From the 9/11 Commission, seven cardinal rules for making a Washington commission work


Ten years after September 11, those who served on the 9/11 Commission reflect on the leadership lessons America has — and hasn’t — learned since the tragedy. (MICHEL DUCILLE/MICHEL DUCILLE/TWP)
September 7, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable, examining whether — ten years after September 11 — America has learned the leadership lessons from the 9/11 Commission Report. The panelists for this roundtable are six of the ten 9/11 Commissioners: Former Governor Thomas Kean and fomer Congressman Lee Hamilton, former Senator Slade Gorton, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, former White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding, and former Congressman and U.S. Ambassador Tim Roemer.

In the seven years since we released the 9/11 Commission Report, we have reflected often on why our commission succeeded in telling the story of 9/11 and in making the case for significant reforms. There have been many legislatively created commissions over the years, yet few with the same degree of success in having their recommendations adopted.

What we found were several key factors—both internal and external to the commission—that provided the right environment for persuasive leadership to emerge.

Appetite for reform

As a result of the tremendous damage and trauma of the 9/11 attacks, the American public demanded action, and had high expectations for  measures that would improve the nation’s security. 

Clear authority

The statutory mandate for the commission was limited, precise and clear. The commission was authorized to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the attacks and to make recommendations to keep the country safe. 

Political gravitas

The commissioners had extensive experience in government and credibility with different constituencies, who recognized the need to put partisan differences aside at a time when the country needed their leadership most. Even after the 9/11 Commission completed its work, the commissioners and staff continue, even now, to work closely with Congress and the executive branch to implement and monitor reform.

Unwavering unanimity

The final report was unanimous and bipartisan. This was a crucial commitment, and the key to getting the vast majority of our recommendations endorsed by both presidential candidates at the time and by nearly every member of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike. That stands in sharp contrast to other commissions and the current climate in Washington.

The right staff

The commission had an extraordinary non-partisan staff, the members of which possessed deep expertise and conducted their work with thoroughness and professionalism.

Ongoing public support

The families of the victims of 9/11 provided solid and sophisticated support throughout the life of the commission and in the years since.

A commitment to implement

Probably the principal reason for the success of the commission’s work was that political leadership embraced its findings and recommendations, pushed hard to enact them, and continue to drive reform. That support and direction have been critical in improving the nation’s security.

Today our country is undoubtedly safer than it was a decade ago as a result of the adoption of a substantial majority of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.  But even our commission did not have a perfect success rate. Case in point, we recently released a report card at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where we now co-chair its National Security Preparedness Group, on the unfinished 9/11 Commission recommendations. We have highlighted nine that still need further work and attention from policymakers. 

This is no time to rest in our efforts to improve the nation’s security. We have damaged our enemy, but the ideology of violent Islamist extremism is alive and attracting new adherents, including recruitment of those within our own borders. Our terrorist adversaries and the tactics and techniques they employ are evolving rapidly. One of our major deficiencies before the 9/11 attacks was a failure by national security agencies to change at the accelerated rate required by a new and different kind of enemy. We must not make that mistake again.

We will see new attempts, and likely successful attacks. We must not fail to achieve the security we could or should have.

Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, served as chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission. Together they now co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group.

Related Articles:

Tim Roemer: Ten years after September 11, America’s unfinished business

Fred F. Fielding: A commission designed to fail — that didn’t

John Lehman: Our six biggest vulnerabilities the decade after 9/11

Slade Gorton: President Obama, President Bush and the 9/11 leadership lesson

What was the 9/11 Commission Report?

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