House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week promised an “independent 9/11-type Commission” to find the truth behind the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, wants a “9/11 Commission;” so does Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump in his most recent impeachment trial.
As America looks for answers about a national crisis, the 9/11 Commission is widely seen as a highwater mark. Its examination into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was authoritative and engrossing — the rare government report to make it onto bestsellers’ lists — and nearly all of its proposed reforms were signed into law.
But for anyone expecting that Washington could spin up another version in 2021, Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman who sat on the 9/11 Commission, has a word of caution.
“Most commissions don’t succeed,” he warns. “Most of them fail, and their recommendations are not passed or considered — they go up to sit on the top shelf of a bureaucrat’s dusty office, ignored into eternity.”
The 9/11 Commission stood apart, he says, because of its culture of bipartisanship, respect and clear-eyed approach to the facts at hand. It convened at a moment Congress shared a strong sense of purpose to fight the external threat — an atmosphere “conducive to exchange and debate, not sound bites and tweets.”
Today, things are different: The attack is already seen through partisan filters, and any new commission would be meeting in a Washington where disruption itself is a political brand. “If any one of these people appointed to the 9/11 Commission were bomb-throwers or people who just wanted to disrupt the process, that by itself could easily have derailed the entire process,” says Roemer. “It only takes one member to do that.”
For all that, Roemer absolutely believes a new commission is necessary—and in the long run, could be more important than the one he sat on, perhaps “the most important commission ever.” He suggests a broad scope, looking not only at the Jan. 6 attacks, but “how we try to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, what do we do to make sure that conspiracy theories and lies don’t permeate our democratic system of information getting to people, and how we take bipartisan steps forward to strengthen our democratic institutions.”
What can a 1/6 Commission learn from the 9/11 Commission? Is it possible to have a broadly accepted bipartisan consensus about the facts of the case? And can political allies of President Donald Trump be relied upon to participate in good faith?
To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Roemer this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Before serving on the 9/11 Commission, you were a member of the House for 12 years. You know the Capitol well. What was your reaction when you saw the insurrection last month?
In my public service journey, I’ve had three searing events that scorched my soul.
The first was as a fifth grader: After having stayed up all night to cheer on my hero, Bobby Kennedy, in the California [1968 presidential] primary, my parents woke me up the next morning to tell me that he had been assassinated.
Second, was as a member of Congress: I was on Capitol Hill in a meeting with several members — including Nancy Pelosi — talking about a leadership race when the first plane went into the [World Trade Center], and we eventually had to scatter out of our office buildings into the streets, where our cell phones didn’t work; we later learned that the Capitol was a target.
The third was January 6th. I was riveted to the TV, watching insurrectionists and terrorists ravage our citadel of democracy and threaten custodians, staff members, members of the House and Senate, as well as the vice president of United States — threaten to assassinate them. This was Americans attacking our own family.
That’s a big difference: The insurrection was an attack by Americans — one inherently tied up in partisan politics — and there isn’t anything similar to the post-9/11 sense of bipartisan unity. Do you think that changes the way that a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the insurrection would work? How should it approach its mission?
There are many similarities between 9/11 and the January 6th domestic terrorist attack on the United States. There are myriad differences as well, and it’s vital to distinguish between the two.
One of the similarities is that both were extremely violent, in some ways unexpected, planned physical attacks on our government institutions. On 9/11, it was Wall Street, the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, though [United flight 93] was brought down by brave patriots in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could hit its target in Washington; January 6th targeted the Capitol. The number of law enforcement casualties on 9/11 was one of the highest in our country’s history; January 6th caused horrific and catastrophic damage to our law enforcement community.
This question about a January 6th commission’s remit and mission is an essential one, and something I’ve tried to express to the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi], the speaker’s staff and people interested in this [commission] legislation: We need to get to the bottom of the events of January 6th. How was it planned? How was it carried out? Why did intelligence miss it, or why wasn’t intelligence reported? What did law enforcement miss? Was there a role — and what was the role of President Donald Trump or members of Congress? What were the roles of social media, of disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories leading up to it, planning it, sharing it and inspiring people to be involved?
[A commission] needs to look at the role of white supremacist organizations, their growth, their spread, their utilization of social media and the Internet. How did they become part of this effort? How did they get such a foothold? Do they continue to pose, as the FBI director has said, one of the great internal threats to the United States? What should we do about this?
There are also questions about not only at how to protect Congress, but how to strengthen the institution of Congress. That could be one of the grand and most fulfilling things that this commission could do: What is the constitutional role of Congress, and how does it reconnect with the American people to reestablish that trust?
This commission should not just serve up its recommendations, findings and conclusions for Congress. For this commission to be successful in the long term, it needs to connect to the American people and communicate with them, to help inform them about its findings and why it matters. Most commissions don’t succeed. Most of them fail, and their recommendations are not passed or considered — they go up to sit on the top shelf of a bureaucrat’s dusty office, ignored into eternity.
The 9/11 Commission was different in that sense — its report was widely respected and something of a sensation. What made the 9/11 Commission different? Why was it a success?
I’ve reflected on this over the years. Some of it was strategy, some was preplanning, some was pure luck.
We made mistakes. [As a member of the House,] I drafted the legislation to create the 9/11 Commission. I will be the first to admit that one of the mistakes I made initially was not adequately funding the commission. It had to come back to Congress several times, asking for more money, tin cup in hand. An independent commission should not have to come back to a funding body, thereby potentially jeopardizing its independence.
We did a lot right.
We insisted that all our press conferences and press appearances be bipartisan. [Former New Jersey Republican Gov.] Tom Kean and [former Democratic Congressman] Lee Hamilton, the commission’s chair and the vice chair, respectively, led by example: they were always joined at the hip to do press conferences. It created a culture on the commission of respect for one another. We could listen to one another’s views, occasionally change one’s mind based on the facts and the presentation of the facts, and, at the end of the day, get to principled outcomes and recommendations. The culture was conducive to exchange and debate, not sound bites and tweets.
At one of our first meetings, we had a long conversation about strategy and putting a tail on the commission’s life so that we would be available for six months or a year to testify and try to get our recommendations into law. Most commissions failed because their recommendations sit idly by and nobody is there to see that they are passed. Out of our 41 recommendations, I believe 39-and-a-half were passed into law. I believe that is unprecedented in these commissions’ histories.
Another factor in our success was the 9/11 families. They are extraordinary. I have four children. If I were to lose one of my kids to a terrorist attack, I’m not sure I could function. These people plowed in and passionately devoted themselves full time to this. They were available 24 hours a day. They’d do op-eds. They’d fly or take trains down from New York or New Jersey on a moment’s notice to lobby the White House or meet with members of Congress. They were the moral suasion to keep pushing for change and get our recommendations passed into law. Without them, we wouldn’t succeed — plain and simple.
And finally, I wrote the initial legislation so that the president would appoint the chair of the commission, and leadership in the Congress would appoint the remaining members. The speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and the [House and Senate] minority leaders all took those responsibilities very seriously and appointed people with deep experience in law enforcement, national security and, more importantly, people who had worked across the aisle in serious and productive ways — who had established relationships of trust and would put country before party. If any one of these people appointed to the 9/11 Commission were bomb-throwers or people who just wanted to disrupt the process, that by itself could easily have derailed the entire process. It only takes one member to do that.
And then we got lucky. We got a little lagniappe, as my wife, who’s from Louisiana, likes to say — a little extra: Our report turned into a best-selling book. I remember recommending that we shift one of the chapters — “We Have Some Planes” — to the beginning [thinking] that we could capture people’s attention as to what exactly transpired on September 11th. Americans needed to be taken through that plot and understand that our entire national security system had to be revised and reformed to make our country safer. And once the American people understand and buy into a concept and support it, then Congress and the president could eventually sign on and help us pass the recommendations.
That culture within the 9/11 Commission — that sense of bipartisan comity — feels quite different from politics today, which are very partisan. In this climate, do you think we can actually have a nonpartisan 1/6 Commission and report?
Maybe it’s more important today because we are so divided. We are so poisoned with toxicity and social media dividing us deeply. Maybe we need a commission that works in a bipartisan way to show the path forward to Americans — that we have done this before, and can do this now.
Twenty years ago, I felt the claws of history two inches into my back over what had happened. I felt the lift of patriotism and country over party. Today, I have the same feeling.
I remember the days when we worked on bipartisan legislation on national security and intelligence policy — always [bipartisan]. Those days were not that long ago. We can get back there, but the American people need an example like this January 6th commission to show that, yes, Republicans and Democrats can sit around and respect each other again. We can get to the bottom of what happened to tear our country apart. We can come up with recommendations to fix things.
That sounds pretty optimistic to me. There are already Republicans who disagree about the basic facts of the insurrection. You saw an attorney for President Trump falsely claim that a “leader of Antifa” was one of the first people arrested in the insurrection. Sen. Ron Johnson said this week that contrary to the evidence, January 6th “didn’t seem like an armed insurrection.” A number of Trump allies have said similar things.
If the goal of the commission is partly to provide some sense of clarity about what happened — and to do so in a bipartisan way — then it seems potentially important that people of Trump’s political persuasion take part in the commission. But if the focus of the commission is to decide the facts of what happened, how does that work? Could Trump allies actually take part in that commission in good faith? Would its report still have credibility?
Well, this is where the commission needs to be resolute, absolutely clear and fiercely factual.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was such unity and coming together across America. People came forward to give blood, fly their flags and show how much they love our country. There was virtually no disagreement [about the facts] — maybe it was way in the background, with less than 1 percent of the American people promoting crazy conspiracy theories.
But I remember years later, after the 9/11 Commission, being on a radio or TV interview, and somebody would say, “George W. Bush attacked the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th.” And I would say very clearly, “You are absolutely wrong. I’m a Democrat. I have a different point of view from George W. Bush on many, many things. But you are so far off base, and I’m not going to say anything to you other than that you are 110 percent wrong.”
We have to put that kind of thing to bed. We have to make sure we confront these lies and conspiracy theories and disinformation — whether it’s about 9/11 or January 6. But it’s getting more and more difficult.
One of the remits of this January 6th Commission should be to look at the role of disinformation, social media, lies and conspiracies in feeding this attack and brutal desecration of our Capitol. We can’t allow those things to continue to spread. What do we do about that in social media? Is that [about] Section 230? Is that regulation? Is that self-regulation by the companies? A democracy cannot sustain those kinds of lies and facts being distorted and the erosion of truth in our in our society.
It sounds like you see a January 6th Commission as an opportunity on the part of Republican leadership put those conspiracy theorists to bed?
Fom what I’ve read of Senator McConnell’s comments, this would be an opportunity for him to appoint people to the commission who would confront some of the lies and conspiracies and misinformation that has floated around for months and may have contributed to this.
Senator McConnell’s floor speech the other day certainly leads people to believe that he shares the frustration with the spread of these conspiracy theories, and has deep concern about the need to strengthen the role of Congress as an institution and critical democratic participant moving forward.
Final question: The last 20 years of politics have, to varying degrees, been in the shadow of 9/11. So much of what we experienced traces back to that moment in some way. Now, 20 years later, do you see January 6th as the start of another era?
Well, if you thought one of my previous answers was looking at the glass half full, maybe this will be looking at the glass 90 percent full.
I think that America, having gone through the last 10 or 15 years, is due for a reemergence of our pride in our democracy. It’s going to take a full-out effort on the part of not just the commission, but the American people, the press, constituent groups, of civic education and national service to do this.
It’s almost as if we need a new Alexis de Tocqueville in 2021. He wrote “Democracy in America” back in 1832, and came up with all these marvelous insights about how unique our system was. One of the big challenges, he said, was that America had to have its best people serve, and had to continue to attract the brightest and most principled into the public square — and he was not sure they could do that over time. When we look back at the kind of people who have helped build this country — whether it’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks, or people in the suffragist movement, Susan B. Anthony, or fighters for our Union in the Civil War, or going back to the unique set of actors who wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence — we’ve had those people step forward and serve in times of really difficult decisions and division.
That’s one of the roles that this January 6th commission could potentially serve. Its remit and mission should be to not only look at the attacks on January 6th and what caused them and the facts behind them; it should include [issues like] how we try to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, what do we do to make sure that conspiracy theories and lies don’t permeate our democratic system of information getting to people, and how we take bipartisan steps forward to strengthen our democratic institutions.
If we can do that, this could be, in many ways, one of the most important commissions, if not the most important commission ever, because it’s dealing with our representative democracy. Lincoln asked whether this nation, this democracy, will endure. That’s the question.
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