In the year since I completed research for the first edition of Ghost Wars, the history it describes has been enlarged by the disclosure of previously classified U.S. government documents, mainly from the Clinton Administration’s second term and the first nine months of the George W. Bush Administration. By far the greatest number of these memos, intelligence reports, emails and handwritten notes were obtained and published by the subpoena-brandishing investigative staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, a ten-member panel of former American politicians and lawyers co-chaired by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton. The commission was appointed to investigate “facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks” of September 11 and to make recommendations about preventing such attacks in the future. It delivered a majestic 567-page final report in July 2004. Together with previously published interim statements by its investigative staff and voluminous testimony from Clinton, Bush, their cabinet officers, and CIA officials, the commission’s final report placed before the public an unprecedented cache of secret documents and communications from inside the American government and intelligence community. These included the first published interrogation statements from captured al Qaeda leaders such as the architect of the September 11 operation, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In addition to the commission’s work the non-governmental National Security Archive published during 2004 some new declassified American diplomatic cables about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and bin Laden.
My goal in crafting this edition of Ghost Wars has been to incorporate these new materials into the narrative where they enhance or correct the history I constructed in the first edition. The great majority of these additions and fixes occur in Part Three, covering the years from 1998 to 2001. Most of the new material in this edition adds direct quotations from documents, emails, and reports not previously available. In other cases I have been able to quote the recollections of cabinet and intelligence officers who had declined to speak for the record during my earlier research, but who testified under oath before the commission. I have also gone back to my own interview subjects and have convinced a few of them who declined to be named in the first edition to allow me to place some of their originally anonymous quotations “on the record” here. In doing so I have tried to make the book’s sourcing and multiple points of view as transparent and complete as possible.
Newly disclosed material has also allowed me to make the narrative’s chronology more precise.While conducting the original research, I attempted to persuade people to describe highly classified intelligence operations, especially in the period after 1998. Generally, I found that my sources were very confident about what had happened but less confident about when it had happened. Even for the best-placed sources, checking exact dates by going back to file rooms full of secret documents was often difficult, so I usually had to rely on a painfully laborious and imprecise process of cross-checking memories about dates and sequences among multiple sources. I did have the benefit of the Joint Inquiry Committee’s published chronology, but the committee’s investigators were unable to obtain and declassify material about some sensitive CIA operations in Afghanistan. Astute readers will have recognized my authorial wobbles in the first edition, where I sometimes turned into a controversial episode with an elastic phrase about time, such as, “Early that year. . . .”
Overall, I feel very fortunate that the documents and testimony obtained by the 9/11 Commission confirmed rather than contradicted my original narrative. In the end a journalist is only as good as his sources, and now that the commission has laid bare such a full record, I am more grateful than ever for the honesty, balance, and precision displayed by my most important sources during my original research. Still, there are a few significant chronological errors in the third part of the first edition. Some involve the exact timing of the several cases where President Clinton and his national security cabinet secretly considered firing cruise missiles at Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The commission’s investigation shows that the last of these episodes occurred in the spring of 1999, not the autumn of 2000, as I had originally reported, relying on a published interview with Clinton for the date. The commission’s work also makes clear that some of my sources, in talking to me about these incidents, occasionally conflated or combined in their memories episodes that had occurred separately. Beyond the intrinsic benefits of precision, these discrepencies are probably significant mainly because, now untangled, they locate specifically the political moments in which Clinton made his crucial decisions in his secret campaign against bin Laden—in one episode, for instance, the president had to decide whether to fire cruise missiles in the same week that he faced an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. The commission’s efforts still leave a few small mysteries in the record. For instance, it is still not clear to me when the Pakistani government first proposed collaborating with the CIA to train a commando team to try to capture or kill bin Laden—in December of 1998, as my interview sources place it, or the following summer, when the training clearly began in earnest. On these and other chronology issues I have made adjustments in the main text and clarified sourcing in the notes. I have also corrected a dozen or so small, embarrassing unforced errors from the first edition, such as faulty spellings and garbled numbers.
A more subjective and interesting question, perhaps, is whether any of the history in Ghost Wars should be reinterpreted in light of the commission’s disclosures. In at least one important area, recent revelations do clearly transform our understanding. The interrogation statements of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Abu Zubaydah disclosed by the commission substantially alter our understanding of the origins of the specific plot carried out by the Hamburg cell on September 11. These interrogation statements were given by unreliable witnesses under duress in unknown circumstances, and should therefor be treated with caution. Yet the statements were taken separately and they do seem consistent about key issues, such as how the idea to turn hijacked airplanes into cruise missiles originated, the role played by bin Laden, and the internal dynamics among the hijackers as they prepared for their attack. I have incorporated these disclosures into the text of this edition. A fuller history of the specific September 11 plot may yet become available, if bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders are eventually taken into custody.
On the broader questions of American foreign policy and intelligence operations during the two decades leading up to September 11, the commission’s final report is perhaps generous toward the Saudi government and the Pakistan army, but many of these favorable judgments involve conspiracy theories that my book did not address at all, such as whether the Saudi embassy in Washington aided the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States. Also, the commissioners saw themselves, as they wrote, “looking backward in order to look forward,” and they may have managed their published criticisms of Riyadh and Islamabad with future American counterterrorism partnerships in mind.
In any event, it seems too early to radically reinterpret such a recent history, or to reallocate proportions of blame and responsibility. For those of us in Washington and New York, at least, the aftershocks of September 11 still rumble daily. We navigate to work past patrols of body-armored police dispatched by color-coded alert schemes that would seem fantastical even if encountered in science fiction. The pollsters’ fever charts from America, Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia depict an impassioned, sharply divided world in which, among other things, the standing of the United States in popular opinion has plummeted in a very short time. Holding their flag-draped ceremonies in secret, American military transport crews unload dead and wounded in twos and threes from Iraq and Afghanistan. In such a tempestuous present, an examination of the past seems a relative luxury. It is for now far easier for a researcher to explain how and why September 11 happened than it is to explain the aftermath.