Most Americans alive 20 years ago remember where they were on September 11, 2001. They remember the airplane hijackings, the attacks, and the collapse of the Twin Towers. They remember the nearly 3,000 who perished.
As our nation refocuses on that searing event, it will be tempting to pay attention to the lessons we’ve learned in the decades since when it comes to dealing with foreign threats and to homeland security. These are, of course, crucial. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we also learned some important lessons about Congress and how it works, and about the benefits to the country of a truly bipartisan approach to difficult issues.
I say this because I was honored to serve as the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, along with former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. Over 18 months, we reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and conducted 1,200 interviews. We sought to be independent, impartial, thorough, and non-partisan, and joined our Commission colleagues, equal in number from both sides of the aisle, in issuing a bipartisan, unanimous report.
During that inquiry we learned many lessons that are still valid today. We learned, for instance, that there’s a thirst for accountability in this country. Americans expect their country to work and they’re disappointed when it does not. They react negatively when bureaucrats say, “Trust us.” This is why we pursued our inquiry in an open manner, not behind closed doors — transparency helped the public gain confidence in our work.
We also learned the necessity of pursuing consensus. Without a unanimous report, our effort would have failed. Bipartisanship in national security, we found, is essential.
There’s no question that the specifics the Commission recommended — a Director of National Intelligence, to pull together the work of the country’s 16 intelligence agencies, and a National Counter Terrorism Center whose analysts work together to connect the dots and prevent future attacks — have made a difference. Though there have been lapses, intelligence and law enforcement have disrupted scores of plots. Our aircraft and borders are more secure. Our military eliminated the leadership of Al Qaeda and ISIS and decimated their capabilities. The institutions created after 9/11 have made us safer.
Yet the challenges ahead are many — and, notably, many of them involve Congress. A major unfinished recommendation from the 9/11 Commission is changing how Capitol Hill works. Because the Commission recommended the creation of powerful executive-branch institutions, it also recommended powerful congressional committees to serve as watchdogs. Instead, DHS still reports to dozens of oversight committees. Agency leaders spend precious time before them and receive muddled guidance. When everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge.
The challenge of domestic terrorism also requires strong government powers checked by rigorous oversight. The Justice Department and the FBI must lead the effort against domestic terrorism, carefully monitored by watchdogs, above all Congress and the courts.
The United States has also fallen short in addressing the upstream causes of terrorism. Our military and intelligence services are superb at finding, tracking, and eliminating terrorists. Yet it is easier to destroy threats than to rebuild societies. Prevention is less costly than military intervention, but it requires time and patient effort.
Looking beyond the report, the threat to our information networks demands focused congressional action. Ransomware and cyberattacks are with us daily. These threats to our security and prosperity are urgent. No one wants to read some future commission report about our collective “failure of imagination” to address the cyber threat when its dangers have been in plain sight for years.
Perhaps most notably, the most important lesson of the 9/11 Commission involved the absolute and central importance of bipartisanship. None of what followed its report would have been possible without it. We cannot address our country’s problems unless we work together.
The experience of the 9/11 Commission and the nation’s experience rallying together after the attacks shows that this is not a pipe dream — though it will be up to Americans and their leaders to determine whether it becomes reality. I’m optimistic that our system of self-government can rise to meet the challenges before us — but it will take the kind of bipartisan determination that the 9/11 attacks awakened.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.