Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean – the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission – are the prototypical Wise Old Men of Washington. These are the types chosen to head blue-ribbon panels whenever the US government needs a respectable, trans-partisan, serious face to show the public in the wake of a mammoth political failure. Wise Old Men of Washington are entrusted with this mission because, by definition, they are loyal, devoted members of the political establishment and will criticise political institutions and leaders only in the most respectful and restrained manner.
That is why it was so remarkable when Hamilton and Kean, on 2 January 2008, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times repeatedly accusing the CIA and the Bush White House of knowingly “obstructing” their commission’s investigation into the 9/11 attack. As many imprisoned felons can attest, the word “obstruction” packs a powerful punch as a legal term of art signifying the crime of “obstruction of justice”, and yet, here were these two mild-mannered, establishment-protecting civil servants accusing CIA and Bush officials of that crime in the most public and unambiguous manner possible.