9/11 Commission: A Review of the Second Act

Yesterday the ten former members of the 9/11 Commission, working together as private group called the 9/11 Public Discourse Project (PDP), released a 5-page final report grading the enactment of the Commission's recommendations published in July 2004. The centerpiece of this final report was a 1-page report card, which assigned letter grades assessing the federal government's implementation of the 41 recommendations contained within the landmark, 578-page Final Report of the Commission, released in July 2004. The former commissioners gave the government mediocre or failing grades on almost all of Commission's 41 recommendations.

What are we to make of this poor report card for our government?

First off, it is important to recall the considerable original achievements of the 9/11 Commission.1 Their Final Report provided an invaluable, detailed, and authoritative history of events preceding the terrorist attacks.2 Although its recommendations were not tightly coupled to its analysis, the Report precipitated governmental action in a number of important areas at a time—the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election—when little was being accomplished in Washington. A fact sheet released by the White House yesterday credits the Commission for a long list of actions it has taken over the past two years. The capstone of this effort was the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in 2004 establishing the Director of National Intelligence, which was a direct consequence of the work of the 9/11 Commission. While some other observers question the merit of this reorganization,3 there is no question that by its own standards the 9/11 Commission did very, very well in seeing its principal recommendation translated into action.

The 9/11 Public Discourse Project had none of the advantages of the 9/11 Commission, and it shows.

The former commissioners' report card of the federal government gets it right in certain respects. They accurately point out to a number of clearly sensible proposals that have not yet been effected by the executive or legislative branches of our government. They are right that a substantial portion of federal homeland security assistance (though not all, as they implied incorrectly) is distributed on the basis of a political determined formula rather than objective assessments of risk. They are also right that the federal government has not yet implemented a system to screen domestic air travelers against the (now-integrated) terrorist watchlist. They are right that the Congress has not yet streamlined its committee oversight structure for intelligence, homeland security, and counterterrorism. The former commissioners have done a public service in calling attention to these and a few other situations, none of which make sense when viewed through the lens of national security.

But the former commissioners' report card is a very superficial document, a virtual antithesis of the thorough Final Report of July 2004. There is no analysis to support the former commissioners' summary conclusions; no write-up of the new information they managed to uncover; and no explanation of how or why the former commissions' arrived at the conclusions they did. Why, for example, should anyone accept the former commissioners' "B" grade for the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, particularly when the former director of the NCTC has just written he is "worried that the current efforts to 'transform' the intelligence community are hurting—rather than improving—our national security."4 Are the former commissioners evaluating the federal government's genuine progress, or merely its fealty to their recommendations?

Why exactly are we to accept the former commissioners' "C" grade for the development of a national-security service within the Federal Bureau of Investigation when they present no evidence of any genuine, contemporary investigation into the internal affairs of the Bureau. The 9/11 Commission had the ability to peer into the inner workings of all federal agencies, to acquire highly classified and sensitive documents, and to compel sworn testimony. When Commission did so at the FBI in 2003-2004, it ended up essentially endorsing the reform efforts of the present FBI Director, Robert Mueller. Now, the former commissioners have no such privileged access into the FBI, or any other government agency for that matter. On what then, do they base their conclusions?

And what exactly are we to make of their letter grades of the Administration's implementation of the 9/11 Commission's confusing foreign policy recommendation? These recommendations—essentially loose, cursory discussions of a range of complex bilateral and multilateral issues such as public diplomacy, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan—were among the weakest aspects of the Commission's Final Report. Now the former commissioners' are giving the Administration a "D" for its implementation of the Commission's recommendations with respect to Saudi Arabia, among other things. Such an assignation could hardly be more meaningless: the Commission's original recommendations lack any real operational clarity, and the compression of a year-and-a-half of complex diplomacy history into a single letter grade is fundamentally nonsensical.

Moreover, the former commissioners elided a great number of vital issues that have emerged since the issue the publication of the Commissions' Final Report. They have nothing to say about the immigration and southwestern border security debate that now rages in Washington; nothing to say about the Patriot Act reauthorization that Congress must act on this month to avoid a lapse of important domestic counterterrorism provisions; nothing new to say about the proper federal approach to the management of large, complex catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina or pandemic flu; nothing to say about the security of toxic chemicals; etc.

Thus the former commissioners' assessment of the present state of homeland security and counterterrorism is neither rigorous nor comprehensive. Their final report is, rather, an inchoate summary of their opinions. Some of these opinions withstand careful scrutiny, but not all of them, and by releasing so shallow a final report, the former commissioners have cheapened their own moral authority and reputation for judicious, rigorous independent assessment. History is likely to look back favorably on the 9/11 Commission, but is unlikely to be so kind to the post-Commission activities of its former members—if it pays attention at all.

Also see a CNN interview with Richard Falkenrath on the report and the Q&A session that followed the interview.

Footnotes
1. For a more complete discussion, see Richard A. Falkenrath. "The 9/11 Commission Report," International Security 29 (3), Winter 2004-2005, 170-190.
2. Recently, the quality of the 9/11 Commission's historical account has come under attack as a result of allegations that the Commissioners and their staff did not appreciate, or perhaps deliberately ignored, a intelligence analysis of performed in the Defense Department prior to September 11, 2001, that successfully identified at least one of the 9/11 hijackers.
3. See, for example, Richard A. Posner, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2005).
4. John Brennan, "Is This Intelligence?," The Washington Post, 20 November 2005, p. B01.