Max Holland: The Politics (and Profits) of Information: The 9/11 Commission One Year Later

Roundup: Talking About History

... Traditionally ... final reports of important commission have been supplemented by publication of the public and private hearings, staff reports and the actual documents used to compile the findings. Take a look at the shelf space occupied by some major probes since 1945: these include the 1946 congressional inquiry into the Pearl Harbor attack (40 volumes); the 1964 Warren Commission investigation of President Kennedy's assassination (27); and the 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of the intelligence agencies (15).

By contrast, the 9/11 Commission climaxed in the publication of a single, 567-page volume—without an index. The relative poverty of this effort at the culmination of a twenty-month, $14 million investigation reflects a downward trend in the government's obligation to disseminate information to the public. This policy began in the 1980s, when, for ideological reasons, the Reagan administration reduced the number and availability of government publications. The worrisome tendency has accelerated with the advent of the Internet.

The 9/11 Commission's first departure from customary practice was its decision not to use the GPO. On May 19, 2004, the commission announced that W.W. Norton, a private New York publisher, would publish the "authorized edition" of its final report. According to the commission's press release, Norton was selected based on the criteria of "affordability, accuracy, availability, and longevity." There was no mention of a role for the GPO, which had long done a sterling job by these standards....

The 9/11 Commission's second departure from long-standing tradition is possibly even more troubling. It concerned how the panel chose to disseminate other aspects of its inquiry, ranging from its staff reports to its public hearings. Historically, only the GPO could be expected to publish the entire opus of an investigative body at anything approaching an affordable price to the public. Of greater significance, GPO publication also assured inclusion in the permanent holdings of the 1,250 institutions that participate in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), an arrangement between research libraries and the federal government that dates back to 1813. Every depository library, in return for free copies of GPO publications, becomes legally bound to make these authentic documents freely available to all citizens without discrimination. Depository libraries, which are scattered across the nation, are thus the bedrock upon which public access to government information has always rested.

The 9/11 Commission, however, never submitted a printing requisition to the GPO for publishing the many supplemental volumes that are in fact part of the report. The panel regarded this obligation as having been discharged when it made its staff monographs, interim reports, and public hearings available on the Internet. To be sure, such access is highly desirable and ought to be part of standard procedure now. But should web publication alone be the new norm? The American Library Association (ALA) thinks not, with respect to significant government documents. ...

Some small publishers have bridged the gap left by the 9/11 Commission. For a hefty price of $395, Oceana Publications is putting out a complete, four-volume set of the 9/11 Commission's hearings. Hillsboro Press has published the commission's staff monograph on terrorist travel, and PublicAffairs Reports has printed twelve of the seventeen initial staff studies and excerpts from some of the commission's hearings. Such entrepreneurship is desirable, but runs against the grain of long-standing practice regarding the dissemination of vital government documents....

Because there is no GPO version of them, two of the staff monographs, one on terrorist financing and the other on civil aviation, will probably never be published in book form....

If making a private publisher the printer of first resort and relying exclusively on the Internet for dissemination of supplements to the report were the first two departures from accepted practice, what the 9/11 Commission chose not to publish at all is at least equally remarkable.

Comparable investigations have made available at least some portion of the raw information upon which the respective reports were erected, even at the risk of challenging the very conclusions a particular report might have drawn. The Warren Commission, for example, decided it was far better to present the entirety of the evidence in all its rich complexity than be charged with hiding information. Other, comparable panels have weighed the evidentiary part of their responsibility differently, but in no instance was a final report released without publication of some portion of the primary documents accumulated during the investigation. This is the only method by which the public can assess the accumulated evidence and judge the soundness of the investigation itself.

The overwhelming majority of records cited in the 9/11 Report are not only unpublished—worse yet, by the commissioners' collective hand they are closed to the public until at least January 2009.

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