For the history books: Slade Gorton and the 9/11 Commission

By concentrating on getting the objective history right, the commission muted its partisanship. And guess which president fully cooperated and was totally honest?

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The report: contested recommendations, solid history.

By concentrating on getting the objective history right, the commission muted its partisanship. And guess which president fully cooperated and was totally honest?

When the 9/11 Commission gathered for its initial meeting back in 2003, one of the first things that former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Washington) did was to size up the other members of the bipartisan panel who’d been tasked with investigating the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.

“I can remember going around the table, and when the introductory remarks got to Jamie Gorelick,” says Gorton, “I felt to myself, ‘well now, there’s a very partisan Democrat whose primary goal is going to be to get this thing right.'" Later, Gorton says, Gorelick became a good friend and admitted to Gorton that she had said to herself at that same meeting, ‘there’s a very partisan Republican whose principal goal is to get this right.'"

And getting it right, in Gorton’s assessment of the 9/11 Commission’s work, was just what they did in one very important aspect: objectively documenting the historical record of the attacks in the commission’s published findings.

Gorton recalls that at that first meeting, “almost everyone said, well we’ve got a lot of tasks here, but if we can’t get the history right, if we end up having dissenting opinions on what happened, we will have wasted our time, and the taxpayers’ money.”

As a senator who had left office after being narrowly defeated by Maria Cantwell in the 2000 election, Gorton had little experience with intelligence oversight.  “I was on the 9/11 Commission because my best friend while I was in the Senate was [Republican leader] Trent_Lott”>Trent Lott,” Gorton says.  “It didn’t really have anything to do with [having] background in the subject, it was just that he trusted me, and asked me if I would do what turned out to be one of the most interesting experiences in my life.”

While he lacked intelligence oversight experience, Gorton did bring to his work on the 9/11 Commission his first-hand, if somewhat remote, Evergreen State experience of the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I was in a resort above Leavenworth on Icicle Creek,” Gorton remembers, taking part in a retreat for which he can’t recall the topic.  “I think there was only one television set at the place. We all went in and watched for a while and were stunned, and the retreat broke up almost instantly. I drove back to Seattle on Route 2 with hardly a car for 50 miles along the highway. It was an out-of-body experience.”  Gorton would also learn much later that the Columbia Tower — where he had an office and whhich was his destination that morning — was on the original list of targets for the attack.

While Gorton the Republican and Gorelick the Democrat had mutual respect for each other, and while Gorton also became good friends with Bob Kerrey (Democratic former senator from Nebraska), Gorton says the 9/11 Commission was not without partisanship as it went about its work.

“It did appear to be partisan and occasionally was partisan during the open public hearings.  Some of the questions tended to be much more in the form of speeches than they were real questions.  And we were criticized for it,” Gorton says, most harshly by the organizations representing victims’ families. Gorton adds that those same organizations were among the most vocal supporters of the final report when it was released in July 2004.

Along with the partisanship, there was a fair amount of friction between the commission and the White House, as the commission tried to schedule a meeting with President Bush.  Gorton says, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales deserves the blame for that.  “[Bush] and the White House never got any credit for the fact that they did not interfere with what we did in any respect whatsoever, but because of Gonzales they kept trying to do so, and deservedly got that bad reputation.”

When the day finally came to hear from President Bush, Gorton and the other commissioners went to the White House for what was supposed to be an hour of the Commander in Chief’s time. “The President walks in, speaks to each of us by his or her first name, and welcomes us to the Oval Office, where we spent two-and-a-half hours, and where he answered every question that was asked of him,” Gorton says. “We got everything. He was totally charming and totally honest and leveling with us.”

Vice President Cheney was also on hand, Gorton says, “but only answered questions when they were directly put to him.” 

The Oval Office visit also provided one of the lighter moments on the commission for Gorton.  “The sort of private laugh I got was that some of my Democratic colleagues who were breathing fire when we were trying to set the darn thing up asked the softest questions,” Gorton says. 

Gorton is now working as an attorney in the Seattle office of the national firm of K&L Gates, and is also devoting time to the Slade Gorton International Policy Center at the National Bureau of Asian Research.  The center will host an event called the 9/11 Conference on Friday, September 9 at the University of Washington. Joining Gorton for the panel discussion will be Bob Kerrey. Gorton is also a Republican member of the state redistricting commission, redrawing political lines after the 2010 Census.

Gorton has his own opinions about the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, but returns to the written history as the commission’s true legacy. 

“The major contribution that we will have made will have been to have written an objective history. That’s the one that’s going to last,” Gorton says.  “The recommendations obviously will be outdated or anachronistic as time goes by.  But the history, I think, is going to stick with us.”


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