Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commissionby Thomas H. Kean, Lee H. Hamilton
The untold story of how the 9/11 Commission overcame partisanship and bureaucracy to produce its acclaimed report.
From the beginning, the 9/11 Commission found itself facing obstacles — the Bush administration blocked its existence for months, the first co-chairs resigned right away, the budget was limited, and a polarized Washington was suspicious of… See more details below
The untold story of how the 9/11 Commission overcame partisanship and bureaucracy to produce its acclaimed report.
From the beginning, the 9/11 Commission found itself facing obstacles — the Bush administration blocked its existence for months, the first co-chairs resigned right away, the budget was limited, and a polarized Washington was suspicious of its every request. Yet despite these long odds, the Commission produced a bestselling report unanimously hailed for its objectivity, along with a set of recommendations that led to the most significant reform of America’s national security agencies in decades. This is a riveting insider’s account of Washington at its worst — and its best.
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SET UP TO FAIL
[E]xamine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurring at the World Trade Center in New York, New York, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Virginia.
— From Public Law 107-306, signed by President George W. Bush, November 27, 2002
We were set up to fail. The thought occurred to both of us as we prepared to meet for the first time on a cold day just before the Christmas season of 2002. The full 9/11 Commission would not meet for another month; this meeting would be just the two of us.
A thicket of political controversy lay ahead. The legislation creating the commission had been signed into law by President George W. Bush, after extended wrangling between Congress and the White House through the heated and often bitter midterm elections of 2002. We were scheduled to issue our final report in May 2004, just as the presidential election would be approaching full boil.
We had an exceedingly broad mandate. The legislation creating the commission instructed us to examine
(i) intelligence agencies; (ii) law enforcement agencies; (iii) diplomacy; (iv) immigration, nonimmigrant visas, and border control; (v) the flow of assets to terrorist organizations; (vi) commercial aviation; (vii) the role of congressional oversight and resources allocation; and (viii) other areas of the public and private sectors determined relevant by the Commission for its inquiry.
In other words, our inquiry would stretch across the entire U.S. government, and even into the private sector, in an attempt to understand an event that was unprecedented in the destruction it had wrought on the American homeland, and appalling even within the catalogue of human brutality.
The breadth of the mandate was exceeded by the emotional weight of 9/11: a singularly shocking, painful, and transformative event in American history that was, in many ways, ongoing. We stepped into moving streams: a congressional inquiry into the attacks was winding down; family members of victims were demanding answers to tough questions; the wounds of regions such as the New York and Washington areas were still fresh; and the nation was fighting a war against terrorism around the world, preparing to go to war in Iraq, and receiving periodic terror alerts at home.
In front of us, we knew, were provocative questions: Was 9/11 preventable? Who was the enemy who had perpetrated this attack? Why did they hate us? What had our government done to fight terrorism before 9/11? How did one assign accountability for 9/11? Were we safer than we were on September 11, 2001? What could we do to make the American people safer and more secure?
To answer those questions, we would have to review the most sensitive information in the United States government, talk to top officials in two administrations—one Republican, one Democratic—and conduct an exhaustive review of the facts. We would have to revisit painful events. And when we met for the first time, we were approaching this task with no infrastructure: no offices, no staff, no government security clearances that would allow us to view the necessary information, and a dramatically insufficient budget of $3 million.
Both of us were aware of grumbling around Washington that the 9/11 Commission was doomed—if not designed—to fail: the commission would splinter down partisan lines; lose its credibility by leaking classified information; be denied the necessary access to do its job; or alienate the 9/11 families who had fought on behalf of its creation. Indeed, the scenarios for failure far outnumbered the chances of success. What we could not have anticipated were the remarkable people and circumstances that would coalesce within and around the 9/11 Commission over the coming twenty months to enable our success.
But on December 18, 2002, we were starting without any blueprint for how to go forward. The clock had started ticking almost a month earlier, when President Bush signed the bill creating a 9/11 Commission. So we were, in fact, already running behind.
The story of how the 9/11 commission was created and began its work is one of false starts.
The idea of forming an independent commission to look into the 9/11 attacks was first voiced in the Senate by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) in October of 2001. Strong support emerged in the House, led by Representative Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who was joined by Representatives Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But it would be more than a year before legislation creating the commission was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush.
Part of the reason for this lapse in time was the work of a congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that was conducted jointly by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and led by Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Congressman Porter Goss (R-Fla.). From February to December 2002—and particularly in public hearings in September and October—the Joint Inquiry of the Intelligence Committees shed light on some of the intelligence lapses that had preceded 9/11. Americans learned about how the FBI and CIA were hampered by an inability and a reluctance to share information; how two 9/11 hijackers known to the CIA had lived openly under their own names for a period of months in Southern California; how a memo originating from the FBI’s Phoenix field office had suggested that the issue of Arab men receiving training at flight schools needed to be looked into; and how Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota weeks before September 11 and described as a terrorist suspect with an interest in flight training.
The Joint Inquiry did excellent work, but it was clear that the 9/11 story went well beyond the performance of the intelligence agencies under the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Committees. How do you tell the story of 9/11 without assessing the borders that the hijackers penetrated, the aviation security that they foiled, the military and diplomatic policies that the United States used to pursue Usama Bin Ladin and al Qaeda in the months and years preceding September 11, 2001, or the emergency response in New York and northern Virginia on that horrible day? Revelations of disturbing problems in our intelligence agencies also suggested the need for further investigation. The clock was set to run out on the Joint Inquiry at the end of 2002, and the inquiry was uncovering more leads than it had the time to track down. If there were such systemic problems, then there clearly needed to be further inquiry into what went wrong and how to protect the American people better.
These two shortcomings—the need for a more comprehensive telling of the 9/11 story, and the need to contemplate further how to keep the American people safer—were complemented by other thorny issues. One was access. Because the Joint Inquiry was a congressional committee, the White House cited the constitutional separation of powers, and refused to turn over a slew of documents sought by the Intelligence Committees—for instance, records from the National Security Council, which coordinates counterterrorism policy for the government, and the president’s daily intelligence briefings. For similar reasons, key White House officials such as then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice did not testify before the Joint Inquiry.
Another problem was partisanship. If an inquiry were to be broadened from examining the performance of intelligence agencies to include an examination of the wider policy choices of the Bush and Clinton administrations, then it would be far more difficult for Republican and Democratic members of Congress to work in a nonpartisan manner as the 2004 elections loomed.
All of these factors pointed toward the need for an independent, bipartisan commission with complete access to government documents and officials. Senator Lieberman introduced legislation on this in the spring of 2002, while the Joint Inquiry was still at work, and there was extended debate through the summer about the need for an independent commission. The chief obstacle was the White House, which argued that the congressional inquiry was continuing, and that an independent investigation would distract the government from waging the ongoing war on terrorism. At several points, it appeared that the proposal to create a 9/11 Commission was dead.
This is when the 9/11 families made their voices heard. In the aftermath of the attacks, many of the families who had lost loved ones found themselves alone in their grief, and at the same time presented with baffling and heartbreaking responsibilities. Imagine having to fill out detailed forms for 9/11 charity funds only weeks after you have lost a husband or wife; or attending meetings for one of the many memorials being built in the middle of Pennsylvania, northern Virginia, and New York, and in the smaller communities so hard hit in the greater New York area. In confronting these new and unique responsibilities, many families formed strong bonds. Some founded support groups, which connected them with other survivors or with family members of victims, and served as clearinghouses for information.
Take the experience of just one family member, Mary Fetchet. Mary is a social worker from New Canaan, Connecticut, who lost her twenty-four-year-old son, Brad, in World Trade Center 2. Through the initial excruciating days of checking hospitals for Brad, Mary and her husband started opening their house to other families, sometimes hosting hundreds of people. Mary then received a 600-page booklet from her congressman, Chris Shays, about how to navigate the various scholarship funds and other compensation vehicles that were being put together for survivors and the families of victims. Congressman Shays and other members of Congress from the region helped the families through the process of understanding these issues—including the heartbreaking task of recounting on dry, impersonal forms the details about a deceased loved one, ranging from how much money that person earned to his or her day-to-day expenses.
Soon Mary found herself traveling to New York with a handful of other families for a meeting at Senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) office, at which they discussed the calculation of “economic and non-economic damages.” Attending this meeting qualified Mary as an expert, and before she knew it she found herself behind a microphone explaining economic and noneconomic damages to an auditorium full of 9/11 families and reporters, even though she had avoided public speaking for much of her life. Her attendance at these meetings landed her on a Family Advisory Board, whose job was to sort through issues for a 9/11 memorial.
Like many other family members, Mary was moving from one issue to the next, all the while dealing with the grief of losing a loved one and the horror of waiting for his remains to be found in the rubble of New York City’s Ground Zero. Some of these families began to ask questions: What was the government doing to protect my loved one before 9/11? Why weren’t there better evacuation procedures at the World Trade Center? What happened on those four flights? Why wasn’t the memo from the FBI’s field office about Arab men training in flight schools acted upon?
Soon these families turned their grief—and the connections they had made with one another and their members of Congress—into advocacy. Learning about the proposal for an independent 9/11 Commission, they used their unique standing to push for a commission that could provide answers to some of their questions and issue recommendations to help ensure that others would not perish in future terrorist attacks. In June 2002, the families held a large rally in Washington, D.C.—where their interest in a commission converged with the efforts of certain members of Congress. Immediately, the issue of the 9/11 Commission gained prominence.
The families refused to take no for an answer. Some would come down to Washington to be told that Congress and the White House were trying to work something out on creating a 9/11 Commission, and to please be patient. Then, when these family members returned home, they would be notified that some remains of their loved ones had just been found—perhaps only a body part. This injected more than a little urgency into the process. And there were thousands of stories like this, many of which all ten commissioners would hear in the months ahead.
Over the summer of 2002, 9/11 families met with members of Congress and White House officials. Senators Lieberman and McCain, and Congressmen Roemer, Shays, and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) worked hard on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the American people showed a powerful interest in the information about the 9/11 attacks coming out in the Joint Inquiry and in press reports. In September, the White House ended its opposition and announced that it would back the creation of a commission—with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer directly crediting the 9/11 families by saying, “The administration has met with some of the families of the 9/11 groups, who have talked about the need for a commission to look into a host of issues, and they have made compelling arguments.”
There was much to be done, though. Over the next two months, detailed negotiations were undertaken about how to set up a ten-member commission. The main questions were about whether the president—or the congressional leadership—would appoint the chairman; what the breadth of the commission’s mandate would be; how long the commission would have to complete its investigation; what the commission would be permitted to see; and what kind of subpoena power the commission would have. These may seem like highly technical issues, but each ended up having an enormous impact on how we did our work.
The issue of subpoena power was hugely important. Having the power to issue a subpoena would give the commission greater leverage in negotiations for access to people and sensitive government documents, and could—if need be—compel access to something when it was denied or slow in coming. The question was whether it would take five or six votes to issue a subpoena. On a commission with five Republicans and five Democrats, this slight mathematical difference was crucial. Ultimately, the commission did get subpoena power, and it was determined that the issuing of a subpoena would require either the concurrence of both the chair and vice-chair, or at least six votes in favor—meaning that bipartisan agreement would be needed. The question of whether or not to subpoena documents, particularly from the White House, became one of the most vigorously debated issues within the commission, almost causing us to split apart at certain junctures.
Another issue that would affect our work was the time allotted for the commission’s investigation. Republicans wanted the inquiry to last one year—placing the reporting date sometime in late 2003; Democrats wanted the inquiry to last two years—placing the reporting date shortly after the 2004 presidential election. The two sides decided to split the difference, allowing eighteen months for the inquiry—a period of time that proved insufficient.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Thomas H. Kean is a former governor of New Jersey (1982-1990) and from 1990 until last year the president of Drew University. He has served on numerous national committees and commissions and has worked tirelessly for over a quarter-century on behalf of a wide array of environmental and educational organizations. He lives in Bedminister, New Jersey. Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. From 1965 through 1999 he was a congressman representing Indiana's Ninth District. During his tenure, he was chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs as well as the chair of the Joint Economic Committee and served on the Hart-Rudman Commission, whose 2001 report on national security first raised and examined the prospect of acts of terrorism against the U.S. prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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