Readings in the Age of Empire

Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission
Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
370 pp.

By every measure, Sept. 11 was a disaster. The most obvious victims were the nearly 3,000 people who died in the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., along with their families and friends.

The rest of us suffered, too. We have lost some of our freedoms. We have spent billions to protect ourselves. Moreover, the terrorist strikes created an excuse for the Bush administration to attack Iraq, which has cost nearly 3,000 more American lives and over $300 billion, and has created more terrorists, making us all less secure.

Although getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, many Iraqis are worse off, with 3,000 or more now dying every month in worsening sectarian strife. Particular communities, such as Iraq’s Christians, have been devastated.

Finally, 9/11 was a policy catastrophe. Decades of military and political intervention abroad have yielded anger, hatred, and retaliation. The point is not that Osama bin Laden & Co. were justified in killing innocents, but that actions have consequences, even if America’s intentions were supposedly benevolent. The warning signs were long there: send troops into the middle of a civil war in Lebanon, for instance, and get them killed. Sept. 11 was the culmination of decades of misguided U.S. intervention.

Politicians in Washington responded to 9/11 in the traditional Washington way. They denied any responsibility for the problem. They spent money and intervened even more. And they created a commission. Not that the Bush administration and the Republican congressional majority liked the latter idea – after all, to them, criticism is equivalent to defeatism, at best, or treason, at worst.

Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton’s Without Precedent tells the story of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 Commission. One question that the book does not address, unsurprisingly, is whether such commissions have any value.

Government-created panels filled with distinguished has-beens and also-rans are a constant feature of U.S. politics. They study health care, Social Security, budget issues, energy, and more. Almost all of them generate huge piles of paper. And almost all such commission reports are forgotten as quickly as they are printed.

Nevertheless, given today’s toxic political environment, and the refusal of politicians and citizens alike to take an honest look at U.S. policy, a nonpartisan, independent panel could provide a useful service. At least in theory.

Kean is a former governor and university president. Hamilton is a former congressman. Both are respected moderates. Some of the other eight commission members were more partisan, but all were bright and capable. So were the scores of staff members.

At the end of the day, however, it’s not clear that much was achieved. The panel reflected Washington’s congenital unwillingness to address the bigger issues. The 9/11 Commission fixated on such questions as, Why don’t the CIA and FBI talk to each other? The commission produced a detailed history of what happened and a reasonable list of practical reforms. Interesting stuff, but secondary.

Far more important would be understanding why people around the world want to kill Americans, and what the U.S. government is doing to make more people more willing to kill more Americans. But the panel consciously avoided looking at this issue. Which leaves its report of only limited utility.

Still, Without Precedent is not without value. It spins an interesting bureaucratic tale that will help readers understand how Washington works. The first issue was creating the panel. Neither the White House nor the House Republicans, in particular, wanted to do so.

Nevertheless, the commission came into being, since ultimately no one wanted to appear to be stonewalling an investigation into this disastrous day. However, the Commission found it difficult to get the tools necessary to operate: money and subpoena power. Explain Kean and Hamilton, “Particularly in the House, many Republican members had opposed our creation, and were not inclined to help the commission succeed. Holding the budget at $3 million was one way to ensure that we did not.”

As the 9/11 Commission moved forward, it found itself in a continuous fight with the White House, Cabinet departments, and other executive branch agencies. To whom would the panel have access, which commission members could ask questions, what documents would be provided, which materials would be classified, would hearings be public? The political battles were continuous. There were complaints over leaks, charges of bias, fights over interviews, battles over travel, attempts at spin, and efforts to co-opt. It’s all quite interesting – though a bit depressing – but no one should expect this political entity to behave any differently than any other political entity.

Although the commission was expected to be objective, objectivity is in short supply in Washington. Indeed, the creation of the panel was explicitly political, with the membership parceled out by the president and congressional leaders by party. By happenstance, there was no representative of the House Republican caucus, which exacerbated the commission’s political problems on Capitol Hill.

Kean and Hamilton admit that “Each commissioner was a proud member of his or her respective political party, with strongly held views.” In theory, having contending members from contending parties could ensure accountability. In the case of the 9/11 Commission, however, the effect was the opposite.

The panel desperately sought unanimity. But doing so tempered the panel’s edge, pushing it away from tough analysis and toward moderate consensus. Kean and Hamilton argue that the political split was an advantage.

“The divisions that emerged over the hiring of the counsel did not go away. Instead, they reappeared in questions about how to negotiate with the White House and whether to use the power of subpoena to get access to documents and people. Always there was tension between those in the commission who wanted to push harder – often backed by the 9/11 families – and those who thought we were pushing too hard; this division was often split down partisan lines. Ultimately, though, this tension served us well. To succeed, we had to be both conciliatory and confrontational at times, and these two approaches helped us steer an effective middle course that got us the access we needed without drawn-out legal battles or partisan fights – though there were some close calls.”

Maybe this process worked in terms of the commission’s practical operation. But it did not work on substance.

The panel opened its first hearing by opining “our fundamental purpose will not be to point fingers.” That might have made it easier to win cooperation from government officials, but it certainly did not advance the larger goal of understanding not only what went wrong in 9/11, but the larger factors underlying those horrid attacks.

Commissioners even found it difficult to ask tough questions about New York City fire and police department failures. And when they did, they were flayed by the local tabloid media.

The panel discovered significant discrepancies in accounts provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Here would seem to be a profitable area of investigation for an independent body with subpoena power. Alas, report Kean and Hamilton:

“There was discussion within our staff about whether or not to investigate how the inaccurate story became the official account presented by NORAD and the FAA. The issue was presented to the commission in May 2004, in an extended memo and presentation. At that point, we did not have time to launch a separate investigation into why the FAA and NORAD had presented inaccurate information in public, nor was that question clearly under the commission’s mandate. We decided to refer the matter to the inspectors general at the Departments of Transportation and Defense. The results of those two investigation are still pending at this writing.”

Big surprise.

For partisan reasons the commission also refused to judge the dispute between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke on how seriously the Bush administration treated the issue of terrorism. Instead, the final report included the relevant documents and, explained Kean and Hamilton, “The reader can draw from those facts and make their own decision about whose interpretation they agree with – Clarke’s or Rice’s. Our task was to provide those facts for the reader, not to make that judgment for them.”

Except that the panel had been drawn together for the purpose of making considered judgments based on its members’ knowledge and experience. Lots of people, at far less expense, could simply compile government memos.

The commission’s biggest failing, however, was refusing to confront the elephant in the room: why did terrorists show up in the U.S. to attack some of the most visible American symbols? Was it because they don’t like the Bill of Rights, as President George W. Bush appears to believe? Or did it have something to do with the fact that they perceived America to already be at war with them?

On this issue the panel divided, largely along party lines. That split hobbled the commission, preventing it from adequately exploring al-Qaeda’s motivation and developing recommendations for change. Admitted Kean and Hamilton:

“We did, however, have some disagreement over foreign policy issues. Much of it revolved around the question of al-Qaeda’s motivation. For instance, Lee felt that there had to be an acknowledgment that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was vital to America’s long-term relationship with the Islamic world, and that the presence of American forces in the Middle East was a major motivating factor in al-Qaeda’s action. Similarly, several commissioners pointed out that we had to acknowledge that the American presence in Iraq had become the dominant issue in the way the world’s Muslims viewed the United States.

“This was sensitive ground. Commissioners who argued that al-Qaeda was motivated primarily by a religious ideology – and not by opposition to American policies – rejected mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the report. In their view, listing U.S. support for Israel as a root cause of al-Qaeda’s opposition to the United States indicated that the United States should reassess that policy. To Lee, though, it was not a question of altering support for Israel but of merely stating a fact that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was central to the relations between the Islamic world and the United States – and to bin Laden’s ideology and the support he gained throughout the Islamic world for his jihad against America.

“Since neither U.S. policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor U.S. policy in Iraq was covered in our mandate, we were not required to discuss the issues at length. Had that been the case, reaching consensus would have been difficult. We ended up agreeing on language that acknowledged the importance of the two issues, without passing judgment.”

Well, now, that’s really helpful. Remind me: why did they bother to create a multi-million dollar commission?

Not to be unkind, but there was no better place for the commission to pass judgment. A few panelists, led by Lee Hamilton, advocated taking the realistic position that policies have consequences. Even if one believes in unstinting, reflexive support for Israel, for instance, one needs to acknowledge that there are costs as well as benefits to doing so. In contrast, the Republicans followed the administration in taking the head-in-the-sand position: everyone loves us and nothing that we do could have any impact on what anyone thinks of us. The terrorists simply hate us because we are such beautiful, wonderful, and all-around sweet people.

Failing to assess the causes of terrorism led the body to make foreign policy recommendations that can best be described as silly. Write Kean and Hamilton:

“[T]here was broad agreement within the commission that the United States needed to engage more aggressively in the ‘battle of ideas’ within the Muslim world, to combat the ideology of radical Islam – through outreach, public diplomacy, support for pragmatic reform, and educational and economic assistance. We outlined a series of steps that would serve this purpose, calling it an ‘agenda of opportunity’ for the Arab and Islamic world, contrasted with the violent and regressive agenda of the terrorists.”

Alas, Kean and Hamilton don’t explain how America can successfully “engage more aggressively in the ‘battle of ideas'” with Muslims if those very same Muslims perceive the U.S. as oppressing and killing their co-religionists. A bit better PR highlighted by a visit from the vacuous Karen Hughes pales alongside the well-publicized image of Americans killing Muslims.

The panel also urges, “The United States must enhance its outreach and communication with the Arab and Islamic worlds, and deepen its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.” What on earth does this mean? Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of radical Islam, Pakistan is the world’s chief nuclear proliferator and a continuing host of the Taliban and other jihadist forces, and the forces of good are steadily losing ground in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-backed government controls little more than Kabul. How will a “deeper relationship,” whatever that means, help reduce the causes of and forces backing terrorism?

As a civic exercise, the 9/11 Commission probably had some value. In a very limited way, it helped provide some accountability for some government failures. Alas, the benefits of the panel were sharply limited because of its failure to confront the most controversial, but most important, issue: why? Why do some people hate Americans so much that they are willing to die trying to kill us? And what can we do to reduce the number of them?

Sept. 11 was a disaster. What makes it such a tragedy is that it was avoidable. Even worse, however, would be an entirely avoidable repeat of 9/11. Unfortunately, that seems all too likely, despite the best efforts of the 9/11 Commission.