The Bush Doctrine & The 9/11 Commission Report: Both Authored by Philip Zelikow

By David Ray Griffin

04/10/08 « ICH  » — – Thanks to the interview of Sarah Palin by Charles Gibson of ABC News on September 11, the “Bush Doctrine” has become part of American political discourse much more fully than it was before. Thanks to that interview and the commentary that followed, Governor Palin and millions of other Americans learned of the existence and meaning of this fateful doctrine—fateful because, as New York Times reporter Philip Shenon has pointed out, it was used to “justify a preemptive strike on Iraq.”1

Thus far, however, the commentary following that interview has not brought out the fact that the document in which the Bush Doctrine was first fully articulated—the 2002 version of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS 2002) [pdf]—was written by the same person who was primarily responsible for the 9/11 Commission’s report: its executive director, Philip Zelikow.

This fact constituted an enormous conflict of interest that should, at the very least, keep Americans from referring to the 9/11 Commission as a model to be emulated—as did John McCain this September 15 in suggesting that “a 9/11-type commission” should be set up to study the causes of the recent financial crisis. As Shenon shows in his 2008 book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, Zelikow’s authorship of NSS 2002, in conjunction with his close relationship to the Bush White House that this authorship illustrated, means that when the 9/11 Commission was formed in 2003, he should never have been chosen to be its executive director.

In the first part of this essay, I discuss the Bush Doctrine as articulated in NSS 2002. In the second part, I discuss Zelikow’s authorship of this document. In the third part, I discuss how he, in spite of this authorship, became the Commission’s executive director, and why this was problematic for the credibility of The 9/11 Commission Report.

The Bush Doctrine

According to international law as reflected in the charter of the United Nations, a preemptive war is legal in only one situation: if a country has certain knowledge that an attack by another country is imminent—too imminent for the matter to be taken to the UN Security Council.

Preemptive war, thus defined, is to be distinguished from “preventive war,” in which a country, fearing that another country may some time in the future become strong enough to attack it, attacks that country in order to prevent that possibility. Such wars are illegal under international law. Preventive wars, in fact, belong under the category of unprovoked wars, which were declared at the Nuremburg trials to constitute the “supreme international crime.”2

This traditional distinction between “preventive” and “preemptive” war creates a terminological problem, because preventive war, being illegal, is worse than preemptive war, and yet to most ears “preemption” sounds worse than “prevention.” As a result, many people speak of “preemptive war” when they really mean preventive war. To avoid any confusion, I employ the term “preemptive-preventive war” for what has traditionally been known as preventive war.3

People known as neoconservatives (or simply neocons), the most powerful member of whom has been Dick Cheney, did not like the idea that America’s use of military power could be constrained by the prohibition against preemptive-preventive war. In 1992, Cheney, in his last year as secretary of defense, had Paul Wolfowitz (the undersecretary of defense for policy) and Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby write the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, which said that the United States should use force to “preempt” and “preclude threats.”4 In 1997, William Kristol founded a neocon think tank called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).5 In 1998, a letter signed by 18 members of PNAC—including Kristol, Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, and James Woolsey—urged President Clinton to “undertake military action” to eliminate “the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction.”6

Only after 9/11, however, were the neocons able to turn their wish to leave international law behind into official US policy. As Stephen Sniegoski wrote, “it was only the traumatic effects of the 9/11 terrorism that enabled the agenda of the neocons to become the policy of the United States of America.”7 Andrew Bacevich likewise wrote: “The events of 9/11 provided the tailor-made opportunity to break free of the fetters restricting the exercise of American power.”8

The idea of preemptive-preventive war, which came to be known as the “Bush doctrine,” was first clearly expressed in the president’s address at West Point in June 2002, when the administration began preparing the American people for the attack on Iraq. Having stated that, in relation to “new threats,” deterrence “means nothing” and containment is “not possible,” Bush dismissed preemption as traditionally understood, saying: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.” Then, using the language of preemption while meaning preemptive-prevention, he said that America’s security “will require all Americans . . . to be ready for preemptive action.”9

Having been sketched in June 2002, the Bush Doctrine was first fully laid out that September in NSS 2002. This document’s covering letter, speaking of “our enemies’ efforts to acquire dangerous technologies,” declares that America will, in self-defense, “act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”10 Then the document itself, saying that “our best defense is a good offense,” states:

Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.”11

In justifying this change of doctrine, NSS 2002 argues that the United States must “adapt” the traditional doctrine of preemption, long recognized as a right, to the new situation, thereby turning it into a right of anticipatory (preventive) preemption:

For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. . . . We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. . . . The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, . . . the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”12

With this argument, NSS 2002 tried to suggest that, since this doctrine of preventive preemption simply involved adapting a traditionally recognized right to a new situation, it brought about no great change. But it did. According to the traditional doctrine, one needed certain evidence that an attack from the other country was imminent. According to the Bush Doctrine, by contrast, the United States can attack another country “even if uncertainty remains” and even if the United States knows that the threat from the other country is not yet “fully formed.”

The novelty here, to be sure, involves doctrine more than practice. The United States has in fact attacked several countries that presented no imminent military threat. But it always portrayed these attacks in such a way that they could appear to comport with international law—for example, by claiming, before attacking North Vietnam, that it had attacked a US ship in the Tonkin Gulf. “Never before,” however—point out Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, who call themselves Reagan conservatives—“had any president set out a formal national strategy doctrine that included [preventive] preemption.”13

This unprecedented doctrine was, as we have seen, one that neocons had long desired. Indeed, neocon Max Boot described NSS 2002 as a “quintessentially neo-conservative document.”14 And, as we have also seen, the adoption of this doctrine was first made possible by the 9/11 attacks. Halper and Clarke themselves say, in fact, that 9/11 allowed the “preexisting ideological agenda” of the neoconservatives to be “taken off the shelf . . . and relabeled as the response to terror.”15

Zelikow and NSS 2002

The 9/11 attacks, we have seen, allowed the Bush-Cheney administration to adopt the doctrine of preemptive-preventive war, which the neocons in the administration—most prominently Cheney himself—had long desired. One would assume, therefore, that the 9/11 Commission would not have been run by someone who helped formulate this doctrine, because the Commission should have investigated, among other things, whether the Bush-Cheney administration might have had anything to gain from 9/11 attacks—whether they, in other words, might have had a motive for orchestrating or at least deliberately allowing the attacks. Amazing as it may seem, however, Philip Zelikow, who directed the 9/11 Commission and was the primary author of its final report, had also been the primary author of NSS 2002.

Lying behind Zelikow’s authorship of NSS 2002 was the fact that he was close, both personally and ideologically, to Condoleezza Rice, who as National Security Advisor to President Bush had the task of creating this document. Zelikow had worked with Rice in the National Security Council during the Bush I presidency. Then, when the Republicans were out of power during the Clinton years, Zelikow and Rice co-authored a book together. Finally, when she was appointed National Security Advisor to Bush II, she brought on Zelikow to help with the transition to the new National Security Council. Given that long relationship, Zelikow evidently came to mind when Rice found the first draft of NSS unsatisfactory.

According to James Mann in Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, this first draft had been produced by Richard Haass, who was the director of policy planning under Colin Powell in the State Department.16 Although this draft by Haass is evidently not publicly available, an insight into what it contained might be provided by an address Haass had given in 2000 entitled “Imperial America.”

While Haass called on Americans to “re-conceive their global role from one of a traditional nation-state to an imperial power,” his foreign policy suggestions were very different from those of the neocons. Saying that “primacy is not to be confused with hegemony” and that “[a]n effort to assert U.S. hegemony is . . . bound to fail,” he called for acceptance of the fact that the world in coming decades “will be a world more multipolar than the present one.” Also, insisting that “[a]n imperial foreign policy is not to be confused with imperialism,” which involves exploitation, he stated that “imperial America is not to be confused with either hegemonic America or unilateral America.” In the new world order that he envisaged, “The United States would need to relinquish some freedom of action,” which would mean that it “would be more difficult to carry out preventive or preemptive strikes on suspect military facilities.” He suggested, moreover, that “[c]oercion and the use of force would normally be a last resort.” The United States would instead rely primarily on “persuasion,” “consultation,” and “global institutions,” especially the UN Security Council.17

In any case, whatever the exact nature of the draft for NSS 2002 that Haass produced, Rice, after seeing it, wanted “something bolder,” Mann reports. Deciding that the document should be “completely rewritten,” she “turned the writing over to her old colleague . . . Philip Zelikow.”18

Given the hawkish tone of the resulting NSS 2002, we might assume that Zelikow was simply taking dictation from Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Wolfowitz. According to Mann, however, “the hawks in the Pentagon and in Vice President Cheney’s office hadn’t been closely involved, even though the document incorporated many of their key ideas. They had left the details and the drafting in the hands of Rice and Zelikow, along with Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley.”19

It would seem, therefore, that we can take this “quintessentially neo-conservative document,” which used 9/11 to justify exempting the United States from international law, as reflecting Zelikow’s own thinking. This means that, besides being aligned with the Bush-Cheney White House personally (by virtue primarily of his friendship with Rice) and structurally (by virtue of helping her set up the new NSC), he was also closely aligned ideologically with Cheney and other neocons in the administration.

Such a person obviously should not have been put in charge of the 9/11 Commission, given the fact that one of the main questions it should have investigated was whether the Bush-Cheney administration had any responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, whether through incompetence or complicity. Pursuing the possibility of complicity in particular would have required the Commission to ask whether the administration would have had motives for wanting the attacks. Given the fact that Zelikow had authored the document that provided the doctrine of preemptive-preventive warfare desired by leading members of this administration, he would have been one of the worst possible choices to lead such an investigation.

The story of how Zelikow was, nevertheless, chosen to be the executive director has been told by Philip Shenon in The Commission.

Zelikow and the 9/11 Commission

In their preface to The 9/11 Commission Report, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the Commission’s chair and vice chair, respectively, said that the Commission “sought to be independent, impartial, thorough, and nonpartisan.” In light of the fact that the 9/11 attacks had occurred during the watch of the Bush-Cheney administration, being “independent” and “impartial” would have meant, above all, being fully independent of this administration.

With Zelikow as its executive director, the 9/11 Commission could have been independent of the Bush-Cheney administration only if the executive director’s role was merely that of a facilitator, meaning a person who did not influence either the Commission’s research or the content of its final report. Some people, in hearing Zelikow described as the 9/11 Commission’s “executive director,” may assume that he had that kind of role. As Shenon has shown, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Zelikow ran the Commission and took charge of the writing of its final report.

With regard to the work of the Commission, Zelikow sought, and largely achieved, total control. He achieved this control through several means.

First, the work of the Commission was done not by Kean, Hamilton, and the other commissioners who, by virtue of appearing on television during the Commission’s open hearings, became the public face of the Commission. The work, instead, was done by the 80-some staff members.

Second, Shenon points out, these staff members worked directly under Zelikow: “Zelikow had insisted that there be a single, nonpartisan staff.” This meant that none of the commissioners would “have a staff member of their own, typical on these sorts of independent commissions.” Zelikow thereby prevented “any of the commissioners from striking out on their own in the investigation.”20

Third, none of the commissioners, including Kean and Hamilton, were given offices in the K Street office building used by the Commission’s staff. As a result, “most of the commissioners rarely visited K Street. Zelikow was in charge.”21

Fourth, even though the Commission would not have existed had it not been for the efforts of the families of the 9/11 victims, “the families were not allowed into the commission’s offices because they did not have security clearances.”22

Fifth, Zelikow made it clear to the staff members that they worked for him, not for the commissioners. He even prevented direct contact between the staff and the commissioners as much as possible. “If information gathered by the staff was to be passed to the commissioners, it would have to go through Zelikow.”23 Although the commissioners forced Zelikow to rescind his most extreme order of this nature—that the staff members were not even to return phone calls from the commissioners without his permission24—he largely, Shenon reports, achieved his goal: “Zelikow’s micromanagement meant that the staff had little, if any, contact with the ten commissioners; all information was funneled through Zelikow, and he decided how it would be shared elsewhere.”25 Indeed, Shenon says, Zelikow insisted “that every scrap of secret evidence gathered by the staff be shared with him before anyone else; he then controlled how and if the evidence was shared elsewhere.”26

Although the fact that the 9/11 Commission was controlled by someone who was essentially a member of the Bush-Cheney White House was bad enough, even more contrary to the Commission’s alleged independence was the fact that Zelikow had determined its central conclusions in advance. In their 2006 book, Without Precedent, which is subtitled The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, Kean and Hamilton claimed that, unlike conspiracy theorists, they started with the relevant facts, not with a conclusion: they “were not setting out to advocate one theory or interpretation of 9/11 versus another.”27 They admitted, however, that after Zelikow divided the staff into various teams and told them what to investigate, he told team 1A to “tell the story of al Qaeda’s most successful operation—the 9/11 attacks.”28 So, the question that most Americans probably assume to have been one of the 9/11 Commission’s main questions—“Who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks?”—was not asked. The Bush-Cheney administration’s theory was simply presupposed from the outset.

The fact that the Commission’s conclusion had been predetermined was made even clearer by Kean and Hamilton’s admission that an outline of the final report was prepared in advance by Zelikow and his former professor Ernest May (with whom he had previously coauthored a book).29

Shenon revealed more about this startling fact. Pointing out that Zelikow and May had prepared this outline secretly, Shenon wrote: “By March 2003, with the commission’s staff barely in place, the two men had already prepared a detailed outline, complete with ‘chapter headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings.’” When Zelikow shared this document with Kean and Hamilton, they realized that the staff, if they learned about it, would know that they were doing research for a predetermined conclusion.30 And so the four men agreed upon a conspiracy of silence. In Shenon’s words:

It should be kept secret from the rest of the staff, they all decided. May said that he and Zelikow agreed that the outline should be ‘treated as if it were the most classified document the commission possessed.’ Zelikow . . . labeled it ‘Commission Sensitive,’ putting those words at the top and bottom of each page.”31

The work of the 9/11 Commission began, accordingly, with Kean and Hamilton conspiring with Zelikow and May to conceal from the Commission’s staff members the fact that their investigative work would largely be limited to filling in the details of conclusions that had been reached before any investigations had begun.

When the staff did finally learn about this outline a year later (in April 2004), some of them began circulating a two-page parody entitled “The Warren Commission Report–Preemptive Outline.” One of its chapter headings was: “Single Bullet: We Haven’t Seen the Evidence Yet. But Really. We’re Sure.”32 The point, of course, was that the crucial chapter of Zelikow and May’s outline could have been headed: “Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda: We Haven’t Seen the Evidence yet. But Really. We’re Sure.”

Besides controlling the Commission’s work and predetermining its conclusions, Zelikow also, Shenon says, largely “controlled what the final report would say.”33 He could exert this control because, as Ernest May reported, although the first draft of each chapter was written by one of the investigative teams, Zelikow headed up a team in the front office that revised these drafts.34 Indeed, Shenon adds, “Zelikow rewrote virtually everything that was handed to him—usually top to bottom.”35

Given the control exerted by Zelikow over the investigative work of the 9/11 Commission and its final product, it is not inaccurate to think of the report of the 9/11 Commission as the Zelikow Report.

In light of the foreseeable fact that the executive director of the 9/11 Commission would be able to exert such control over its work and final product, how could Kean and Hamilton, knowing that the Commission needed to be—or at least appear to be—independent of the Bush administration, have chosen Zelikow for this position? Did they not fear that his personal, structural, and ideological closeness to the Bush-Cheney administration could easily lead him to be more interested in protecting it from blame than in discovering and publishing the truth about how the 9/11 attacks were able to succeed? That this would not have been an unreasonable fear is shown by the fact that many members of the

Commission’s staff, Shenon reports, said that Zelikow’s conflicts of interest resulted in a “pattern of partisan moves intended to protect the White House.”36

At least part of the answer as to how Zelikow became the executive director, Shenon reveals, is that Zelikow, in applying for the position, concealed some of his conflicts of interest from Kean and Hamilton.

The résumé he gave them mentioned the book he had co-authored with Rice and his appointment to the White House intelligence advisory board—two conflicts of interest that Kean and Hamilton deemed “not insurmountable.”37

But Zelikow’s résumé failed to mention some other problems—most crucially his authorship of NSS 2002. Given the fact that this document had been used to “justify a preemptive strike on Iraq,” as Shenon says, it would have been in Zelikow’s interest “to use the commission to try to bolster the administration’s argument for war—a war that he had helped make possible.”38 And in fact, Shenon points out, Zelikow did try to use it for just this purpose, even trying to insert statements into the final report connecting al-Qaeda to Iraq (this being one of few times that Zelikow did not get his way).39

Zelikow was also dishonest with the Commission in another way, Shenon reports. Although “Zelikow had promised the commissioners he would cut off all unnecessary contact with senior Bush administration officials to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest,” he had continuing contacts with both Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. “More than once, [the Commission’s executive secretary] had been asked to arrange a gate pass so Zelikow could enter the White House to visit the national security adviser in her offices in the West Wing.”40 The secretary’s logs also revealed that Rove—who was the White House’s “quarterback for dealing with the Commission” (according to Republican member of the 9/11 Commission John Lehman)— called the office “looking for Philip” four times in 2003, after which, she said, Zelikow ordered her to quit keeping logs of his contacts with the White House.41

Implications for The 9/11 Commission Report

Shenon’s revelations of Zelikow’s close and ongoing relationship with the White House, his authorship of NSS 2002, and his duplicity should make people, at the very least, suspect that The 9/11 Commission Report is less of a truth-seeking than a political document, designed to protect the Bush-Cheney administration.

However, as helpful as Shenon’s book is, it fails to mention an even more serious conflict of interest created by Zelikow’s authorship of NSS 2002: If the Bush-Cheney White House enabled the 9/11 attacks in order to reap foreseeable benefits—such as the Bush Doctrine and carte blanche to attack Iraq (with its enormous oil reserves) and Afghanistan (through which the administration wanted to enable the construction of an oil-and-gas pipeline)—it would have been in Zelikow’s interest to cover up this fact.

In my 2005 book, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions, I have provided abundant evidence that this is indeed what he did. In my most recent book, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited: 9/11, the Cover-Up, and the Exposé, I have pointed out—in what must be one of the longest footnotes of all time42—that Shenon, while revealing many problematic facts about Zelikow’s behavior, failed to mention any of the ways in which the Zelikow Report used dishonesty to support the Bush-Cheney administration’s implausible interpretation of 9/11, according to which the attacks were orchestrated and carried out solely by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.43

David Ray Griffin is Professor Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University in California. He has published 34 books, including seven about 9/11, most recently The New Pearl Harbor Revisited: 9/11, the Cover-Up, and the Exposé (Northampton: Olive Branch, 2008), from which the present essay has been drawn.

1 Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (New York: Twelve, 2008), 170.

2 See Steven R. Ratner, “Crimes against Peace” (

3 I previously used the term “preemptive-preventive war” in “Neocon Imperialism, 9/11, and the Attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq,” Information Clearing House, February 27, 2007 (

4 Barton Gellman, “Keeping the U.S. First: Pentagon Would Preclude a Rival Superpower,” Washington Post, March 11, 1992 (; cited in Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 141.

5 See Halper and Clark, America Alone, 26, and “Project for the New American Century,” Right Web, updated June 20, 2008 (

6 PNAC, Letter to President Clinton on Iraq, May 29, 1998 (

7 Stephen J. Sniegoski, “Neoconservatives, Israel, and 9/11: The Origins of the U.S. War on Iraq.” In D. L. O’Huallachain and J. Forrest Sharpe, eds., Neoconned Again: Hypocrisy, Lawlessness, and the Rape of Iraq (Vienna, Va.: IHS Press, 2005), 81-109, at 81-82.

8 Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 91.

9 “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point,” June 1, 2002 (

10 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002 (, cover letter; this document henceforth referred to as NSS 2002.

11 NSS 2002, 6, 15.

12 Ibid., 15.

13 Halper and Clarke, America Alone, 142.

14 Max Boot, “Think Again: Neocons,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2004 (, 18.

15 Halper and Clarke, America Alone, 4.

16 James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), 316.

17 Richard N. Haass, “Imperial America,” delivered November 11, 2000, Brookings Institution (

18 Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, 316.

19 Ibid., 331.

20 Shenon, The Commission, 69, 83.

21 Ibid., 69-70, 86.

22 Ibid., 167.

23 Ibid., 83.

24 Ibid., 84-85.

25 Ibid., 317.

26 Ibid., 277.

27 Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton (with Benjamin Rhodes), Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 269-70.

28 Ibid., 116.

29 Ibid., 270.

30 Shenon, The Commission, 388-89.

31 Ibid., 389.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 390.

34 Ernest May, “When Government Writes History: A Memoir of the 9/11 Commission,” New Republic, May 23, 2005; cited in Bryan Sacks, ”Making History: The Compromised 9-11 Commission,” in Paul Zarembka, ed., The Hidden History of 9-11 (New York: Seven Stories, 2008), 223-60, at 258n10.

35 Shenon, The Commission, 321.

36 Ibid., 319.

37 Ibid., 59.

38 Ibid., 170.

39 Ibid., 104, 130-33, 181, 321.

40 Ibid., 106-07.

41 Ibid., 175-76, 106-07. In their 2006 book giving “the inside story of the 9/11 Commission,” Kean and Hamilton said, after reporting that the 9/11 families had protested Zelikow’s appointment as executive director because of his conflicts of interest: “But we had full confidence in Zelikow’s independence” (Without Precedent, 28-29). In light of Shenon’s revelations, we must conclude that Zelikow was not the only one who shaded the truth.

42 David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited: 9/11, the Cover-Up, and the Exposé (Northampton: Olive Branch, 2008), 333-38n70.

43 To read statements by architects, engineers, firefighters, pilots, political leaders, scholars, scientists, former CIA officials, retired military officers, and others who find the official theory of 9/11 implausible, see the Patriots Question 9/11 website (

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