WASHINGTON — The lawyer who led the inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has quietly laid a foundation for a nonpartisan commission to investigate the coronavirus pandemic, with financial backing from four foundations and a paid staff that has already interviewed more than 200 public health experts, business leaders, elected officials, victims and their families.
The work, which has attracted scant public notice, grew out of a telephone call in October from Eric Schmidt, the philanthropist and former CEO of Google, to Philip D. Zelikow, who was the executive director of the commission that investigated Sept. 11. Schmidt urged Zelikow to put together a proposal to examine the pandemic, which has caused 600,000 deaths in the United States alone.
Now, with the nation beginning to put the crisis in the rearview mirror, Washington is taking up the idea of a COVID-19 commission. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and have the backing of three former homeland security secretaries — two Republicans and a Democrat — as well as health groups and victims and their families.
Unlike the rancorous debate that doomed the proposal for a panel to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, discussion of a COVID-19 commission has not produced partisan discord — at least, not yet. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, noted that its work would cover both the Trump and Biden administrations.
“If I can get past what I consider to be the biggest hurdle, which is not to have this viewed through a partisan political lens, then I think there should be strong support for it moving forward,” Menendez said Tuesday.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month committed to an inquiry into the pandemic that would place “the state’s actions under the microscope” and take evidence under oath. But in Washington, a commission with subpoena power could be a hard sell to Republicans wary that such a panel would become an instrument to investigate former President Donald Trump.
Meantime, the COVID Commission Planning Group directed by Zelikow, is forging ahead on a separate track that might, at some point, merge with a congressionally appointed panel. It has financial support from Schmidt Futures, founded by Schmidt and his wife, Wendy; Stand Together, which is backed by the libertarian-leaning philanthropist Charles Koch; the Skoll Foundation, founded by the eBay pioneer Jeff Skoll, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
On Tuesday, Zelikow and Schmidt said that while they would like cooperation from Congress and the White House, their effort could proceed without it, though it might be handicapped without subpoena power and access to documents. Zelikow said there was internal debate in his group about which route was preferable.
If Congress does establish its own commission, Zelikow said, his group would be willing to share its work. But if the government does not act, Schmidt said he was confident that he could raise enough money for the group directed by Zelikow to go forward on its own.
“We’ve just had the worst calamity in most living Americans’ lives — real deaths, real suffering, a lot of future issues, economic issues,” Schmidt said in his first interview about his involvement. “I would like to see a detailed analysis of what happened and I’d like to see recommendations to prevent it from happening in the future. I think Americans are owed that.”
Just as victims and their families were instrumental in calling for a 9/11 commission, coronavirus victims and their families are pushing for a COVID-19 panel. On Wednesday, after this article was published online, a victims’ group, Marked By COVID, issued a statement praising Zelikow’s effort and calling on President Joe Biden to “support a full and transparent investigation.”
The planning group is not engaged in substantive interviews and has avoided key figures like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the Trump White House coronavirus response coordinator, who would be critical in any investigation. Instead it is conducting “listening sessions,” Zelikow said, to ask health experts, governors, mayors, business leaders and others what a commission should investigate.
With more than two dozen expert advisers from across the political spectrum, including two former Food and Drug Administration commissioners and a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the group has made detailed notes of these sessions and drafted a blueprint for a wide-ranging inquiry that would include, but hardly be limited to, an examination of the origins of the virus — including the contentious “lab leak” theory. That part of the inquiry would be conducted with national and international panels of scientists, Zelikow said.
“We’d like to know everything from the origins of the virus to how to make diagnostic testing more widely available to why we saw such big difference in the impact of the pandemic across different socioeconomic and racial and ethnic groups,” said Mark B. McClellan, an adviser to the group and former FDA commissioner in the administration of George W. Bush.
The group operates out of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, where Zelikow, a former diplomat, national security expert and now a history professor, is based. It works in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security and Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The Sept. 11 commission, created by an act of Congress that was signed into law at the end of 2002 by an initially reluctant Bush, was an independent, bipartisan panel that spent 18 months investigating the attacks and the country’s preparedness for them, holding public hearings in what amounted to a national reckoning.
It produced an extensive report — both a detailed analysis and a gripping narrative that changed Americans’ understanding of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000, and the terrorist threat. Its 41 separate recommendations led to specific changes to the structure of government, the creation of a director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center.
But the pandemic is a very different circumstance — not a discrete one-day event but a crisis that unfolded over months, affecting the entire world and not just the United States. The response was overwhelmingly led by state and local governments; Sept. 11 produced a largely federal response. Despite the publication of thousands of news articles and even books examining what went wrong with the U.S. virus response, huge unanswered questions remain.
Could intelligence officials have worked more closely with epidemiologists to track the virus as it took hold, and do the same with future emerging infections? Could the mass lockdowns last spring have been avoided, or at least limited to inflict less damage on the economy? How do state and local governments coordinate with Washington in a crisis that affects the whole country?
“This is very important,” said J. Stephen Morrison, an expert in global public health at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who also serves as an adviser to the planning group. “It’s the biggest national trauma we’ve experienced since World War II. Six hundred thousand people have died. Our institutions failed in a staggering way and our politics failed and our public health system was shambolic. We have to come to terms with all of that.”
Backers of the commission idea sense that they now have a critical window. The Trump presidency is in the past, and the 2024 elections are far enough away to keep the effort from getting caught up in presidential politics. A commission established this year could deliver a report in 2023, after the midterm elections.
Views differ about how such a panel would be structured. Menendez says it needs the imprimatur of Congress, with leaders of both parties and the president appointing members, as was the case with the Sept. 11 panel, which was led by Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former congressman from Indiana. Menendez’s bill calls for a 10-member commission that would include at least one economic policy expert, one public health expert and one former governor appointed by each party.
Zelikow said he believed the panel should be nonpartisan — as opposed to bipartisan — and argued that the Sept. 11 model would not work in such a highly polarized climate. He fears congressional leaders will name people who are more invested in protecting their own parties than in the truth, which would “not help America heal” and only “further damage faith and trust in American governance.” But, he said, the effort needs “congressional buy-in.”
There are other possible models; one idea that has been bandied about is to have Bush and former President Barack Obama lead a commission and appoint its members.
So far, the Biden White House has been silent on the issue. Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson, said Tuesday that the administration was “focused on our urgent and robust response to the pandemic,” though he added, “When the time comes, we will be prepared to engage in reviews and lessons learned.”