In Brief

Why a Commission Should Investigate the U.S. Capitol Attack

Far too little is known about how the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol happened. A bipartisan investigation should address this, to dispel falsehoods and to help prevent such an assault from happening again.

Is it necessary for Congress to appoint a commission to investigate the Capitol assault?

Yes. The plethora of unanswered questions about events that day underscores the need for a commission. A commission could determine the degree of planning for the insurrection and orchestration of the violence that occurred that day. At a minimum, it would likely deflate the many conspiracy theories and falsehoods surrounding that day, much as the 9/11 Commission definitively resolved the many conspiracy theories around the passenger jet hijackings and attacks that killed nearly three thousand people.

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Similar doubts were raised nineteen years ago about the need for the 9/11 Commission. Then, as now, Republican members of Congress argued that existing committee and subcommittee hearings were sufficient to address the gravity of the 9/11 attacks, and that an independent, bipartisan, congressionally appointed commission was unnecessary. The difference then was the prominent lobbying for a commission by families whose loved ones perished in the attacks. Their powerful voices could not be ignored or discounted. There is no similarly influential, independent, and organized movement pressing for the creation of a January 6 commission.

Is it possible to conduct a bipartisan investigation in the current polarized political climate?

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Absolutely. Similar questions were raised about creating the 9/11 Commission. Both Republican members of Congress and the George W. Bush administration were concerned about the emergence of a “runaway commission” that Democrats in Congress and families of 9/11 victims would use as a means to criticize President Bush, under whose watch the attacks occurred, and the administration’s counterterrorism policies. Meanwhile, Democrats worried that the commission could be unduly influenced by the White House, whether through the commissioners appointed, the professional staff hired, attempts to limit access, or subpoena powers.

The continuing controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s role in the events of January 6 underscores the need for an independent, bipartisan commission to definitively assess the degree and implications of his involvement. Yet, this appears to be another reason why congressional Republicans oppose a January 6 commission.

The appointment of two long-standing public servants of unquestionable integrity and rectitude—former Governor Thomas H. Kean (R-NJ) and former Representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-IN)—was critical to the 9/11 Commission’s success. The personal chemistry between Hamilton and Kean, their mutual respect, and the unified approach they took on every aspect of the commission’s work obviated many of the doubts about forming a truly bipartisan commission.

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What do authorities know about domestic extremist forces behind the Capitol attack? What threat do these forces still pose? 

More than four hundred people to date have been arrested, but there is still no definitive picture of whether and, if so, how they were organized before January 6. Less than one-tenth of those arrested have been charged with conspiracy—premeditated coordination of violence. So there is still no complete picture of the role played by organizations such as the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys.

Pro-Trump protesters, holding a ladder, storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump protesters storm the U.S. Capitol during a rally to contest the congressional certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election on January 6, 2021. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The threat in the United States posed by an array of violent, far-right extremists remains serious. Three months before the January 6 assault, the Department of Homeland Security assessed the threat [PDF] from violent, far-right extremists as the most serious facing the country. In that assessment, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf wrote, “I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”

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Given similar assessments by the FBI, a January 6 commission would likely be invaluable in offering policy recommendations to better counter this domestic threat.

What are the most important lessons from the 9/11 Commission?

The success of the 9/11 Commission is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. government adopted either fully or in part forty-one of its major recommendations [PDF]. This led to signal improvements in the integration and coordination of U.S. intelligence agencies, including: establishing a director of national intelligence and support staff, as well as a new agency—the National Counterterrorism Center—to ensure a more unified approach to counterterrorism; enhancing screenings of airline passengers and monitoring of travel by suspected terrorists; more effectively monitoring and interdicting of terrorist finances; and vastly improving federal, state, and local cooperation on counterterrorism. Also, the FBI successfully transitioned from an agency mostly focused on law enforcement to one with deep expertise in intelligence and national security.

Among the most prominent lessons from the 9/11 Commission was realizing the importance of an independent, bipartisan commission composed of private citizens (not then serving in government or elected office). It avoided conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived, among commissioners; recruited a professional, nonpartisan staff; and was granted sufficient funds and time to recruit those staff and conduct a proper and thorough inquiry. The power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony was also a critical dimension of the 9/11 Commission and would be of a January 6 commission.

Editor’s note: The author served as a commissioner [PDF] on the congressionally appointed 9/11 Review Commission (2014–15).

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