President Bush’s decision to create an independent commission to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America was long overdue. “We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th,” declared the president, adding that the investigation should “follow all the facts wherever they lead.”
The commission, responsible for probing the Sept. 11 attacks for a period lasting no longer than 18 months by a 10-member panel divided evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees, immediately got mired in controversy when the president appointed Henry Kissinger to lead the investigation. The former secretary of state’s own legacy of terror in places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Chile, East Timor and Argentina threatened to undermine the investigation before it even got off the ground. Facing a massive public outcry, Kissinger resigned. The president then named Thomas Kean, a former governor of New Jersey (1982-1990), to chair the commission.
Besides Kean, Republicans will be represented by Jim Thompson, former Illinois governor; Fred Fielding, former White House counsel to President Reagan; John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy; and Slade Gorton, former U.S. senator from Washington. Democrats will be represented by Lee Hamilton, former U.S. representative from Indiana; Max Cleland, outgoing senator from Georgia, Timothy Roemer; outgoing U.S. representative from Indiana; Jaime Gorelick, former deputy attorney general; and Richard Ven-Beniste, former minority chief counsel to the Senate Whitewater committee.
As panel members begin their arduous but momentous task, they will do well to remember the example of a straight-talking, irreverent and brilliant iconoclast who left an indelible mark on the nation’s conscience as an investigator in a previous government commission.
The space shuttle Challenger had exploded after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, taking seven lives, including that of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Within a week, President Reagan appointed William P. Rogers, secretary of state under president Nixon, the chairman of what came to be known as the Rogers commission, to investigate the Challenger disaster.
Richard Feynman, the legendary Nobel prize-winning physicist who died in February 1988 after a long battle with cancer, became a member of the commission, bringing his scientific integrity and honesty, and a no-nonsense, hands-on style that proved critical to the commission’s success. Who can ever forget his dramatic demonstration on television of the loss of resiliency in O-rings at freezing temperature as one of the main causes of the explosion?
Yet Feynman’s findings were so uncomfortable and politically incorrect for Mr. Rogers—Feynman refused to go along with the rest of the commission’s “baloney about how good everything was at NASA”—that he was allowed to publish his report only as an appendix to the main report that was submitted to president Reagan on June 6, 1986.
In the end, however, it was the appendix titled “Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle” that most vividly clarified for the layman and the specialist what went wrong with the Challenger and why. The concluding sentence of “Appendix F” was quintessential Feynman: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
One may argue that Feynman’s example is not applicable to the 9/11 commission. After all, the shuttle explosion was caused by a technical problem that Feynman, given his scientific gifts, was uniquely qualified to solve, whereas the 9/11 catastrophe was caused by the organizational and human failures of America’s intelligence community.
But anyone reading his behind-the-scene account of the Challenger investigation (What Do You Care What Other People Think, by Richard P. Feynman, as told to Ralph Leighton, Norton, 1988) will recognize how Feynman realized at the outset that while figuring out what was wrong with the shuttle was important, even more important was “to find out what was the matter with the organization of NASA.”
By spending countless hours at the NASA Space Centers in Florida and Alabama and Texas when no one else in the commission would, he realized that the explosion was symptomatic of a deeper problem: lack of communication between engineers and managers and the refusal by management to heed the warnings of engineers who were building and testing the various components of the shuttle. “Management was reducing criteria and accepting more and more errors that weren’t designed into the device, while the engineers are screaming from below, ‘HELP!’ and ‘This is a RED ALERT!’” wrote Feynman. “Because of the exaggeration at the top being inconsistent with the reality at the bottom, communication got slowed up and ultimately jammed. That’s how it’s possible that the higher-ups didn’t know. The other possibility is that the higher-ups did know, and they just said they didn’t know.”
Substitute the FBI and the CIA for NASA and the relevance of the Feynman approach to the 9/11 commission becomes clear. Anyone still in the dark about the failures and blunders of intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials in preventing terror attacks on America can look up the Hart-Rudman report published in January 2001 and its follow-up published on Oct. 26, 2002.
Feynman did not hesitate to investigate whether pressure from the White House had forced the Challenger to liftoff in spite of technical risks. “It was the president’s idea to put a teacher in space, as a symbol of the nation’s commitment to education. He had proposed the idea a year before, in his State of the Union address. Now, one year later, the State of the Union speech was coming up again. It would be perfect to have the teacher in space talking to the President and Congress. All the circumstantial evidence was very strong.”
After checking out various leads, however, Feynman concluded that the White House did not force or encourage an early liftoff.
When Feynman was asked to join the Rogers commission, he was at first skeptical but his wife convinced him by saying, “If you don’t do it, there will be 12 people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be 11 people–all in a group, going around from place to place together, while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things. There probably won’t be anything, but if there is, you will find it.”
It is imperative that the Feynman spirit of inquiry animates at least a few of the 9/11 commission members. As they transcend partisan politics, they must also know how to run all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things, asking the tough questions and following the ensuing leads, avoiding the red herrings and raising hell when smelling a rat—all backed by a fierce loyalty to the truth and truth alone. They, and we, owe it to the memory of the victims of 9/11 and their families.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is the former editor of IQRA.