Comment: Sins of Commission

The appointment of Henry Kissinger to chair a commission on the September 11 attacks has provoked widespread clucking. As Maureen Dowd aptly put it, Henry Kissinger isn't whom you hire to get to the bottom of something. "If you want to keep others from getting to the bottom of something, you appoint Henry Kissinger," she wrote.

In general, the right has been far more nimble than the liberal left at the use of commissions. The right has made ideological headway by setting up pseudo-official panels of experts to publicize and lobby for predetermined conclusions. One notorious example was the famous Team B, conceived by the hawkish Committee on the Present Danger to claim that the CIA was actually understating the Soviet Union's military strength and to press for more Pentagon spending and a harder U.S. line against the Soviets. Under then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush, Team B in 1976 was given semigovernmental status and access to classified military and intelligence information. Its own estimates were laughably overblown but its figures did have an influence in the Pentagon. Today, one Team B alumnus, Paul Wolfowitz, is effectively running America's Iraq policy.

Another example is the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), which sponsored the 1998 "National Commission on Retirement Policy." The CSIS, mainly a foreign-policy shop, conceived and housed this nominally bipartisan commission, which was stacked exclusively with members who favored some form of Social Security privatization. Its entirely predicable report, calling for individual accounts invested in securities at the expense of traditional Social Security (which would be cut by one-third), was treated as Page One news. The term, "national commission," is not trademarked. With the right political connections and publicity machinery, anybody, evidently, can create a national commission.

Can two play this game? A panel of the Institute of Medicine, in 2000, issued its superb book-length "From Neurons to Neighborhoods" report on factors affecting the well-being of children. The report discreetly included the need for high-quality, early-childhood programs as well as strategies for narrowing income gaps and reconciling work and family obligations. But the panel bent over backward to make these politically charged implications nonpolitical. When liberals issue such reports, they tend to be prudently qualified; and unlike the right, the center-left is averse to political hardball.

In the last issue of the Prospect, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart referred to his work as co-chairman, with former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, of the 14-member U.S. Commission on National Security. This commission, eight months before the 9-11 attacks, warned that Americans were sitting ducks for terrorist attacks and called for a cabinet-level Homeland Security agency, as well as several other concrete measures to improve civil defense. The report sat on a shelf until after the 9-11 attacks.

The Council on Foreign Relations has underwritten a continuation of the Hart-Rudman commission, now functioning as an independent panel, which warned that more than a year after 9-11, America is still at dire risk. Interestingly, neither of the Hart-Rudman reports calls for the kind of assaults on civil liberty and due process of law that the Bush Justice department has embraced. Most of its recommendations have to do with better coordination, better information sharing and better policing of America's borders.

In considering how to prevent a recurrence of 9-11, I'd tend to place more faith in the unofficial Hart-Rudman panel than in the official Kissinger one. And I'd modestly suggest that another unofficial commission of leading citizens investigate the parallel threat to our liberty as Americans in the form of needless increases in police powers. The USA Patriot Act, as interpreted by the conservative courts, sets back progress on limiting domestic spying by at least half a century. How about a National Commission on the Liberties of Americans, chaired by leading libertarians of the left, right and center?

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