The buzz surrounding the 9/11 commission's final report will fade, and then we are left with—what, exactly? Considering the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, which supposedly changed our world forever, we're left with astonishingly little. Or, to borrow from Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?
To be sure, the Bush administration has pushed through plenty of changes on its own, many of them long-standing ideological fantasies made possible, in the moments after 9/11, by the shock. No bipartisan commission designed the Patriot Act or the War on Terror as a way to make the nation safer. Domestically, the massive, sprawling Department of Homeland Security is the closest thing to an official response we have to the threat of future attacks. Abroad, the country's foreign policy since 9/11 has almost seemed designed to inspire more, not less, terrorism.
The initial response was to give more money and more powers to the very agencies—the Justice Department and the intelligence community—that failed so spectacularly in the first place. The White House fought bitterly against the creation of the commission, then tried to sabotage it by naming Henry Kissinger as the chair (who was replaced by Thomas Kean). Then, the Bush administration fell back on a policy of stonewalling the commission's repeated requests for key documents and witnesses.
In the end, the delaying tactics worked. The commission asked for money beyond its original $3 million budget and got very little; it asked for an extension of time from its original May 2004 deadline, and didn't get most of it. Key hearings had to be telescoped into a few short weeks, with a resulting lack of proper preparation. They did the best they could with a lousy situation, one that was far, far less than adequate given the gravity of their task. In the end, we'll have spent far less time and money investigating a world-changing event than was spent investigating Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.
The result is exactly what the White House wanted: a report that has relatively few recommendations likely to be enacted, and, more importantly, doesn't single out any agency, politician, or policy for particular blame. Given the alternative—namely, the conclusions one might draw from the exhaustive evidence that the Bush administration had explicit warnings of an attack—it's little wonder the president welcomed the commission's findings as "very constructive." He was responding not to what was in the report but to what was unsaid.
To get an idea of how lame a response this is, consider the event in U.S. history most frequently compared to 9/11. As a New York Times article notes, "the investigation after World War II into the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the National Security Act of 1947, which established the CIA, consolidated the rival Army and Navy departments into a single Defense Department, created an independent Air Force, and created the National Security Council to coordinate policy."
By comparison, the 9/11 report issued only one major structural recommendation: the creation of a "high-level intelligence director" who would report to the president, a recommendation already opposed by most of the affected agencies and by senior members of Congress. It isn't likely to happen.
Beyond that, the commission hasn't delivered much—but then, it never could. It has clarified certain events and the policy and bureaucratic errors that allowed the attacks to happen. That's valuable in its own right, but it's not enough. We still have a foreign policy badly attuned to the reality of a threat not posed by nation-states, and we still have a society liberally sprinkled with inviting, vulnerable targets for a terrorist attack. And we still have any number of unanswered questions about 9/11 itself.
Alas, it seems likely to stay that way.
Correction: In last week's column, I got a fact wrong regarding the expiration of my health insurance in 2001. The expiration date of the policy with Principal insurance was cited in the 1996 lawsuit settlement, so I was informed of a termination date, though years before the coverage ended. In any event, I wound up $20,000 in the hole due to a gap in medical coverage.
On a related note, I'd like to thank the kind souls who have been supportive, particularly at the fund-raising benefit for me last Saturday, July 24.