The nation’s media and political establishment were horrified the other week when a presidential candidate cast aspersions on the 9/11 Commission report. Republican Vivek Ramaswamy, in an interview on Blaze TV, responded to a question on the 9/11 attacks, “I don’t believe the government has told us the truth…Do I believe the 9/11 Commission? Absolutely not.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is laboring on the campaign trail while awaiting a miracle to save his candidacy, announced that he was “deeply offended” by Ramaswamy’s doubts. But was Pence ever “deeply offended” by government coverups?
After the 9/11 attacks, a joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee investigation in late 2002 exposed a vast array of federal intelligence and law enforcement failures preceding the hijacking of four airliners. Because the George W. Bush administration often stonewalled the Senate investigation, 9/11 widows and widowers pressured Congress to create an independent commission to investigate.
Bush, along with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, stacked the commission with former congressmen, high-ranking government officials, and others entwined in the Washington establishment (“Insiders all,” as a New York Times headline noted). Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 widow, complained, “We wanted journalists, we wanted academics…We did not want politicians.”
When the 9/11 Commission’s report was released in July 2004, it was instantly hallowed by the media because it was bipartisan and did back flips to avoid casting blame. The commission became the Bush administration’s most famous faith-based initiative. The commission appeared far more concerned with restoring trust in government than in embarrassing their patrons. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were allowed to testify without a transcript and not under oath. Americans never heard what they said. Instead, the commission offered a synopsis of their comments—as if it would have been impious to quote them directly. The White House was allowed to edit the final version of the commission’s report before it was publicly released.
Though the 9/11 Commission report is beloved inside the Beltway, it would not be admissible in a court of law because the commissioners relied on torture to produce many of their key assertions. New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, noted, “An analysis by NBC News found that more than a quarter of the report’s footnotes—441 of some 1,700—referred to detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s ‘enhanced’ interrogation program, including the trio who were waterboarded.”
Shenon reported that commission members “forwarded questions to the CIA, whose interrogators posed them on the panel’s behalf. The commission’s report gave no hint that harsh interrogation methods [including waterboarding] were used in gathering information.”
The commission’s report was released almost three months after the shocking photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad had been published, and two months after key Justice Department and Pentagon memos leaked out, exposing the Bush administration’s bizarre torture regime and legal rationale. Yet, as Shenon noted, “The commission demanded that the CIA carry out new rounds of interrogations in 2004 to get answers to its questions.” The 9/11 Commission became profoundly complicit in the torture at the same time it pretended to objectively judge the Bush record.
The commission report came out at the same time that Bush was exploiting the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War for his re-election campaign. The biggest boon the commission conferred on Bush was to deny the role of the Saudi government in financing the 9/11 attacks. Commission executive director Philip Zelikow, who was in contact with Bush’s chief political advisor Karl Rove, fired a staffer who pursued the Saudi connection too vigorously. Shortly before the report was finished, Zelikow and another staffer rewrote key passages of the report to remove “virtually all of the most serious allegations against the Saudis.” Commission member John Lehman “was struck by the determination of the Bush White House to try to hide any evidence of the relationship between the Saudis and al-Qaeda,” Shenon noted.
The 9/11 Commission ignored the joint House-Senate investigation’s evidence of Saudi agents bankrolling multiple Saudi hijackers in the United States before the attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis). But the Bush administration suppressed the 28 pages of that congressional report and they were not released until 2016. Bush had tightly embraced Saudi leadership after the 9/11 attacks, despite that regime’s complicity; instead, Bush administration officials repeatedly implied that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was somehow to blame.
If the 9/11 Commission had quoted the 2002 memo (apparently from the FBI) stating that there was “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these [9/11 hijacker] terrorists within the Saudi Government,” Bush might have been seriously damaged. But the commissioners didn’t go looking under any rocks they were told to ignore. Former FBI Special Agent Stephen Moore, who led one of the key FBI teams investigating 9/11, stated in a 2017 affidavit: “Based on evidence we gathered during the course of our investigation, I concluded that diplomatic and intelligence personnel of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia knowingly provided material support to the two 9/11 hijackers and facilitated the 9/11 plot. My colleagues in our investigation shared that conclusion.” Former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham said in 2018 that the FBI has “just thrown the biggest blanket they can find over everything that has to do with the Saudi role in 9/11,” as Brian McGlinchey reported.
Commission co-chairmen Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton touted their original report as a triumph of transparency and full disclosure. Yet, in their jointly-authored 2006 book, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, they complained that “we thought we were set up to fail” in part due to the brazen lies by numerous federal agencies and their stonewalling of the investigation. But instead of being denounced for kowtowing, the 9/11 commissioner co-chairmen became venerated as visionary statesmen.
The 9/11 Commission members have regularly issued “update” reports that should have earned them even more derision. Their tenth anniversary report in 2014 heaped praise on the utterly incompetent Transportation Security Administration and scoffed at Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency crimes: “Some reports exaggerated the scale of the programs. While the government explained that the NSA’s programs were overseen by Congress and the courts, the scale of the data collection has alarmed the public.” Almost everybody who followed Snowden’s leaks recognized that Congress and the courts utterly failed to leash the NSA. The NSA was so paranoid that its definition of terrorist suspect includes “someone searching the web for suspicious stuff.” But the 9/11 commissioners showed little or no concern about the NSA’s cyber attacks on Americans. As a Techdirt analysis noted, the commission’s 10th anniversary report “is everything the DHS/NSA/FBI, etc. could have hoped for. It calls for more of the same, only faster, harder and with bigger budgets.”
Obliging presidential candidates to endorse the 9/11 Commission report is as idiotic as requiring them to publicly confirm their belief in the legend of a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. As Ramaswamy declared, “There is no credible evidence that 9/11 was an ‘inside job,’ but ironically, when the government systematically lies about Saudi involvement and the media runs interference, that lends plausibility to an otherwise unlikely claim.”
The 9/11 Commission report was the result of the political elite claiming a prerogative to blindfold other Americans. But as federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson declared in 2019, “If people don’t have the facts, democracy doesn’t work.” The 9/11 Commission should be a warning that Washington dignitaries are the last people we should trust to expose the truth. If presidential candidates cannot recognize pious frauds from the political establishment, they should get out of the damn race.