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“It’s good enough for government work,” people used to say when I served in the Navy. Commonly spoken to wrap up a job, you might say it was the government’s version of the 80/20 rule: stop when you’re eighty percent done, because the last twenty percent isn’t worth it. In practice, it means we hold government work to a lower standard of quality when we evaluate it. Oddly, we don’t expect much from government employees, no matter what their level.

Now we have to ask whether this kind of thinking holds when the government undertakes cover-ups. When Lyndon Johnson decided he needed Chief Justice Earl Warren to write a report on President Kennedy’s assassination, did he expect the commission to apply the good enough standard? Did Johnson think that Warren’s high office and authority would take care of that extra twenty percent? After all, if you plan to lay out your case against Lee Oswald, you don’t want to put out a shoddy, incomplete piece of work and hope it will fly. A large dash of prestige makes the product more persuasive.

Few expected the Warren report to silence people who were already skeptical of the government’s story. 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 generation anyway. It kept the initial gaggle of conspiracy nuts at bay. It also demonstrated that even when the stakes could not be higher for an investigation, government’s habit of mediocrity reliably accompanies – and then undermines – its own deceit, no matter how prestigious or capable the author. Even as a cover-up, the Warren Commission report did a poor job.

Chief Justice Earl Warren presents his commission’s report on John F. Kennedy’s assassination to President Lyndon Johnson

By comparison with the Warren Commission report, was the 9/11 Commission report good enough to accomplish its purpose? Consider these points related to the 9/11 Commission’s success or failure:

  • The Bush administration obstructed formation of the commission for two years, so fresh evidence had a long time to dissipate.
  • The differences between what witnesses saw, heard and recorded photographically, and what people read in the report were enormous.
  • After the Kennedy assassination and Warren report, Americans did not want to be hoodwinked again.

Another interesting comparison between the JFK and 9/11 investigations exists. The Warren Commission assembled some twenty-three volumes of testimony, whereas the 9/11 Commission relied on fake computer simulations. We know that you can make computer simulations come out any way you like. Both commissions aimed to construct and explicate a preset narrative. For the Warren report, though, all those volumes of testimony made its evidence and conclusions appear more weighty.

Weighty or not, the 9/11 Commission’s report appears to be less persuasive than the Warren Commission report. How many years passed before the majority of American’s came to doubt the government’s version of Kennedy’s assassination? Collective judgments about the government’s version of 9/11 required a lot less time to reach that threshold. In both cases, a written report produced by men of prestige made the government’s version more persuasive. In both cases, the plainly fraudulent character of each report became apparent over time. Despite the high standing of the authors, each report failed even the modest standard of mediocrity set for government work.

As we look at the aftermath of each crime, however, particularly the consolidation of federal power and autonomy, the modest standard of good enough seems to hold. You can fool quite a few people for a while. The criminals who planned these attacks relied on that general rule to get by. Though the crimes were not perfect – certainly not executed well enough to conceal their true origins – they were, for their time, good enough to accomplish their aims, and good enough to free their perpetrators from fear of punishment.

The criminals who planned Kennedy’s murder executed a coup d’etat. Thirty-eight years later, the criminals who planned the 9/11 attacks decisively advanced our nation’s transformation from a constitutional republic with limited powers to something far more ominous. These two crimes – bold and psychologically effective – were clearly good enough for government work.