As an inquiry into the complex subject of international terrorism, the 9/11 Commission’s 10th anniversary reprise is a slipshod farrago of circular argumentation, faulty reasoning and naïve gullibility about the claims of senior officials – but it does serve official Washington’s purpose.
One of the many things I learned in government is that the investigative commissions which inquire into a scandal, disaster or atrocity are usually intended to bury the real causes of the incident and trumpet other circumstantial or irrelevant details as if they are shocking or novel. In other words, commissions are cover-ups pretending to be exposés. This is not always the case, but as the stakes rise, it becomes the accepted practice.
One of the masters of this technique has been former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Indiana). He cut his teeth as chairman of the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, where he was careful to stop short of implicating President Ronald Reagan of impeachable criminal culpability, and, more importantly, provided the same service to the future President George H.W. Bush. A few smaller fries took the fall, and Reagan, the man whom Republicans retrospectively credit for making the sun shine and the rain fall, was chastised for not being in control of his own immediate subordinates.
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Bush, of course, was out of the loop. In 1992, Hamilton chaired the House October Surprise Task Force, and failed once again to find Bush culpable of criminal misdeeds – in this case, the allegation being that Bush was involved in secret and illegal negotiations with Iran to deny the American hostages’ release until after the 1980 elections. Twenty years later, however, Hamilton confessed to investigative journalist Robert Parry that he now has second thoughts about the October surprise. As they used to say in vaudeville, now he tells us.
Hamilton is most famous, of course, as the vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. It was a classic example of a cover-up disguised as an exposé. Distinguishing itself from most government reports, it was well-written and contained cleverly misleading stern language about “the system blinking red” and the nonfeasance of agencies which “failed to connect the dots.” But the demands for radical reform and reorganization mysteriously softened when the commission’s gaze fell upon those occupying senior policy positions. The trillions of dollars poured into the war on terror pursuant to the commission’s myriad of recommendations were a giant diversion, a game of three-card monte played on the taxpayer to conceal the fact that it was George W. Bush’s gross negligence after receiving clear warning of al-Qaeda’s intentions more than a month prior to the attack that was primarily responsible for the tragedy.
The commission was also tolerant of exceedingly slippery testimony by senior officials like national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and CIA director George Tenant, testimony that in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s case may have slid into perjurious territory (the testimony of FBI acting director Thomas Pickard directly conflicted with Ashcroft’s). It is not surprising that former Sen. Max Cleland resigned his seat on the commission, calling the whole process “a national scandal.”
And now, nearly a decade and a half after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hamilton and his friends are back at it. On July 23, 2014, the members of the original 9/11 Commission released a review assessing the government’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the panel’s original 2004 report. The commissioners – and, no, permanent Washington fixtures like Hamilton, Thomas Kean and the other panel members never really go away – predictably interviewed current and former high officials in the national security establishment, and just as predictably discovered from them that the government was doing a pretty darned good job in combatting terrorism.
“The government’s record in counterterrorism is good,” the report states, and “our capabilities are much improved.” Is it time to breathe a sigh of relief? No, or this wouldn’t be a Washington report: despite all those efforts, the threat from terrorism is, in the words of one of those interviewed, FBI director James Comey, “an order of magnitude worse.” A 2011 study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies found that, counting all agency costs across the government, the war on terror cost up to that point about $4.4 trillion, and deficit financing costs for that expense could add another $1 trillion by the year 2020.
I infer that Comey is suggesting we need to spend an order of magnitude more money to meet the threat, because during my tenure in government, the solution to any agency’s problem was invariably a bigger budget. The commissioners agreed with his hyperbole, writing darkly about the American public’s ostrich-like ignorance: “On issue after issue . . . public awareness lags behind official Washington’s.” To counter the “creeping tide of complacency” that has overcome the American people, the report, reading like a televangelist’s sermon, urges the government to make clear “the evil that was stalking us.”
While the report makes heavy weather of the breakdown of security in Iraq during 2014 as the potential next big threat, it says not a word on how persons in our government, having used fear and exaggeration to exploit public emotions after 9/11 and hijack the war on terror by invading Iraq in furtherance of their own agenda, created the very circumstances that led to that breakdown. Nor, when decrying the terrorist breeding ground of the Syrian civil war, do the commissioners acknowledge the decades-long role of US allies like Saudi Arabia in fomenting and subsidizing jihadist movements (sometimes with US connivance).
Finally, the panel does not ask the most fundamental question: Has the United States’ distinctive style of fighting the war on terror, with its military invasions, drone strikes, secret prisons, torture and special renditions, created more terrorists than it has killed or incarcerated? As an inquiry into the complex subject of international terrorism, the 9/11 Commission’s 10th anniversary reprise is a slipshod farrago of circular argumentation, faulty reasoning and naïve gullibility about the claims of senior officials. But as an example of how the “deep state” and its operatives like Hamilton exploit a witch’s brew of fear, selective amnesia and agency agenda-setting to entrench the interests of both the governmental and corporate segments of the national security complex, the report is a stand-out.
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback on August 27, 2013. He is currently writing a book about the sociology of the national security state, to be published in 2015.