When the Senate acquitted former president Donald Trump of inciting insurrection, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for “an outside, independent 9/11-type Commission” to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Republican lawmakers also signaled support for an independent panel. “We need a 9/11 Commission to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said at the time. On Wednesday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) wrote in The Washington Post that, separate from the ongoing criminal investigations, “we must support a parallel bipartisan review by a commission with subpoena power” that will “describe for all Americans what happened.” A group of national security professionals, including Michael Hayden, Chuck Hagel, Janet Napolitano, James R. Clapper Jr. and Christine Todd Whitman wrote a letter pushing for such a commission. I signed the letter.
But I’m skeptical. Despite signing the letter, I wonder whether it is possible for a commission to produce a fair accounting. First, can we really assume that commissioners appointed by Republican lawmakers would willingly publish a full report or hold anyone complicit in their party accountable? An inquiry would need to address not just the state of reporting on white-nationalist terrorism leading up to the assault on the Capitol, but also the role of political leaders in spreading misinformation and vitriol. Second, and just as important, is the problem with the proposed model. The 9/11 Commission has long been cited as the gold standard for insight and weighty analysis applied to a thorny issue. Its well-written report, clear and compelling, provided a thoughtful overview of events leading up to the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001. It was even nominated for a National Book Award. But it was not all it was cracked up to be. And a 1/6 Commission that uses the 9/11 Commission as a template will encounter the same pitfalls and then some.
Calls for reports from blue-ribbon commissions often follow disasters or catastrophic events. There have been hundreds of such reports, and most are quickly forgotten. The recent high-level Afghan Study Group report advising that U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan was easily ignored. Well-intentioned government reports can also be hijacked for partisan purposes. For example, the Mueller report’s dense, obtuse and bureaucratic language ensured that few would read it, making it easier to manipulate the actual findings for partisan purpose. Despite an overwhelming chronicle of misdeeds, all that many Americans remember is that the investigators supposedly found “no collusion.” The 9/11 Commission report, by contrast, is remembered for its conclusion that the intelligence community’s “failure of imagination” underpinned the inability to prevent the attack. The commission’s recommendations led directly to the largest legislative reordering of the nation’s security system since 1947. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, and it empowered the Department of Homeland Security to conduct transportation and border safety.
If any event since 9/11 needs to be understood and catalogued for future generations, it is the storming of the Capitol. The temptation to compare 9/11 and Jan. 6 is understandable, too. Both were consequential national events that should have been foreseen and protected against, and both involved issues related to domestic intelligence and political leadership, or lack thereof.
However, before we move forward with a new investigation that may lead to legislative and executive fixes, we should revisit the 9/11 report itself and ask if it really achieved the objectives so often attributed to it. It may be a poor model for a serious look at the events surrounding Jan. 6.
The report dodged many of the most difficult issues and failed to assign accountability to specific individuals, political leaders or agencies. Instead, the commissioners — a group of five Republicans and five Democrats, led by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and former congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana — seemed as intent on deflecting blame from political leaders and policy decisions as they were on uncovering inconvenient facts. To achieve unanimity among commissioners who represented and sought to protect the two political parties, the report’s conclusions focused chiefly on institutions and processes rather than tackling potential accountability for policy decisions. Some staff investigators even described the failure to highlight key findings as a whitewash.
Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration treated terrorism with high-level urgency in the lead-up to Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration hardly addressed the issue of terrorism at all. Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice failed to engage the president on the issue. Attorney General John Ashcroft even rebuffed aides who implored him to focus on the terrorism threat, commenting, “I don’t want you to ever talk to me about al-Qaeda, about these threats. I don’t want to hear about al-Qaeda anymore.” He refused FBI requests to increase funding for counterterrorism. Previously, the Clinton administration had put international terrorism at the top of its agenda but stood down on several opportunities to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Subsequent evidence suggests that the lack of an administration response to the October 2000 suicide attack on the U.S. Navy missile destroyer Cole even emboldened bin Laden to consider future attacks. The commissioners insured that possible policy failures that could be laid at the feet of Democratic and Republican presidents and policymakers were instead downplayed or left out of the report.
Rather than rely on staffers (or lawyers in the case of the exhausting Mueller report), the commission enlisted eminent Harvard University historian and author Ernest May to draft the report. But like the Mueller report, it wasn’t the substance of the text that is remembered, but a truncated narrative informed by an appendix of recommendations. According to Philip Shenon in his account of the 9/11 investigation, “The Commission,” May himself expressed frustration that the report’s conclusions were censored to achieve unanimity between the partisan Democrats and Republicans on the commission. A consequence, according to May, was that the report skirted “judgments about people who almost certainly had some blame for failing to prevent September 11. That included two presidents and their top advisors.” The commission also avoided potentially politically charged questions related to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the FBI.
In their endeavor to deflect blame from policymakers, the commissioners avoided the hardest questions. At a Harvard seminar after the release of the report, I asked May about the disconnect between the report’s text and the recommendations. Even in its watered-down form, any reader of the report itself would conclude that the FBI was unprepared to counter a domestic terrorist threat. As Kean commented in an interview with Shenon, the FBI “failed and it failed and it failed. … This is an agency that does not work.” But the 9/11 recommendations said almost nothing about reforming domestic intelligence and the FBI. May acknowledged that the FBI’s intelligence failures were central to any understanding of the disaster. There were such strong and divergent opinions on whether to reform the FBI or create a wholly new domestic intelligence service, however, that the commissioners simply elected to avoid the issue altogether. Instead, they recommended providing more money to Pakistan; increasing library programs and broadcasting to the Muslim world; youth opportunity funds; and improving language skills at the CIA. They failed to tackle the serious deficiencies in domestic intelligence collection and analysis.
Twenty years later, failures of domestic intelligence are again likely to be central in any review of the Jan. 6 riot.
As we look back at the 9/11 experience, we can conclude that it was a failure of both policy and process, despite the commission’s spotlight on the latter. In many ways, the impact of the Jan. 6 disaster is even more central to the health of our republic. Certainly, fixing deficiencies in our policing and domestic intelligence process and addressing the vulnerability of our buildings will be part of any future judgment. But we cannot again allow a commission of senior political figures to focus on process and minimize the culpability of senior politicians and party leaders. Their complicity is why Congress will insist on commissioners who will find ways to shift blame, and why any serious investigation cannot be run by professional politicians. Of course, no review of such consequential and complex issues can solve all problems or avoid personal and political bias, but if Congress cannot stomach a true reckoning over Jan. 6, they would be better to do nothing at all.