History is a matter of selection, a reality that I relearned time and again when writing my books. More than once, I have begun a project with a strong idea of what I wanted to do, only to find partway through my reporting that the best story lies elsewhere.

That is certainly what happened here. I started working on this book with a plan to chronicle the experiences of the Bush Administration regarding the threat of terrorism from 2001 through the end of the second term in 2008. But the more reporting I did, the more I came to realize that my target was wrong: Everything, I concluded, traced back to judgments made after 9/11 over the course of more than five hundred days – 553 to be exact. Both wars, warrantless wiretapping, secret prisons, detainee treatment, extraordinary rendition – everything. What followed those days was mostly reaction to what had been decided in those eighteen months.

More important, it was not a story of a single group of politicians, or even of a single government. The Bush Administration was important, but it was hardly alone. Bits and pieces from all over the globe fed into decisions, or played out in ways that were not predictable.

So, I had to make my choices. Recounting the five hundred days, I determined, would put lay bare the most important parts of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. But I didn’t want to simply recount these events from the perspective of the powerful. Instead, I was led by one of my favorite quotes: “History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.’’

Extraordinary rendition was not simply a decision—it played out in real ways on real people’s lives. As did decisions on the application of the Geneva Conventions, the use of secret prisons, and the like. These experiences helped to shape directions of these events in profound and often unseen ways. And so, I have interlaced this story of the powerful with tales of the powerless, to give the broadest scope of the meanings.

As with most histories, this entailed covering some familiar paths, although I was surprised how often well-known stories proved to be inaccurate. But when you combine these elements of the story, from known to unknown, from domestic to international, from the great to the small, I believe that it creates for the first time the opportunity to better understand events that I have no doubt we will continue to examine for decades to come.

Readers looking in these pages for my view of how to interpret these events will no doubt be disappointed. I have little faith in opinion, even my own. Instead, this book is meant to be a dispassionate narrative history of this crucial era. While there have no doubt been horrible decisions, there are few villains; Administration officials did not want to impose a police state and the critics did not want to coddle terrorists. Few on either side acted with disregard to the concerns of the other; instead, each wrestled with finding the proper balance, as they saw it. I leave it to the readers to decide who, if anyone, was right.