What the Capitol riot investigation can learn from the 9/11 Commission

A nearly 600-page report into one of the deadliest attacks in US history left a complicated legacy of its own

Andrew Naughtie
Wednesday 17 February 2021 20:47
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Nancy Pelosi announces a ‘9/11 style’ panel to investigate the January insurrection

With Donald Trump acquitted by the Senate for his role in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, a furious Nancy Pelosi has announced that she will be establishing an investigation into what happened that day on Capitol Hill.

Speaking two days after the final impeachment vote, Ms Pelosi – whose staff were forced to barricade themselves in her office and hide under desks as rioters rammed the doors – wrote to members of Congress to explain that the known facts about the events of that day demand a deeper investigation.

“We must get to the truth of how this happened,” she said in her letter. “To protect our security, our security, our security, our next step will be to establish an outside, independent 9/11-type Commission” that will investigate the facts and causes of the insurrection itself and the astonishing failure to keep the Capitol safe on the day.

Ms Pelosi’s invocation of the 9/11 Commission has immediately commanded attention not just because it implicitly compares the January riot to one of the deadliest attacks on the US in its history, but because the commission itself has a chequered history – and a complicated legacy.

The 9/11 Commission was created at the end of 2002, just as George W Bush’s post-9/11 surge in popularity was abating. The Bush administration’s mindset had shifted from responding to the 2001 attack to proactive military intervention; much of the country was in a gung-ho mood, keen to stamp out violent Islamist extremism wherever it could be tracked down, while many other Americans were alarmed by both the rush to war in Iraq and increasingly heavy-handed domestic policies imposed in the name of “security”.

The 11 commissioners – ten men and one woman – were assigned to take evidence on themes from the development and financing of Al-Qaeda to aviation security, domestic intelligence-gathering, international counter-terrorism policy and the circumstances of the hijackings on the day. In the process of producing their nearly 600-page report, they ended up interviewing more than 1,000 people in ten countries and heard testimony from more than 100 US officials and experts.

When it was released, the 9/11 report was clear and eloquent, benefiting from a sweeping account of the evolution of Al-Qaeda and the US’s approach to it. But it was also criticised for the relative timidity of its recommendations – and by some, for its providing recommendations at all.

“Combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals for preventing future attacks,” wrote economist and lawyer Richard Posner at the time, “is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy. The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it.”

The commission has also been consistently criticised for its approach to the connection between the 9/11 hijackers and people connected with the government of Saudi Arabia – a US ally then and now. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals; several of them spoke little or no English and had never before been to the US, raising suspicions that they may have benefited from the direct support of state agents.

In July 2016, a full 12 years after the report’s release, a classified section dealing with foreign involvement in the attacks was released with limited redactions; while it acknowledged the suggestion that Saudi intelligence officers were among the people the hijackers met in the US, it also explained that “while the Joint Inquiry uncovered this material during the course of its review of FBI and CIA documents, it did not attempt to investigate and assess the accuracy and significance of this information independently, recognising that such a task would be beyond the scope of this Joint Inquiry.”

Despite the still-unclear findings about Saudi involvement, the Saudi government is facing legal action from some 10,000 survivors of 9/11 and the victims’ families. Just as Ms Pelosi was announcing her plans for a 6 January commission, a federal judge cleared the way for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to question Saudi officials under oath about Riyadh’s potential connection with the attackers.

Today, Ms Pelosi has certain advantages that those pinning their hopes on the 9/11 Commission did not. The 6 January inquiry will be focused on an act of domestic terrorism, not one that potentially involved a highly sensitive foreign ally. The congressional leadership of the other party were themselves also targets of the attack; Mitch McConnell, for one, has explicitly blamed Mr Trump’s campaign of “unhinged falsehoods” for agitating the crowd of extremists against the Congress.

And while he voted to acquit the former president in his recent trial, he has signalled he would expect to see him held criminally accountable – hardly the prelude to obstructing a bipartisan investigation.

Most of all, the new commission is unlikely to tread on many toes in the White House. The 9/11 Commission’s work overlapped with the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, as well as its justification for domestic surveillance and other controversial post-9/11 measures; the main antagonists of the insurrection inquiry will be Trumpist members of Congress and other supporters of the ex-president. And in Washington at least, they are for now out of power – with a mountain to climb as they try to get it back.

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