Another Pearl Harbor! That was the reaction of many after hijackers managed to turn airliners into low-tech cruise missiles and kill 6,000 people. Like the Japanese raid on the US Navy base, the September 11 assault was a surprise attack, and as the rubble cooled, this tragedy, like its 1941 predecessor, prompted questions about whether agencies of the US government had profoundly failed its citizens by not foreseeing this possibility and by not reacting to what in hindsight appears to have been a variety of hints. After Pearl Harbor, Congress conducted an extensive inquiry into what had gone wrong prior to that particular day of infamy. The Congress of today ought to do likewise.
There has not yet been a tremendous cry for such an endeavor. Harvard law professor Philip Heymann, who was the number-two official in Janet Reno’s Justice Department, did call on President Bush and Congress to hatch a special commission to examine how the suicide hijackers and their fellow conspirators were able to elude the FBI and the CIA.
In a passionate speech on the Senate floor, Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that 3,000 families in his state, which lost parents, spouses and children in the attack, were let down by the government, and he urged his colleagues to create a board of inquiry. (“I will not be satisfied with new assignments of powers or appropriating more money [to law enforcement and intelligence agencies]. I want to know what went wrong, and why, and who.”) At a Congressional hearing, Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence subcommittee on terrorism, said, “We will undertake a complete investigation.” But the House Intelligence Committee and its Senate counterpart have yet to announce plans for any major investigation. Nor has the Bush Administration. Moreover, there is no indication that if an inquiry does happen it will follow in the tradition of the Pearl Harbor probe and be open to public scrutiny.
In 1945, the House and the Senate established a joint committee to mount “a full and complete investigation of the facts relating to the events and circumstances leading up to or following” the attack upon Pearl Harbor. That committee was wracked by internal politics. Some Republicans hoped to show that the now-deceased FDR had stumbled into an unnecessary war (or, worse, had conspired to enter the war), and Democrats aimed to defend the Great Man and remind the public that prior to the war prominent Republican lawmakers had been advocates of isolationism–a very unpopular position following the war. The committee’s final report ended up more to the liking of the Democrats by concluding that institutional problems–not senior officials in the Roosevelt Administration–were to blame. Political maneuverings aside, the committee did hold seventy days of open hearings involving forty-three witnesses; it examined intelligence nitty-gritty; and it produced 15,000 pages of testimony. The committee also made public the records of seven prior Pearl Harbor inquiries, which totaled approximately 10 million words.