That said, Eichenwald’s reporting provides some wonderful nuggets. He describes two FBI agents from New York hiding in a utility closet at Chicago O’Hare to listen in on an interview with suspected terrorist Jose Padilla. A broken teleprompter at the U.N. forced Bush to make up a key statement about Iraq as he went along, and it ended up changing U.S. policy. And, late in the book, Eichenwald tells a poignant story of how a reluctant Guantanamo detainee decided to talk after an interrogator offered him a Filet-o-Fish sandwich. (I wondered if it was necessary to know the first names of the Bali bombers who never appear again or the exact address of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s safe house in Pakistan. At the same time, though, one can’t help marveling that Eichenwald uncovered them both.)
The book’s best section has to be Eichenwald’s deconstruction of the Bali night club bombing. It crackles. He begins with a close-up on the mastermind, then the camera pulls back to describe the luckless suicide bombers, then he cuts to the night clubs targeted in the attacks and the young people partying there. Readers know what is coming. And you can almost hear the explosion when it happens. Havoc. Body parts. Panic.
Eichenwald’s narrative is mostly even-handed but there are concerns. He presents the anthrax case as if it were without controversy, portraying army researcher Bruce Ivins as a deranged man and the unequivocal killer. But Ivins committed suicide before he was charged with any crime, and plenty of people think there is enough wiggle room in the FBI’s circumstantial case against him to provide the benefit of the doubt. For Eichenwald (and the FBI), however, that case is closed.
But that is a niggling detail when one considers the expanse of the book. Eichenwald deftly dodges the obvious pitfall in chronicling the 500 days after 9/11: using the book as an after-the-fact brickbat against the Bush administration. Instead, he has a clear-eyed view of the pressure under which administration officials were operating. “However the decisions on the interrogation tactics are viewed,” he writes, “they have to be considered in context.”
He quotes Jack Goldsmith, the man who replaced John Yoo as the Bush administration’s top lawyer at the Office of Legal Counsel, at length. “No one wanted to shred the Constitution. Administration lawyers began formulating analyses when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were still burning and the number of dead was still unknown. … Lawyers were caught up in an almost unbearable dilemma of being forced to make rulings, on the fly, that might deflect an unimaginably destructive second blow by al-Qaeda, but perhaps at the cost of sacrificing, if only for a time, certain of America’s founding principles. Those who believe such decisions would be easy, Goldsmith argued, are fooling themselves.“
Dina Temple-Raston reviewed this book for The Washington Post.