The president's national security adviser sat at a witness table, grimacing slightly as she consulted her memory.
She had just been asked about the title of an intelligence briefing provided to the president more than a month before the 9/11 attacks. "I believe the title was 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' " she responded.
It was April 8, 2004, and the witness was Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser for President George W. Bush and the first woman to serve in that role.
She was testifying on national TV before what was called the 9/11 Commission — officially the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The moment was fraught with peril for her party as the Bush administration stood accused of being underprepared for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Those who wonder why Republicans today are resisting the creation of a new independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol might review the tape of that moment in 2004 for a potential insight. That's because the new commission plan has been advertised as being modeled on the 9/11 Commission, and Republicans have long memories.
The atmosphere for Rice's appearance that day was tense and the stakes inestimably high. The implications for the presidential election that was just months away were unmistakable.
Of particular interest in Rice's testimony was the President's Daily Brief received by Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, five weeks before hijacked airliners slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a field in southwest Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks, and roughly twice that many were injured.
Families of some who died that day were in the Senate hearing room when Rice arrived. One of the Democrats on the commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, wasted little time getting to the Aug. 6 briefing. The document was at the heart of the contention that the Bush administration had been focused elsewhere and had missed the importance of warnings about an imminent attack within the United States.
Rice acknowledged the briefing had focused on hijacking but insisted it did not mention anything about airplanes being used "as missiles." Other commission members tried to press her on this, but her exchanges with the chairman and vice chairman were respectful. Still, the initial colloquy with Ben-Veniste became a focal point, particularly because the commission was only allowed to interview Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in private at the White House.
The spectacle of Rice and other members of Bush's inner circle under questioning was far from the image the administration wanted for what it called the "war on terror." Bush's approval rating in Gallup polling that March had been 49%, and his likely opponent for the fall, Sen. John Kerry, was the preferred choice of 52%.
Republican opposition to the commission
Rice was featured in one of the very few congressional commissions ever to receive this level of attention. Most are created and live out their mission with little notice. Indeed, Congress has created nearly 150 commissions of various kinds in just the last 30 years, roughly five a year.
Some have a highly specific purpose, such as a commemoration. Others are more administrative, such as the five-member commission overseeing the disbursement of business loans during the early months of pandemic lockdown in 2020. Others have been wide-ranging and controversial, such as the one created to investigate synthetic opioid trafficking.
In the initial weeks after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, the idea of an independent commission to probe the origins of the attack and the failures that let it happen seemed a no-brainer. It had broad support both in Congress and in public opinion polls. It still enjoys the latter, as about two-thirds of Americans indicate that they think an independent commission is needed. The idea has fared well — particularly when described as being "9/11 Commission style."
But support in Congress has since become a partisan affair, despite the efforts of Rep. John Katko, a Republican of New York, who was tasked with negotiating details with Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Katko reported back success on his demands to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. The initial proposal for a 7-3 Democratic majority and superior subpoena powers for the Democratic chairman had been negotiated to a 10-member body split evenly between Democrats and Republicans with shared staff and subpoena powers along the 9/11 model.
But McCarthy replied by opposing Katko's product, and more than 80% of the other House Republicans did too. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., initially said he was keeping an open mind but then announced that he too was opposed. This makes it highly unlikely that 10 of McConnell's GOP colleagues will be willing to add their votes to the Democrats' and defeat a filibuster of the bill.
Republicans have argued that two Senate committees are already looking at the events of Jan. 6, as House panels have done as well. The Justice Department is pursuing cases against hundreds of individuals who were involved. Former President Donald Trump and others have said any commission ought to also be tasked to look at street protests and violence that took place in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd.
But with all that on the table, several Republicans have alluded to their concern about a new commission "dragging on" into 2022, the year of the next midterm elections. "A lot of our members ... want to be moving forward," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 2 Senate Republican to McConnell. "Anything that gets us rehashing to 2020 elections is, I think, a day lost."
Resistance even after 9/11
It seems surprising to remember now, but there had been resistance to creating an independent commission even after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The initial focus for most Americans was not inward but outward, on urgent efforts to identify those responsible for the attacks. That became a campaign to capture Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators in al-Qaida. The group had been operating from Afghanistan, so U.S. forces went into that country to find them and remove their allies, the Taliban, from power.
The Taliban were toppled but bin Laden escaped, and U.S. forces have been engaged there ever since. The troop numbers have declined in recent years, and President Biden has indicated that all combat troops will be out by this year's anniversary of the 2001 attacks.
The enormous national anger generated by those attacks was also channeled by the administration toward the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was conceived to prevent any recurrence of attacks on such a massive scale. Arguments over that legislation consumed Congress through much of 2002 and became the fodder for campaign ads in that year's midterms.
The same anger was also directed toward a resolution to use force, if needed, in dealing with security threats from the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That authorization passed Congress with bipartisan majorities in the fall of 2002, driven by administration claims that Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction." It became law weeks before the midterm elections.
Once those elections were over, the Republicans in control of both chambers finally agreed to create an independent commission to seek answers about 9/11. Bush signed the legislation on Nov. 27, 2002.
The beginning was hobbled when the first chairman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and vice chairman, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, decided not to continue. But a new chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, filled the breach and performed to generally laudatory reviews.
The commission conducted more than 1,200 interviews in 10 countries and reviewed 2.5 million pages of documents, including classified information. It interviewed both the current and immediate former presidents and vice presidents.
Its final report, which came out nearly four months after Rice's appearance, focused largely on the inadequate communication and coordination among the various U.S. intelligence agencies. But the report also provided ammunition for critics of the Bush administration, who maintained it should have perceived the threat of al-Qaida sooner or more specifically. The report could also be read as a critique of the way the administration had pivoted from al-Qaida to an invasion of Iraq, which had not been involved.
There was also stinging criticism of Congress and its often shortsighted priorities, which the report said afforded too little attention to the potential for terrorism. One Republican committee chairman called the report "a poke in the ribs for Congress." There were calls for a special session to enact the commission's recommendations after that November's elections.
And while the critique could be called balanced, it was galling for some Republicans because it was released just days before Democrats were to hold their quadrennial convention and nominate and celebrate their candidate, John Kerry, for president. Support for the war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, had declined enough to become Bush's salient weakness. Indeed, on Election Day, initial exit polling indicated Bush was losing. Hours later, it would come down to the electoral votes from Ohio, where Bush's win remained uncertain until the wee hours.
What happened on Jan. 6 this year reminded many in Washington of the terror that spread through the city on Sept. 11, 2001. As the Twin Towers in New York melted to the ground and the Pentagon spewed smoke, rumors spread of a fourth hijacked plane heading for Washington. It was believed even then that the fourth plane was targeted for the Capitol itself, before passengers stormed the cockpit and the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
But before the news of United Airlines Flight 93 crashing far away was known, many members of Congress had run from the building in terror. At sunset that evening, many members stood together on the Capitol steps to sing "God Bless America."
For at least a few hours after the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, a comparable sense of shared peril and purpose seemed to prevail. Members returned to both chambers to conclude the business before them: the certification of the Electoral College vote and the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
All current members of the Senate are old enough to recall the events of 9/11 — the youngest among them, Jon Ossoff of Georgia, was 14 at the time — and the national trauma that followed. But many also remember the long struggle to come to terms with what had happened and to come to terms with what the 9/11 Commission found and reported.
It would only be logical for that memory to inform the imagination of any Republican contemplating a similar independent commission to probe what happened on Jan. 6. The commission would likely look at various right-wing groups that were involved, including the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, some members of which have already been charged. The commission might also delve into the social media presence and influence of various white supremacists.
Moreover, just as the 9/11 Commission was expected to interview the current and preceding presidents, so might a new commission pursue testimony from Trump and some of his advisers, both official and otherwise, regarding their roles in the protest that wound up chasing members of Congress from both chambers into safe holding rooms underground.
House Minority Leader McCarthy was asked last week whether he would testify if a commission were created and called on him to discuss his conversations with Trump on Jan. 6.
"Sure," McCarthy replied. "Next question."
All this may soon be moot. If Senate Democrats are unable to secure 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster of the House-passed bill, the measure will die and the questions to be asked will fall to existing congressional committees, federal prosecutors and the media. To some degree, all can at least claim to have the same goals and intentions as an independent commission might have.
The difference is the level of acceptance their findings are likely to have with the public.