Jewish World Review April 20, 2004 /30 Nissan 5764
Keep It Quiet: The 9/11 commission could learn more if it talked less
The next blue-ribbon investigative commission that Washington needs, no doubt,
is a commission to investigate the mistakes made by the commission investigating
the mistakes leading to the attacks of September 11. When the
9/11-investigation investigation convenes, it might consider these
recommendations for the next high-power post-mortem:
1) No public hearings. All interviews should be conducted in private, with
transcripts made but sealed for some period to be decided by the commission,
and for a year or two at least.
2) Informants' confidentiality should be protected. Sources can be listed, but
who said what should be off-limits until documents are unsealed.
3) No sworn testimony.
4) Only the commission chair and vice chair should speak to the media, and then
only on matters of process. Other commission members should take a vow of
silence during the investigation.
5) The report should require the approval of three-fourths of the commission
members, with no minority opinions to be issued.
The first thing you may notice about these rules is that the National Commission
on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the 9/11 commission is formally
called, has not followed them. Instead, the commission has been very public and
very talkative, in keeping with the demands of 9/11 family members and other
groups that regard themselves as the commission's constituency. In February,
for instance, the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent
Commission insisted on "public hearings on all topics," because public hearings
"educate and inform the American public"; called for subpoenas to gain access
to presidential intelligence briefs; and demanded that "all high-ranking officials
with information relevant to 9/11 should be required to testify and should do so
under oath, whether testifying in public or in private."
In other words, the 9/11 commission should look like the congressional
Watergate hearings, or the hearings on President Clinton's impeachment. That
type of hearing has become the modern Washington model for high-profile
investigations. Commission members love it, because it puts them in the limelight.
But it is the wrong model for 9/11.
Unlike the Watergate and Clinton investigations, the 9/11 commission's most
important job is not to fix blame for past wrongdoing but to identify and correct
continuing problems. If the commission does not make another 9/11 less likely,
it is not worth having. Probing a sitting administration for flaws in its policies
requires a certain amount of delicacy. Which has not been the commission's
On April 4, the two leaders of the commission took to NBC's Meet the Press
to declare that the September 11 attacks could probably have been prevented.
As Arte Johnson used to say, "Very interesting...but stupid." Question: Why
were these guys sharing their personal, and very debatable, opinions on the
subject of their investigation, weeks before their commission was ready to
report? Were they appointed to investigate or to pontificate?
The commission clearly needed to hear from Condoleezza Rice, the national
security adviser. But why become embroiled in a weeks-long spitting contest
with the White House over demands that she testify in public and under oath?
Rice had already testified for four hours in private and was willing to testify
privately some more.
Commission members said, according to The Washington Post, they were
"anxious to get her public testimony regarding discrepancies between White
House statements" and assertions made by Richard Clarke, the former White
House counter-terrorism director. Nailing officials on discrepancies sounds
more like Kenneth Starr's line of work than the 9/11 commission's. If the
commission wanted Rice's candid analysis, rather than a scripted speech,
deposing her on national TV was not the way to get it.
When she finally did testify, her remarks predictably yielded no substantive
revelations just defensive posturing and grist for the next hunt for
discrepancies, this time between conflicting descriptions of an intelligence memo
of August 6, 2001. As the White House scrambled to declassify that memo, it
also got busy launching what The New York Times called "an unusual
pre-emptive strike" not against Al Qaeda or the Iraqi insurgency but against
Democrats on the 9/11 commission.
The time and attention of Washington's top policy makers is Washington's most
precious commodity. According to news reports, Rice and her staff spent hours
preparing her public testimony: briefing her, assembling timelines, "war-gaming"
likely questions. Each of those hours was an hour not spent on national security.
Meanwhile, an armed uprising the most dangerous yet was erupting across
Maybe Rice's diverted hours didn't matter. Sometimes, though, when policy
makers take their eye off the ball, bad guys kick it. In 1998, Saddam Hussein
took advantage of President Clinton's impeachment distraction to throw
weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and that same distraction may have impeded an
effective U.S. response. If not for Kenneth Starr who knows? America
might not today be in Iraq.
That is pure conjecture, of course. Take it or leave it. What is not conjectural,
however, is that distractions in time of crisis do not help. And Washington could
not have chosen a worse moment than now for a paroxysm of finger-pointing.
"Our focus has been on 9/11 who did what and who didn't," Senate Foreign
Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told ABC's This Week.
"But it ought to be on June 30," the date when sovereignty is supposed to be
transferred in Iraq.
Economists speak of transaction costs. Washington needs to master the concept
of investigation costs. A government saddled with a high-profile probe is a
government less focused on other tasks, and wartime is the worst time for
distractions. That was why the Pearl Harbor investigation went to work after,
not during, World War II.
The war on terror is not going to end anytime soon, and the country cannot wait
to learn how to reduce its vulnerability. So it makes sense to investigate 9/11,
and to investigate before the trail gets cold. But do it right. Much of the descent
into recriminations and damage control was avoidable. A shrewder 9/11
commission would have turned its back on demands for public hearings,
swearings-in, and the rest of the Watergate-style apparatus. Instead, it would
- Discretion. Partisanship is inevitable in Washington. Instead of complaining
about it, the commission should have planned for it and taken care to avoid
making public comments that might fan the flames. The partisan snipers are out
there, but it does no good to give them ammunition. And any administration,
Republican or Democratic, will treat as a threat a commission whose members
are holding forth as Sunday-morning pundits and competing for quotes in The
New York Times.
- Confidentiality. This is especially important if the commission hopes to solve
problems rather than point fingers. Backward-looking, punitive investigations
use high-wattage publicity and legal jackhammers to penetrate stone walls and
cover-ups. But a forward-looking, problem-solving investigation needs to foster
a climate in which officials can be self-critical without undue fear of being
prosecuted or keelhauled. Putting witnesses under oath induces them to weigh
every word with lawyerly care rather than freely volunteer information. And
public testimony sends everybody into blame-deflecting and
political-maneuvering mode. Confidential, unsworn testimony may not explore
every discrepancy or mine every document, but it elicits more self-criticism and
- Nonpartisanship. Just because Washington is a partisan place, that doesn't
mean every investigation needs to be. Merely ratcheting down the inquiry's
profile and zipping partisan mouths on the commission can help. Requiring a
single, bipartisan report can help even more, by giving commission members an
incentive to seek common ground. The commission's report will and should be
injected into partisan debate and if the report is a bombshell, so much the
better but having five Democrats and five Republicans publicly grill witnesses
irresistibly invites partisan posturing. You may say it is naive to hope for a quiet
investigation of so contentious a topic. You would be right. But a smart and
responsible inquiry can minimize, rather than aggravate, conflict and collateral
damage. Even in today's Washington, quiet, forward-looking, nonpartisan,
nonprosecutorial investigations go on all the time, producing invaluable
knowledge at modest cost, and often on controversial subjects. The 9/11
commission, or whatever mega-investigation comes next, should go take lessons
at 441 G St. NW. There they'll find the General Accounting Office.
JWR contributor Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, The Atlantic Monthly, from where this is reprinted