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

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.

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Notes

  1. See in particular the ongoing efforts by the National Security Archive to secure the declassification of the official record in regard to this topic via their Electronic Briefing Books on the Iraq War, Parts I–III. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/ Accessed November 7, 2010.

  2. See in particular: The 9/11 Truth Movement. Available at: http://www.911truth.org/. Accessed November 6, 2010; Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup. Available at: http://s1.zetaboards.com/LooseChangeForums/index/. Accessed November 6, 2010; Center for Research into Globalization, “9/11 and the ‘War on Terrorism’” Available at: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=theme&themeId=18. Accessed November 6, 2010; Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories and Controlled Demolition Myths. Available at: http://www.debunking911.com/. Accessed November 6, 2010.

  3. A licensed online database of close to one million collections descriptions from thousands of libraries, museums, and archives.

  4. See: http://www.kabul-reconstructions.net/mariam/projects2.html#Index. For a thoughtful archival analysis of this project and its associations with power and memory see Royer (2010).

  5. Right up front there was a dispute between Democrats in Congress and the Republican Administration over the release of a critical August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) outlining al-Qaeda terrorist threats and possible hijacking plans. This document would later become the focus of a prolonged access battle between the Commission and the administration, detailed below.

  6. The Commission also found that the agency had not turned over “dozens of boxes” of relevant records—“various tapes, statements, interview reports and agency self-assessments.” Some of this information related to air defense systems (Eggen 2003a).

  7. These currents are ongoing. Recently, the Obama administration approved and defended the largest arms sale in US history to Saudi Arabia, valued at USD $60 billion (Gates and Clinton 2010).

  8. See: http://www.archives.gov/about/regulations/part-1256.html#partd.

  9. An interesting 9/11 archival turn emerged when the United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia provided web access to all 1,202 exhibits in Moissaoui’s trial. It became the first criminal case where a federal court posted all trial exhibits online. Available at: (http://www.vaed.uscourts.gov/notablecases/moussaoui/exhibits/). Accessed on November 7, 2010.

  10. See US National Archives’ 9/11 Commission Records website: http://www.archives.gov/legislative/research/9-11/.

  11. The National Archives’ initial investigation into this matter in December 2007 was placed on hold after the Justice Department launched its own criminal probe into the destruction.

  12. The original article is Robert Windrem and Victor Limjoco, “9/11 Commission controversy.” Extracted at: History Commons, “January 30, 2008: MSNBC Finds over One Quarter of 9/11 Commission Report Endnotes Cite Dubious Detainee Interrogations.” Available at http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a013008windrem911cr&scale=0#a013008windrem911cr. Access 10 October 2010. Cached version available at: Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, “MSNBC: 9/11 Commission Report based on torture.” Available at: http://s1.zetaboards.com/LooseChangeForums/topic/70086/1/. Accessed October 13, 2010.

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Acknowledgments

Wallace wishes to acknowledge the comments and assistance offered by Tom Connors, Verne Harris, and Anthea Josias. Stuchell wishes to acknowledge the assistance and support of Elizabeth Stuchell. Both authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for thoughtful and insightful comments on an earlier draft.

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Wallace, D.A., Stuchell, L. Understanding the 9/11 Commission archive: control, access, and the politics of manipulation. Arch Sci 11, 125–168 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-011-9139-0

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Keywords

  • September 11 attacks
  • 9/11 Commission
  • National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
  • Secrecy
  • Power