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'Tower' provides new understanding of 9/11

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, By Lawrence Wright, Knopf, 469 pp., $27.95

One of the biggest-selling books of the new century is a government-sponsored study titled ``The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States." I read it avidly when it appeared two years ago . As a result, I thought I knew a lot about who deserved blame within the US government and elsewhere for the mass deaths that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania.

Besides the commission report, dozens of intricately reported books about 9/11 are already available in English; I had read perhaps half of them and learned something new from each before starting ``The Looming Tower." But Lawrence Wright's book is my new touchstone. None of the previous books led me to say ``Aha, now I think I understand" as frequently. It is also the best example of narrative storytelling. As I already knew from Wright's previous books (among them ``Remembering Satan," ``Twins," and ``Saints and Sinners" ), he is a superb literary stylist.

``The Looming Tower" is a book of synthesis, of re-emphasis, of explaining seemingly isolated events in an improved context. Perhaps the most important re-emphasis is how the CIA and the National Security Agency -- for what appear to be petty, bureaucratic reasons -- failed to share information with the FBI that might have halted the airplane hijackers from carrying out their missions in New York and Washington. That portion of Wright's reporting has already been excerpted by The New Yorker magazine (where he is a staff writer), under the headline ``The Agent: Did the CIA Stop an FBI Detective From Preventing 9/11?" In the book version, it is fair to say that Wright eliminates the question mark. He pretty clearly believes that individuals within the CIA deserve blame.

Although the book is populated by thousands of sources and subjects (Wright provides brief descriptions of 86 ``principal characters" in the back), he wisely chooses four as the centerpieces. They are John O'Neill, an FBI counterterrorism specialist who just weeks before 9/11 accepted the job as World Trade Center security chief, dying in the collapsed towers' rubble; Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman turned Al Qaeda financier and public leader; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor believed to serve as Al Qaeda's planner of deadly operations; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, director of Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies trying to stifle the Al Qaeda brand of terrorism .

Wright provides a cohesive narrative, tying together what previously seemed like loose ends. But he is wise enough to know that although he presents a version of horrifying truth, the full truth might be more horrifying still. ``The reporting of this book has required constant checking of hundreds of sources against each other, and it is in this back-and-forth inquiry that the approximate truth -- the most reliable facts -- can be found," he says.

Those reliable facts are disquieting. There is no sound reason to believe that those running the CIA, NSA, and FBI have learned from their mistakes, especially given the failure of their ultimate superior, President George W. Bush, to assume blame. There is also no sound reason to believe that Al Qaeda leaders still at large, including bin Laden, have dulled their resolve to harm the United States for its perceived failure to adequately respect the Islamic faith.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo. He also teaches at the University of Missouri Journalism School.

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