, Volume 11, Issue 1-2, pp 125-168

Understanding the 9/11 Commission archive: control, access, and the politics of manipulation

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Abstract

This article examines a range of issues surrounding the archive developed by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known and the “9/11 Commission.” We provide a partial biography of the 9/11 Commission’s archival record as it was being assembled. This contemporaneous analysis of the politics surrounding this archive during its formative stage lends insights into the political and power dynamics shaping this archive. We review how the public record and public knowledge of 9/11 were shaped by the processes surrounding the accretion of this archive by charting records access and control controversies before, during, and years after the Commission submitted its final report. Despite claims from all sides that what was needed was an unfiltered, non-partisan and accurate review of what went wrong and how it went wrong, the story we outline underscores that the composition, accumulation, access to, and control of the archival record surrounding 9/11 was shaped as much by political concerns over blame and responsibility (and evading it) as it was by good faith efforts to get to the heart of the matter. In the charged atmospherics of modern US politics, custodial power over the record and access to it was used to prevent political embarrassment and to submerge—as opposed to surface—basic facts. Those with powers over access were not willing to risk having the documentary record either accessed or analyzed in a truly independent manner. This does not bode well, and in fact represents a deeper structural reality that will confound similar future governmental investigations that require access from those it is investigating. There is no reason to doubt that, absent a seismic shift in how the record is maintained and controlled, the archive will continue to be used as a means to shape and interfere with legitimate inquiries.