BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In the aftermath of 9/11, America had been under attack from foreign enemies.
The results of the previous presidential election less than a year earlier had been in dispute, Congress was divided along bitter partisan lines and the nation’s intelligence community was questioned about what it knew and when it knew it.
For former members of the 9/11 Commission, fast forward 20 years and the landscape and debate seem familiar, but now a congressional Select Committee will be asked to untangle an assault on democracy whereas the previous commission sought answers as to how America’s enemies could launch such deadly attacks on the homeland.
“I don’t think there were intelligence failures,” said former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick of the Clinton Administration when she compared the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “I think that the intelligence was there but there was not an effort to bring the intelligence together and I think that the question for the Select Committee is why? What happened? Why were the lessons of this commission not followed there?”
The 9/11 Commission found intelligence was siloed inside of agencies and not readily shared while government bureaucracy often stifled debate and action in the face of a growing threat.
Better, but not full, oversight of a top secret budget that has grown to $80 billion was one result of the Commission’s work.
9/11 Commission Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton is hosting a reunion of commissioners at Indiana University this week for panel discussions to be included in a documentary titled, “Are We Safer Today?”
The documentary looks back on the work of the Commission and the changes it wrought to determine how well the investigation and recommendations stand up today.
“None of us would change a word of that report and nothing in the report has been undercut by things we’ve learned since,” said former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehman.
Hamilton recounted how then-President George W. Bush asked him how he did during the 9/11 crisis.
The former congressman from Evansville told the president that he was asking the right question.
When CBS4 News asked Hamilton what he answered to, “the right question,” Hamilton said he thought Bush hit the right note in response to the crisis.
When asked whether Bush got it right in the lead up to 9/11, Hamilton said he thought the attack could not have been prevented.
“A significant fraction of the report was based upon classified information,” said former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey. “As to whether or not it would change our view of what happened on 9/11, I don’t think so.
“The evidence is there that we reduced the threat of external attacks on the United States.
“We may have, and I would say we did go too far in taking away the civil rights from the rest of us, but we have not been attacked since that date.”
Former Democrat congressman from South Bend Tim Roemer was the second Hoosier to serve on that 10 person commission who said he has a great regret over one significant recommendation that Congress refused to adopt.
“How is it we couldn’t get that one final recommendation passed into law that had to do with Congress,” said Roemer, “which is a jurisdictional committee issue to kind of blow up the system of committees and redo it for the 21st century. We could never get that done.”
Roemer said he worked behind the scenes recently with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, to establish a congressional committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol but was forced to settle for a Select Committee with two Republicans on board.
He remains optimistic that the nation can weather the political and constitutional crisis fomented by President Trump’s refusal to accept the November 2020 election results and the divide it inspired.
“We love our country,” said Roemer. “We think America’s special. We know we can do anything when we put our hearts and minds to it and we can work together. That’s the kind of spirit that we need today.
“How do we stay together as a country and fight the threats that we see internally?”
The commissioners will hold three briefing sessions with students and the public Tuesday which will be filmed for the documentary which is due out next fall.