The production values of federal investigatory commissions have been stuck in a time warp since the Watergate heyday of Senator Sam Ervin. An august collection of defeated or retired politicians, plus Richard Ben-Veniste, sits behind a very long dais. Opposite, behind a much smaller table, is a single witness, or sometimes a pair. Oh, a few things have changed since 1973: No one smokes in the hearing room. And a few more of the participants aren’t male, or white. But the main players speak the same numbing government-insider language of acronym and denial, making these rituals of investigation seem as fossilized as the Latin Mass.
On May 18 and 19, though, the 9/11 commission will switch from Washington to New York, and things will be very different. The emotional tenor will be more somber, of course, because the hearings will take place not far from where 2,749 people were murdered at the World Trade Center. But there will be drastic stylistic distinctions, too.
Inside the Tishman Auditorium at the New School, a place that usually hosts tapings of Inside the Actors Studio, the commission is planning to “re-create” the events of September 11. Unedited videotape shot by two French documentarians will be projected. Every so often, the narrative will pause for witness testimony. These are the very rare government hearings that come with a warning label attached: An italicized paragraph on the commission’s Website says, “If you plan to attend, view, or listen to the proceedings, please be aware that information presented at this hearing is sensitive and may be upsetting in nature.”
The commission is already besieged by accusations of political partisanship. Now, with its attempt to replay the city’s most horrific day, the commission seems to be inviting the Post and other critics to blast it as voyeuristic. It would be a shame if the bold staging overshadows what promises to be the real high drama: a low-key confrontation between two of New York’s most compelling, albeit nonpracticing, politicians.
If Giuliani can be led into showing how badly Bush failed New York, his testimony could be very damaging.
The windows of Bob Kerrey’s eighth-floor office on West 12th Street face south. The former Nebraska senator moved to New York to become president of the New School in February 2001, and he was here at his desk on the morning of September 11. “I think it’s going to be really hard, emotionally, when the commission re-creates the day,” Kerrey says quietly. “But we will try to use the video, as well as other conversations that were picked up on tape, in a very respectful fashion. The objective is to get the key people to give us commentary: what was going on, what they were doing, what their strengths were, weaknesses were, what surprised them, how they adjusted.”
Kerrey and his nine fellow commissioners traveled to a Times Square skyscraper to ask Rudy Giuliani those questions on April 20. Amazingly, the three-hour closed session inside a conference room at Giuliani Partners was the first time the former mayor had been extensively quizzed on his actions before and during September 11. The commissioners mostly listened to Giuliani’s recollection of what he saw and the decisions he made.
The families of World Trade Center victims, led by the now-famous Jersey Girls, have been pressing the commission to pursue nuts-and-bolts questions like why the FDNY’s radios failed, why Giuliani allowed the historic friction between the NYPD and the FDNY to get in the way of establishing a unified command structure for terrorism incidents, and why the towers themselves didn’t conform to New York’s fire codes. And at the public hearings in May, the commission will indeed ask some of those questions, of Giuliani and other city officials. But there’s little percentage in attacking Giuliani, a glorious hero to most of the public, over parochial problems. Kerrey is among those who view the former mayor as valiant. “His willingness to go to all the funerals is, to me, all by itself heroic,” Kerrey says. “Because it allowed us all to grieve. It allowed us to participate, and I think it was important to feel each one of these deaths personally.”
Kerrey’s high regard for Giuliani is genuine. Implicit in his praise, though, is a criticism: Kerrey is contrasting Giuliani’s behavior with the fact that George W. Bush hasn’t gone to any of the funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. His kind words are also a hint of how the Democratic commissioners, at least, will question Giuliani. The former mayor is one of the Bush reelection campaign’s most potent weapons, a stirring speaker and an unbeatable fund-raiser. But if Giuliani can be skillfully led into showing how badly the Bush administration failed New York, his testimony could be very damaging to the president.
Kerrey mentions that when national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified in front of the commission last month, she pointed to a July 5, 2001, meeting in her office as evidence that multiple agencies were closely monitoring the terrorist threat. Kerrey wants to ask Giuliani if anyone bothered to share the alarm with him.
“Did you receive communication from the Feds—the FAA, FBI, the people that were at this July 5 meeting?” Kerrey asks, testing out a possible question. “Did you receive any communication from them saying, ‘The president and the National Security Council adviser are concerned about a domestic attack. Here’s what we’re gonna do, and here’s what we think you should do’? At the very least, they should have notified Giuliani. I think it’s important to know if he or anyone in New York were notified. The Feds said they had an indication that bin Laden was going to try to attack inside the United States, and hijackers were a possibility, and they sent warnings out to the FAA and commercial airliners to get prepared—did you notice any of that preparation? Did it have any impact on the morning of September 11? I’m very much interested in this.”
Kerrey, like his fellow commissioners, rarely asks a public question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. “Thus far, what I’ve seen is, the Feds were surprised by the hijackings and unprepared for multiple hijackings,” he says. “They did an inadequate job of communicating information that could have been critical in allowing the first responders to decide what to do.”
Giuliani, when he answers, certainly won’t criticize Bush. But again Kerrey draws a subtle contrast between the stand-up mayor and the stubborn president. “Just from listening to Rudy yesterday, he’s not going to be afraid to say he made mistakes,” Kerrey says. “He’s not going to be unwilling to identify things he thinks could have been done better.”
The hearings hold some personal risk for Giuliani, too. His overwhelming, enduring popularity, especially outside New York, is founded on his actions during and immediately after the terrorist attacks. “How often do people really pay attention to politicians on TV?” asks Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney. “If you get a minute a month of people’s attention, you’re doing great as a politician. And on September 11, 12, and 13, everybody, literally, watched Rudy all day long. Impressions like that, there’s a searing effect that is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.” Yet those impressions were based largely on Giuliani’s acting as a selfless and nonpartisan public servant. Though he’s recently kept busy campaigning for Republican congressional candidates, the live, nationally televised New York commission hearings will begin a period in which Giuliani increasingly invokes September 11 on behalf of a purely political cause. He’ll have a similar spotlight late this summer, at the Republican convention. Giuliani’s challenge will be to retain his September 11 halo as the partisan fray grows rougher.
As for what’s at stake for Bob Kerrey, William Safire recently nominated him as director of the CIA under President John Kerry. Kerrey says he’s happy selecting new deans for the New School. However: “I’ve quit saying ‘never’ to stuff. There are a lot of things that in theory are interesting to me. And this one in particular, because I know the agency and have ideas of what I would do if I were there. But I have ideas of what I would do if I were running a magazine. It’s possible. If at some point I decide this is exciting, or I get called in some fashion … ”
Maybe then the chief spook, or even somebody at the White House, would give the mayor of New York advance warning the next time trouble is on the way.