadership, were not always lauded. President Bush initially resisted the idea of a high-profile investigation, perhaps wary of the potential political ramifications in an election cycle. Bush eventually relented under pressure from Congress and the families of attack victims, and named Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, and Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, as the commission’s co-chairs.
Kean and Hamilton quickly agreed between themselves that the commission would be rigorously nonpartisan in its approach. To set an example, they vowed only to appear jointly on television interview shows, and to keep any personal disagreements behind closed doors.
Several people recommended Zelikow for the executive director post, which would supervise the staff of more than 80 who did much of the investigatory legwork. Zelikow had earned high marks in performing a similar function for another nonpartisan commission, led by former presidents Ford and Carter, that examined the electoral process in the wake of the hotly disputed 2000 presidential election. He also had been executive director of a lower-profile group, the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, which nonetheless had earned respect in government circles.
The chairmen interviewed several candidates, Hamilton said. “Phil Zelikow emerged from that group as a person who had very great talent and enormous experience in areas that would be of concern to us — particularly intelligence and national security matters.”
Before coming to the University, Zelikow had served as a member of former President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff, and co-authored a book on German reunification with current national security adviser Condoleeza Rice. He had also served as a member of the transition team for President George W. Bush, and was appointed to a presidential advisory board on intelligence.
The ties with Rice and the Bush administrations raised some eyebrows, and some called for Zelikow’s replacement.
The chairmen stood firm. “Everybody I knew who was an expert in this area has done work for some administration, and Zelikow has never been a partisan,” Kean told the International Herald Tribune. “As a noted historian, his reputation is also on the line.”
“We insisted that he approach the position not as a partisan, but as a professional,” Hamilton said, “and he did that.”
It wasn’t a hard sell, Zelikow said. “I refused to accept the position as executive director unless it was understood that I was accepting the directorship on a nonpartisan basis, and I insisted that the staff would be a unitary staff.” This unity was a break from the usual Washington practices of establishing separate staffs for Democrats and Republicans, or of staffers being assigned to individual commissioners.
“That way, members of our staff would not be pulled into ‘I’m the guy helping the Democrats and you’re the people helping the Republicans,’” Zelikow said.
The job proved grueling. Zelikow first had to assemble his staff — a federal agency, really — from scratch. Much of the work was done in New York, and Zelikow spent weekdays and some weekends in an apartment in Washington, D.C. “It was difficult to be apart from my family so long,” he said.
The work itself was “an immense research task, as broad and in-depth as any investigation ever conducted in the his-tory of the United States government,” he said, all done in “an explosive political and press environment.”
Any lingering doubts about Zelikow’s loyalties were likely dispelled after a well-publicized disagreement with the White House over whether Rice would testify before the commission publicly and under oath. The administration claimed that such testimony was unprecedented and could jeopardize the future candor of presidential advisors.
Zelikow did some research and unearthed a 1945 New York Times photo of Admiral William Leahy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chief of staff, appearing before a joint congressional committee investigating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the picture, Leahy is raising his right hand to be sworn in; a microphone is in the foreground, indicating that the testimony was public.
Zelikow faxed a copy of the page to the White House and suggested that it might be of interest to the media.
“Within 24 hours they had made the decision to allow Dr. Rice to testify, and we did not have to disseminate this information to the press,” Zelikow said, adding that some in the White House later asserted they were leaning toward allowing Rice to testify before the fax.
Zelikow has insisted that the final report was a group effort. Some 30 staffers contributed memoranda, which in turn were assembled by Zelikow, deputy executive director Christopher A. Kojm and general counsel Daniel Marcus. From the beginning, they were conscious that their final report could be read by millions, and would become a vital part of the historic record.
Similar to the rest of the commission’s work, the report was studiously nonpartisan and fact-oriented. “We wanted stripped out of it any adjectives or verbs that would tilt it one way or another,” Hamilton said.
Everyone involved was conscious of the report’s place in history.
“Our commissioners all believed that our mandate was not just to report to the president and the Congress, but to the public,” Marcus told the Los Angeles Times. “Phil used to say that he hoped that not just college professors but high school teachers would assign the book. The balance was clarity and succinctness on one side, but on the other side to make it interesting.”
Mission accomplished. Upon its release, the report quickly became a bestseller, with more than 1 million copies sold.
“It’s pleasing that they’re reading it, but we did, after all, write it to be read,” Zelikow said. “… We encounter people all the time who actually have read it and cite knowledgeably portions of the report or demonstrate that they have read it, people from all walks of life.
“That is enormously empowering, because when politicians then argue about the report, they have to argue about it knowing that any American who’s curious about what it says can find out for themselves by going to the nearest Wal-Mart.”
In the end, the commission that was born of tragedy, and amid rancor and political fear, may finally be remembered for its thorough work and clear-eyed objectivity.
“I don’t know how you build consensus without dialogue and deliberation,” Hamilton said. “Phil contributed heavily to that process
2004 by the Rector and Visitors