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Expert Doubts Jan. 6 Commission Will Produce A Fair Accounting


Key lawmakers in Congress have agreed to create a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It's billed as a 9/11-style commission. After that attack in 2001, widely respected officials from both parties led a review of what went wrong and what needed to change, and their report even became a best selling book. Now, we're told, 10 commissioners - five Democrats, five Republicans - would use subpoena power to try to replicate that.

John Sipher, formerly of the CIA, signed a letter calling for an independent investigation but is skeptical of this proposal. And he's on the line from Virginia. Welcome.

JOHN SIPHER: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: Good morning. And I guess we should note that the top Democrat and top Republican on a key committee have agreed in the House. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, has said, I haven't signed on to this yet. So we don't know this is entirely a done deal, but Democrats certainly have the votes for it anyway. What, if anything, is wrong with this new commission?

SIPHER: (Laughter). Well, I certainly applaud those that are trying to find a way to examine the background of what happened on January 6. And I believe that these House members are serious about trying to do that. But, you know, frankly, I think they have much more faith in the notion of bipartisanship than I do. You know, if we contrast the political situation after 9/11 with today, you know, I don't see real strong evidence of that kind of bipartisanship. I don't - you know, I have - I don't really see - have faith in the same kind of people who are pushing someone like Liz Cheney out of leadership because she doesn't buy into what President Trump was saying.

INSKEEP: Well, that is true, that Liz Cheney lost her No. 3 House Republican leadership position because she was telling the truth. But I am looking at someone like Representative John Katko, a Republican of New York, key member of a committee here. As I understand this, Katko and other Republicans were pushing for some obvious trolling here. They wanted Black Lives Matter to be investigated along with the actual people who attacked the Capitol.

SIPHER: That's right.

INSKEEP: But this was dropped, which sounds like a sign of good faith, like there are some Republicans who want a real investigation.

SIPHER: Well, I think some Republicans certainly do. However, you know, we already know what led to the attacks. Liz Cheney herself has already passed judgment on the event. She stated clearly, quote, "that the president of the United States summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president."

So I worry that concluding anything less in any kind of investigational report now could be a failure. And, you know, we look back on the 9/11 Commission sort of through rose-colored glasses. You know, a narrative builds up around these different investigations and a narrative that's often different than the reality. You know, we look at the Mueller report, and it's largely remembered by a lot of people as, you know, no collusion. And frankly, the 9/11 Commission, it was bipartisan, but nonetheless avoided real accountability for some of the people involved and dodged a lot of the most difficult issues.

INSKEEP: Is this not the dilemma, though? You need people from both parties to sign off on a final version of events that people in both parties, or at least some of them, can have some faith in?

SIPHER: Of course. That - I mean - but I think there are a lot of people who believe that this is possible now, but I just don't see that it's going to be possible. I think the devil is in the details. So anyone who is on this commission or working on this commission is going to try to find a way to protect their political party. And at this point - you know, with the 9/11 Commission, we could afford to deflect blame and say that the problem was the CIA or FBI or others and give policymakers and politicians a pass, which is sort of what happened with the 9/11 report. But if we do that now, it will really be a failure because this is a - this is largely a political failure, 1/6 was.

INSKEEP: You wrote in The Washington Post that, quote, "If Congress cannot stomach a true reckoning over January 6" - and it sounds like you think they can't - "they would be better to do nothing at all." Why is nothing the best option?

SIPHER: Well, because, like I said, you know, one of the goals - this bill, for example, one of the things that it says it's going to focus on, the goal of the bill is to, quote, "protect against future attacks." Well, if the goal is to protect the Capitol, we can put up a fence and declare success. But that's not the real issue here. This is a political failure. And anything short of dealing with that political failure is going to really be a problem for us going forward. So...

INSKEEP: Oh - meaning that you can't just have a commission that says we need a few technical fixes here, we need better politics in America?

SIPHER: Well, it would be very easy to look at, you know, more cameras for police, more training for Capitol Police, more - stronger windows on the Capitol, putting fencing around the Capitol. Those things are very easy to deal with, and that's largely what the 9/11 Commission did. But, you know, if we don't deal with the core issue, the one that Liz Cheney brought up herself, then this is a - this could be a failure. I think, in some ways, leaving this to the courts and historians, at least for the time being, might be a better answer today.

INSKEEP: John Sipher, formerly of the CIA, wrote about this proposed commission in The Washington Post. Thanks so much.

SIPHER: My pleasure. Great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.