CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Last Monday, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks faxed a photo of the White House chief of staff under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman testifying before the panel that investigated Pearl Harbor.
The next day, President Bush reversed his position and said he would allow his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to appear publicly before the Sept. 11 commission.
The picture may have served as a good bluff, as it was widely seen by both the White House and media as a precedent for Rice's testimony. The image, published in The New York Times on November 22, 1945, shows Adm. William D. Leahy testifying.
But Leahy was not President Roosevelt's liaison for national security during the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks – he was the American ambassador to France. There was no equivalent national security apparatus at the time, nor was there an equivalent position to the one Rice holds.
Nevertheless, the investigation into Pearl Harbor sheds an apt historical perspective on the hearings currently underway on Capital Hill. The Sept. 11 commission has spent weeks preparing to question Rice, anticipating the possibility that she would speak under oath. She will go before the bipartisan commission on Thursday.
It has been more than half a century since the last attack on U.S. territory. Both the current commission and the Roberts Commission, which investigated Pearl Harbor, were designed to probe the fundamental questions of military intelligence: what did we know, when did we know it, was intelligence disseminated to the highest levels and, if so, why were actions not taken?
There were nine investigations into Pearl Harbor, if you include the immediate query done by Naval leadership. The most public, but not the most comprehensive, was the Roberts Commission, convened 11 days after the day of infamy.
By order of President Roosevelt, the mandate of the commission was to determine whether there were derelictions on the part of U.S. military personnel that led to imperial Japan's successful attack on America's most vital naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.
By contrast, it took the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States – the Sept. 11 commission's formal title – more than year to be formed. Initially resisted by the Bush administration, the Sept. 11 panel is not that dissimilar to the investigations into Pearl Harbor.
"It's a good comparison both because the events are comparable and the issues are almost exactly the same, which is what intelligence was available in advance of the event and why did no one act on the intelligence that was available," said Columbia University Provost Alan Brinkley, a scholar of 20th-century American history.
"In Pearl Harbor there is not much doubt that the U.S. had received enough intelligence to predict the event, but failed to predict it," he continued, adding, "historians of intelligence argue that it doesn't matter how much information you have if you are not looking for what it tells you."
Historians agree that few imagined the Japanese could stage a bombing of such magnitude so far from their own shores. The Bush administration was aware that among the myriad threats terrorists posed, the hijacking of aircraft and the utilization of them as weapons was a possibility. Under President Clinton, a 1995 plan by Islamic extremists to blow up 11 U.S. passenger jets over the Far East was thwarted.
The Roberts Commission, named after Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts who led the investigation, was unaware that the United States had broken Japanese code. The Second World War was well underway and the U.S. breaking of Japanese code was considered classified intelligence of the highest order.
Since this intelligence was at the center of the U.S. military's ability to predict the attacks on Pearl Harbor, it begs the question whether certain intelligence related to the war on terror is now being made available to the Sept. 11 commission.
Japan was defeated four years after Pearl Harbor. Congress established the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack to "make a full and complete investigation of the facts relating to the events and circumstances leading up to or following the attack." Public hearings commenced in November 1945 and continued until May 1946. The testimony received from 43 witnesses totaled 15,000 typewritten pages.
"People always look for rational explanation for catastrophes because they want to believe that a nation is secure," Yale University historian Seth Fein said. "People want to find a way to understand it and believe it cannot happen again. And an attempt is made in all these commissions to demonstrate bipartisanship and impartiality and made up of those who in the public persona are above reproach."
The investigations into Pearl Harbor, some closed to the public, led to the early retirements of some of the military's highest leadership and blame was spread across the board. President Roosevelt died just months prior to the conclusive report on Pearl Harbor; he never accepted responsibility. The investigations led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an effort to improve coordination between the Army and Navy.
"The whole National Security Act of 1947 is meeting the Cold War threat but based on lessons from Pearl Harbor," explained Gaddis Smith, a Yale history professor emeritus. "Nothing clears the air like complete victory."