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Commentary: 9/11 Commission

Saturday, May 22, 2004

The 9/11 Investigative Commission has come and gone from New York City after holding public hearings at The New School. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says the city most affected by the terrorist attacks saw the commission at its worst.

Until this week, the 9/11 commission had been a model of bipartisan truth-seeking - not perfect, but for the most part a rare and inspiringly earnest attempt to discover the facts about the cataclysmic event that has transformed our world. High praise to chairman Tom Kean. Can you even imagine this commission had Henry Kissinger remained in charge?

But here in our front yard, something went terribly wrong in the two days of hearings. It began on Tuesday, when Commissioner John Lehman tore into the city officials who directed the 9/11 rescues. Here is his now infamous question and part of the response by former fire commissioner Thomas von Essen.

TAPE: it's scandal, not worthy of the boy scouts.

No it's not. That's offensive

Whatever shortcomings police and fire officials were guilty of during the crisis of their lives, the scandal is not how they responded, but the way Lehman questioned them. He should be ashamed.

But then the commission erred just as grievously in the other direction. Wednesday's session was marked by softball questioning of former mayor Giuliani. 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick expressed regrets about THAT on my call-in show yesterday.

GORELICK: there are questions I wish we had asked

Brian: One reason for the fawning treatment?

GORELICK: Giuliani gave a powerful opening statement that reminded us of his leadership on the day of 9/11.

Brian: Among the topics Gorelick wishes they had pursued more vigorously: Giuliani's role in allowing police and fire department turf battles to fester, so much so they never deployed the radios that might have worked on 9/11. That might be a REAL scandal.

Personally, I still have high hopes for the commission's final report. after watching MOST of their public work, and interviewing four of the commissioners, I think they have the potential to set a modern standard for bipartisanship and truth in government, in an era of polarization and lies. But we learned this week that even these commissioners have careers to build and reputations to protect. Let's hope their two days in New York were their darkest hours.

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