Lee Hamilton and the Lessons of 9/11

Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who served as a U.S. congressman from Indiana for 34 years, was vice chair of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the failures that led to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks five years ago. He and commission chairman Tom Kean also co-wrote "Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission." I talked with Hamilton by phone from his offices in Washington, where he is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Are you satisfied that the 9/11 Commission did its job fully?

Hamilton: Well, we took a first cut at drafting the history of 9/11. We investigated as thoroughly as we could. When you conduct an investigation of this magnitude against a deadline, which we certainly had, you constantly have to ask the question if you are looking at the right things and discarding the right things.

We had two mandates. One was to tell the story of 9/11, and I think we did that reasonably well. The story that we told has stood up and will certainly become the starting point for anybody who investigates 9/11.

The second mandate was to make recommendations to make the people more secure. We’ve had reasonable — not complete — success there, with roughly half of our recommendations being adopted and several pending that could be adopted in the near future.

I talked to Gov. Kean in January 2003 before he really got into the work of the commission. He foresaw that one of his biggest challenges would be to overcome the political obstacles. How did that turn out?

Hamilton: Well, one of the things we say in the book was, “We were set up to fail.” A principal reason for that was the political environment in the city of Washington and perhaps in the country at the time. The fact that we would be reporting right in the middle of a presidential election, in the summer before the election in November 2004, and the intense partisan atmosphere in the city. I think we learned more than we cared to about the partisan divisions in the country.

We were an independent commission — five Republicans, five Democrats. And we became in the course of our investigation quite determined to put partisan feelings aside. Tom and I understood that we would only have an impact if we had a consensus point of view. The partisan atmosphere was clearly our greatest obstacle and it surfaced from time to time in our questioning of witnesses and in the pressure on commissioners from various quarters. There was a lot of wariness of the commission from politicians. There were a lot of attacks on the commission from pundits and the media. And there are a lot of Americans who have an extreme distrust of government and anything connected to government, including a nonpartisan commission.

Did you point fingers at any person or entity that was most to blame for 9/11?

Hamilton: No. We were not charged with that responsibility. We were a statutory commission and the statute was very clear to do the two things I’ve indicated – Number 1, tell the story. Number 2, make recommendations. … There was a lot of interest in us "pointing fingers," as you put it, and holding a person or a series of persons accountable. As you go through the story of 9/11, you invariably come across people at the high level and the low level who did not perform as well as you would have liked them to perform. … First of all, we did not have the authority to hold individuals accountable. Secondly, to do so would have been very divisive. We would have been judging the performance of everybody from the ticket-taker at the Logan Airport in Boston to the security guards there and airplane attendants to the president of the United States. We concluded that what we could best do was to look at all the activities of Americans prior to 9/11 and make a judgment about the system itself. And what we said was there were systemic failures throughout the government and throughout the country.

What were the most valuable lessons you learned from your investigation — and are they being implemented today?

Hamilton: I think Tom (Kean) would join me in saying we saw that the system we work in is not always efficient, not always effective, not always prudent and that it can certainly stand improvement. But at the end of the day, it worked reasonably well. We, both of us, emerged with more faith in that system than when we started.

You asked where it is in terms of implementation: We made 41 recommendations. Roughly half of them have been enacted into law. There are several very important ones pending in this session of the Congress, which I hope they will approve within the next few weeks.

What’s the most important recommendation you’d like to see pass?

Hamilton: Let me give you several: Number 1, homeland security dollars should be allocated on the basis of risk and vulnerability and not on the basis of politics.

Number 2, states and localities have to put into place an emergency response plan, practice that plan regularly and figure out ahead of time who is in charge. When disaster strikes, hundreds of decisions have to be made very quickly. You’re not going to make all of them correctly, but somebody has to be in charge.

Third, first-responders have to be able to communicate with one another. That’s such a no-brainer, it’s hard to believe we haven’t accomplished that five years after.

Fourth, I think we’ve begun to make some progress on better information-sharing in the intelligence communities, but we’re still lagging and have a lot of work to do. The FBI reform needs to be pushed further. We’ve got to set up a civil liberties oversight board that protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. We still have a long way to go in screening passengers getting on airlines. We have an enormous amount of work to do in terms of detection of dangerous materials. And we think Congress needs to make some considerable reforms.

The mantra we hear from the Bush administration is that "we’re safer than we were before 9/11, but not safe." Is that the best we can hope for in a real world full of huge bureaucracies and politics and all that stuff?

Hamilton: Well, that language comes from our report. We used it ourselves. I can’t be too critical of it. But I think it’s basically accurate. We’ve taken a lot of steps since 9/11 to make ourselves safer. We’ve spent a lot of money. We’ve greatly extended the powers of government. We expanded the number of government employees. We’ve done scores and scores of things to try to make ourselves safer. I think we have. You can always argue whether the money has been most effectively spent and so forth, but, yes, I think we’re safer.

Government officials and even the media tend to pretend that perfect safety is possible. Anybody driving to work for 10 miles in any city in the country knows that’s not true.

Hamilton: I think that’s a very important insight. There is no such thing as perfect safety. We live in a different kind of a world today and risk is a part of that world.

It’s a growing risk. You can also say the world is a more dangerous place today. Both things are true: We are safer, the world’s more dangerous. They may seem contradictory; they really are not. But we have to understand that some risks have to be incurred.
We are also moving into a debate now on this question of the cost of security. Almost up to this point, the people advocating taking steps for security win every debate, because you don’t want to oppose it. But we are finding out that security is hugely expensive. Budgets have exploded. We’ve gone from surplus to huge deficits in the federal budget. The defense budget is off the charts. The Homeland Security budget rises rapidly.

But not only are more people and more resources being brought into the war on terror, the government has also become more intrusive in such things as surveillance but in many other areas as well. So, you are beginning now to see some push-back on all of this in the courts, and a little bit in the Congress, and you say, "Hold on here. Are we going a little too far?"

I think that debate on the cost-benefit, if you would, of security measures and on the balance between security and freedom will just be a part of our lives now for a good time to come.

A year ago you said the threat of a terrorist attack still remained "extremely dangerous." Is that less true today?

Hamilton: No. I think we will be attacked again. I do not know when. We’re very clear about the intent of the terrorists. Nobody’s tried to hide that fact. We do have questions about their capability. But the events of Madrid and London and Southeast Asia and other places make it very clear to me they will come at us again. They are very patient. They are very sophisticated. There was quite a time lapse between the first attack on the World Trade towers and Sept. 11. I feel fairly confident that somewhere they are plotting to get at us.

Why wasn’t that 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade towers a wake-up call that there were these Islamist extremists who were intent on doing us serious and spectacular harm?

Hamilton: Well, I think, looking back, we all saw that we missed a lot of signals. By all, I really mean almost all of us. There were some voices speaking out — but very few and they were not much listened to. But it wasn’t just that attack. You had the U.S.S. Cole. You had the embassies in East Africa. You had the interception of Osama bin Laden’s messages. You had the “chatter” as they say in the intelligence community. Looking back, the easy thing is to say, “My God. How did we miss all of that? It was so obvious.” But we did miss it. At least those with authority to act missed it and it turned out to be a very bad mistake.

Thirty years from now are there going to be secrets of 9/11 revealed that will shock or amaze us?

Hamilton: I think that 9/11, like the Lincoln assassination, or the Kennedy assassination, or Pearl Harbor, will always be remembered. It will always be investigated. There are going to be 1,001 theories put forward as to what happened. There are going to be all kinds of criticisms of our report — some valid, some nutty. Those of us on the commission recognized that we were taking a first cut at these things. Who knows what will be revealed in the future? But almost certainly you can think that more information will come out and it may be that considerable revisions would have to be made in our report. Thus far, I do not think that’s the case. I think the report has stood up very well.


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