Lessons from the 9/11 Commission

Three events have been seared into my soul over the course of my journey in public service. First, having my parents wake me at 7 am in the morning for school as a fifth grader to tell me my hero, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had been killed the night before in Los Angeles. Second, having to leave my congressional office in the Rayburn Office Building during 9/11, as many believed the Capitol, where we held our Intelligence Committee meetings, was going to be a terrorist target. And third, on January 6th riveted to television as rioters and insurrectionists brutally attacked the Capitol and threatened custodians, police, staff and Members of Congress and shamefully desecrated our national symbol of freedom.

A national commission was created to study the assassination of Senator Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy in 1963, called the Warren Commission. I wrote the legislation standing up the 9/11 Commission with Senator John McCain and later proudly served on it. And I have recently advised Speaker Pelosi and her staff on writing a bill to create a non-partisan commission to investigate the events leading up to and causing the attack on the Capitol Complex a few weeks ago. For this latest commission to succeed, especially in these deeply toxic and poisonous political times, valuable lessons learned from history must be judiciously applied and thoughtfully implemented.

First of all, I made mistakes in some of the specific details in drafting the legislation to create the 9/11 Commission. I included a limit on the overall funding, capping it at an unreasonably low level, thus forcing the members of that independent body to return to Congress requesting more money and additional time to complete the mandated report. This potentially threatened our ability to keep our distance from Congress as our continual funding source. The proposed legislation being considered today must fully fund the commission allowing for hiring a robust staff, grant strong subpoena power to access all relevant information, give sufficient time to complete investigations and write robust recommendations, and provide for public hearings. We were able to attract and hire superb staff with deep technical expertise and non-partisan collegial spirit. This is essential. The Commission also remained in the picture long enough (a so-called “tail” to the commission’s life) to advocate for legislation, testify before Congress and see the passage of our recommendations into law.

Most importantly, we also did many things right on the Commission. We insisted on all public appearances and events being bipartisan. Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton pledged to always do their press interviews together, and expected the rest of us to set a nonpartisan tone as well. A Democrat and a Republican were always asked to join together to do television and other media interviews. This was much more than a symbolic gesture, and set a standard for mutual respect and listening to one another’s perspectives. We maintained a tone and attitude within the commission and between commissioners of tolerance, agreeing to disagree, and actually changing one’s mind when someone made a compelling presentation. A organizational culture was created within the confines of our meetings to debate and exchange ideas without adherence to rigid political ideologies or rancorous shows performed for partisan sound bites in the media. That culture prevailed and reinforced our mutual respect and rigorous process of internal deliberations.

We held numerous public hearings throughout the country so we could connect with Americans and they with us. At the end of the day, if the American people did not support our recommendations for changing the national security institutions, we would fail. We required public support for our ideas and buy-in for our recommended fundamental changes. If public opinion was strongly in favor of our role and recommendations, we had a good chance to get the president and Congress to pass them into law. As Abraham Lincoln said, with public opinion, anything is possible; without it, nothing can be done. Ultimately, our sweeping recommendations were passed and signed into landmark laws.

Crucial to our mission, we developed a carefully devised strategy in our initial meetings for carrying out our long-term plans. We developed a legislative strategy, a press plan, and a unique proposal for publishing the report. We had been advised by all sides and both parties that we must arrive at unanimous findings and unified recommendations. If we split along party lines or voted 7-3 on our final report, no one in Washington DC would take our considerations seriously. Both Republican Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Democratic Presidential Chief of Staff Leon Panetta were adamant about “unity” in talking to us. If we did not heed their advice, we would ultimately fail and turn out like countless other blue ribbon commissions whose findings and recommendations sit on a bureaucrats’ dusty shelf for decades. We needed a trusted and unified work environment where we would hash out ideas and proposals for 10-hour days in a top secret facility (a SCIF), and have heated arguments and other disagreements in private, but never allow those internal differences or deliberations to seep into our final set of writings or in our public events. And our report would be presented as a book, beginning with the chapter “We Have Some Planes.” It ended up on the New York Times best seller list.

Most importantly for our success, we had the dedicated and passionate support of the 9/11 families to advise us, inspire us, and at times, admonish us. Family members attended our hearings holding pictures of their lost loved ones while seated in the public venues. They wrote opeds, met with Members of Congress, and fiercely cajoled the Bush White House when it initially opposed creating the commission. In fact, they held a candlelight vigil outside the White House during the Christmas party. The 9/11 families were the moral suasion and patriotic power that pushed the 9/11 Commission forward. They helped pass the legislation to create the commission, assisted and counseled its direction and purpose, and worked tirelessly to pass its recommendations into permanent law to make our country safer. Outside third-party groups can help a commission succeed, or bring it down in flames.

Also critically important are the individual appointments to the commission made by the respective leadership of both political parties. In the 9/11 Commission legislation, I designated the president as the person to pick the chair, and the House and Senate leadership to select two members each. We were extremely fortunate to have commission members who worked previously across the aisle with people in the other party, had deep experience in relevant and complex subject matters, and sacrificed to make principled compromises to achieve consensus. The leadership performed their vital responsibility to carefully make appointments on merit, character, and putting country above party. One member appointed to these commissions without a commitment to these high ideals can blow up the entire process. It’s happened several times in the history of blue ribbon commissions.

The tragic domestic attack on our nation’s citadel of representative democracy once again requires that we take the extraordinary steps to create a national commission to address this seismic disaster. Still, nothing assures that this commission will attract the right members and create the conducive culture, will agree on a set of recommendations that actually function to address the relevant issues, or ensure that Democrats and Republicans will work together, especially when our country demands it. The above set of “best practices” lay out a roadmap for potential success, but that path is significantly challenged and largely less traveled today. The highest form of statesmanship that has successfully guided America through its most challenging days, combined with some of the divine Providence blessing its history, might be needed to overcome all of these formidable obstacles.

 

Photo: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld gives his opening remarks before the 9-11 Commission on March 23, 2004 (DoD photo by Staff Sgt Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force). 

About the Author(s)

Ambassador Tim Roemer

Tim Roemer (@Tim_Roemer), Executive Director at APCO Worldwide, is a former Member of Congress from Indiana, former US Ambassador to India, and was a member of the 9/11 Commission.