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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Inside the 9/11 Commission
Tim Roemer, ’79, spent two years on the 9/11 Commission. He discusses what it was like to play a key role in the high-pressure,
high-visibility public hearings.

By Tom Nugent

     

Tim Roemer says he will never forget the moment when the grieving widow handed him her murdered husband’s wedding ring.

Kristen Breitweiser was the mother of a 3-year-old daughter. Her husband died on September 11, 2001, while working on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

“She told me that she wanted me to remember that event,” says Roemer. “She said: ‘They found it about six weeks after 9/11, and they found it with part of his finger still in it. This is all I have left of my husband. I want you to hold onto that ring as you go about your work on the commission. And whenever you look at it, I want you to think about what might happen in the future if you and the other commission members don’t ask the tough questions, don’t knock the doors down, don’t put these witnesses on the spot and get us accountability.”

Tim Roemer—the former six-term Democratic congressman from Indiana—was about to begin what he now calls “the most important assignment I will ever receive in my lifetime.”

In the next two years, along with nine other high-profile Americans on the commission, the 48-year-old politician-turned-lobbyist would interview 1,200 witnesses and examine 2.5 million documents. They would attempt to understand why the 9/11 attacks had not been prevented and how to stop such attacks in the future. They would fight a running battle with a dozen highly secretive federal agencies that often seemed as intent on protecting their own “turf” as they were on disclosing the intelligence foul-ups that had allowed Al Qaeda to wreak havoc on New York and Washington.

Often described by the Washington Post and other national publications as “the most outspoken member of the commission” and “a thorn in the side of the White House,” Roemer would again and again step forward to demand access to information that could shed light on exactly how the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001 had taken place.

During that long and exhausting struggle, the former congressman from South Bend says he kept his gaze locked firmly on Ron Breitweiser’s wedding band.

“That ring never left me for two years,” Roemer told @UCSD magazine during a recent, lengthy interview in Washington. “All during the hearings, I kept thinking about the people who’d lost folks on 9/11.

“I knew from beginning to end that it was my job to try and make sure more people don’t lose their husbands or wives or sons and daughters in the years to come. And I can tell you—that kind of responsibility just eats you alive. And so I decided, early on, that we had to get it right. We had to uncover the facts about 9/11 and let them speak for themselves. And we had to come up with a series of recommendations that would help prevent the errors and the mistakes and the failures that made us so vulnerable to the terrorists.

“Our world changed forever on 9/11. In the space of a few minutes, we went from a ‘cold war’ to a ‘hot war.’ We went from the old world of a threat from the Soviet Union to the new world of threats from terrorists driving pickup trucks and using laptops in Tora Bora [Afghanistan].“

This is going to be a long, brutal battle. My hope—and I know it’s shared by all of the others who served on the commission—is that we did our job well enough to help us win that battle, and to prevent a 9/11 from ever happening again.”

* * *

After serving six terms (1991-2003) as a self-described “centrist” Democratic congressman from the heavily blue- collar Third District of Indiana (South Bend and environs), Roemer seemed a perfect candidate for the 9/11 Commission. He had served as a vocal member of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11 during his last term in the House and had energetically spearheaded the creation of a commission into the terrorist attacks. By the spring of 2002, he was frequently locking horns with the White House, which insisted that the Republican-controlled Congress could do a better job of uncovering intelligence failures and remedying them.

But Roemer and his congressional allies fought that battle and they won it, according to most veteran Washington observers, by continually bringing forward family members who’d lost loved ones during the attacks. This strategy proved effective, as the grieving family members (including such highly visible figures as Kristen Breitweiser) stepped in front of the TV cameras to demand the creation of an independent inquiry into the attacks. And so, in November 2002, it was announced that the 10-man commission would be created with a budget that would eventually reach $20 million.

Roemer was a logical candidate. Seven-term California (Fresno) Democratic congressman Cal Dooley is a longtime close pal of Roemer since their years in the House. “The record shows that Tim Roemer was a courageous legislator who stood up to anyone who tried to tell him how to vote,” says Dooley. “But he also has a sense of humor. He isn’t full of his own self-importance, and that counts for a lot in Washington.”

Along with these powerful credentials, the usually easygoing and affable Roemer also enjoys some high-octane personal connections inside the Washington Beltway—having married Sally Johnston, daughter of legendary Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston, back in 1989.

And perhaps most important, Roemer had a reputation as a Democratic Party “moderate” well to the right of the Party’s historic liberal wing. That eased fears that the commission’s findings and judgments might be based on political partisanship.

“I think we did ask some tough questions, and I think we put some people on the spot,” Roemer said soon after the publication of the commission’s 567-page report in late July of 2004. “But I’m absolutely convinced that politics didn’t enter into anything we did. We were motivated by three things: we had the eyes of history on our backs; we had the claws of Al Qaeda on our shoulders, and we had the grief of 9/11 in our hearts.”

“Our Mandate Was Sweeping”
Selected by both Congress and the president, the September 11 Commission members held 12 public hearings between March 31, 2003, and June 17, 2004. During those highly visible sessions, which covered a total of 19 days, the 10 commissioners on the panel took turns questioning 160 different witnesses—including the national security advisor, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and more than a dozen national security and intelligence-gathering agencies.

In addition, the panelists spent several hours interviewing former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, as they struggled to put together the fractured jigsaw puzzle of national security in the wake of 9/11.

President George W. Bush had first named former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to chair the commission, but he soon disqualified himself because of potential conflicts of interest. The White House replaced him with former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a likable GOP moderate who’d spent the previous decade as president of Drew University.

In the end, after considerable jockeying, the panel contained five Republicans and five Democrats—signaling that a spirit of nonpartisanship and cooperation would control the proceedings.

As the hearings got under way in the spring of 2003, political observers on both Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue realized that they were about to witness an unprecedented event in American history: a public discussion of some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

They were also about to watch a fierce struggle between the White House and the investigators over access to information about intelligence and military failures—information so explosive that it might very well have helped decide the presidential election.

Battling For The “Barbecue Potato Chips”
“ Serving on the September 11 Commission was an incredibly difficult and nerve-wracking and exhausting process,” Roemer says with a weary shake of his head. “Right from the very first day of our work, I think all of us understood that we were probably engaged in the most important investigative hearings of our generation.”

The first crucial step was to make sure that in every interaction the commissioners had with the news media, all comments would be scrupulously balanced and non-partisan. “We insisted on this kind of balance, to the point that it actually became rather comical at times,” recalls Roemer. “We started calling the chairman [Republican Tom Kean] and the vice chairman [Democrat Lee Hamilton] ‘The Twins’ because they simply refused to go anywhere without each other!”

Describing the long days they spent together during nearly two years of nonstop information gathering, Roemer paints a vivid picture of 10 people working day-in and day-out at the edge of exhaustion. “Typically, we’d start at 8:30 in the morning and go straight through to 5 or 6 p.m., with very few breaks.

“Usually, we’d work in a 20-foot-by-20-foot conference room, and lunch would be brought in to us. We must’ve eaten a thousand tuna fish sandwiches, and the big deal each day was whether or not you could get a bag of barbecue potato chips, instead of the regular chips, along with your diet Coke!

'Quite often, we’d work well into the dinner hour—and then they’d give you three or four chapters to study at home until two o’clock in the morning. After that, you’d try to grab a few hours of sleep . . . then come in the next day and do it all over again.”

After only a few meetings, Roemer says the commissioners realized that if they were going to do their job effectively, they would have to perform an exquisite balancing act. Their self-imposed task was to maintain enough pressure on the White House and the executive-branch intelligence agencies to force disclosure of the information they needed. At the same time, they had to make sure they were not perceived by the public as engaged in a blame game, or in the kind of cheap-shot, election-year partisanship that would surely have eroded both their credibility and their authority.

And it was here, during this period of front-page battles over access to information, that Tim Roemer would play his ace card—the extensive and intimate relationships he had developed with the 9/11 families during his earlier investigative work with the congressional joint inquiry.

Each time the White House or one of the intelligence agencies balked at a commission request for access, Roemer and the other commissioners would make sure that some of the highly visible family members came forward to demand that such access be provided. In the end, according to many Washington observers, the families proved to be the decisive factor in the release of scores of important documents while also prompting vital testimony from such key figures as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and President Bush.

“There’s no doubt that Tim was a thorn in the side of the administration, when it came to gaining access to both people and documents,” says commission member Slade Gorton, the former Republican senator from Washington. “And it was primarily due to his influence that we eventually got everything we needed.

“Tim worked very, very hard, and one of the biggest roles he played—because of his earlier work on the joint inquiry—took place because he was very close to the [9/11] victims’ families. The families took strong positions, and they insisted on access to the information . . . and many of them did it because they trusted Tim.”


* * *

As the hearings heated up in the spring of 2004, it became obvious that the most telling confrontation would take place over the question of why the U.S. defense and intelligence apparatus had failed to prevent the attacks on New York and Washington.

During public hearings that opened an astonishing window on the workings of the U.S. intelligence community, the commission analyzed several remarkable disclosures:

• CIA Director George Tenet, who later resigned, told the commission that he’d been warning the administration for months that a terrorist attack might take place in the United States: “The system was blinking red.”

• National counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke testified that he had implored the Bush White House for several months before 9/11 to heed his warnings about possible attacks by Al Qaeda, but had never been asked to present his findings to the president.

• A July 2001 memo by a Phoenix, Ariz.-based FBI agent warned that Al Qaeda terrorists were reportedly undergoing training at U.S. flight schools, but the FBI never acted upon the warning.

In spite of these and other obvious warnings, however, the commission would find that the nation’s air defense system (to say nothing of its airport security systems) failed dismally to prevent the hijackers from wreaking devastation on September 11.

* * *

After wrapping up its work in the summer of 2004, the September 11 Commission announced its findings in a massive and painstakingly detailed report that will surely rank as one of the most important—and widely debated—public documents of recent American history. While refusing to pinpoint blame for the breakdown in national security that allowed the tragedy of 9/11 to occur, the commission issued 41 separate recommendations aimed at reforming and repairing the system. The most important of these was a proposal to place all security matters in the hands of a newly created “national intelligence director,” who would have the budgetary and personnel authority to change the way the United States will defend itself against terrorism in the future.

After several months of wrangling over details, congress surprised many of its critics by passing a wide-ranging intelligence reform bill in early December that implemented many of the changes recommended by the 9/11 commission. The 600-page measure, which enjoyed large majorities in both the House and Senate, will create a new National Director of Intelligence, along with a national counter-terrorism center and beefed-up border patrols, among many other reforms. But the sweeping new package of laws left many questions unanswered, and many of its provisions seemed vague and ambiguous to Washington insiders. For example, the new plan does not give the soon-to-be-appointed national intelligence director control over CIA operations, so the stage seems set for potential conflict and continuing turf wars. That reported weakness, along with several other flaws led many in Congress to criticize the plan. “The bill simply adds another layer of bureaucracy to the intelligence process, which doesn’t solve any problems,” said Rep. Martin Sabo, a Democrat from Minnesota in an interview in the New York Times on December 8. “If the president wants greater supervision of intelligence, he can do that today. The National Security Council exists for that purpose.”

* * *

And what of Tim Roemer’s own future, now that the commission has done its work and disbanded? These days, he says he’s quite content with his new life as director of a middle-of-the-road, Washington-based political think tank (the Center for National Policy) and as a part-time political science professor at nearby George Mason University in Virginia.

Ask him for a candid assessment of the commission’s performance, and Roemer will tell you that he was “quite pleased” with the “coherence and credibility and accuracy” of the report, itself . . . but also “quite uncertain” about whether or not the nation will be capable of making the reforms that he and the other nine commissioners so urgently recommend. “Those of us who served on the commission recognize how slow Washington can be to embrace change,” says the former UCSD political science student, “and we know it’s a battle to take turf from one bureaucracy and give it to another. It’s like plucking somebody’s eye out, to take money from one organization and give it to another!

“ But we need bold reforms now, and we need them badly, because time is running short. We have to move from the cold war to the new hot war, the ‘Jihadist’ war, that all of us are going to be facing in the future. “We have been slow to do that in the past, but we better do it now. Because if we fail to make these changes—difficult or not—then we are going to remain vulnerable, far into the future. And I don’t think any of us ever want to go through a tragedy like 9/11 again.”

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer. He wrote the book Death at Buffalo Creek, published by W.W. Norton.

RELATED LINKS

 

Frequently Asked Questions About the 9/11 Report
VIEW

9/11 Commission Report
VIEW

Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer
VIEW

"I knew from beginning to end that it was my job to try and make sure more people don't lost their husbands or wives or sons and daughters in the years to come."