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It’s good enough for government work.

That’s a phrase I first heard in the Navy. What does it mean, after we look beyond the intended humor? It means we hold government work to a lower standard of quality when we evaluate it, or prospectively, we have lower expectations for the quality of government work.

The phrase seems to apply to the Warren Commission report. Few expected the report to silence people who were skeptical of the government’s story from the outset. Johnson launched the commission’s investigation to quell doubts among everyone else, to make sure the skeptics did not gain an advantage over time. Fifty years later, the Warren Commission’s work appears to have accomplished its purpose, for a few decades at least. It was good enough for Johnson and company.

Can we say the same for the 9/11 Commission report? Was it good enough to accomplish its purpose? An affirmative answer appears more doubtful here. Why?

  • The Bush administration obstructed formation of the commission for two years. The evidence had a long time to dissipate.
  • The difference between what witnesses saw and heard, and what people read in the report was just too great.
  • After the Kennedy assassination, Americans did not want to be hoodwinked again.
  • The Warren Commission assembled some twenty-three volumes of testimony, whereas the 9/11 Commission relied on fake computer simulations. The evidence appeared more weighty in the first case.

Consequently the effects of the 9/11 Commission’s report appear to be shorter-lived than those of the Warren Commission report. It took quite a long time for fifty percent or more of the country to doubt the government’s version of Kennedy’s assassination. Judgments about the government’s version of 9/11 have taken less time to reach that threshold. In both cases, however, the government’s version has benefited from the existence of a written report.

As an afterthought, we might apply the modest standard of good enough to the crimes themselves. Though not perfect – certainly not concealed well enough that their true origins can remain well hidden for long – they were, for their time, good enough for government work.