It took several months for the commission to rev up. Funding issues had to be resolved. More important, there was an early tussle over access to information. When Roemer, who had served on the Congressional 9/11 joint inquiry, tried to review records of that investigation, he was told he could not see the material until the Administration had vetted it. Since the commission was supposed to build upon the work of the joint inquiry, this procedure--agreed to by the commission's leadership--seemed at best an unnecessary impediment and, at worse, an Administration attempt to control part of the commission's work. After Roemer complained, commissioners and their staff were granted full access--as long as they were willing to trek to a secured office in a House annex. "There was no question we were off to a slow start," Roemer says. "This has not been a speedy locomotive, but a spitting, coughing automobile."
Speed is important. The law establishing the commission granted it only eighteen months of life, and the clock began ticking on December 2. It now has less than a year to conduct its investigation and write its final report. The staff has been divided into nine investigative teams that have begun exploring nine separate areas: Al Qaeda and terrorism, the intelligence community, US counterterrorism policy, terrorist financing, border control and terrorist watch lists, domestic law enforcement and intelligence, aviation and transportation security, the emergency responses to the attacks, and the White House's and federal government's reactions to the strikes.
Several of these topics on their own could occupy a single commission for a year. Within these nine domains, the 9/11 Commission has to examine why fighter jets didn't scramble sooner on 9/11, what the Bush and Clinton administrations were told about threats from Osama bin Laden and how they responded, whether Congressional oversight of the spy services has been adequate, how the 9/11 murderers were financed, why the CIA failed to place two of the 9/11 hijackers on a terrorist watch list, whether the airlines place profits ahead of security precautions, whether a suspicious pattern of stock transactions occurred before the attacks. And that's only a partial list. Then the commission is supposed to consider how to better protect the country. Is the Department of Homeland Security working out? Has the FBI gotten its counterterrorism act together? Are the computers finally up to par at the INS? Is the government ready for the next attack?
While the investigators are investigating, the commission has held two rounds of hearings. In addition to providing a forum for gut-wrenching statements from relatives of the 9/11 dead, these sessions produced valuable testimony about issues the commission has to address. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a presidential candidate who, with Senator John McCain, sponsored the legislation that created the commission, testified that "too many of the failures we have already identified are unchanged to this day, a full twenty months after the attacks." McCain blasted "excessive Administration secrecy on issues related to the September 11th attacks."
The hearings provided further cause to believe airlines have sacrificed security for revenue--and may still be doing so. Michael Canavan, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief, noted, "We were under intense pressure from the industry." The airlines, he added, would pile up huge fines for security violations, and then their lawyers would negotiate lower settlements. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead testified that "cost-benefit analysis" has often played too large a role in the consideration of security measures, and said that security involving cruise ships and cargo on passenger flights remains poor.
The hearings and the commission's work have not received extensive media notice, which is odd, since the panel is seeking to explain the most traumatic moment in recent US history. The New York Times did not cover the commission's last set of hearings, nor did most cable and network news shows. But "the families" and a handful of others are closely watching the commission, which, to its credit, has been attentive to the suggestions and concerns of the relatives.
There is much wreckage for the commission to sift through. Will the Administration cooperate fully? The White House fight with the joint inquiry over the release of its final report is not encouraging. "I have some concerns about how committed the Administration is to seeing this through," says Push. "Three thousand people died--you can't play games." But by responding slowly or uncooperatively to information requests from the commission, Administration officials or bureaucrats can gum up the works rather easily. "Agencies are very much cognizant of how much time is left for the commission," says an investigator who worked on the joint inquiry. And Roemer comments, "The independent commission needs to make very clear, you cannot abuse or overuse the classification issue to keep potentially embarrassing information from reaching the sunlight." But that is what the Bush Administration has done in other instances.
Both Kean and Hamilton say they will do what is necessary to pry sensitive information from the government. "I spent a good part of my life trying to get information into the public record," Hamilton remarked after the May hearings. "I'm not going to reverse course now." Less reassuring was Kean's confession that he had not yet read the joint inquiry's final report. Both men acknowledged that the task ahead is massive. "The question on my mind," Hamilton said, "is, How do we get our hands around this?"
After watching the commission's hearing, DeCell noted that he was "impressed with the sincerity" of its members. Still, he feared they were on the short end of long odds. "The Administration," he says, "and most politicians, really don't want to get to the bottom of it, because they're all implicated in some way, in too many different areas, for too many years." Moments later, Kean, speaking about the committee's as yet unimpressive progress, said, "Please be patient." DeCell said he was willing to wait--as long as his wait ends with answers and accountability.