How the D's and R's faded in 9/11 commissioners' task

Dinners together, humor, rejecting a lot of advice, and a united front against partisan temptation

When we were appointed chair and vice chair of the 9/11 commission, we faced two overwhelming challenges: a mandate of astonishing breadth, and the poisonous partisan waters of Washington. In many ways, the latter was the more daunting. We knew our report would receive scant attention if we failed to achieve unanimity on our findings and recommendations - the worst outcome, in the eyes of the American people, would have been one report endorsed by five Republicans, and another endorsed by five Democrats. Yet each commissioner was appointed by party leaders in a time of extraordinary partisanship. Some in Congress opposed the commission's very creation, the original chairman and vice chairman stepped down over hotly debated conflicts of interest, and many in Washington were wary that the commission would be an exercise in assigning blame to President Bush or President Clinton.

Throughout our hearings, our work was used by members of both parties to issue charges and counter-charges, and was often juxtaposed in media coverage along with political controversies like the publication of the memoir by former antiterrorism chief Richard Clarke. We began our work in the wake of the bitter 2002 midterm elections and proceeded through the presidential primary campaign. Everyone noted that our report was due to come out squarely in the midst of what was shaping up to be a bitterly contested presidential campaign. We were, it seemed, set up to fail.

How did we navigate these partisan waters? To begin with, we rejected a lot of advice from people who told us to be confrontational with the White House, just as we rejected advice to pursue a quiet investigation behind closed doors. We chose a balanced approach, and that made all the difference.

Issuing subpoena after subpoena could have split the commission, and almost certainly would have provoked the White House to claim executive privilege, prompting drawn-out legal proceedings that could have lingered through our deadline. We did issue subpoenas to agencies when we felt they were not being fully responsive. But by approaching the White House with an eye toward negotiation and cooperation - not confrontation - we were able to achieve unprecedented access.

There was no magic to this process. We simply sat down and worked out our differences by remaining in constant touch with the White House - we met and talked a lot. By keeping these lines of communication open, both the commission and the White House were able to gain a full understanding of the others' positions. They appreciated our determination to see everything and everybody necessary to fulfill our mandate, and we appreciated their concerns for national security and the privileges of the presidency. Because we spoke so often, misunderstandings could not impede progress. We ultimately did agree to some conditions on our access, but we talked to every official and saw every document necessary to fulfill our mandate: a satisfactory outcome to both sides.

We also worked hard to develop collegiality within the commission. Too often, in statehouses or Congressional committees, people see each other as only "D's" or "R's." When we met, we met as a commission, not in groups of five Democrats or five Republicans. And we made a concerted effort to get to know one another - for instance, to have dinner at Jamie Gorelick's house in Washington or John Lehman's apartment in New York. It may seem trivial, but the more we got to know one another as people, the more those D's and R's began to fade. Soon a rapport developed among commissioners, humor could defuse tensions, and disagreements emerged over issues, not party interests. Indeed, in the course of our work, the commission did not have a single vote that broke on partisan lines.

The same was true for our public appearances. As chair and vice chair, we decided to always appear together on television, and we encouraged other commissioners also to appear in bipartisan pairs. If a producer called and asked for one of us, the answer was: "not unless I can bring Lee" or "not unless I can bring Tom." In this manner, we became a unit: Instead of being seen as the chief representatives on the commission of our respective political parties, we were the chief representatives of a bipartisan set of commissioners.

Yet perhaps our single most important decision was to focus on the facts. Facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Facts are not ideological. Facts are not Republican or Democratic. Our deliberations on findings and recommendations commenced from our agreement upon the facts of the 9/11 story, not from entrenched ideological positions, such as which administration did more or less to combat terrorism, or which policy demanded validation or condemnation.

Our outstanding staff was organized on these fact-based, nonpartisan parameters. Instead of being divided into a "Republican staff" and a "Democratic staff" like most Congressional committees, we organized our staff around specific issues like "aviation security," "borders and immigration," or "intelligence." Commissioners then turned to staff for the facts, not for validation of a particular argument or ideology. This was liberating. In a city where people would rather get wet than admit that it is raining outside, we permitted ourselves the luxury of beginning from truth, not politics. This allowed each of us to get out of our ideological trenches, and see things in a clear light.

Time was also important; we refused to rush to judgment. We had vigorous, sustained dialogue about what to put in our report. Each commissioner made compromises, big and small, and over the course of several months consensus emerged. Indeed, we couldn't have built consensus without time spent on deliberation - in settling differences there proved to be no substitute for meeting repeatedly and talking things out. The report also benefited because each commissioner went over it several times with a fine-toothed comb. In the end, no matter what impasse we reached, we were always able to return to our agreement upon the facts - each finding in the report is backed by voluminous evidence cited in footnotes, and each recommendation finds its origin in correcting something that went wrong before 9/11.

The final ingredient was the gravity of the task. Each commissioner was deeply moved by 9/11 and the manner in which the country came together in its aftermath. We were also inspired by the families of victims, who had selflessly determined to turn their personal tragedy into something good for the nation. We didn't want to let them or the American people down by allowing our commission to become overwhelmed or fractured by partisan pressures. Certainly, partisan heat crept into our hearings and deliberations - for instance, when a publisher moved up the publication date for Mr. Clarke's memoirs to coincide with his testimony before the commission, we found ourselves cast into a political firestorm in our own hearings, and passions were raised. But we knew that the success of our task, and of our nation's struggle against Islamist terrorism, demands unity of effort across the partisan divide. Any partisan gain that could be achieved in a short-term news cycle would pale in comparison to the long-term benefits that can be achieved through bipartisanship on national security. After all, there's nothing partisan about terror.

There are lessons we take from our experience: to work cooperatively instead of confrontationally; to view one another as colleagues instead of political opponents; to agree on facts before delving into ideology; to take the time to talk and understand different points of view in a negotiation; to allow time for deliberation and dialogue instead of rushing to judgment; and to recapture a focus on the national interest. We might add that the time spent on this laborious task had the complementary benefit of allowing us to emerge from our work as friends, not just colleagues. We hope our friends in both parties benefit from our experience and note how hungrily the American people welcomed our nonpartisanship when we issued our unanimous report.

Each commissioner cares deeply about the tenets of our respective political parties. But none felt that this partisan affiliation precluded coming together. We consciously looked back to the great challenges of the 20th century, particularly World War II and the cold war. Americans overcame these challenges by coming together; so, too, must we come together as one nation to defeat terrorism. In our poisonous partisan atmosphere, that, more than anything, is our most significant recommendation.

Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission, is president of Drew University and a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Lee H. Hamilton, vice chair of the commission, is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

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