On November 27, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law H.R. 4628, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003. This legislation created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. This commission was in charge of investigating the causes and circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia, as well as the failed attack that destroyed a passenger jet in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The commission was also charged with providing recommendations to prevent and prepare for future attacks. The final report of the 9/11 Commission was published on July 22, 2004. This report has not been exempted from controversy and criticisms from media, political figures, and even members of the commission.
The 9/11 Commission
H.R. 4628 established that the 9/11 Commission should be composed by a chairman, appointed by the president, and a vice chairman, appointed by the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate (whether majority or minority), in consultation with the leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives (whether majority or minority). The additional eight members of the commission were appointed by the senior Democratic and Republican Senate leaders (two each), and four members were appointed by the senior Democratic and Republican House leaders (two each). H.R. 4628 explicitly stated that not more than five members of the commission were to be from the same political party.
President Bush first appointed former secretary of state Henry Kissinger as the chairman of the 9/11 Commission. However, due to potential conflicts of interest regarding his relationships with several public figures and organizations, Kissinger resigned on December 12, 2002. On December 15, 2002, President Bush named former Georgia Republican governor Thomas Kean as the chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The remaining members of the commission were former representative Lee H. Hamilton, Democrat from Indiana, vice chairman; Richard BenVeniste, Democrat and former member of the Watergate prosecutorial task force; Fred F. Fielding, Republican and former White House counsel; Jamie S. Gorelick, Democrat and former deputy attorney general for the Clinton administration; Slade Gorton, Republican and former senator from Washington State; Bob Kerrey, Democrat and former senator from Nebraska; John F. Lehman, Republican and former secretary of the navy; Timothy J. Roemer, Democrat and former representative from Indiana; and James R. Thompson, Republican and former governor of Illinois.
The 9/11 Commission and its members were given the power to subpoena individuals or any documents and records related to the investigation. U.S. district courts and the attorney general were designated to enforce subpoenas issued by the commission. The commission was directed to conduct public and private hearings during its investigative process. H.R. 4628 mandated that all federal agencies release any documents the commission deemed necessary for the investigation, as well as providing any material or logistical assistance the commission needed.
The 9/11 Commission’s Report
On July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its final report, after reviewing 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewing more than 1,200 individuals. In its findings, the commission pointed out the lack of imagination and the underestimation of al Qaeda’s threat on the part of government officials and the intelligence community. The commission found that terrorism was not a top national security concern under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11 Bush administrations. Thus, terrorist threats had been dealt with using the same tactics employed in the last stages of the Cold War. According to the commission, neither the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) nor the Department of Defense had the capabilities to collect intelligence or counter al Qaeda. On the domestic front, the commission found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not perform properly while handling domestic intelligence, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had failed to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings. In the commission’s opinion, the U.S. government failed to manage all its resources properly, as government officials should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across intelligence agencies.
Furthermore, the commission argued that unsuccessful diplomacy efforts during the 1990s were essential to the development of the al Qaeda threat. Warnings and threats to the Taliban government in Afghanistan to cease its support of al Qaeda, and the U.S. government’s pressure on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help curb al Qaeda’s presence and influence in the area, were ineffective. The commission not only highlighted the failures of the FBI and CIA, but also criticized the failures of the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as al Qaeda operatives took full advantage of the loopholes in communication and procedures within and between both agencies.
The 9/11 terrorists, according to the commission, made extensive use of banks in the United States, using their passports to open accounts and make multiple transactions. The attackers were funded from exterior sources linked to al Qaeda. The commission found that the civilian and military entities that defend America’s airspace were unprepared for the attacks, and that they had attempted and failed to improvise an effective homeland defense. Among senior governmental and military officials, communication was poor, and the chain of command did not function well. In regard to emergency response, the commission found that police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and others in the local emergency response community exhibited steady determination and resolve. However, the commission found that their agencies lacked proper communication, coordination, and equipment to confront an incident of the magnitude of 9/11. Finally, the commission indicated that Congress and the executive branch responded slowly to the growing threat of transnational terrorism. The need for a strong, stable, and capable congressional committee that guided and supported intelligence efforts was apparent after the 9/11 attacks.
The commission offered several recommendations to protect America’s homeland from future terrorist attacks. It proposed a global strategy in which the al Qaeda network had to be dismantled by rooting out terrorist sanctuaries, and diplomatic relationships and antiterrorist efforts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia had to be strengthened. In addition, the influence of extremist Islamic terrorism had to be diminished by standing as an example of moral leadership in the world, and communicating effectively the American ideals in the Islamic world through diplomatic efforts. Lastly, the commission provided specific strategies to protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks, such as screening people with biometrics in ports of entry, setting standards to issue birth certificates and driver’s licenses, strengthening the transportation security system, creating “no-fly” lists, and providing adequate funding and resources to jurisdictions that are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The commission recommended a reorganization of antiterrorist efforts in order to build unity of effort across the U.S. government. As such, it proposed the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to coordinate the efforts of all agencies involved in intelligence gathering and counterterrorism, as well as the Office of the National Intelligence Director to command and guide such efforts. Finally, the commission highlighted the need for sharing information among intelligence agencies. Thus, the president and Congress should lead this effort by providing funding and support to the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Defense, and other agencies involved in counterterrorism efforts.
The 9/11 Commission’s Report Controversies
In the aftermath of the report’s publication, several members of the commission expressed some concerns regarding the veracity of the testimony of some governmental officials during the investigation. In a book published in 2006, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean, contended that officials with the Pentagon’s North American Aerospace Command and the FAA provided erroneous information about the response to the hijackings in their testimony. They claimed that U.S. air defenses had reacted rapidly as jets rushed to respond to the last two hijackings, and that they were ready to shoot down United Airlines Flight 93 if it threatened Washington. However, the commission reported that audiotapes and other evidence from the day of the attack showed that the military never had any chance to intercept the hijacked planes, and even pointed out that fighters “chased” for a good amount of time American Airlines Flight 11, long after it already crashed into the twin towers in New York. Kean also discussed the problems with the Bush administration collaboration with the commission, the disputes among the members of the commission over the use of the 9/11 attacks by the Bush administration to invade Iraq, and why the commission avoided to investigating how U.S. foreign policy may have caused the attacks.
Other controversial issues raised by Kean were the interrogation of former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Kean reflected on the fact that it was difficult to ask hard questions of Giuliani without it being perceived as criticism to the brave policemen, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians who responded to the World Trade Center attacks. Lastly, Kean complained that the commission was not granted direct access to detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which would have been of great value to the investigation.
For some, the 9/11 Commission’s findings were manipulated by the Bush administration, tainting the ethical and moral justifications of the War on Terror. For instance, though neither the 9/11 commission nor other members of the intelligence community found any link between al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime, some members of the Bush Administration insisted that Iraq collaborated with al Qaeda in their attacks on the United States, partially justifying the invasion of Iraq. The alleged collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda was refuted by President Bush in 2006, after the Saddam Hussein regime was deposed by force by the American military.
- Eggen, D. “9/11 Panel Suspected Deception by Pentagon.” Washington Post (August 2, 2006). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/01/AR2006080101300.html (Accessed March 2013).
- National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. “9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.” London: W. W. Norton, 2004. http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report_Exec.pdf (Accessed February 2013).
- Yen, H. “Sept. 11 Panel Doubted Officials.” Washington Post (August 4, 2006) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2006/08/04/AR2006080401026.html (Accessed March 2013).
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