How the 9/11 Commission overcame partisan opposition

·Reporter
·9-min read

As members of Congress took to the House floor this week to vote on a bipartisan bill that would create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, proponents of the legislation urged Republican lawmakers to come together, as they had after Sept. 11, 2001, and support an independent probe of what happened.

The bill to create a Jan. 6 commission passed the Democratic-led House 252-175 on Wednesday. It’s modeled on the 9/11 Commission, which released an exhaustive report on the attacks that became a bestseller and shaped sweeping, government-wide national security reforms.

A bookstore displays "The 9/11 Commission Report," from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, in 2004. (Seth Perlman/AP)
A bookstore displays "The 9/11 Commission Report," from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, in 2004. (Seth Perlman/AP)

Twenty years after 9/11, the commission’s work is now heralded as the gold standard for such investigations, but it didn’t always have unanimous support. In fact, it wasn’t until November 2002, more than 14 months after the attacks killed roughly 3,000 people, that President George W. Bush signed legislation to create the 9/11 Commission.

“Isn’t that surprising?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mused during her weekly press conference Thursday. Pelosi told reporters she was committed to pursuing an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6, despite recent opposition from Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump.

“There was major opposition to a 9/11 Commission,” she said, adding that she sees the 35 Republican votes in favor of the House bill to create a Jan. 6 commission as a “recognition that this was a bipartisan product negotiated in good faith.”

Not unlike Pelosi and her colleagues in the House, the lawmakers who first proposed convening an independent panel to study the circumstances surrounding the al-Qaida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center faced significant resistance from Republicans in Congress, as well as in the White House.

“Oftentimes when you set up a blue-ribbon commission, something has happened on someone’s watch that they’re usually defensive of, argumentative about, resistant to exposing everything there,” said Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman who helped craft legislation to create the 9/11 Commission and later served as one of its panelists.

Because Bush, a Republican, was in office at the time of the attacks, Roemer told Yahoo News that congressional Republicans “resisted initial attempts to get to the truth of what happened on 9/11. They had more to lose, being the incumbent party.” 

George W. Bush with members of his adminstration
President George W. Bush, with members of his administration, calls for the creation of a national counterterrorism center in 2004. (Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images)

Roemer and a number of other 9/11 Commission veterans, including its Democratic and Republican co-chairs, have been advising Pelosi and House Democrats on their proposal to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol riots since at least February, according to Politico.

During a press briefing on Tuesday, Roemer said he and other 9/11 commissioners had also recently been in touch with a number of Republicans in both the House and the Senate, including members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus as well as staffers for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who serves as the lead Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In a phone interview with Yahoo News, Roemer explained how he and his colleagues in Congress ultimately overcame partisan resistance to the creation of the 9/11 Commission, and addressed some of the concerns cited by Republicans about the proposed Jan. 6 commission. In particular, he cited his own post-9/11 experience to counter the suggestion that an independent probe would be duplicative and would potentially interfere with other investigations into Jan. 6 that are already being conducted by committees in Congress as well as the FBI.

Shortly after 9/11, Roemer teamed up with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., on a proposal for an independent probe into the circumstances surrounding the attacks, including the government’s immediate response and its failure to prevent them from being carried out in the first place. But their pitch was initially rejected by the Bush White House, which wanted the investigation to be conducted only by select intelligence committees in both the House and Senate.

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee at the time, Roemer was part of that joint inquiry, which, he said, “found there were more questions than answers.” 

Tim Roemer
Former congressman and 9/11 commissioner Tim Roemer testifying on Capitol Hill in 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Why and how did the terrorists get into America and the CIA and FBI not tell each other about it? What warnings were there in the presidential daily briefs, and how early were they? What about Congress’s role and mistakes? What about homeland security? What about law enforcement in California, Virginia and New York that may have missed the terrorists living here?”

Roemer said the congressional investigation primarily focused on areas of national security and intelligence, over which the committee had oversight. But, he argued, in order to get a complete picture of what went wrong at every level, from law enforcement to Congress and beyond, it needed a “whole-of-government approach” that would go well beyond the scope of what one or two congressional committees could handle.

Roemer and the other architects of the 9/11 Commission determined it was “absolutely crucial” that the investigation not be conducted by members of Congress or other government employees, but rather by outside experts “who are not caught up in elections, who are not running for reelection every two or every six years, and can devote 10 hours a day to these questions.”

Roemer said requiring that the panel be made up of independent government outsiders with relevant experience was a key part of gaining bipartisan support for the commission, as were the provisions requiring bipartisan subpoena power and the equal division of commissioner appointments between the political parties. (Roemer did not seek reelection in 2002 and went on to serve as one of the commission’s five Democratic appointees.) The legislation to create a Jan. 6 commission mirrors these key components.

And Roemer said one of the most important ingredients of the 9/11 Commission’s success was the support of families whose loved ones were killed in the terror attacks. 

A firefighter looks at photos of 9/11 victims
A firefighter at the opening of the 9/11 Tribute Museum in 2006. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“To succeed overall, you need a third party out there that is advocating for you and fighting for you and explaining what you're doing to the public,” he said. “We were blessed and fortunate enough to have 9/11 families that worked tirelessly, successfully and miraculously to help us every step of the way.”

One of those family members was Mary Fetchet, who lost her 24-year-old son Brad in the Sept. 11 attacks. Fetchet was part of a steering committee led by 9/11 families that advocated for the creation of an independent commission, and this week she joined Roemer and others in calling for a similar investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“As a 9/11 family member, I learned firsthand that average citizens can and should play an important role in advocating for issues that impact the safety of our families and our communities,” Fetchet told members of the press during a briefing on Tuesday. “Today the public has an opportunity to engage in the call to establish a Jan. 6th bipartisan commission to address the current threat of domestic terrorism.”

Roemer said that while the “moral suasion” and determination of the 9/11 families cannot be replicated, “there are many potential areas of support” for a Jan. 6 commission that can play a similar role in helping to fuel momentum this time around. For example, he suggested, “Republicans standing up for truth,” including the 35 who voted to pass the legislation in the House on Wednesday, as well as “pro-democracy groups, from the far left and far right, that are advocating protecting our representative democracy and preserving our republic.”

“Certainly the law enforcement community can be a determining factor,” said Roemer, noting that “the Capitol Police were negatively affected by this.”

Trump supporters clash with police
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

The commission has already been publicly endorsed by the family of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howie Liebengood, who died by suicide days after the Capitol insurrection, which left 140 officers injured. Shortly before the House was set to vote on legislation to create the commission on Wednesday, an anonymous letter began circulating among congressional offices and then on social media in which unnamed "Proud Members of the United States Capitol Police" expressed "profound disappointment" in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for opposing the bill.

The letter, obtained by Yahoo News, was first shared by the office of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., with various chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill, along with a note about Raskin’s recent discussions with several rank-and-file Capitol Police officers who are his constituents.

According to a spokesperson for Raskin, the officer who provided the letter to the congressman’s office said it represents the sentiments of 40 to 50 officers. Though it was printed on the department’s official letterhead, the U.S. Capitol Police have insisted this was not an official USCP statement.

Of course, Roemer acknowledged that there are some fundamental differences between the national political backdrop against which the debate over a 9/11 Commission took place and the far more divisive climate that exists today.

“After 9/11 we were united, we gave blood, we flew the flag, we made donations, we helped out. We didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed a vicious attack on our country had taken place and a hostile power had tried to take our government down,” said Roemer. Just a few months after the violent insurrection at the Capitol, “we now don’t even agree that the event took place. There is not even agreement on the facts and of reality.”

Mitch McConnell, right
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, right. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While this inability to agree on the facts of what happened on Jan. 6 may make garnering public trust in an independent commission much harder, Roemer argued that not pursuing a complete investigation of the attack will only “foster more division and spin off more lies and further erode our trust in each other and our democratic principles.”

“We have to get to the truth, the truth will prevail,” he said. “Even if all the people aren’t convinced, even if this succeeds in convincing 20 or 30 percent of the people about what actually happened and what we can do about it, that’s success.”

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