John Farmer served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission. Early in "The Ground Truth," his examination of the terrorist attacks, he writes that the commission "discovered that what had occurred that morning — that is, what government and military officials had told Congress, the Commission, the media, and the public about who knew what when — was almost entirely, and inexplicably, untrue."
He continues: "At some level of the government, at some point in time … there was a decision not to tell the truth about what happened."
The truth about what happened, Farmer says, is that as hijackers rammed jetliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field, nobody at the operational level of government had a handle on what was happening.
Hijacked airliners were misidentified. Their locations were wildly misstated. The word from the leadership level — for example, Vice President Dick Cheney's green light to shoot down hijacked planes — never got put into effect at the cockpit level.
Even so, Farmer writes, the official accounts after 9/11 put a gloss of knowledge and competence onto such agencies as the Defense Department, which is supposed to guard the nation's airspace, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is supposed to control the nation's airspace.
Farmer suspects not only bureaucratic butt-covering but also some unseemly backstage conniving to coordinate bureaucratic alibis.
Readers may find more to sigh about in the first part of "The Ground Truth," in which Farmer writes about what preceded the 9/11 attacks. He takes an interesting chronological approach, writing first in terms of years before 9/11 and then picking up the pace to months before, weeks before, days before and finally hours and minutes before.
Starting with President Bill Clinton's administration, Farmer frowns at the inability (or unwillingness) of government agencies to share information with one another. He writes that the agencies "would share information even within departments only on a 'need to know' basis. The problem with the 9/11 plot, though, was that everyone 'needed to know,' and that no one knew it."
In assessing this larger flaw, Farmer writes, "The failure to anticipate the attacks of 9/11 was, indeed, as the Commission concluded, a 'failure of imagination,' but it was more than that; it was a collapse of competence, and an exposure of the continuing need for fundamental change in the ways in which departments of government are permitted to function."
The 9/11 attacks spurred grand bureaucratic reshuffling, such as the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. But Farmer says Hurricane Katrina showed that the reshuffling merely dealt out the same old cards of incompetence.
"The Ground Truth" can be confusing, especially when it quotes long stretches of what people in the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command were babbling over the phone lines on 9/11.
But Farmer's generally well written book hits a clear and depressing note with its larger picture of bureaucratic inertia and turf battles. His dismaying conclusion: Whether government can cure itself remains a wide-open question.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.