As I stumbled out of a burning Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, lucky to be alive while my office was in flames, the refrain playing through my head was simple: “How did this happen?” Similarly, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the nation — and especially the Navy — had to ask, “How did we fail?”
And here we are in 2020, with 210,000 dead from the novel coronavirus, a fatality toll vastly larger than that of those two tragedies and approaching that of some of America’s wars. US leaders must begin the painful and politically charged process of asking two questions: What caused this catastrophe, and how did we fail to react properly?
After 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, the government conducted fact-based, largely nonpartisan investigations in public settings, published the results, and took constructive actions to prevent a reoccurrence.
When and how to do so in relation to Covid-19 is a conversation that should begin now, even as the pandemic still rages. There are profoundly important issues of geopolitics, medicine, science, logistics, health policy, governance and security. Two earlier efforts, the 9/11 Commission and the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, weren’t perfect, but they provide models for a national investigative effort on the coronavirus.
The congressional Pearl Harbor investigation wasn’t undertaken until World War II ended; it followed several earlier inquiries, one by the executive branch and the other by the Army and Navy. Having read it again recently, I find it wanting. It does not fully answer the questions about the intelligence failure, nor does it complete the record of accountability. And it took too long to finish the report, almost five years after the Japanese attack.
The 9/11 Commission was bipartisan, with five Democrats and five Republicans, not all of whom had been elected officials. The two-year process was very focused on the intelligence failures, and most observers would give it higher marks than the Pearl Harbor committee. It also took less time — fewer than three years — and provided far more concrete recommendations, mostly in terms of the intelligence community and the structure of the federal government. It is a compelling, coherent document. (Disclosure: The executive director, Philip Zelikow, is a friend of some 30 years — we attended graduate school at Tufts University together in the mid-1980s — and a superb public servant.)
Building on those examples, what should a new commission look like, who should serve on it, what ought the timeline be, and above all, what are the key questions to which we need answers?
Let’s start with the timeline. The short answer is that it should be set up as soon as possible after the presidential inauguration in 2021. Waiting longer, while attractive in the sense of letting some of the current politics wash out, would be a mistake. The risk of another pandemic is significant: We’ve had MERS, SARS, Ebola and some near-pandemics over the past several decades. Congress should give it a healthy budget (the 9/11 Commission was $30 million annually) and a deadline of two years to produce a report with conclusions and recommendations.
How about the membership? Above all, it must be bipartisan. There is a well-trodden path in Washington in setting up such committees. Some of the members will be recently retired senators or representatives, certainly. There should be several apolitical members — scientists and physicians above all. The idea of an apolitical senior scientist and/or physician has real appeal. I would include a senior retired ambassador and perhaps a retired 4-star military officer, who could speak to the geopolitical challenges and the complex logistics of fighting a pandemic.
While it may be less politically popular, the addition of a retired chief executive of a major pharmaceutical company would be a smart addition. As would including a person with deep public-health experience, perhaps the former head of a large medical system or dean of a top medical or global-health school, and an educator, maybe the head of a large public school system. To cover this range of expertise, you would need at least 10 commissioners.
Who should lead such a panel? The 9/11 commission was led by a former Democratic representative, Lee Hamilton, and a former Republican governor, Tom Kean. My vote this time would be two people who served as both secretaries of defense and directors of the Central Intelligence Agency: Robert Gates, a Republican who worked for presidents of both parties, and Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California and White House chief of staff.
Finally, what are the key questions that need answering? They are deceptively simple: How did this pandemic start in China and reach the US? Once here, what was the timeline and pattern of infection across the nation? What did we do wrong and right at the federal, state and local level? What have we learned medically and scientifically? And what are the recommendations going forward in geopolitics, medicine, science, logistics, health policy, governance and security?
There have been abundant missteps since the virus was first identified in China late last year, but also some significant successes in terms of shutdowns and “flattening the curve” in the worst-hit areas. Even as we await an effective vaccine, we can start planning to assign accountability and — above all — try to understand what we need to do better the next time.