After the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, members of Congress called for establishing an independent commission to examine what happened, why, and how future insurrections could be prevented.
In a letter to House Democrats that accompanied a draft bill, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., proposed an “outside 9/11-type commission, with bipartisan support,” to “investigate and report on the facts and causes relating to the January 6 domestic terrorist attack upon the Capitol Complex… and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”
Not only Democrats but Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., =issued calls for a bipartisan probe. Along with Pelosi, Graham cited the 9/11 Commission of 2002-04 as a model.
Compared to Congressional investigations currently under way, an independent commission would have broader authority and be a step removed from partisan politics. Commission members are normally nominated by the president and legislative leaders from the respective parties, but they cannot be removed for political reasons.
A big reason for the 9/11 Commission’s success were its leaders, chair and former governor Tom Kean (R-N.J.) and vice-chair U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). The two men were determined to produce a report that received unanimous committee support. It also contained recommendations for reforming intelligence gathering and analysis that were largely adopted by Congress and the executive branch.
In today’s polarized climate, the question is whether it is possible for Congress to create a similarly unified, blue-ribbon panel investigating the Capitol riot, especially since some members of Congress were accused of aiding and abetting the rioters.
Whereas the 9/11 Commission investigated the most serious foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the alleged crimes on 1/6 were conducted after an election which the defeated incumbent president falsely claimed was fraudulent.
So far, the prospects for the establishment of an independent, 1/6/21 Commission are not good.
First of all, the Pelosi bill sets up an 11-member panel consisting of seven Democrats and four Republicans, with President Biden choosing the chair. Republican leaders, who have their own legislative proposal, want equal party balance.
Second, there are large partisan differences on the scope of the investigation.
Democrats want the commission to examine events months before 2021 that place the 1/6 assault in context. In particular, they would like to explore the activities of extreme right groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters, and their possible connections to Trump officials. Furthermore, Democrats want to know what President Trump knew prior to and during the attack, and what he did.
In response, Republicans want a narrower timeline closer to 1/6. They argue that the commission should investigate Black Lives Matter activists and left-wing groups such as Antifa, which the GOP alleges were the real perpetrators of violence. They believe any government responsibility for the Capitol breach belongs to law enforcement and military agencies, not the Trump White House.
Third, there are bound to be disputes over who would be named to the commission.
It is fair to ask whether there are any respected senior politicians or experts who would not be accused of partisanship or having a closed mind on Trump and the 1/6 events. Retired senators were well represented on the 9/11 Commission, but many current retirees criticized Trump or cast votes on removing him from office.
Maybe we shouldn’t hang our hats on a commission. Contrary to legend, the 9/11 Commission wasn’t perfect.
To produce a unanimously-adopted report, the Commission found that both the Clinton and Bush administrations contributed to the failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks. Rather than assign blame to individual leaders, the report attributed primary responsibility to the lack of coordination and control among intelligence and military agencies.
A similar effort by a 1/6 Commission would sacrifice the truth on the altar of partisan balance. The Capitol insurrection would not have happened without Trump’s insistence that the election was rigged. Furthermore, institutional failure to put down the uprising can be traced in part to the president’s inaction.
If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was the U.S. attorney who prosecuted those responsible for the 1994 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, will be overseeing the Justice Department’s probe. There is nothing keeping Garland from getting to the bottom of the 1/6 plot.
Still, if a 1/6 Commission is not established, it will signal that an organized effort to terrorize a branch of government for the purpose of overturning the legitimate election of a president is only a crime of political passion.
Which is what those who seek to trivialize the events of that day want us to believe.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on. Twitter, @mcclelef.