9-11 Commission Follies

I saw Jonathan Rauch’s article in Reason the other day but never got around to reading it:

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.


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.


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.

Exactly right. But it wouldn’t have made for nearly as dramatic a television show.

Hat tip: Alex Knapp

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.