Why the 9/11 Commission was designed to fail — and didn’t


The 9/11 Commission investigated the causes that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Hubert Boesl/© HUBERT BOESL/DPA/CORBIS)
September 5, 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.

On paper, the 9-11 Commission was designed to fail, as had the preceding congressional inquiry into the attack and so many “bipartisan” commissions before that.

And yet it didn’t.

To look at its mandate and make-up, though, it seemed as prone to failure as any number of the fruitless commissions we continue to bear witness to in Washington. The statute establishing the 9/11 Commission required the ten members, equally divided by political party affiliation and appointed by political leaders, to evaluate the actions of two separate administrations and to issue a final report in the summer of a presidential election year. Add to it that all of the appointees had previously filled politically appointed or elected posts, and you’re hardly looking at a recipe for success.

The commission’s charge was awesome. By law, we were to review all evidence from every source and classification in order to determine the facts leading to the horrific events of September 11, to uncover what permitted it to happen, and to propose actions to reform our systems so we might avoid such mistakes the future.

Over a period of 22 months, we held 19 days of public hearings, taking testimony from 160 witnesses. The commission reviewed more than 2.5 million documents and interviewed more than 1,200 people in 10 nations. But the most challenging task would be to write a report that, to have any credibility, would have to transcend politics and present findings on all issues with unanimity. In an effort that is unfortunately uncommon today, that is what was accomplished.

How did this happen? Despite some early vigorous debate and, yes, even some subtle partisan tilting, there came a collective realization of the importance of the task entrusted to us, and the need for a unity of purpose and effort.

On September 11, 2001, 19 men armed only with knives, mace and pepper spray permeated the defenses of the most powerful nation in the world. They inflicted unbelievable trauma, killed 3,000 of our people, and turned the international order upside down. That day, alongside our instant and deep sense of loss, we also felt a sense of purpose and of unity. That day we all became New Yorkers. That day we all worked at the Pentagon. That day we all were in the fields of Pennsylvania. We as a nation had to unite and face the challenge.

It was this same sense of unity that mobilized the commission. Regardless of each commissioner’s preconceived judgments and even the public positioning of some commissioners during the hearings and in the information–gathering phase of our work, the final report we submitted was the result of serious, objective, non-partisan evaluation of the facts. It was without adjectives, and fully documented. It was also a serious and challenging collective judgment as to what steps needed to be taken in the future to protect our nation and its people.

Behind the commission was the weight of a leadership call-to-arms that the tragedy cried for and the country echoed. Did we succeed in our charge? History and time will be the ultimate judge. But it was the truly non-partisan effort that the times demanded—and that all times deserve.

Fred F. Fielding, former White House counsel for President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush, served on the 9/11 Commission.

Related Articles:

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

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

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

What was the 9/11 Commission Report?

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