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Lessons from the 9/11 Commission

Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 10, 2008

    The unprecedented scale of the terror attacks in Mumbai and the fact that citizens from more than 20-plus countries were killed or injured in the attacks have evoked an international response. This response has been a mixture of sympathy and concern along with muted criticism of what is perceived to be the ham-handed handling of the crisis as well as the inability to take preventive measures. It was reiterated by the visiting US Secretary of State that the Mumbai attacks could have been prevented and cited the example of the United States successfully preventing all attacks after 9/11.

    The Mumbai terror attacks have been described as India’s 9/11 and a starting point would be the establishment of a commission along the lines of the 9/11 Commission that was mandated to examine the events leading up to 9/11 and after, to fix accountability for lapses, and to suggest ways and means to avert a similar situation in the future. The Commissions findings on areas ranging from shortcomings in US diplomacy and military policy to law enforcement and intelligence agencies led to a major overhaul in the way these institutions were structured, and the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security and the office of the Director of National Intelligence. While the former brought all the myriad departments tasked with internal security under one roof, the latter was created to ensure better coordination between intelligence agencies.

    The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, faced major obstacles, beginning with its creation which was blocked for many months by the Bush Administration. Its first Chairman, Henry Kissinger, and vice-Chairman, George Mitchell, resigned after they were accused of facing a conflict of interest. The Commission, though comprised of “private citizens,” had to function in an intensely polarized political atmosphere just prior to the 2004 presidential elections, and despite having statutory powers faced difficulty in obtaining access to government documents. Yet, it produced a widely acclaimed Report, which was made widely available in its entirety as a published work. As one of its members summarized the raison d’etre of the Commission, “here is the American bargain. Each of us, as individual citizens, take a portion of our liberties and our lives and pass them to those we elect or appoint as our guardians. And their task is to hold our liberties and our lives in their hands, secure. That is an appropriate bargain. But on September 11th, that bargain was not kept. Our government, all governments, somehow failed in their duty that day. We need to know why.” This commitment to the American people was instrumental in ensuring that the Committee, though comprised of 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats, was able to table a unanimous Report, even while fixing accountability and giving specific recommendations.

    The Commission identified the lacunae in the functioning of the various agencies tasked with internal security and collecting intelligence, and concluded that root and branch reform with emphasis on better coordination was required. The Department of Homeland Security was created by merging 22 agencies – the biggest reorganization of government in American history. This reorganisation has not been without its problems but the American public expected nothing less after an event of the magnitude of 9/11.

    The creation of the office of the Director of National Intelligence was more problematic since it involved re-organising powerful intelligence agencies that hitherto functioned on limited oversight. Hence, many of the recommendations of the Commission such as giving the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) the power to hire and fire agency heads were missing in the final legislation. There was also sustained opposition from the Pentagon to many of the proposals with the result that the intelligence agencies under the Department of Defence were largely kept out of the purview of the DNI. All this notwithstanding, the DNI effectively replaced the Director of the CIA as the chief advisor to the President on intelligence matters with oversight authority over the 16-odd agencies that made up the US intelligence community. The end goal of increasing inter-agency cooperation was achieved to an extent through the creation of this Office as well as that of the National Counter-terrorism Center (NCTC).

    It may be said that India also has a precedence in the form of the Kargil Review Committee, set up after the Kargil War of 1999. But the relative inaction on the part of the government in accepting and implementing the Committee’s recommendations, according to analysts, were an outcome of deficiencies in its constitution and terms of reference. Its members, though renowned in their own right, were seen to be too closely associated with the government and even had prior affiliation with the agencies they were investigating. The terms of reference were only “to review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression in the Kargil district” and omitted the events thereafter, in terms of investigating the government’s response. The Committee also consciously stayed away from fixing responsibility and only concerned itself with locating the lapses. The Committee submitted its multi-volume report within a time frame of four-and-a-half months but only the executive summary was made public with the remaining 14 volumes comprising annexures and transcripts of testimonies remaining classified. The fact that many parts of the Report were classified led to controversies and accusations that some arms of the government had been let off lightly whilst others were handed out a disproportionate share of the blame.

    Following the submission of the Report, four Task Forces were set up by the government to look into the recommendations on intelligence apparatus, internal security, border management and higher defence management. The Task Forces submitted their reports within four months, which were then approved by a Group of Ministers, but the secrecy surrounding the entire process meant that no substantial systemic reform could be undertaken.

    If the government heeds calls for the setting up of a Commission to look into the terror attacks on Mumbai, it is clear that only if such a commission conducts its proceedings in a fair, transparent and impartial manner will it succeed in its objective. As the late National Security Advisor, J.N. Dixit put it, “involving the citizen in a national security debate is the strongest foundation for national defence.”

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