International Security 29.3 (2004) 170-190
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The 9/11 Commission Report
Richard A. Falkenrath
Nine days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Gen. Walter Short, the U.S. Army commander in Hawaii at the time, was relieved of duty. Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, the commander of the decimated Pacific Fleet, was relieved of command the next day. President Franklin D. Roosevelt then established by executive order a commission to investigate the attack, which was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. The Roberts commission issued its report on January 23, 1942, less than two months after the attack. The commission found both Short and Kimmel guilty of dereliction of duty. The two officers were forced to retire with reduced rank, disgraced. Most subsequent official inquiries and scholarship have concluded that Short and Kimmel were scapegoats, the victims of an unfair rush to judgment, and that the real cause of America's surprise on December 7, 1941, was the absence of an effective national intelligence structure.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, produced no Husband Kimmel, no Walter Short. No one has taken the fall for the failure to prevent attacks that killed 2,819 innocent people. These attacks were the work of men, not fate. They could have been prevented but were not. The government failed in this responsibility, but who within the federal government is to blame for this failure? This open-ended question does not sit well with many segments of American society, especially those most skeptical of representations made by President George W. Bush and his principal officers.
The Bush administration had little enthusiasm for an independent investigation into the events leading up to 9/11, seeing such an inquiry as a distraction from more pressing business at hand. The 9/11 attacks triggered extraordinary and simultaneous actions by the federal government on multiple fronts.1 It [End Page 170] was understood that al-Qaida had a sanctuary in Afghanistan, so the United States assembled and led an international military coalition to invade the country, rout the terrorists, and depose the Taliban regime. It was understood that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was insular and reactive, so President Bush ordered its newly installed director, Robert Mueller, to fundamentally reform his organization. It was understood that the nineteen hijackers had easily penetrated airport security checkpoints and the cockpits of the four aircraft used in the attacks, so Congress passed and the president signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and created a vast new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration, with broad new regulatory powers. It was understood that the FBI and intelligence agencies did not share information particularly well, so Congress enacted the USA Patriot Act, and Attorney General John Ashcroft revised the guidelines that govern federal law enforcement investigations and information sharing.2 It was understood that all of the hijackers were foreigners who had acquired visas to enter the country legally, so the State Department tightened its visa requirements, and Congress passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.3 All this and much more was done in a few months after the attacks—in most cases, without the benefit of a precise understanding of the details of the problems that had been exposed by the 9/11 attacks. Preoccupied with the need for action in the weeks after 9/11, the federal government agencies devoted little effort to studying or reflecting on the events leading up to the attacks.
Yet pressure for an official public inquiry into the terrorist attacks grew quickly, much of it emanating from the families of 9/11 victims. On February 14, 2004, Senator Bob Graham and Congressman Porter Goss, the chairmen of the Senate and House Select Intelligence Committees, announced that their [End Page 171] committees would conduct a joint inquiry into the events leading to the attacks. The inquiry was to be conducted by thirty-eight politicians—twenty...