9/11 Commission Leader Says Jan. 6 Panel May Be Too Partisan Thomas Kean, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, tells NPR that an inquiry into the Capitol breach should be done by people who are not in politics.

9/11 Commission Leader Says Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Panel May Be Too Partisan To Succeed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1020488381/1020488382" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Tuesday, a House select committee will begin its investigation into the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol. But without some radical change between now and then, it won't have broad bipartisan participation. As you've probably heard, the attempts to establish such a panel have been mired in politics. A bipartisan team had negotiated a plan for a panel to be comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of the Republican picks. So Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he'll pull the rest, and Republicans will run their own investigation. This morning, Speaker Pelosi appointed Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to the committee. He and Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming will be the two Republicans on the committee, but both were selected by the speaker.

The whole process is being compared unfavorably to the bipartisan commission set up to investigate the 9/11 attacks. But that memory is actually flawed. In fact, almost 19 years ago, there was resistance to creating that commission as well, and it faced serious stonewalling by both the Bush White House and Republican-led Congress that created it. But despite those obstacles, it did happen. The commission conducted more than 1,200 interviews, reviewed millions of documents and presented solid findings.

We wondered if that history could be instructive now, so we've called someone who was deeply involved back then, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. He was the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a Republican, and he worked closely with the Democratic vice chair, former Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana. And Governor Kean is with us now from Bedminster, N.J.

Governor Kean, Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS KEAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the 9/11 Commission was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. But it was made up of people like you who were no longer holding public office. Do you think the fact that you were no longer in office made a difference?

KEAN: Yes. It was very, very helpful. That was the criteria for every one of us on the commission. And, you know, you weren't involved in the day to day. You had a bit of separation. You weren't running for anything, so you wouldn't have that pressure on you. And you could look back at some experiences and use those experiences to inform what you did in the future. It was a - it was the best kind of situation, to have 10 people who were what Lee Hamilton used to call reformed politicians.

MARTIN: But there - yet there were roadblocks. Why didn't Congress really want a real investigation? You know, I think one would think that this would be an issue of vital public concern, just like the events of January 6 is an issue of vital public concern. So can you just take us back to why didn't they really want an investigation?

KEAN: Well, same reason people don't want investigation now. They're worried about what the results would be. And like now, I mean, if this investigation were to take place in a credible way, it would take place right before a very important election. Our investigation was to take place right before a presidential election. And both sides were worried that an independent commission without any access to the leadership of either party could come out with some findings or do something which would jeopardize that election one way or the other, in a way they didn't want to happen. They didn't want it out of their control. But the Congress is incapable of doing this kind of investigation, I think.

MARTIN: You think that Congress is incapable...

KEAN: I do.

MARTIN: ...Of doing it.

KEAN: I do.

MARTIN: You do. OK, which was obviously going to be my question, is like what - how do you compare it to the situation now?

KEAN: Yeah, well, the problem is that Congress is doing a thousand things at once. To do the kind of investigation that's required here and something that was required on 9/11, you've got to make it your full-time occupation. So it needs to get away from politics. It needs to get away from the day to day of the Congress and needs, in my opinion, to have men and women who care, basically, first about their country and have reputations in their previous lives of having done just that.

MARTIN: So Republicans argue that this is all kind of a political exercise. The Democrats argue that Republicans are covering up for the former president and don't want to take accountability for his role in fomenting this and also for the fact that some of the people who participate in this maybe have, you know, connections to Republican politicians that they might find unsavory if they were sort of - were fully explored. Do either of those arguments have merit?

KEAN: Yeah, they do. And that's the reason to try and get it away from the Congress. You know, to be bipartisan is very, very difficult. And very few people these days seem to achieve it. I mean, the first thing I did when I was appointed chairman, I called up the fellow who'd - appointed vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, and said I want to see you. So I said, Lee, I want to - know that I will do nothing on this commission going forward without your agreement. We're going to do this together. And if you disagree, we'll do it another way. We won't do it this - and he looked at me and said, I couldn't believe that because, he said, in Congress, the chairman is everything, and the vice chairman is nothing. So when you said you're - basically let me have a say in every single issue here, he said, I was dumbfounded.

But we started that way. And I carried through with that. And once the rest of the commission saw that's the way we're going to proceed and the Democrats got just as much say as the Republicans in deciding the important issues, they backed off. And they didn't - they saw that both Lee and I were going to be nonpartisan or bipartisan. And the commission proceeded ahead. But it took - I'd say it took two months before both sides were really convinced that it was going to be a - an investigation in which they had equal parts.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, do you think it's - you know, recognizing that you are a Republican and perhaps people may receive your response in that light no matter what you say, no matter what your track record is, but at the end of the day, do you think it's worth going through with this hearing on the January 6 attack if there is not more bipartisan participation?

KEAN: I worry about it because I don't see how they're going to come to a conclusion that is going to be accepted widely. I mean, it'll be a conclusion. And maybe it'll be a good conclusion. But unless all groups out there - both parties have got to have some buy into it. The press has got to buy into it. And they're not going to buy into it unless it's done fairly and right. American people in the end have got to buy into it.

And, you know, we did something very unusual on the 9/11 Commission. And we issued a report that was not only broadly accepted by the American people, it became a bestseller. I mean, people bought it and read it. And then the Congress adopted the recommendations, almost every one of them. I mean, that's unprecedented. But it was done that way because of the way we operated.

Now, this commission the speaker is setting up doesn't have the ability to do that because of the way it was created. And that's why I worry about it because you - there's no point having an investigation not having accepted by the people. I mean, I commend the speaker for trying, but I don't see how it's going to work.

MARTIN: Is there yet more to know? I mean, do you believe there would be a benefit to having an independent bipartisan commission to look at those events? Because some - there are a number of Republicans who are arguing there isn't. There is nothing more to know, nothing to see here. You know, everything is known that is known. I mean, everything is - it's all - it's already there.

KEAN: No. I think there's a lot more to know. And now - because the trouble is when I say I think there's a lot more to know because there hadn't been a good investigation yet. I'm supposing here, but I do think there's a lot more. I mean, I try to read everything here, and I'm not sure yet whether - how much it was coordinated, whether these groups talked to each other, whether the plan was to invade the Capitol, whether people got down there and just got excited because they thought the election had been stolen and they rallied to a president they thought - and got excited by his speech and so the whole thing was just spontaneous. I'm not sure we fully answered that question yet.

But if it wasn't spontaneous, if this was a plan, if this really was a plan to break into the Capitol, to perhaps do who knows what once they got in, that's very dangerous for democracy and something we should know all about so we can make sure we - never happens again. This is serious business, and we should find out everything about it we can to know whether or not we have to take steps to prevent it in the future.

MARTIN: That was Governor Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey and the chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Governor Kean, thank you so much for being with us.

KEAN: Thank you very much for having me. It was nice to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.