It produced an extensive report — both a detailed analysis and a gripping narrative that changed Americans’ understanding of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000, and the terrorist threat. Its 41 separate recommendations led to specific changes to the structure of government, the creation of a director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center.
But the pandemic is a very different circumstance — not a discrete one-day event but a crisis that unfolded over months, affecting the entire world and not just the United States. The American response was overwhelmingly led by state and local governments; Sept. 11 produced a largely federal response. Despite the publication of thousands of news articles and even books examining what went wrong, huge unanswered questions remain.
Could intelligence officials have worked more closely with epidemiologists to track the virus as it took hold, and do the same with future emerging infections? Could the mass lockdowns last spring have been avoided, or at least limited to inflict less damage on the economy? How do state and local governments coordinate with Washington in a crisis that affects the whole country?
“This is very important,” said J. Stephen Morrison, an expert in global public health at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who also serves as an adviser to the planning group. “It’s the biggest national trauma we’ve experienced since World War II. Six hundred thousand people have died. Our institutions failed in a staggering way and our politics failed and our public health system was shambolic. We have to come to terms with all of that.”
Backers of the commission idea sense that they now have a critical window. The Trump presidency is in the past, and the 2024 elections are far enough away to keep the effort from getting caught up in presidential politics. A commission established this year could deliver a report in 2023, after the midterm elections.
Views differ about how such a panel would be structured. Mr. Menendez says it needs the imprimatur of Congress, with leaders of both parties and the president appointing members, as was the case with the Sept. 11 panel, which was led by Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former congressman from Indiana. Mr. Menendez’s bill calls for a 10-member commission that would include at least one economic policy expert, one public health expert and one former governor appointed by each party.
Mr. Zelikow said he believed the panel should be nonpartisan — as opposed to bipartisan — and argued that the Sept. 11 model would not work in such a highly polarized climate. He fears congressional leaders will name people who are more invested in protecting their own parties than in the truth, which would “not help America heal” and only “further damage faith and trust in American governance.” But, he said, the effort needs “congressional buy-in.”
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