Too Soon for a Coronavirus Commission

7 May 2020, 1602 EDT

This is a guest post from Erik Dahl, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the author of Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond (Georgetown, 2013). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Naval Postgraduate School or the U.S. Department of Defense.   

As many parts of the United States begin to slowly reopen amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, there are increasing calls in Congress and from emergency management experts for a national commission to examine how well we were prepared for, and responded to, the global crisis. Congressional committees are beginning to hold hearings about the pandemic, including testimony expected soon from Dr. Anthony Fauci, and pressure will likely build for a more extensive investigation. Supporters argue that a commission is needed in the same way national investigations in the wake of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 helped us understand how those disasters could have happened. 

Just as with those previous cases, such an effort will be needed eventually to help the country heal from the current crisis. But history suggests it is too early now to begin that process, because early efforts to investigate national calamities tend to produce more heat than light.    

Lessons from previous investigations

Pearl Harbor, for example, was the subject of eight official investigations and inquiries, all but one of which were begun while the war was still being fought and which contributed little to understanding what happened. It was not until the war was over that Congress established a Joint Congressional Committee to “make a full and complete investigation of the facts relating to the events and circumstances leading up to or following the attack.” The committee held hearings from November 1945 to May 1946, and in July 1946 it issued a 39-volume report that charged the senior navy and army officers in Hawaii had “failed to defend the fortress they commanded.”   

Investigations after the 9/11 attacks followed the same pattern. The first major study was a congressional Joint Inquiry, led by the Senate and House intelligence committees, which was established in February 2002. In December 2002 it completed a rambling report of more than 800 pages, including many blank sections where classified material had been redacted, which attracted little attention when it was published and is even less remembered today. 

The 9/11 Commission model is a better one to follow. It did not begin its work until more than a year had passed following the attacks, in November 2002, and its final report was published in July 2004, nearly three years after the event it examined. Although the report was criticized for not finding specific fault with anyone and for providing weak recommendations, it has served as a national narrative that helped the country understand the tragedy it had gone through.     

Advantages from additional time

In the case of a future coronavirus commission, additional time will offer three advantages. First, it will allow some of the passions raised by the crisis to cool, making it more likely that the commission can be as bipartisan and objective as possible. 

Second, additional time will give the scientific community a chance to make greater strides in understanding COVID-19, and that increased knowledge will be essential in helping the commission judge the appropriateness of the response to the outbreak. 

And third, a delay will be useful because it will take us past the presidential election this fall. No matter who wins the Oval Office, the president next year will be in a much more secure political position, with fewer incentives to make quick decisions—including decisions about the make up or the response to a coronavirus commission—for partisan benefit.

What can we expect from a national commission?

When it does come time for a coronavirus commission to be established, we should remember two additional lessons from the investigations into Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The first is that no matter how much effort is put into making the commission bipartisan and objective, it is likely to have a very difficult birth. Even the 9/11 Commission got off to a rocky start, marred by the resignation of Henry Kissinger as the first commission chair, delays in funding, and disputes over commission access to documents and witnesses. 

Former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke
testifying before the 9/11 Commission

The second lesson is that a successful coronavirus commission is likely to be one that delivers a consensus report, as the 9/11 Commission did. The Joint Congressional Committee that investigated Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, issued several reports in addition to its 29 volumes of documents and testimony, including a minority report that dismissed the primary findings of the committee as “illogical.” The divided nature of the committee and its failure to agree on a single report meant that it was not until 1962, when Roberta Wohlstetter published her famous book Warning and Decision, that a coherent narrative of the tragedy was available. 

How useful will it be?

Jordan Tama examined a broader range of blue-ribbon commissions and found that they are more likely to be influential when they are formed by the executive branch rather than Congress, they are made up of a small number of highly respected individuals who are not currently serving in the government, and their final reports are unanimous. 

Even a consensus report, however, may not be able to produce much in the way of useful policy recommendations. Scholars who study government reform commissions often reach the depressing conclusion that these august bodies often fail to accomplish much. Amy Zegart, for example, studied twelve major commissions that examined American intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts in the decade after 1991, and found that although most of them reached roughly the same conclusions about the need for government reform, little was actually done. 

The 9/11 Commission Report is remembered today as the driving force behind two major reforms that many experts believe have helped to keep Americans safer than they would have been otherwise: the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and of the National Counterterrorism Center. But even the highly respected 9/11 Commission had not been able to force these changes by itself. As Amy Zegart, Jordan Tama, and others have noted, these reforms only happened because the release of the commission’s report coincided with several other factors that reinforced the push for change: CIA Director George Tenet resigned, clearing the way for change at the top of the intelligence community; revelations about intelligence failings in assessing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities added impetus to the calls for an intelligence shake-up; and pressure from the families of 9/11 victims eventually became impossible for American leaders to ignore. 

At this point, of course, it is far too early to know what the circumstances will be when a future national commission releases its report. We may consider it a success if that report can merely record a clear narrative of this tragic, often bewildering period in our nation and our world’s history. We can hope that the commission will be able to do more than that, but we must first win the battle in front of us, before we can determine how to avoid the next one.    

The urge to set up a national commission soon is understandable, as our leaders want to be seen as doing something to provide closure to this crisis as quickly as possible. But closure will only come with time, and the lessons of past crises tell us that it is not yet time for a national commission and a national reckoning that will bring us past the coronavirus pandemic.