“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States,” begins the 9/11 Commission Report in limpid prose. “Millions of men and women readied themselves for work.”
Thomas Kean, however, had spent a rough night with an aching jaw. “I was recovering from a dentist appointment,” he recalls by phone, “and my dentist called to see how I was feeling and he said, ‘Turn on the television. There’s something happening at the World Trade Center.’ So I turned it on and kept it on until the second plane came in.”
Kean, who would go on to chair the 9/11 Commission and co-author the report, was then the president of Drew University in New Jersey. He raced to the campus worried that, given its proximity to New York, his students might be among those killed by the al-Qaida terrorists who had hijacked two planes and crashed them into the twin towers.
They were not but Kean, who had been inside the World Trade Center often, lost friends, acquaintances and old colleagues. “Around where I live, there was nobody who wasn’t affected,” the 86-year-old said in an interview from Far Hills, New Jersey. “There wasn’t a town that didn’t lose people. The saddest thing I remember was going past the parking lots of the trains – commuters in and out – and seeing these cars that were never picked up.”
Kean attended memorial services in New Jersey and New York. The grief was ubiquitous. “I remember speaking at the memorial service at the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It was the only time I almost totally lost it because in the front row were a lot of the survivors, many of them women with very small children or pregnant women whose offspring would never see their other parent.
“I got up, the first thing I saw was the first couple of rows of those people, and I had trouble getting anything out. For any of us who lived in this area, it was an emotional blow to the stomach and it didn’t go away. It was there for a long, long time.”
Nearly 3,000 people died in the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated on American soil. Victims’ families demanded an investigation into what, how and why it had happened, where there had been failures and what lessons could be learned to prevent a repeat.
In 2002 President George W Bush’s first choice to lead the 9/11 Commission was Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, with ex-senator George Mitchell as his deputy, but both refused due to conflicts of interest. The jobs went instead to Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
It would be one of the most momentous inquiries in American history and a potential poisoned chalice for whoever took it on. Kean remembers: “It felt like a mountain had fallen on me. I’d been offered cabinet positions by three presidents and turned them down.
“I decided I’d done my government service and I was into other things now, but given the fact I had lost friends, given the fact it’s very hard to say no to the president of the United States, I didn’t think I had any choice in that one. So I said yes and then immediately thought, ‘God, what have I gotten myself into?’”
The commission was formed at a highly partisan moment, with Bush, a divisive president, seeking re-election. When Kean walked into the room for the commission’s first meeting, he found Republicans sitting in one corner and Democrats in the other.
“I said, we’re going to call the meeting to order now and they all sat down and I said I want you all to change seats, I don’t want to ever see a Republican sitting next to a Republican or Democrat sitting next to a Democrat in public or private of this commission. They looked at me and sort of grumbled but they all did it. Every other time we sat in that form and we tried to do things together.”
When Kean was invited to appear on NBC’s flagship politics show Meet the Press, he ensured that Hamilton came with him, setting a precedent for commissioners to make media appearances in bipartisan pairs. But it took Kean a while to win the trust of the victims’ families, whom he found to be “wonderful people”.
He says: “They held our feet to the fire. They thought there was a lot of stuff there that hadn’t come out and they were right. But they thought there was even more stuff than there was and they wanted to make sure we’d looked at every cranny and every cubby-hole for whatever any evidence might be there.
“A number of the families, almost a majority, had the suspicion from day one that the president knew something that he hadn’t told the American public – that there was a presidential daily briefing of intelligence that said at one point the terrorists would consider using planes as bombs. They were pretty convinced that was out there and they wanted us to find it if it was.”
Kean and his team had the head of British intelligence flown over to the US for a secret meeting. They interviewed former president Bill Clinton, the incumbent vice-president, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself, whose session had lasted two or three hours when Kean assumed they would have to wrap up.
Kean recalls: “The president looked at me and said, ‘I’m here as long as any of you have any questions. I won’t leave until every question is answered.’ I thought, where else in the world could this happen? An unelected group of ordinary citizens, at this point not holding any office, could come into the White House and have the president of the United States say he’ll answer every question. That was one of my aha! moments.”
The final report makes clear that if both Clinton and Bush had acted differently, there is a chance the attacks might have been thwarted. “I think both presidents felt that given the circumstances that they were facing at the time, they made reasonable decisions but with hindsight, and the addition of a lot of facts, both of them thought, ‘If we’d known those things, we’d have done things differently’.”
Under the sustained pressure from the families, who attended public hearings with photos of those they lost, the commission tried to leave no stone unturned in its quest for government records. But transparency did not come easily.
“They didn’t want to give it to us. We had to fight for interviews with the president, fight to see the presidential daily briefings, fight to get information sometimes that they claimed was too classified even for us. But finally, in the end, we got every single thing we asked for and we were able to write the report we did because we had full access to all the information.”
Kean and his colleagues gained unprecedented access to the president’s daily briefs, a summary of high-level information and analysis of national security issues. The documents were removed from safes so the commissioners could read them and take notes, though their notes were not allowed to leave the sealed room.
One was dated 6 August 2001 and entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The commissioners persuaded the White House to make it the first president’s daily brief ever seen by the public.
Kean felt three-quarters of the documents that were classified should not have been. The families have long called for the release of the findings of an FBI investigation into possible complicity by Saudi Arabia in the attacks, including contacts between Saudi officials and two hijackers who lived in California in the months before September 11.
Last week Joe Biden bowed to the pressure and announced a review and declassification of files from the FBI investigation. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens but the country denies any involvement in the plot and is contesting a legal action brought by the families in federal court in New York.
The commission’s report found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida. In an interview last week on the Guardian’s Politics Weekly Extra podcast, Kean said: “All the documents I read, including the ones the families now want made public, I did not find anything that would indicate any involvement by Saudi Arabian government officials.
“Now, whether or not there were citizens of Saudi Arabia involved at one point or other, I can’t say. I’m close to the families, I get on well with them but I tell you, I don’t think they’re going to get anything. I found more information of possible involvement by Iran than Saudi Arabia.”
Kean was determined to chase down every lead, no matter how wild or improbable. He says by phone: “There were at the time a whole bunch of conspiracy theories out there as to what happened, ridiculous stuff. Somebody said that the Jews were behind it. Somebody else said it was a rightwing conspiracy. There was a theory that the Bush administration flew the Bin Laden family and all the top Arabs out of the country before they could be questioned by the FBI.
“I said, ‘We’re only going to finish our work if you track down the conspiracy theory: if it’s true, we’re going to put it in the report; if it’s not true, let’s knock it down.’ So we put staff members on every single conspiracy theory and knocked most of them down.”
The commission made 41 recommendations on issues such as homeland security, emergency response, congressional reform and foreign policy, and raised private funds to maintain a small staff so it could press for their implementation. For Kean, perhaps the most important one mandated intelligence sharing to prevent further terrorist attacks – the biggest intelligence reform in US history.
He explains: “If the FBI and the CIA and 14 other intelligence agencies had been talking to each other, most of us feel that the attack would have been prevented. We reorganised the whole intelligence apparatus so instead of several agencies there’s now one head– the director of national intelligence – and then people from the various agencies meet together and share information.”
The report was released on 22 July 2004. Kean and his fellow commissioners took it to a private publisher to make it more affordable to the public than a typical official document. The fluently written work of history became a national bestseller and may enjoy renewed interest around the 20th anniversary.
It has held up better than Kean expected. “We’ve still got a few conspiracy theorists out there, but that’s all we have. I thought there’d be new things come out that we didn’t know or couldn’t find. The report still stands. I’m delighted, but I’m surprised.”
The two decades since 9/11 witnessed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and an abrupt, chaotic and bloody withdrawal last month), the elections of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden and nervous debate about America’s standing in the world. Does Kean – now chairman of the board of Carnegie Corporation of New York – think the events of that temperate and nearly cloudless day caused the nation lasting psychological trauma?
“Obviously something that major and that tragic is going to leave a scar and it has, not just on an individual family but on the country. But I think the most important thing to remember is: get ahead of something. Recognise the fact that there were mistakes made not by bad people but by good people and, if they did things differently, the event wouldn’t have happened. So get ahead of things, use intelligence properly. It’s everybody doing their job.”