Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
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National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States

The creation of an independent commission to inquire into all aspects of the 9/11 attacks was prompted because of the stark limitations of earlier congressional inquiries. Congress's Joint Inquiry on Intelligence had outlined serious deficiencies in governmental intelligence-gathering and interagency cooperation, but the White House had refused to turn over documents to the investigators, citing constitutional separation of powers. Senator John McCain described the process as "slow-walked and stonewalled." A more in-depth inquiry into the policy miscalculations of the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations engendered partisanship and found Republicans and Democrats attacking the other party's administration. The best way to mitigate such issues was to create an independent, bipartisan commission having unlimited access to all documents and officials.

However, conflicting interests caused delays in forming such a commission. The Bush administration was reluctant to support such a commission, fearing that it would concentrate chiefly on mistakes made during the Bush administration. Democrats feared a witch hunt for errors made during the Clinton administration. Intense pressure from the families of those killed during the attacks finally forced the creation of the commission. The survivors of the dead made it plain to all involved that they wanted an immediate investigation of the events surrounding September 11, but it was not until 14 months after the attacks that the 9/11 Commission was announced. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 Commission, received a mandate from the president of the United States and the U.S. Congress to investigate the facts and circumstances of the attacks on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001. Legislative authority for this commission was given by Public Law 107-306, signed by President Bush on November 27, 2002. The five Republicans and five Democrats selected for this commission were a matter of some controversy. President Bush selected Henry Kissinger, once Richard Nixon's secretary of state, to chair the committee, and Senator Tom Daschle appointed George Mitchell, former Senate majority leader and chief negotiator of the Northern Ireland Peace Accords, as vice chair.

These appointees soon encountered political difficulties. The families of the victims confronted Kissinger about his consulting firm's clients, some of whom were suspected to be Saudis and even, possibly, the bin Laden family. Responding to pressure, the Senate Ethics Committee ruled that the members of the commission had to abide by congressional rules on the disclosure of possible conflicts of interest, which meant that Kissinger had to disclose his entire client list. He was unwilling to do so and resigned from the commission. Mitchell encountered the same problem with the client list of his law firm, so he, too, resigned from the commission. President Bush then turned to the well-respected former governor of New Jersey Thomas H. Kean and Senator Tom Daschle to former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton. Neither Kean nor Hamilton had prior dealings with each other, but they soon began to work well together.

The final members of the commission were Thomas H. Kean (chair), Lee H. Hamilton (vice chair), Richard Ben-Veniste, Fred F. Fielding, Slade Gorton, Max Cleland, John F. Lehman, Timothy J. Roemer, and James R. Thompson. Midway through the commission's deliberations, Cleland left the commission for a government job and was replaced by Bob Kerrey. In the interests of bipartisanship, Kean made Hamilton cochair.

The families of the victims maintained the momentum behind the creation of the 9/11 Commission, championing its subpoena powers by lobbying members of Congress and even the White House. These representatives formed the 12-member Family Steering Committee (FSC). Members of the FSC came mainly from four organizations: Families of September 11, Voices of September 11th, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, and September 11th Advocates. Soon after the creation of the 9/11 Commission, representatives from the FSC met with Kean and Hamilton to express their desire for the commission to move swiftly and aggressively. They presented to Kean and Hamilton a document titled September 11 Inquiry: Questions to Be Answered, which consisted of 57 questions about 9/11 that reflected their greatest desire: accountability.

Almost immediately the 9/11 Commission began to work with Philip Zelikow, who had a reputation as a presidential historian and who was the director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Zelikow's Republican connections included work on the National Security Council of President George H. W. Bush and on the transition team of the National Security Council of President George W. Bush. His coauthorship of a book with Condoleezza Rice on German unification, as well as his relationship with Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, made Democratic commissioners leery of him. Members of the FSC were also unhappy with his selection and petitioned to have him removed. Both Kean and Hamilton, however, had confidence in his integrity, and he stayed. Zelikow became the mainstay of the 9/11 investigation, supervising the 80-person staff and playing a major decision-making role.

Much criticism was also directed at the composition of the 9/11 Commission staff, at least half of which was drawn from the agencies the commission was tasked to investigate. This raised worries that evidence would be looked at in lights that would exonerate the agencies and people implicated. Some critics have maintained that the evidence was cherry-picked to produce a portrayal that sat well with investigators. Again members of the FSC complained, but to no avail. Even Kean and Hamilton expected the 9/11 Commission to fail in its mission, realizing that the odds of its success were low because the political stakes were so high. Republican and Democratic members lined up together to find fault as part of a commission expected to operate on a rigid, unrealistic timeline with inadequate funds.

Although the 9/11 Commission had broad subpoena powers, it used these judiciously and only against those unwilling or unable to produce necessary documents. The most notorious offenders were the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), both of which were so reluctant to produce documents regarding the events of September 11 that the commission was forced to subpoena documents from them. Both agencies complied with the subpoenas—which also acted as a warning to the White House to produce its own documents when required.

In its analysis of the failures to detect the September 11 conspiracy, the 9/11 Commission listed four contributing factors: (1) a "failure of imagination" to even conceive of the possibility of such an operation, (2) a "failure of capabilities" that allowed Al Qaeda to operate in the United States despite agencies designed to prevent just such activity, (3) a "failure of management" by national security leaders whose agencies neither shared information nor collaborated in their activities, and (4) a "failure of policy" by both the Clinton and Bush administrations to prioritize counterterrorism.

The 9/11 Commission not only criticized the failures leading to September 11 but also made a series of recommendations. Among these recommendations were a National Counterterrorism Center, a national intelligence director, the reform of congressional oversight of national security, reform within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), more transparent levels of information sharing between government agencies, and smoother transitions between presidential administrations. It did recognize, however, that not all of its recommendations would find approval both in the White House and in Congress.

In the course of the commission's investigations, members of the commission and its staff reviewed 2.5 million documents and interviewed more than 1,200 individuals in 10 countries. Nineteen days of public hearings and the testimony of 160 witnesses informed its investigation, but from the beginning, the commission was under pressure to achieve its objectives in a short time. Its request for an extension was greeted with little enthusiasm because the report would be produced too near to the 2004 presidential election. An extension of two months was granted, but still too little time remained to answer all the questions posed.

Despite its attempts at thoroughness, the 9/11 Commission has been subjected to severe criticism both from the inside and the outside. One of the criticisms has to do with the Able Danger controversy. Then-congressman Curt Weldon charged that the commission ignored Able Danger and its alleged identification of Mohamed Atta before September 11, but Kean and Hamilton have replied that Able Danger was brought to the commission's attention late in its deliberations. Both the commissioners and the staff concluded that none of the Able Danger materials indicated any knowledge of Atta—despite the meeting of the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, with Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in late 2003, at which time Shaffer informed Zelikow of the findings of Able Danger.

Stephen E. Atkins

Further Reading
Kean, Thomas H., Lee H. Hamilton, and Benjamin Rhodes. Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. New York: Knopf, 2006; May, Ernest R., ed. The 9/11 Report with Related Documents. Boston: Bedford, 2007; Strasser, Steven ed. The 9/11 Investigations: Staff Reports of the 9/11 Commission; Excerpts from the House-Senate Joint Inquiry Report on 9/11; Testimony from 14 Key Witnesses, including Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.

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