Pinning the Blame

Lee Hamilton
Lee Hamilton; drawing by David Levine


Since 1794, when George Washington formed a commission to advise him on the Whiskey Rebellion, presidents have appointed commissions to investigate, obfuscate, recommend action, or delay it—or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. The reports of some of them, such as the Warren Commission, remain open to skepticism to this day; others have been totally ignored. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, has shared some of the traditional characteristics of commissions. Appointed by the President and Congress, most of its members had been prominent legislators or government officials. But in several ways the 9/11 Commission was strikingly different from any of its predecessors. The most important difference was that it had a specific and vigilant constituency, made up of the people who had lostfamily members on September 11, 2001, who had forced the creation of the commission through a reluctant Congress, and who overcame the opposition of President Bush.

Moreover, the commission decided at the outset that in order to gain the public’s trust it would be as “transparent” as possible. It not only held public hearings but, something very rare, its members commented publicly on its work while they were still deliberating. Even more unusual, the eighty members of the committee staff, including experienced prosecutors and former intelligence officials, issued interim staff reports on various aspects of the events surrounding the September 11 attacks. These seventeen reports provided factual material for the commission’s open hearings and for the final report itself, and helped the commission bring to light new evidence—from the government, the families, and others. The reports were read to the commissioners in a dry monotone; the lack of public drama made them all the more effective, especially since they were clearly written and contained a great deal of new information, some of it astonishing. Along with television appearances by the commission members, they stimulated public interest in the commission’s work. The commissioners believe that the staff reports and their own public comments put pressure on the Bush administration and helped them to obtain sensitive government documents that would otherwise have been withheld.

The administration fought the commission at nearly every turn—at first denying it sufficient funds, then opposing an extension of time, refusing it documents, trying to prevent Condoleezza Rice from testifying in public. The White House, in a preemptive move, told the commission that Bush would not testify under oath, and insisted that he appear along with Vice President Cheney. The main partisan division within the commission, I was told, was over how hard to press the White House for information that it was holding back. In its effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the commission decided not to assign “individual blame” and avoided overt criticism of the President himself. Still, the report is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration for its behavior…

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