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The Best, Most Damning Reporting of the 9/11 Era

Our list of the most seminal stories of the years after Sept. 11, the ones that reveal the reality about the attacks, the attackers and how our government changed in the post-9/11 era.

We’ve updated this post with your suggestions.

We’ve gathered the seminal stories of the years after Sept. 11, the ones that reveal the reality about the attackers and how our government changed in the post-9/11 era.

Email or tweet us your suggestions. Here’s what we’ve put together so far. 

The Roots of 9/11

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006
Lawrence Wright’s book on the events leading up to 9/11 focuses on Osama Bin Laden and the others who planned the attack, as well as the FBI agents who believed an attack was coming and tried to prevent it. This excerpt, from the book’s first chapter, focuses on Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist theorist whose anti-Western ideas influenced al-Qaida.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, 2004
An excerpt from Steve Coll’s book about how the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan during the Cold War funded Islamic militants and helped give rise to al-Qaida.

The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004
Praised for its clear, compelling prose, the report concluded that 9/11 might have been prevented if government intelligence agencies had communicated better.

The Agent, 2006
Lawrence Wright’s account of how the CIA and the agency’s own bureaucracy may have stopped FBI agents from preventing 9/11.
(via @mattdpearce)

One Man and a Global Web of Violence, New York Times, 2001
Months before the 9/11 attacks, the New York Times published a chilling profile of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The piece ended with a French scholar saying, “Osama bin Laden doesn’t want to negotiate.” [Disclosure: The story was written by ProPublica’s managing editor, Stephen Engelberg, with reporting by Craig Pyes and Judith Miller]. 

Consequences at Home

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, New York Times, 2005
Before 9/11, the National Security Agency’s mission was to monitor foreign communications for suspicious activity. Days after the attacks, Bush authorized the NSA to wiretap people within the United States without a warrant. The decision went unreported until this story was published four years later.

Behind the Walls of Ward 54, Salon, 2005
Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility, Washington Post, 2007
Years into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Walter Reed Hospital, located just five miles from the White House, was overflowing with wounded soldiers. In 2005, Salon described the mistreatment and neglect many patients reported. Two years later, the Washington Post detailed how red tape prevented many soldiers from leaving the facility, and the poor conditions many of them lived in while they waited.

Pushing the Envelope on Presidential Power, Washington Post, 2007
Vice President Dick Cheney’s office played a central role in some of the Bush administration's most controversial decisions, including shattering limits on abuse of detainees. 

Torture and Abuse

U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations, Washington Post, 2002
An early but little-noticed piece in the Washington Post described harsh CIA interrogation tactics known as “stress and duress.” One official involved in the process told the Post, “If you don’t violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job." There were also suggestions of so-called rendition. “We don't kick the (expletive) out of them," said one official. "We send them to other countries so they can kick the (expletive) out of them."

Enduring Freedom, Human Rights Watch, 2004
A few months before the Abu Ghraib scandal hit, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing prisoner abuse by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. " 'We were all beaten, without exception,' recalled one prisoner in Afghanistan." Soldiers reportedly nicknamed one prison “Camp Slappy.”

Torture at Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker, 2004
The disturbing images taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib that appeared alongside this Seymour Hersh piece came to represent the dark side of the war on terror: “The photographs tell it all,” Hersh wrote. “In one, Private England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates.”

CIA ‘Black Sites’ and Gitmo

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons, Washington Post, 2007
After the 9/11 attack, the CIA worked with the spy agencies of foreign countries to set up an international network of secret prisons for holding and interrogating terrorism suspects. Details about the prisons—also known as "black sites"—their locales and how detainees were treated stayed largely shielded from Congress and the public even as concerns about abuse escalated. 

The Black Sites, The New Yorker, 2007
Jane Mayer described a confidential report produced by the Red Cross after interviewing more than a dozen CIA detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Sources told Mayer that the report criticized CIA interrogation tactics as possible violations of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law banning torture.

U.S. Said to Overstate Value of Guantanamo Detainees, New York Times, 2004
The Bush administration justified the detention of hundreds in Guantanamo on the grounds that the detainees were terrorists with valuable intelligence on al-Qaida. In this 2004 report, U.S. officials acknowledged that the dangers posed by the Guantanamo detainees—and the value of the information they provided—were overblown.

Blunders in Iraq

The Fifty-First State?, Atlantic, 2002
Written four months before the U.S. invasion, James Fallows’ detailed summary of the challenges America would face in Iraq now seems prophetic. Based on several dozen interviews, Fallows concluded that advocates of the invasion typically had little awareness of what war in Iraq might actually entail.

Your Suggestions

On Iraq and Afghanistan

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, 2006

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, 2003

Recommended by Warren Cosford


Private Armies, The Washington Post, 2004-2008

Recommended by ProPublica’s Jennifer LaFleur


Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda by Sean Naylor, 2005

Recommended by John McNamara


On Al Qaeda

The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader by Peter Bergen, 2006

Recommended by Christina Davidson


The Plot: How Terrorists Hatched a Simple Plan to Use Planes as Bombs, The Los Angeles Times, 2002

Recommended by ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella


On the expansion of national security efforts after 9/11

State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen, 2006

Recommended by Warren Cosford


The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks, U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, 2003

Recommended by Aarti Shahani

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