Just say no to typical Washington move: A ‘9/11 Commission’ for coronavirus

NBC News reports that preliminary discussions have begun on Capitol Hill regarding the establishment of a 9/11 Commission-type inquiry about the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. The discussions are said predominantly to involve Democrats and to be focused on the Trump administration’s performance. As outlined, the exercise would smack of the worst aspects of the 9/11 Commission: the partisan blame-game, which eventually petered into the look-like-we’re-doing-something creation of bloated and ludicrously expensive new bureaucracy.

The 9/11 Commission was a brainchild of the political class, which is why Washington remembers it fondly. To be fair, the report it generated was well written, as these extravaganzas go. It was remarkably gimlet-eyed about radical Islamic ideology (what would be more accurately described as sharia supremacism) as the instigator of jihadist terrorism — indeed, much more willing to confront this challenge than the progressive political class’s typical approach of reimagining Islam into a relentlessly “peaceful” creed to which terrorism is anathematic “anti-Muslim activity.”

That said, the 9/11 Commission was primarily an exercise in partisan politics. That is why, in the actual formation of substantive counterterrorism policy, the commission was ignored once Washington’s virtue-signally objectives were achieved. Quite contrary to the commission’s conclusions, it became de rigueur in the Obama years to shift our national security approach to opposing “violent extremism,” on the premise that fundamentalist Islam is no more likely to spur terrorism than movements derived from other religions or political agendas (e.g., limited-government conservatism, Second Amendment advocacy).

The 9/11 Commission started out as a partisan blame-game, much like what congressional Democrats envision for a coronavirus commission. It should go without saying that the jihadists were culpable for the atrocities that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. But there would have been no partisan advantage in dwelling on this — it would just have drawn more attention to Islamic radicalism, a matter Washington would rather stick pins in its eyes than acknowledge. So, Democrats put the spotlight on the Bush administration, which had been in power for all of eight months at the time of the attacks. It was portrayed as asleep at the switch, blind to the neon-burning signs that a mass-murder attack was being plotted. 

Republicans naturally countered that the focus should be on what they portrayed as eight years of Clinton administration ineptitude: the determination to treat jihadist terrorism as if it were a mere law enforcement problem that could be addressed by subpoenas and indictments; the failure of will to capture or kill al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden when opportunities presented themselves; and so on.

Matters came to a head when the Bush Justice Department highlighted the Clinton Justice Department’s imposition of “the wall,” a set of procedural guidelines that essentially prevented the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence division from sharing information with the bureau’s criminal investigators. This geometrically increased the probability of a catastrophic intelligence failure at some point. In the event, it was especially inconvenient because one of the commission’s Democratic members, Jamie Gorelick, had been President Clinton’s deputy attorney general when the wall regulations were implemented — although Democrats pointed out that the Bush Justice Department could have unilaterally rescinded the regs but opted not to do so (evidently fearful of protest by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved of the wall regs and attempted to reinstate them when the Department of Justice rescinded them post-9/11).

With it dawning on the dueling partisans that the blame-game was beginning to bloody both sides, an uneasy truce took hold. Ultimately, neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration was blamed for the attack — which was, after all, the work of our jihadist enemies. Instead, the government’s contributory negligence was attributed to the intelligence agencies — mainly the FBI and the CIA — for failing to share information. On that score, the role of the wall was whitewashed in a few sentences, as if it were a trivial bit of guidance that intelligence and law enforcement officials had misconstrued.

This was the inevitable prelude to the signature Beltway solution: more bureaucracy. Like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, out of the 9/11 Commission’s report emerged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The rationale was that 9/11 illustrated the need for better intelligence sharing. But while DHS was being conceived and midwifed, the FBI fought bitterly behind the scenes to maintain its status as the nation’s domestic security service, in charge of the collection and flow of intelligence. By the time it was finally established in 2003, DHS was the proverbial rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic, inheriting supervision of a sprawl of pre-existing agencies. It’s current yearly budget is about $48 billion.

As for ODNI, if the problem was that the intelligence community’s 16 component agencies failed to share intelligence and work toward national security priorities effectively, what better solution than, yes, to add a 17th agency. As anyone could have predicted, ODNI has in 15 years become a bloated bureaucratic empire (sitting atop the roughly $55 billion national intelligence budget, which is separate from the $20 billion military intelligence budget). Whatever benefit, if any, ODNI has provided could have been produced easily by the existing agencies. Helping promote the discredited political narrative that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election is not exactly value added.

One can see already how a coronavirus commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission would play out. In this election year, Democrats would push to get the inquiry up and running in time for the campaign’s stretch run. They would seek to illustrate that President Trump failed to take the threat of pandemic seriously, that the government’s initial coordination of vital testing regimens was woeful, and that this resulted in potentially the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Republicans would counter that the inadequate testing rollout was because the Obama administration left the government’s health care bureaucracy in shoddy condition — the same administration, the GOP would add, that botched the response to the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in 2009-10, with 12,000 American lives lost. They would stress that President Trump saved the day by cutting off Chinese travel to the U.S., a move Democrats first condemned as racist, but without which the epidemic would have been much worse.

After both sides had bludgeoned each other sufficiently, and once the 2020 election was in the rearview mirror, a voluminous report would blame the mess on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and create a new federal leviathan to coordinate state-federal and private-public partnerships in response to health care crises. After all, why would we use the existing Homeland Security bureaucratic behemoth for that?

Here’s an idea: Let’s not sign on for that again. 

It will take months of determined work to ride out the virus, get Americans back to work, and address our deep economic and financial distress. After that, there will be plenty of time for Congress’s endless roster of committees and subcommittees to hold hearings and tell us what went wrong — in that spirit of bipartisan collegiality for which they are so well known.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.

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