Create a '9/11 Commission'

Not since '73 has there been such a sense that something fundamental is wrong with our leadership.

olmert looking nauseus (photo credit: AP)
olmert looking nauseus
(photo credit: AP)
Not since the end of the 1973 war has there been such a pervasive sense that something fundamental is wrong with our political and military leadership. Even if this sense is exaggerated, the breadth of public distrust and discouragement is itself a problem that must be addressed. The principal mechanism to begin restoring confidence in our leadership needs to be a proper investigation into the conduct of the war, how the problems the war revealed developed over time, and what must be done to fix them. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposed three-part investigation has come under fire on a number of grounds. First, dividing the investigation into two committees - political and military - and asking the state comptroller to conduct a third probe into the readiness of the homefront in the North has been widely deemed unwieldy and unworkable. How can such a structure examine the key question of the interface between the political and military echelons? How can the same figures be expected to testify on their conduct two or three times? How will the results of the different committees, if contradictory, be reconciled? Second, the fact that the key figures are appointing their own investigators tends to render the exercise suspect, even if those chosen are seen as upstanding and do their best to prove themselves independent. This is particularly true when the investigators chosen work for the government as civil servants, were themselves deeply responsible for the systems they are examining, or are being considered for future government appointments. Granted, it is very difficult to find people of stature and relevant experience whose choice would not raise questions of conflict of interest, given the scope of the investigation in question. But this difficulty can be minimized if the investigators are chosen independently. Seeking such power and independence, many critics of Olmert's proposed investigation suggest invoking the law providing for a formal commission of inquiry. Such a commission would be appointed by the president of the Supreme Court and would be led by a retired judge. Indeed, the similarity of such an investigation to a trial does not end with its judicial origins and leadership. The purpose of a trial is to come to a verdict and to mete out punishment to those found guilty. But even if a commission of inquiry does not consider or impose criminal sanctions, its purpose ends up being the political equivalent. Experience has shown that the center of gravity of such inquiries tends to be assigning blame rather than discerning lessons and recommending corrective action. There is a third alternative that might combine the independence and credibility of a judicial-style commission of inquiry with the speed and results-orientation that Olmert said his mechanism would offer: an independent commission of inquiry appointed jointly by the government and its parliamentary opposition. The 9/11 Commission, established to investigate that attack on the United States and make recommendations for the future, could be a useful model. That commission was established by a special law, passed by Congress and signed by the US president. Its chairman was a Republican; its vice-chairman, a Democrat. The commission members were not sitting members of Congress but respected figures and experts chosen equally by leaders of the two major parties. It had subpoena powers and a sizable professional staff. The government would do well to introduce and the Knesset to pass a law establishing a similar independent commission, chosen in equal parts by the governing coalition and by the opposition. There are no guarantees that such a commission would produce recommendations more useful than those of the 9/11 Commission, which arguably did a better job of investigating the attacks themselves then in proposing comprehensive fixes and responses. But it would likely be regarded as independent and authoritative, and could go far in shedding light on what happened and what should be done differently, without becoming a paralyzing trial of key figures. In our parliamentary system, the government can be brought down at any moment if it loses the confidence of the majority of the Knesset. The democratic process, not a commission, should be the ultimate enforcer of blame that an investigation might apportion. What the public needs most are a comprehensive report on which to base its judgment and cogent recommendations for safeguarding the nation in the future.