on Foreign Relations and Columbia University
for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs,
Hearings, February 7, 2002
On S. 1867, to Establish a National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
you for inviting me to testify.
My views come in part from many years of analyzing
national security affairs, and from some thought about the
role of past government commissions, but primarily from my
experience as a member of the National Commission on Terrorism
in 1999-2000. I
have four main points:
well constituted national commission would indeed perform an
important function in coming to grips with the disaster of
a commission would work best in addition to other efforts such
as congressional investigations, not as a substitute for them.
mandate and organization of the Commission in the proposed
bill make very good sense, with one exception.
exception is that there is a tension between the objectives in
Section 3 (c) (3), concerning the balanced representation of
eminent people with different types of professional
experience, and the procedures for appointment of members of
the Commission set out in Section 3 (a).
Benefits of a National Commission
It is painfully obvious that a lot went wrong before
September 11 in how the U.S. government coped with the
potential for catastrophic terrorist attacks.
The intelligence system did not get sufficient warning
of the plot; the border control and immigration systems did
not keep out or keep track of dangerous visitors; security
arrangements for air travel failed to intercept the hijackers
or keep them from gaining control of the planes; and more.
Because of the classification of information and,
perhaps, some plain confusion, we do not yet have a full and
integrated picture of exactly what went wrong.
There will be many rumors and half-truths leaking out
to explain why the warning process failed, how organizational
structures were unprepared, and so forth.
There is great need for an official post-mortem that
brings the full story out in a thorough, careful, balanced,
and non-partisan manner.
main benefit of a national commission to examine the tragedy
of the September 11 attacks would be political credibility.
A commission of the sort described in S. 1867 would be
ideally constituted to provide a detailed and sober
investigation that the public could have confidence is as
objective as humanly possible.
In the next few years there will inevitably be many
exercises attempting to explain the events and to lay blame
for failure to prevent them.
It is important to have one serious effort that has
high credibility in terms of two important criteria: access to
all relevant information, and disinterest in scoring political
commission with adequate authority and with members of the
sort envisioned in Section 3 (c) of the bill would be well
positioned to accomplish this purpose.
believe this in part because of my own experience as a member
of the National Commission on Terrorism established by
Congress three years ago. That commission’s report, issued fifteen months before
September 11, stands up very well in light of the recent
commission produced a solid, clear, hard-hitting report with
many correct judgments and useful concrete recommendations.
The one misfortune is that more of our recommendations
were not implemented sooner.
Those recommendations, nevertheless, provide a baseline
that remains useful in choosing priorities for further work as
the war against terrorism evolves.
National Commission on Terrorism operated in a thoroughly
bipartisan way. (I say that as one of the four members of the Commission
appointed by the Minority Democratic leadership of both houses
of congress. The
Commission’s Chairman, Jerry Bremer, and the other members
appointed by the Majority Republican leadership, did an
excellent job in keeping the process on an even keel
a group of highly capable and responsible people from
different backgrounds, we worked out our differences -- and
there were a couple of tense moments -- to produce united
we also managed to do this without watering things down to
some mushy lowest common denominator.
Although it was a commission created by a
Republican-controlled Congress, there was never a hint that
our effort involved grinding axes to embarrass the Democratic
administration in the executive branch.
Our effectiveness owed much to the fact that despite
having individual political views that ranged across the
spectrum, none of the ten members of the Commission was a
zealot. That in
turn reflected the care with which Speaker Gingrich and
Majority and Minority Leaders Lott, Gephardt, and Daschle
selected the appointees.
The Commission Should Complement Other
the commission envisioned in S. 1867 does as good a job, it
will be an important contribution.
It would be unrealistic and undesirable, however, to
see such a commission as the sole official solution to
grappling with what happened on September 11.
Neither presidential nor congressional commissions ever
completely settle the questions with which they are tasked. That is because questions important enough to provoke
creation of a prestigious commission are necessarily so
important that all centers of political power have to get
their own oars in on them.
That is as it should be in a democracy.
Moreover, other efforts, particularly congressional
investigations, can do things that a commission cannot do
effectively. On a
matter as crucial as September 11, some redundancy in
investigation is not only unavoidable, it is useful.
the investigations of the intelligence community in the mid
1970s. The process began with the Rockefeller Commission, which
issued its report in June 1975, and expanded to investigations
by select committees of the House and Senate which concluded a
bit less than a year later.
All of these were useful in different ways.
The congressional investigations were able to go into
certain matters in greater depth.
The Church and Pike committees, however, were seen by
some as politicized, and as attempting to use the
investigation to embarrass the Ford administration.
This impression was exaggerated (although I must admit
that I have a vested interest in believing so, having been a
staff member in the Senate investigation).
But it was not entirely wrong, and in any case it is a
political fact of life that congressional investigations will
provoke suspicions of this sort.
That is one of the natural costs of doing public
business in a democracy.
In the case of the controversial investigations of
1975-76, therefore, it was a good thing both analytically and
politically that the Rockefeller Commission’s report was
also in the mix.
highly controversial matters no national commission, no matter
how well it performs, will be considered by everyone to be the
last word. Even
the Warren Commission, which investigated President
Kennedy’s assassination, left many skeptics, and the
question was ultimately taken up again in a congressional
investigation years later. Nevertheless, the Warren Commission was absolutely
conspiracy theorists could never be satisfied, the general
public’s confidence in the government’s handling of the
assassination could never have been as great without that
the value of an investigation depends on subsequent executive
decisions and legislation designed to fix the problems
national commission cannot take a problem off the table; it
can only make recommendations.
For better or worse, the executive branch and Congress
are likely to insist on their own investigations and
good commission report, however, can clarify the agenda, shape
some of the follow-on investigations, speed up and inform the
parallel efforts within the government, and provide an
authoritative baseline for concerned citizens outside the
government to assess the progress of the overall effort.
government work goes, that is a very, very good return on the
few million dollars that the Commission would cost.
We sometimes hear complaints that government
commissions are a waste of money, and I realize that it would
not sound good to your constituents to suggest that a few
million dollars is peanuts.
I believe it is true, nevertheless, that on average we
get much less from most comparable government expenditures
than we would get from a good commission.
Composition of the Commission
S. 1867 as now proposed does not have any truly serious
deficiencies, in my view.
My one reservation is about the process for appointing
members of the Commission. I do not think it is necessarily a big problem, but it could
limit the coherence and quality of the Commission by some
Section 3 (c) of the bill as currently proposed sets
out an excellent summary of the qualifications desirable for
the commissioners to be selected.
It is especially important that there be balanced
representation not only of parties, but of experience and
professional backgrounds, and that all members be genuinely
accomplished leaders in their fields.
To have some assurance that the group as a whole that
is selected embodies such balance, there should be some
concentration of the appointing power in order to enable some
juggling of candidates for appointment in a manner that makes
it easier to get a good mix.
The current bill’s Section 3 (a), however, sets out a
process that disperses appointment authority widely.
That would seem to make it hard to carefully craft a
group as a whole. The
President would be able to design some balance with his four
allotted appointees, but the other ten appointments are
parceled out to ten different committee chairs -- and twenty
people in all, if the consultation with ranking members is to
be genuine. To
get a good distribution of people from the military,
diplomacy, business, law enforcement, and so forth it seems
that the ten or twenty chairpersons and ranking members (or
their staffs) would have to caucus and do some horse trading.
Otherwise, it appears that we could get a random
all due respect, I would also speculate that having ten
different centers of congressional power involved in the
picking raises the odds of getting at least a couple of
commission appointees whose main qualifications are that they
are cronies of the chairperson who chooses them, or who have
personal agendas or axes to grind.
Falling back again on my experience with the National
Commission on Terrorism two years ago, I would suggest
considering some greater centralization of Congress’es share
of the appointments.
One way to do this would be to give the final
appointment authority to the majority and minority leaders of
both houses. The
committee chairpersons and ranking members could certainly
make their preferences known, and the leadership would be free
to select many of them. (In
this case too, the pairs of chairpersons and ranking members
could also have the flexibility to nominate several people
each, rather than just one.)
I apologize if these remarks sound presumptuous, in
suggesting how Congress should use its own prerogatives.
This issue, however, seemed to be the only potential
problem I could detect in the planned formation of the
A Minor Point: Mandate of the Commission
Section 2 of the version of S. 1867 provided to me
states that the purposes of the Commission include examining
“the facts and causes relating to the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001” and making “a full and
complete account of the circumstances relating to the
terrorist attacks.” My
reservation about this is only a nit-pick, and was not worth
including in my summary of points at the beginning.
Nevertheless, both the advantage and
disadvantage of the language in Section 2 is that it could be
read to leave the purview of the Commission wide-open.
It would be good for the Commission to have a hunting
license that allows it to go wherever necessary.
It will also be necessary, however, for the Commission
to focus its attention on the most critical aspects of the
disaster: understanding the intelligence failure and whatever
elements of structure and process within the government or
outside organizations stood in the way of preventing the
4 of the bill does more to suggest that focus.
Perhaps there is little danger that the commission
would dilute its efforts by dipping into every possible issue
that might be covered by the language in Section 2.
Not knowing who will serve on the Commission, however,
it is conceivable that some might argue for investigating
“root causes” of terrorism that U.S. policy did not
adequately address. (There
will certainly be some groups in the public who argue that it
is necessary to do so.) That would be a mistake, because as important as root causes
may be, they are a bottomless pit of controversial ideas about
political, social, religious, psychological, and economic
causes of hatred and blame.
This question cannot be dealt with very well by this
sort of commission, and any possibility that an effort to do
so might be made should be quashed.
Perhaps I worry about leaving too broad a mandate
because I recall our initial deliberations in the National
Commission on Terrorism, when one member argued strongly that
we could not avoid dealing with domestic as well as
international terrorism because there were so many linked
aspects of the problem. That
judgment was in large part correct intellectually, but would
have spread our effort thin.
We decided against broadening the scope of our inquiry,
and that kept the results coherent and focused.
is not a significant problem.
But if there is any risk of the Commission getting
bogged down in deciding how it should focus its effort, it
might not hurt to add a bit of language to Section 2 similar
to that in Section 4, specifying organization and procedures
within the U.S. government, and in other organizations such as
those in the air travel industry, as the focus of concern.
A national commission, however well it does its job,
will not bring us to closure in understanding how we should
best move to prevent another September 11 catastrophe.
That should not be the test of such a commission.
September 11 was a watershed in national security
policy, and figuring out and adjusting to the lessons will be
a long process. The
right sort of commission can be a good start.
It can clear away underbrush, answer some questions
even if not all, lay down a valuable set of markers to channel
other efforts, and discredit fast and loose attempts at easy
will leave much to be done, but it will have done a lot.