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9/11 Commission Co-Chair On What Can Be Done To Investigate Capitol Insurrection

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How did all the pieces fall into place that led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol last month? To find out, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for a commission similar to the one after 9/11. The co-chair of that commission was former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. He's actually spoken to the House speaker about this, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

THOMAS KEAN: Thank you. Happy to be here.

CORNISH: We're in a moment where I would say facts are almost always seemingly in dispute. Is this environment different from the period - the years after 9/11?

KEAN: It's tough. I think it's tougher from the perspective of getting a really bipartisan group together because so many people are at each other's throats these days. But it's not impossible. And we had a pretty tough time, too. I mean, we were doing our investigation going into the year of a presidential election, and President Bush was running for reelection having had the Bush v. Gore and the hanging chads and all that election - so people were distrustful.

And so people were worried that somebody's going to use the work of the commission for Republicans or Democrats, partisan, in other words. And we had to convince them. It took a while to convince them that we were going to do that, and we were going to be straight down the middle. Once people figured that out, then we were accepted by Republicans and Democrats. And our report was accepted. It's still trusted. It's now a textbook. And you could say it worked.

CORNISH: At the same time, the 9/11 Commission investigated an attack by foreign terrorists. And the January 6 commission essentially would be investigating an attack by domestic actors, people, some of whom have support from members of Congress, some of whom are former military. How do you - how does one handle something like this?

KEAN: Well, you handle it right down the middle. You go, say, where the facts lead you.

CORNISH: You sent a letter to President Biden, to congressional leaders offering your suggestions about how to do this. And some of them can be expected - that it should be bipartisan, that it should be independent. But you also want it to have the authority, specifically subpoena power. Can you talk about how you think that would help here?

KEAN: I think it's necessary. And this is from my experience with the 9/11 Commission. Most people will come and talk to you, but there are a number who would rather not. And so they just decline the invitation. If there's a subpoena power there, they don't decline the invitation. We didn't have to use it. You know, you don't - you need to have it. We only used it, I think, once in our whole investigation. So you don't really need to use it, but you have to have it.

CORNISH: You mentioned theories at that time, and obviously we're again in a moment where conspiracy theories are playing out in the public sphere. How did you weed those out of the investigation, or how did it complicate the investigation?

KEAN: Well, I welcome conspiracy theories. People thought I was going to be worried about - I welcome them because we wanted to track them down. So every single conspiracy theory we had at the time, I put two or three staff members on it to track it down. So that's what we did. And that's what we should do again.

CORNISH: Fundamentally, is the goal with something like this to create a single narrative? And do you think that is possible in this very partisan moment?

KEAN: It's possible, depending on how you set up the commission. First of all, you've got to have some men and women willing to serve who are not ambitious themselves, who are not currently holding office, who have records of bipartisanship and talking across the aisle. Those are the kind of people you're looking for. So I think that the men and women are there. We could set up the right commission. But you have to have a willingness to do it. You cannot appoint partisan people. If you're going to appoint people who are partisan, either Republicans or Democrats, then don't do it. It's not going to work.

CORNISH: Finally, there have been some voices, in particular Republicans, who have implied that the country needs to or the government needs to move on, so to speak, from this episode. What's your position on that? Why do you think a commission would be important?

KEAN: You can't have people invade the nation's Capitol and not find out what happened. Now, so the question is, how are you going to find out what happened? And you set up a commission that has the confidence of the people. And we had to earn that confidence. We didn't get it right away. If you make the process public - we had public hearings. As we went along and found out things, we told people what we found out. We'd tell them where we were in the investigation. We brought everybody along with us, including the Congress and the people.

So by the time we got to the end of the investigation, we had some credibility. And people understand who we were, where we were coming from. People understood that we were not doing it from a Republican point of view. We weren't doing it from a Democratic point of view. We were doing it in the nation's point of view. And you've got to have people who'll put country first, ahead of party.

CORNISH: That's Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. Thank you for your time.

KEAN: Thank you very much. Nice to see you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.