Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Observations on the “9/11 Commission Report”

Observations on the “9/11 Commission Report”

Almost three years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission Report (The Report) has finally provided the nation with both a comprehensive account of the attacks and some new insights on security recommendations. No doubt about it: the Commission and its staff obviously did their homework on the September 11th attacks and the Islamic jihadists behind it. And there is a bonus: it reads almost like a well-written novel rather than the final report from a high-level government commission.

The quality and depth of the Report certainly reinforces our own take from the discussions we had with several of the Commission members during the past year. This was a deeply dedicated group, devoted to finding explanations for the September 11th attacks and to identifying security recommendations that could make a real difference in the future. As with the results of the various Pearl Harbor Commissions during WWII, The Report is not the proverbial whitewash job or simple finger-pointing exercise that many feared. And, as The Report so accurately demonstrates, there’s certainly more than enough blame to fill both sides of the aisle.

Taken on its own terms, The Report does make a great deal of sense and it is generally insightful. And yet, given what seems to be a broad national movement aimed at simply adopting The Report’s recommendations whole cloth, we believe that there needs to be a few words about its limitations and shortcomings. It is important to keep in mind, however, that our observations on The Report’s shortcomings are directed less at the content of The Report than at Congress’ mandate in forming the Commission.[1] There is no question that the Commission fulfilled the mission it received. But the mandate itself was arguably a weak foundation for the recommendations that the Commission recognized as being required to prevent future acts of terrorism against the US.

A Flawed Mandate

The Report focuses primarily on “what went wrong” prior to September 11th — the so-called failures in intelligence, communications, and domestic security operations. Rather than concentrating on identifying and explaining the broader long-term goals of the now worldwide Islamic jihadist movement, the on-going shifts in the Islamists’ immediate objectives, and their tactical and strategic options in the future, the bulk of Commission’s work is best seen as the rough equivalent of the process of judicial discovery — gathering and analyzing the concrete evidence about the attacks on September 11th. Who was directly involved in the actions? What were their relationships to one another and to their leadership? How did they obtain information about the targets? Who provided the financing for their training and for the action itself? What were the gaps in security that allowed for the detailed planning required for the execution of the attacks?

As useful as it may be in the courtroom, however, the discovery process is limited both in scope and (more importantly) with respect to the types of issues that it is designed to address. Even where there is sufficient information to answer all those very pointed questions about who, when, how, and so on, the discovery process is about ensuring that the information stays (with all due apologies for the metaphor) “on target,” that the focus is on the events that occurred and not, say, on events that could have occurred, or on tactical options, or on hypothetical conditional speculations about the jihadists support network within the US. In effect, the use of the discovery process allowed the Commission to concentrate on “one case alone” and, therefore, to assume that future terrorist actions could be best be understood and anticipated solely by reference to the lessons from the attacks on September 11th. Unfortunately, as our “failure of imagination” prior to September 11th illustrates, policies and procedures based solely on prior circumstances (e.g., the pre-September 11th procedures for responding to airliner hijackings and the post-1993 improvements to access control for the World Trade Center buildings) are often inapplicable in novel situations.

As we see it, the model for The Report was to provide an account of a specific “battle” using analyses of the (understandably very partial) information “discovered” in the process of determining the accountability for and the causes of the actions on September 11th: the motivations, recruitment, training, and logistical and financial support of the nineteen “actors;” al Qaeda’s pre-September 11th structure, organization, and modus operandi; the status of our intelligence concerning the “actors,” their support network, and al Qaeda prior to September 11th; and the structure and operation of the then current crisis management procedures in New York and Washington, DC. But, as they say, one battle does not make a war and The Report does not offer much in the way of a clear presentation of what the September 11th attacks mean in terms of the longer campaign: an explication of al Qaeda’s goals, strategy, and tactics together with a parallel assessment of the goals, strategy, and tactics of U.S. counter-terrorism and homeland security operations.

In the final analysis, the Commission’s work on identifying and explaining the causes for the events of September 11th and its efforts at tracing the specific motivations and backgrounds of the attackers may help to set the framework for the on-going litigation related to the losses resulting from the attacks. Unfortunately, it is less likely to provide the basis for improving either the intelligence required to anticipate future actions or the methods needed to guide effective future investments in the nation’s security.

American Interpretations

Paradoxically, the solidly America-centric focus of The Report resulted in what we see as its second major shortcoming. Faced with the prospect of coming to terms with the actions of the dedicated Islamist groups now operating throughout the world — of reading and interpreting testimony and documents in Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, and all the rest of the linguistic soup that makes up Muslim society (the “Ummah”), of distinguishing among crime, terrorism, and war, of coming to terms with the outcomes of “red team” exercises — the membership of the Commission appears to have been primarily drawn to ensure domestic political balance (and to provide a more than liberal dose of attorneys). Taken together with the Congressional mandate, the Commission’s role and methods thus seem to have been predetermined by its makeup.[2] Admittedly, employing this kind of “forced deck method” has become rather common in assembling the membership of government commissions but, as the argument goes, the required “technical expertise” was supposed to be provided by the Commission’s staff.

>From its mandate and membership it is not surprising, therefore, that both the hearings and The Report focused on the US — American culture, American institutions, American lives — and concluded that America and Americans are the focus of al Qaeda’s actions. One almost gets the feeling, from the testimony presented as well as The Report itself, that al Qaeda’s objectives in its actions on September 11th were simply “to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers,” “to undermine America’s freedoms,” and “to demonstrate that a small number of ’true believers’ could bring about an all-pervasive fear in all-powerful America.” The Report, in fact, lacks any sense that al Qaeda has objectives beyond attacking America and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth and nothing could be more misleading as a guide to the future security of the nation. And therein lies the second major shortcoming of The Report: killing and displays of power are almost always a means to an end and the ends (the goals), in the case of what is now a worldwide movement, are directly related to the Islamists’ vision of the future of Islam.

In the past, we have written about al Qaeda and fundamentalist Islam and have tried to place the history of the jihadist attacks of the past decade or so — including the ones on September 11th —within the framework of the Islamist goals, namely a reorganized and purified Islam. (Note that this goal is promoted not only by al Qaeda, but also by a wide range of groups and actors that are only loosely affiliated with — and in no sense controlled by — the leadership of al Qaeda.) In the absence of a perspective that speaks directly to goals of al Qaeda and the variety of Islamist groups throughout the world, The Report ultimately offers insight only into one event and, thereby, sidesteps our critical need to understand the global jihadist forces that are the real targets of any proposed reorganization of US security resources.

Al Qaeda, in short, was not established solely to create terror. Rather, as the various fatwahs and communiques demonstrate, al Qaeda was created to save Islam from the West and to open the way for a political and religious restructuring — and purification — of Islam. The language of al Qaeda has been consistent and clear on at least one point (at least to the extent that the translations have been on the mark): the apostate “puppet regimes” of dar al Islam must be eliminated and replaced with a unified pan- Islamic society that follows in all respects the word of the Prophet. In effect, the goal of al Qaeda is to re-create Islam, to fashion Islamic society in terms of what they see as the will of God, not simply to cause the destruction of the enemy. Al Qaeda is at war with the West — and with the U.S. in particular — and its goal is the defeat of the West in order to allow dar al Islam to re-emerge, purified and powerful.

For all its clarity and insight with respect to the causes of the attacks on September 11th, The Report is thus never really clear about why al Qaeda is at war. The Commission’s discussion of war (for example, in Chapter 10) is, in fact, very brief and America-centric in that speaks only to the problems of the use of a US military, designed as it was for the Cold War, in the context of the War on Terror. The result is that The Report’s picture of al Qaeda’s struggle with the West is a picture distorted by assuming that al Qaeda’s tactics are its objectives and, therefore, that US security should be designed to focus on the prospects for thwarting only very specific types of attacks.

The America-centric interpretation of al Qaeda’s goals — seeing American deaths and the destruction of American icons as the jidadists objectives — may not have been of much of a limitation in the Commission’s determination of the causes of the September 11th attacks, but this perspective could easily turn out to be a critical problem if it is used as the sole basis for security recommendations in the future. Implementing extensive security measures to protect what we, as Americans, see as our national treasures — Washington, D.C.’s myriad monuments and government buildings, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and so on-may give us comfort, but that comfort could come at the expense of neglecting targets that are far more critical to al Qaeda (for example, the on-going operations of such critical areas of the US economy as the transportation, communications, financial services, and manufacturing sectors). Resources are always limited and misperceptions of al Qaeda’s past and future goals, its strategy, and its tactics may thus prove to be disastrous. After all, the security recommendations implemented in the aftermath of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that focused on garage and building access controls were not particularly effective in preventing the attacks on the same facilities in 2001. And while the Commission did recognize this problem when they wrote of a general “failure of imagination,” with the germ of a misinterpretation of al Qaeda’s goals embedded in both the content and recommendations of The Report, we believe that a reconsideration of the recommendations will be needed lest the “failure of imagination” turn into a “crisis of imagination” and a “weakness of conviction” turn into an “absence of conviction.”

Institutional Change

As we have noted, aside from its genuinely important observations about the causes of the September 11th attacks, we believe that The Report’s overall recommendations are based on weak assumptions about the import of this one case and the predictive value of the analysis methods the Commission employed. Judicial discovery standards and America-centric interpretations of al Qaeda’s goals, strategy, and tactics are simply not likely to yield great insights when evaluating the effectiveness of future US intelligence and homeland security strategies and tactics in the War on Terror. (Note that even the phrase “war on terror” is, itself, an oxymoron; if nothing else, it is a good indicator of the nation’s misperception of the very identity of the enemy.) The Report’s assumptions about the generally fixed character of American government is, if anything, even weaker — but the results of this error can be far more pervasive and, therefore, lead to potentially far more damaging longer-term consequences.

Government, in our society, is the basis for the legal system; it regulates and sets standards for virtually every aspect of American life — especially the economy; and, most importantly, it is the mechanism through which the people exercise their mandate as citizens. Government, moreover, is, in reality, multiple governments — federal, state, county, and municipal governments all more-or-less coordinated through the auspices of the federal government. And even more significantly, in a war in which the “front” can be anywhere and everywhere, government is the means for organizing and coordinating public and private sector efforts at every level and location.

Even a quick scan of the changes instituted in and by the federal government during World Wars I and II — not to say the Civil War — indicate that, in the past, questions about the effectiveness of the “business as usual/government as usual” model were taken very seriously. Each of these past crises led to significant changes in both government and private sector operations —particularly with respect to government-private sector cooperation. Some of the changes were modest; others were more fundamental. (It is fascinating, for example, to read that, in many circles, Honest Abe was referred to as “King Lincoln, the man who destroyed our constitutional republic.” And many of us, now advanced in years, can still vividly recall the endless criticisms of F.D.R. by the America First crowd.) On the whole, during these past crises American principles of government and governance were changed judiciously — but they were changed and changed in ways that were determined first and foremost by what was important in meeting the demands of the crisis.

In a sense, The Report does advance two approaches that, in terms of current government operations, might be regarded as just this side of revolutionary. First, the Commission suggested (in about the strongest terms imaginable) a reversal of the twenty-five year old Congressional trend toward more committees, subcommittees, and a dilution of authority with respect to intelligence oversight by proposing a return to a single, unified Joint Intelligence Committee. Second, the Commission proposed a means to rectify perhaps the most glaring defect in the National Security Act of 1947, whereby the Director of Central Intelligence assumes full responsibility for coordinating intelligence, but lacks the authority over budgets and personnel – arguably, the only criteria that matter in 21st century Washington. The new post proposed by the Commission — a National Intelligence Director — is thus probably what was intended in the1947 legislation, but subsequently derailed by DoD and the other agencies that imagined that they would lose control over resources.

Viewed from the perspective of the nation’s needs in the War on Terror, however, the Commission’s approach to reform appears to us to be locked into proposing what may turn out to be only minor variations on the “government as usual” approach. In fact, The Report not only takes today’s governmental structure as pretty much a given, it neglects to provide a new role for what is perhaps the one really critical — and novel — feature of today’s counter-terrorism and homeland security pictures: the private sector. Most (if not all) of the operation of the US economy (and even much of government) is not under direct federal control and, in lieu of a strategy aimed at destroying the various government icons, al Qaeda and the other related jihadists groups have spoken repeatedly of the importance of targeting these “joints of the American economy” – the private sector operations that are the real heart of America and the American way of life. As valuable as the Commission’s “revolutionary” recommendations may be with respect to changes in federal policies and practices, they simply fall short of providing the needed guidelines for parallel changes in either the private sector or in public-private sector relations. The Commission’s proposals for an integrated approach to intelligence are clearly warranted — and would undoubtedly have been an improvement even during the Cold War; in the War on Terror— as in the wars of the past— it is likely that far more attention to public and private sector cooperation— and, probably, integration — will also be required.

Final Remarks

The three areas of concern with The Report that we have outlined are, we believe, examples of more than simple omissions in the Congressional mandate that motivated the Commission’s work. As we see it, they are indicators of several bedrock problems that directly affect America’s current efforts to make intelligent, well-informed decisions about future investments in the nation’s security. The Report provides a vital first step in the process of developing the foundations for security in a world where terrorism is fast becoming the preferred method of battle. We believe that the nation must now expand the Commission’s mandate into a continuing analysis and evaluation process that is designed to improve our understanding of the Islamic jihadists’ goals, strategies, and tactics as well as the types of goals, strategies, and tactics that the US will require for its security in the future. Broader scope and vision are one important result of The Report and the Commission’s excellent work. It is now up to the US, as a nation, to insure that this first step is not the last step. Otherwise, we may simply be tempted to “paste new labels on old bottles” and return to government and business as usual — at least until after the next attack.




[1] According to Public Law 107-306, Title VI, 602, “The purposes of the Commission are to:

    • examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurring at the World Trade Center in New York, New York, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Virginia;
    • ascertain, evaluate, and report on the evidence developed by all relevant governmental agencies regarding the facts and circumstances surrounding the attacks;
    • build upon the investigations of other entities, and avoid unnecessary duplication, by reviewing the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of —the Joint Inquiry of the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives regarding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, (hereinafter in this title referred to as the “Joint Inquiry”); and
    • other executive branch, congressional, or independent commission investigations into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, other terrorist attacks, and terrorism generally;
    • make a full and complete accounting of the circumstances surrounding the attacks, and the extent of the United States’ preparedness for, and immediate response to, the attacks; and
    • investigate and report to the President and Congress on its findings, conclusions, and recommendations for corrective measures that can be taken to prevent acts of terrorism.”

[2] Public Law 107-306, Title VI, 603(b)(3) states that “It is the sense of Congress that individuals appointed to the Commission should be prominent United States citizens, with national recognition and significant depth of experience in such professions as governmental service, law enforcement, the armed services, law, public administration, intelligence gathering, commerce (including aviation matters), and foreign affairs.”