The 9/11 Commission Could Learn More If It Talked Less

The next blue-ribbon investigative commission that Washington needs, no doubt, is a commission to investigate the mistakes made by the commission investigating the mistakes leading to the attacks of September 11. When the 9/11-investigation investigation convenes, it might consider these recommendations for the next high-power post-mortem:

1) No public hearings. All interviews should be conducted in private, with transcripts made but sealed for some period to be decided by the commission, and for a year or two at least.

2) Informants' confidentiality should be protected. Sources can be listed, but who said what should be off-limits until documents are unsealed.

3) No sworn testimony.

4) Only the commission chair and vice chair should speak to the media, and then only on matters of process. Other commission members should take a vow of silence during the investigation.

5) The report should require the approval of three-fourths of the commission members, with no minority opinions to be issued.

The first thing you may notice about these rules is that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the 9/11 commission is formally called, has not followed them. Instead, the commission has been very public and very talkative, in keeping with the demands of 9/11 family members and other groups that regard themselves as the commission's constituency. In February, for instance, the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission insisted on "public hearings on all topics," because public hearings "educate and inform the American public"; called for subpoenas to gain access to presidential intelligence briefs; and demanded that "all high-ranking officials with information relevant to 9/11 should be required to testify and should do so under oath, whether testifying in public or in private."

In other words, the 9/11 commission should look like the congressional Watergate hearings, or the hearings on President Clinton's impeachment. That type of hearing has become the modern Washington model for high-profile investigations. Commission members love it, because it puts them in the limelight. But it is the wrong model for 9/11.

Unlike the Watergate and Clinton investigations, the 9/11 commission's most important job is not to fix blame for past wrongdoing but to identify and correct continuing problems. If the commission does not make another 9/11 less likely, it is not worth having. Probing a sitting administration for flaws in its policies requires a certain amount of delicacy. Which has not been the commission's strong suit.

On April 4, the two leaders of the commission took to NBC's Meet the Press to declare that the September 11 attacks could probably have been prevented. As Arte Johnson used to say, "Very interesting, but stupid." Question: Why were these guys sharing their personal, and very debatable, opinions on the subject of their investigation, weeks before their commission was ready to report? Were they appointed to investigate or to pontificate?

The commission clearly needed to hear from Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. But why become embroiled in a weeks-long spitting contest with the White House over demands that she testify in public and under oath? Rice had already testified for four hours in private and was willing to testify privately some more.

Commission members said, according to The Washington Post, they were "anxious to get her public testimony regarding discrepancies between White House statements" and assertions made by Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism director. Nailing officials on discrepancies sounds more like Kenneth Starr's line of work than the 9/11 commission's. If the commission wanted Rice's candid analysis, rather than a scripted speech, deposing her on national TV was not the way to get it.

When she finally did testify, her remarks predictably yielded no substantive revelations—just defensive posturing and grist for the next hunt for discrepancies, this time between conflicting descriptions of an intelligence memo of August 6, 2001. As the White House scrambled to declassify that memo, it also got busy launching what The New York Times called "an unusual pre-emptive strike"—not against Al Qaeda or the Iraqi insurgency but against Democrats on the 9/11 commission.

The time and attention of Washington's top policy makers is Washington's most precious commodity. According to news reports, Rice and her staff spent hours preparing her public testimony: briefing her, assembling timelines, "war-gaming" likely questions. Each of those hours was an hour not spent on national security. Meanwhile, an armed uprising—the most dangerous yet—was erupting across Iraq.

Maybe Rice's diverted hours didn't matter. Sometimes, though, when policy makers take their eye off the ball, bad guys kick it. In 1998, Saddam Hussein took advantage of President Clinton's impeachment distraction to throw weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and that same distraction may have impeded an effective U.S. response. If not for Kenneth Starr—who knows?—America might not today be in Iraq.

That is pure conjecture, of course. Take it or leave it. What is not conjectural, however, is that distractions in time of crisis do not help. And Washington could not have chosen a worse moment than now for a paroxysm of finger-pointing. "Our focus has been on 9/11—who did what and who didn't," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told ABC's This Week. "But it ought to be on June 30," the date when sovereignty is supposed to be transferred in Iraq.

Economists speak of transaction costs. Washington needs to master the concept of investigation costs. A government saddled with a high-profile probe is a government less focused on other tasks, and wartime is the worst time for distractions. That was why the Pearl Harbor investigation went to work after, not during, World War II.

The war on terror is not going to end anytime soon, and the country cannot wait to learn how to reduce its vulnerability. So it makes sense to investigate 9/11, and to investigate before the trail gets cold. But do it right. Much of the descent into recriminations and damage control was avoidable. A shrewder 9/11 commission would have turned its back on demands for public hearings, swearings-in, and the rest of the Watergate-style apparatus. Instead, it would have stressed:

  • Discretion. Partisanship is inevitable in Washington. Instead of complaining about it, the commission should have planned for it and taken care to avoid making public comments that might fan the flames. The partisan snipers are out there, but it does no good to give them ammunition. And any administration, Republican or Democratic, will treat as a threat a commission whose members are holding forth as Sunday-morning pundits and competing for quotes in The New York Times.

  • Confidentiality. This is especially important if the commission hopes to solve problems rather than point fingers. Backward-looking, punitive investigations use high-wattage publicity and legal jackhammers to penetrate stone walls and cover-ups. But a forward-looking, problem-solving investigation needs to foster a climate in which officials can be self-critical without undue fear of being prosecuted or keelhauled. Putting witnesses under oath induces them to weigh every word with lawyerly care rather than freely volunteer information. And public testimony sends everybody into blame-deflecting and political-maneuvering mode. Confidential, unsworn testimony may not explore every discrepancy or mine every document, but it elicits more self-criticism and candor.

  • Nonpartisanship. Just because Washington is a partisan place, that doesn't mean every investigation needs to be. Merely ratcheting down the inquiry's profile and zipping partisan mouths on the commission can help. Requiring a single, bipartisan report can help even more, by giving commission members an incentive to seek common ground. The commission's report will and should be injected into partisan debate—and if the report is a bombshell, so much the better—but having five Democrats and five Republicans publicly grill witnesses irresistibly invites partisan posturing.

You may say it is naive to hope for a quiet investigation of so contentious a topic. You would be right. But a smart and responsible inquiry can minimize, rather than aggravate, conflict and collateral damage. Even in today's Washington, quiet, forward-looking, nonpartisan, nonprosecutorial investigations go on all the time, producing invaluable knowledge at modest cost, and often on controversial subjects. The 9/11 commission, or whatever mega-investigation comes next, should go take lessons at 441 G St. NW. There they'll find the General Accounting Office.