19 December 2008

'Without Precedent': An Account of the 9/11 Commission by its Leaders

If Philip Shenon's book is the best critical expose' to date of the 9/11 Commission, the book written by the panel's co-chairs, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, is the definitive "official" history. As such, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission often sounds like a book written by committee, because controversial episodes are portrayed by presenting the talking points of each side without assessing their value. In doing so, the authors re-employ in the writing of the book the principles that guided their leadership of the commission: an overarching desire for "balance," moderation, "bi-partisanship" and compromise. 

But as we have seen in the work of the commission, this approach worked like a double edged sword. On the one hand, it could be convincingly argued that the non-judgemental, evenhanded consensus-building style of Kean and Hamilton was a vital strategy to win support for the commission and to permit it to complete its work despite massive opposition from many quarters. However, this method also guaranteed that many questions that the 9/11 family members wanted answered were either ignored or downplayed. And one of their greatest concerns -- accountability -- was pushed aside in favor of other priorities. To their credit, Kean and Hamilton managed to drive the commission down the middle of the road, as it were, successfully guiding it to its destination. They did this despite many potholes, roadblocks and detours along the way. There were powerful people in all three branches of the US government, for example, who had exerted strenuous efforts on one side to make sure the 9/11 Commission was merely a toothless nonentity. And on the other side, there were family members and others who wished to endow it with almost absolute power to expose and punish every example of incompetence, error and apathy.

I am of course particularly keen to see how various books portray the role of the family members. And in Without Precedent we are given a more complete account than in the Shenon book, but still not the definitive version I am preparing. Again and again, Kean and Hamilton note the importance of the family members' involvement, and the complex nature of the commission's relationship with those who were instrumental in its establishment. 
Over the next twenty months, we had our ups and downs with the families, whose list of questions would grow. Often they were our closest allies, supporting our requests for more funding or more time on Capitol Hill. Sometimes, they were aggressive critics, issuing press releases blasting our approach. But there was no question that the families would be essential validators of our report. They had pushed for the commission, they were the public face of the most extreme form of suffering and loss that took place on 9/11, and they were watching us like hawks. If they were unsatisfied with our work, the impact of our findings would be greatly diminished.
I love this image: "... they were watching us like hawks." It was because many, many people were not paying attention to keeping the country safe, "like hawks," that the 9/11 attacks could unfold almost unhindered. This was the sort of thing the family members were determined to prevent in the future.

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