In the world of aerospace, where experimental advances collide constantly (and sometimes violently) with government pressure and billion-dollar contractual obligations, there are mini-9/11 Commissions nearly every day.
They are called "Failure Review Boards," or FRBs, and they stand at the ready to be convened whenever any component in any hardware test does not perform to expectations. The FRB chairman typically has the authority to stop all further testing—deadlines be damned—until he is satisfied that the sources of potential catastrophe have been identified and fixed. As such, he can be a deeply unpopular figure with his own bosses, the procurement chiefs at the Department of Defense, and even his co-workers.
Last Friday, my father retired after working in Southern California aerospace for four decades, the last seven years of which were as FRB chair on a huge, deadline-busting contract. "If I could leave you with one thing," he told his younger colleagues at a retirement luncheon last week, "it would be the importance of maintaining your professional and personal integrity in the face of pressure."
The pressure—and stakes—of the Congressional FRB for the Sept. 11 massacre are immeasurably higher than for your average rocket-boost failure, and so it should be no surprise that the "professional and personal integrity" of the 9/11 Commission participants has become a major preoccupation these past three weeks. Richard Clarke's a book-sharke! (Or an American hero.) Gorelick's a Gore-licker! Hasta la Viste, Ben-Veniste! And those horrid widows…
It's all made for occasionally gripping television and some diversionary partisan bitch-slapping, but much of the debate surrounding the 9/11 Commission has been at best a distraction from one particularly pressing concern: When it comes to the "integrity" of information critical to our National Security, the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrated a modus operandi that runs from the proprietary to the ass-covering to the punitive.
Consider the 9/11 Commission itself. In the history of high-profile American catastrophes, has there been a disaster inquiry so painfully slow in getting off the ground? FDR's Roberts Commission presented its Pearl Harbor finger-pointing by Jan. 23, 1942. The Warren Commission held its first hearing just two weeks after John Kennedy was murdered, and issued its report (however, um, flawed) within 10 months. Richard Feynman delivered his famous critique in the same calendar year as the Challenger crash; the Columbia commission wrapped in eight months.
Comparatively, space shuttles are optional trinkets, assassinations are one-off crimes, and devastating surprise attacks are usually limited to one per war. Sept. 11, in direct contrast, was one wretched blow in an ongoing irregular war declared on us years ago by a stateless enemy that is constantly probing our open society for loopholes to exploit. If Osama Bin Laden had his way, American civilians would probably be slaughtered every day, using ever more inventive and surprising techniques. If there is a lesson we haven't learned yet from our preventative failure, it might cost us 3,000 lives tomorrow.
So obtaining that knowledge, using the time-tested method of an independent inquiry, should have been a dead-red National Security priority beginning Sept. 12, 2001. More like the opposite was true.
The Bush Administration tried to keep the investigation behind closed doors (in congressional intelligence committees), lashed out at Democrats who suggested otherwise ("Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," Vice President Dick Cheney said when the subject gained initial public traction in May 2002, just after word of the famous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." memo was first leaked), fought Congress for four months after the House passed a Commission-creating bill, and then hand-picked as chairman none other than Henry Kissinger, an act roughly as serious as hiring Bill Clinton to prosecute a sexual harassment case.
Above all, Bush's attitude toward sensitive information has remained consistent from his pre-9/11 behavior: Transparency is overrated, secrecy is a virtue, and post-Watergate reforms curtailing the government's ability to snoop, prosecute and act freely are a serious obstacle to protecting the country.
These beliefs don't make him venal, just wrong. History has shown that a government that acts without the checks and balances of scrutiny is a government that abuses its power. Secrecy is often just another word for "it would be embarrassing for me if you saw that." And transparent examination and debate, however untidy, unlocks the genius of distributed, free-flowing intelligence—one of America's biggest competitive advantages—and gives citizens their deserved seat at the decision-making table.
Consider for a moment how things would be if Bush would have gotten his way on the 9/11 hearings: We would not have seen the strangely cathartic (and/or infuriating) gesture of Richard Clarke apologizing to the surviving families of Sept. 11 victims, Condoleezza Rice would not have faced public grilling, Bush probably wouldn't have held a rare primetime press conference, and we certainly wouldn't have been able to read the infamous PDB memo. Reforms would have been handled by the wise men and women of the congressional intelligence committees and the internal investigators at the CIA and FBI. Our knowledge of the changes would be limited to whatever leaks were thrown our way (as opposed to daily sworn testimony of officials like George Tenet and John Ashcroft).
Congressional hearings are by definition filled with grotesque political grandstanding. Monday-morning quarterbacking is fraught with peril, not least of which is the potential for inappropriate legislative overreaction in one direction or another. But putting administration officials under oath in front of an independent investigative body, over George Bush's objections, has already produced volumes and volumes of useful data, some of which may well make the country less vulnerable to terrorist attack.
As the great Richard Feynman wrote in 1986, "Without detailed understanding, confidence can not be attained… [The government] owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources… [R]eality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."