Birth of the 9/11 Commission
On November 27, 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law congressional legislation authorizing federal funding for intelligence activities. The legislation also established the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States in order to (in Bush’s words) “examine and report on the facts and causes relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was Bush’s choice to head the commission, while Democratic congressional leaders chose former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as vice-chairman. Less than a month later, however, both men resigned from the 9/11 Commission, citing potential conflicts of interest. Mitchell did not want to sever ties to his law firm, while Kissinger–whom many considered too close to many national and international leaders to be objective–did not wish to disclose the identities of clients of his consulting firm.
To replace Kissinger, Bush tapped the former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a Republican; Congressional Democrats chose former Representative Lee Hamilton, Democrat of Indiana, to replace Mitchell. The 10-member commission–which included five Democrats and five Republicans–was given a budget of some $3 million and a total of 18 months (until the end of May 2004) to complete a full report of the circumstances surrounding the events of 9/11 and provide a number of recommendations to guard against future attacks.
Progress of the 9/11 Commission
Organizations representing the families of the 9/11 victims had been instrumental in the establishment of the 9/11 Commission, and closely monitored its progress. In March 2003, the 9/11 Commission sought $11 million in additional federal funding to complete its task in the allotted time period. Kean requested the funds as part of a $75 billion supplemental spending bill that Bush had submitted in order to pay for war with Iraq. Later that month, the Bush administration agreed to up the commission’s budget by $9 million.
From March 31 to April 1, 2003, the 9/11 Commission held its first public hearing in the United States Customs House, located not far from the World Trade Center site in New York City. Survivors of the 9/11 attacks and relatives of victims delivered their heart-wrenching accounts, and questioned the failures of American intelligence that had allowed such horrific attacks to occur. In a total of 12 public hearings over the next 10 months, the 9/11 Commission heard from a range of witnesses including Department of Justice experts, academics in the fields of terrorism and counterterrorism, and New York City Police and Fire Department representatives. Prominent leaders who testified before the commission included New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney gave private testimony (not under oath), as did former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.
The 9/11 Commission Report
In its final report, published on July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission stated that the terrorist attacks of September 2001 “were a shock but they should not have come as a surprise,” as Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden had long declared their intentions to kill large numbers of Americans. The report outlined the failings of numerous government agencies, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pentagon and the National Security Council, in acting on existing intelligence in order to protect and defend the nation from such threats. Among a long list of recommendations designed to guard against future attacks, the 9/11 Commission advocated a comprehensive restructuring of U.S. intelligence agencies and an increased emphasis on diplomacy between the United States and the Islamic world.
Some critics have claimed that the 9/11 Commission was not truly independent, as its members were chosen by Congress and the Bush administration, and that it suffered from conflicts of interest due to connections between some of its members and key figures in the administration. Meanwhile, Kean and Hamilton have claimed that the commission was hamstrung by the time and budgetary constraints it was under, and that its effectiveness was hampered by misinformation given by organizations like the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration.