By Bill Steigerwald
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.
Q: Are you satisfied that the 9/11 Commission did its job fully?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.