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The US needs a 9/11 Commission for the coronavirus

A former 9/11 Commission member explains why.

A memorial consisting of 3,000 American flags honoring the victims of 9/11 is displayed at West Beach on September 11, 2019, in Santa Barbara, California.
George Rose/Getty Images

Just over a year after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush set up the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — known more commonly as the 9/11 Commission — to look into the intelligence and preparedness failures that led to nearly 3,000 deaths.

Now as the coronavirus sweeps across the United States, a former member of that body thinks a new independent commission should be formed to look into how America couldn’t contain a disease that it knew was coming — and has been estimated to kill about 200,000 people.

“Clearly, the system that’s in place doesn’t work, and we’re going to need to figure out a way to change it,” John Farmer Jr., a senior counsel and team leader for the 9/11 Commission now at Rutgers University, told me. “There’s almost no excuse for the dilatory nature of this response.”

Farmer isn’t alone. Calls for an impartial body to look into the coronavirus response failings are coming from members of Congress and filling up opinion pages. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has even announced a new select committee to look into why the Trump administration didn’t take the threat seriously early on.

But the former 9/11 Commission member isn’t looking for a political fight. He wants a body of experts to review how the US should prepare for the next pandemic, and what specific changes need to be made to the response system. He points to the idea of states as the primary responders in particular. “The federal government can provide resources and expertise if needed, but clearly that model doesn’t work in this circumstance. It just doesn’t,” Farmer said.

With one of the Twin Towers already down on September 11, 2001, billowing smoke casts a pall over the skyline of lower Manhattan, signaling the impending collapse of the second tower.
Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

President Donald Trump or his successor could simply set up such a body, or Congress may try to form one. Whatever the method, if the US doesn’t form this commission, then Farmer believes the country will remain vulnerable to another pandemic. By that point, even more hundreds of thousands of Americans will be at risk.

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

You’re calling for a 9/11-style commission to get to the bottom of why the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response was so slow and poor. What, exactly, would forming a commission do?

John Farmer Jr.

The 9/11 Commission was a body that was able to take a step back from the way that the war [on terrorism] was being fought, look at how it started, and look at what caused the lapses in our response. It offered a dispassionate, nonpartisan way to analyze the situation and make constructive recommendations for policymakers going forward. That would be the point of any kind of inquiry.

The difference in this context from 9/11 is I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting until this is over to make these assessments. The response is ongoing now, and it’s a failing response to date.

I think it’s important to do. Not necessarily [for] the people on the front lines, because it’s too late for them, but for others who could point out ways that the system might be improved.

The way the emergency system is set up is really geared toward states making the primary, critical, emergency response decisions. For 99 percent of crises that occur, that’s appropriate because they’re typically localized. But what we’ve seen in this pandemic is it doesn’t respect any of those political boundaries, and so what you have is the states all scrambling to acquire ventilators and other emergency equipment, essentially competing against each other.

Clearly, the system that’s in place doesn’t work, and we’re going to need to figure out a way to change it.

Alex Ward

One of the main conclusions of the 9/11 report was that there was ample evidence of an attack coming and a government-wide failure in stopping it from happening. It seems we’ve already seen that government-wide failure here, and a new commission report might help illuminate what those issues were in order to provide recommendations to fix them.

John Farmer Jr.

You need to have some kind of objective body looking at this, as it’s going on, to make constructive suggestions for how to adjust. That might include the legal authorities and the way that the chain of command works in a pandemic, because clearly the model is that the federal government is really a backup and the states have primary responsibility.

The federal government can provide resources and expertise if needed, but clearly that model doesn’t work in this circumstance. It just doesn’t.

So what’s the right model? That’s what you want an unbiased group of experts looking into.

Alex Ward

In that case, we’re talking about a 9/11 Commission-style body, but it’s probably looking into questions more akin to natural disasters.

John Farmer Jr.

Right, this situation is more closely analogous to Hurricane Katrina than it is to 9/11. The 9/11 terror attacks took people by surprise and was a failure of imagination, as we said in the report.

A sick woman is transported by Air National Guard soldiers outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans on August 29, 2005.
Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Katrina, on the other hand, was something people anticipated and long prepared for: a massive storm hitting New Orleans. But the scale of it overwhelmed the preparations for it. It’s similar to the coronavirus case: We’ve done drills and we’ve done tabletops having to do with pandemics over the years. But I don’t think anybody really foresaw the scale of this, or how it would play out if there was a failure to contain the outbreak.

After the US had a handle on the Zika and Ebola outbreaks, I thought, “You know, we really know how to do this now. We’ve got this.” This one, though, is on a whole different scale. I think when we look back, we’ll see that the critical failure probably came with the failure to contain it instantly when people started getting sick in China. Before they realized how serious it was, it was already out. We’ve been scrambling ever since.

Alex Ward

To that point: In your mind, was this a singular Trump administration failure or a broader, longer-term, systemic failure from multiple US administrations?

John Farmer Jr.

I think it’s a combination. Clearly, the system that’s been set up in which the states take the lead, with the federal government as a backup, isn’t adequate for this circumstance. That’s a longer-term issue.

Where I think there’s also no question, however, is that the administration was slow to provide testing and slow to take this as seriously as it should have. It’s clear we just didn’t have adequate intelligence about the need for widespread testing early on so we could figure out exactly who needed to be shut down and why and when and where. We’re paying the price for that now by putting the economy into a self-induced coma.

You combine those two factors — a bad system no one fixed and the Trump administration’s slow response — and that’s why we are where we are.

Alex Ward

So if we had a 9/11 Commission-style review body in the future, what are the main issues you’d want them to look into?

John Farmer Jr.

First, what is the right chain of command for dealing with a public health emergency that doesn’t respect political borders? The current system of the governors having primary decision-making authority really doesn’t work here, as I’ve said.

Second, what is the fastest way to leverage resources so you can scale up the response? Just as they did in World War II, where many industries turned on a dime and produced tanks and airplanes, how can we have that happen again?

Third, does too much of our critical manufacturing exist abroad now? Are we too dependent on foreign manufacturers to handle a crisis like this within our own borders? What are the implications of that?

Fourth, is our hospital system too disjointed, too fragmented to be able to handle something like this in a coordinated way? What do we need to do to ensure that we have adequate capacity in our hospitals?

Fifth, how do you handle the pandemic of disinformation at a time like this? People are being bombarded with things that are half-truths and outright lies, and how do you discipline that process when you have to? In the normal course of things, in a free society, you don’t have to. But in a crisis like this, you don’t want people walking around misinformed, and a lot of people are.

Those are just some of the questions that I think need to be answered in a sober and constructive way to help the people who are actually on the frontlines fighting this thing.

Alex Ward

Do you think the US will remain as vulnerable as it is to pandemics until we have a 9/11 Commission-style review body?

A copy of the 567-page 9/11 Commission’s report, released July 22, 2004, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

John Farmer Jr.

The bottom line is yes. Any kind of pandemic that overwhelms political boundaries is also going to overwhelm systems that are set up based on those boundaries, and that is the problem that we’re facing.

Alex Ward

Would you want this kind of inquiry to specifically call out who failed, and at what they failed?

John Farmer Jr.

That’s a different kind of inquiry. In the 9/11 Commission, we were instructed to avoid that kind of language.

What the people need to know is what happened. They’re all going to make their own arguments and draw their own conclusions about who failed and why and whether there’s culpability with any given person or administration. That’s fine. That’s not the point of this kind of inquiry.

This kind of inquiry is to help fix the problem, and there will be other forums for that other kind of investigation. Congressional hearings are good at that. What I’m talking about, really, and what I think is most constructive, is to focus on fixing what’s wrong. If you focus on fixing it, blame becomes of secondary or tertiary importance.

Alex Ward

You’re clearly trying to lay out, as a professional, the case for a system-wide review by an impartial body. But you’re also just a person like all of us and a citizen of this country. So just as a person, are you mad at the way this has been handled?

John Farmer Jr.

Exasperated, I would say. It’s hard to watch, this sort of slow-motion response to a rapidly escalating crisis. It’s just hard to watch.

There’s almost no excuse for the dilatory nature of this response. If you go back to 2009, there was a PBS show about predicting pandemics, and even earlier shows about pandemic flu. We’ve known about these threats and these vulnerabilities for a long time. It’s not like this was completely unanticipated and unimaginable. It’s less understandable than the chaos of 9/11, in my opinion.