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the ground truth

16 july 2011

Comprehensive narratives of 9/11/2001 have been slow in appearing. I'd imagine there are several reasons why. Intelligence documents remain classified. The attack, and its global aftermath, remain politically controversial. And perhaps as important as these "insider" factors is the fact that we lived through every detail of the event, or thought we did, minute by minute as it was happening. Live television and the Internet provided coverage of the catastrophe in a way that made subsequent book-length narratives seem otiose.

John Farmer argues in The Ground Truth that what we saw, were told shortly afterwards, and continued to hear from top government officials in the years after 9/11 was partly fabulation – if not outright fabrication. Farmer, former attorney general of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, is no conspiracy theorist; his assessments of the failures of 9/11 are entirely prosaic. It's unfortunate that I should even have to say that, of course. But the climate of untruth that surrounds so much of American government action in the 2000s – centered on the Bush 43 Administration, but definitely including both the Clinton and Obama presidencies – has spawned many conspiracy theories. It's refreshing to see a plausible, unhysterical truth take shape in Farmer's pages.

It's also an unexciting truth. As Farmer unspools the events of the years, months, and weeks that led up to 9/11, and then of the day itself, there's great narrative interest, and extreme foreboding. But there are no melodramatics: no stoic heroes (though there's great courage), no suave villains (though there's great and premeditated evil), no sages, no talismans, no last-minute rescues. There are simply people trying to do the best (or in a few cases, the worst) that they can. The histrionics came afterwards; the kitsch and the bravado were entirely in the retelling.

When it became clear on that Tuesday morning that some airplanes weren't going where they were supposed to go, nobody was at the helm of American air defenses. Two majors in "an aluminum bunker tricked out with antennae" (122) in Rome NY, named Fox and Nasypany, got up that morning expecting to conduct an air-defense exercise, simulating a massive attack by Russian bombers coming in over the North Pole. Talk about preparing to fight the last war, or rather several wars ago; Farmer notes that the idea of Russian bombers attacking America had become obsolete in the 1960s. Fox and Nasypany had a handful of fighter planes here and there at airbases around the country. Like the British at Singapore, their weapons were all pointing the wrong way – and they had terribly few of them.

Nor did Fox and Nasypany have much idea what was going on, though they had a better idea than anyone else in the trillion-dollar American defense establishment. The FAA, responsible for tracking civilian aircraft, let the military know just a little about some of the hijacked planes, all too late to do anything about them. Bush Administration officials would later talk of teleconferences where the highest officials, working through finely crafted channels of command, gave the fateful orders to intercept United Flight 93 and protect the White House. In reality, nobody knew United 93 had been hijacked. Nasypany and his sidekick "Foxy," with steely alertness, scrambled their few fighter jets to run Combat Air Patrol over New York and Washington. But they were unavoidably too late to save the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; and the White House was saved by the passengers on board Flight 93.

On 9/14, Paul Weaver, "commanding general of the Air National Guard" (244), told reporters the chaotic truth: the military had gotten notice of the attack on New York too late to do anything more than patrol the skies to prevent another, and had never gotten notice of hijacked planes heading for Washington at all. But over the months to come, senior officials would tell of brave pilots rising to intercept United 93, having it in their sights as the drama on board played out and the airplane crashed in Pennsylvania. All fabrications; nobody in the American command knew the plane was coming.

"Anyone who has worked in government for a significant periods will be sympathetic to the superior claim of incompetence over conspiracy," says Farmer (272). It's even difficult to point to specific, individual incompetence. Such historically inept characters as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld come across as reasonably doing what they could to help on the day itself (in Rumsfeld's case, heading to the Pentagon parking lot to see who he could drag out of the rubble). It's only afterwards that a climate of embellishment surrounded the retellings of 9/11. Farmer suggests that the Bush Administration, having gotten used to bullshitting the public about their heroics on 9/11, found it easier to fabulate about a lot of things (Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, yellowcake uranium) – until the much slower-moving, public, and domestic disasters associated with Hurricane Katrina gave them no room to bullshit, and destroyed American confidence in their leadership once and for all.

Farmer, John. The Ground Truth: the untold story of America under attack on 9/11. New York: Penguin, 2009.