Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises. By Jordan Tama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 232 pp.
Jordan Tama studies the record of commissions that have reported on national security issues, from the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981 to the end of 2006: a total of 51 commissions. He defines a commission as a panel of several people, including at least one private citizen, created by an act of Congress or executive branch directive. Included among the list of study groups are these: the Long Commission on Lebanon, the Inman Panel on embassy security, the Lockerbie Commission on aviation security, the 9/11 Commission, and the Iraq Study Group of 2006. Tama finds that commissions are effective when they possess two assets: credibility and the existence of a crisis. In general, he concludes that executive branch commissions have greater impact than congressional commissions.
Tama says that his research calls "into question the conventional wisdom that crisis commissions rarely lead to policy change" (p. 71). Although he offers quotes from some people who make that charge, studies over the years have regularly concluded that commissions are often an effective method for producing policy change. According to Tama, "relatively few scholars have examined the impact of commissions" (p. 6). Actually, the list of scholars who have performed that kind of research is quite lengthy.
The more challenging issue is not merely to observe that commissions can produce change, but are the changes beneficial? If so, in what way? One departmental official said that certain reforms "wouldn't have happened but for the commission" (p. 3). The next question: were the changes worth "happening"? Effecting change is one thing; evaluating it is another. Tama explains that his book does not focus on two issues: "(1) whether the reforms are fully implemented after they are adopted, and (2) whether they improve public policy of government effectiveness." He anticipates that reforms will not be fully implemented because of bureaucratic resistance (p. 192). As for assessing whether reforms improve policy or government effectiveness, he remarks it would be "difficult to do objectively" (p. 193). If that is the case, all we know is that commissions can create change, but we do not know if the change is worthwhile.
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