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Commission Report Weathers Test of Time

9/11 Report Serves as Foundation and Context for Government, Public Response to Attacks

This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day’s events changed — and didn’t change — life in Washington.

The 9/11 Commission Report was that rarest of documents produced by a government body: People actually read it.

And, as the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, observes in a new afterword to the recently published edition marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11, “It mattered, above all, that we were most interested in understanding what happened and why.”

It is that search for answers that stands at the heart of the success of the report, both in a stylistic and a popular sense.

The policymakers, journalists and others with a professional need to understand the events of Sept. 11, 2001, could be expected to devour the report. The ordinary people who bought and read the 9/11 Commission Report had no such need, but they still wanted answers.

For the most part, the report served that purpose.

It offered no final answers to the ultimate philosophical questions that dog us to this day: How does evil of that nature take root and grow in the minds of men? Why do the innocent die?

But that was never its intent. Rather, as Zelikow explains in his 50-page afterword, it was the vision of Chairman Thomas Kean to provide “a reasonably sound understanding of what had happened, a historical foundation that others could then build on for many years to come.”

That building has continued unabated for almost a decade, spawning a mini-industry of spin-off examinations of the attacks and the report. I think it is fair to say the 9/11 Commission Report is the most studied such document since the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and is the most influential, from a public policy perspective, since the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, in 1968.

The 9/11 Commission Report has informed a decade’s worth of policy choices, from changes in intelligence gathering and information sharing to development of new systems of risk management to revised strategies and tactics for war fighting.

It even inspired a graphic adaptation that tells the story of the report in comic book form, published in 2006 with a foreword by Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton.

Like any work of its kind, the report has had its critics, legitimate and otherwise.

Writing in the New York Times, Judge Richard Posner called the report “uncommonly lucid, even riveting” but said “the commission’s analysis and recommendations are unimpressive” and questioned whether the report should have included any recommendations at all.

“Combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals for preventing future attacks is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy. The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it. The commission’s contention that our intelligence structure is unsound predisposed it to blame the structure for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, whether it did or not,” Posner wrote in 2004.

In “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation,” Times reporter Philip Shenon criticized Zelikow for supposedly being too close to the George W. Bush administration.

Kean and Hamilton spent considerable space in their own book on the investigation, “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission,” detailing the difficulties they encountered trying to get information from the administration and time and money from Congress and how those problems shortchanged the probe.

And there apparently is no silencing those, mostly on the political left, who continue to insist that the attacks were an “inside job” conducted with the foreknowledge of the Bush administration, probably in cahoots with the Israelis and possibly with an assist from a few extraterrestrials. No report, however definitive, would be capable of swaying minds such as these.

But on the whole, the 9/11 Commission Report has withstood the critics and the test of time. It helped establish the historical narrative of the attacks and, for good and ill, has driven our response to them.

In an interview with Roll Call, Kean noted three key areas where the legislative response to the attacks has come up short.

Interoperable communications for first responders remains an unsolved problem. “Ten years after Sept. 11 — if we had another event, people in the air would have problems talking to the people on the ground, and lives would be lost,” he said. “That’s embarrassing.”

The Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended by the commission was created, but Kean considers it a cypher.

“We think there should be a lot of activism, but there isn’t,” he said. “We’d think that with a presumably liberal administration that would be a priority.”

And the lack of consolidation of Congressional jurisdiction over homeland security continues to be a problem, with dozens of committees and subcommittees claiming oversight responsibility.

“As far as Congressional reform, that can only be done with the joint leadership, but it just hasn’t been on their agenda,” Kean said.

But the fact that some of the report’s recommendations have been left unfulfilled doesn’t diminish its authority.

There are certain satisfactions in reading the report, to see that we have indeed learned from our mistakes in some cases. But it would be incorrect to say that the report is a satisfying read. On the contrary, it is often infuriating.

To reread it today is to revive that sense of outrage at those who launched the attacks in the first place, as well as the sense of disappointment — in our government and in ourselves — that we failed to “connect the dots” to ensure its prevention.

Janie Lorber contributed to this report.

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