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7 most controversial U.S. presidential commissions
Obama's panel on the BP oil spill is already generating backlash. If the outcry against previous such commissions is any indication, there's a lot more to come
 
The Warren commission investigated the assassination of JFK.
The Warren commission investigated the assassination of JFK.
Library of Congress

President Obama's presidential commission to look into the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has gotten off to a slow start. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), who heads the panel with Reagan-era EPA director William Reilly, said Thursday the panel hasn't talked to anyone at BP yet. (Watch Bob Graham promise the report will be done this year.) Critics also say the panel's six-month inquiry will be tainted by the probable inclusion of members from the oil industry. But presidential commissions leaving doubts, or even conspiracy theories, in their wake is nothing new. Here's a look a seven controversial inquiries: 

1. ROBERTS COMMISSION
Formed: December 1941 (Report issued Jan. 28, 1942)
Purpose: To investigate what went wrong at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941
Controversial findings: Headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, the commission blamed Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, the chief Navy and Army commanders in the Pacific, for being woefully unprepared for an air attack from Japan. They were subsequently demoted.
Fallout: Historical revisionists claim that Short and Kimmel were scapegoated by Washington to cover up either military mistakes or an alleged plot by President Roosevelt to allow the attack as a pretext for U.S. involvement in World War II. In 1999, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution exonerating Short and Kimmel.

2. WARREN COMMISSION
Formed: Nov. 29, 1963 (Report issued Sept. 24, 1964)
Purpose: To investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963
Controversial findings: Headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the panel unanimously concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the killing of JFK, and that there was no apparent conspiracy, national or international.
Fallout: Time Magazine declared the commission's report, issued after 10 months of work, "utterly convincing in its major conclusions," — perhaps, but it has failed to convince generations of skeptics. A House committee on assassinations concluded in 1978 that Kennedy was in fact "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy," possibly involving the Mafia, and in a 2003 poll by ABC News, only 32 percent of respondents accepted the Warren Commission's "lone gunman" conclusion.

3. ROGERS COMMISSION
Formed: Feb. 3, 1986 (Report issued June 9, 1986)
Purpose: To investigate the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986
Controversial findings: Headed by William P. Rogers, Nixon's first secretary of state, the commission faulted poorly designed O-rings made by NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. Calling the Challenger explosion "an accident rooted in history," the panel also blamed NASA's management culture, but did not single out any individuals for blame.
Fallout: Space Shuttle flights were suspended until September 1988. Also, panel member Richard Feynman, a Nobel-winning physicist, issued his own scathing report, harshly criticizing NASA managers for failing to grasp elementary concepts, like risk factors, being dangerously out of touch with NASA engineers, and not informing school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the explosion, of the true risks involved in space flight.

4. TOWER COMMISSION
Formed: Nov. 26, 1986 (Report issued Feb. 26, 1987)
Purpose: To investigate the Iran-Contra affair
Controversial findings: The three-member panel, headed by retired Sen. John Tower (R-TX), concluded that President Ronald Reagan did not know the extent of the direct arms sales to Iran, nor of the illegal financing of Nicaragua's anti-communist Contra insurgents with diverted proceeds from the Iran missile sales.
Fallout: While the Tower Commission largely cleared Reagan of culpability, it said he should have known what was going on in his own administration — particularly his National Security Council, which executed the complicated affair. In the end, 14 people were indicted, including Lt. Col. Oliver North — who later claimed Reagan "knew everything" and undoubtedly approved it "enthusiastically" — and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. (Weinberger and five others were pardoned, some preemptively, by President George Bush in late 1992.)

5. PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON AVIATION SECURITY AND TERRORISM (PCAST)
Formed: Sept. 29, 1989 (Report issued May 15, 1990)
Purpose: To investigate the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 21, 1988
Controversial findings: Led by former Labor Secretary Ann McLaughlin Korologos, the PCAST sharply criticized Pan Am, the FAA, and the State Department for sloppiness and serious flaws in air-travel security. The panel also proposed tougher responses to terrorist bombings, including preemptive and retaliatory attacks on terrorist strongholds and the countries that host them.
Fallout: Several of the PCAST's recommendations led to improved screening of luggage and airport personnel, including tougher hiring and ID guidelines and more restricted access to baggage areas. Some people see signs of a cover-up, though — one of the British victim's relatives, Martin Cadman, reportedly told PSCAST members in 1990: "Your government and ours know exactly what happened. But they're never going to tell."

6. 9/11 COMMISSION
Formed: Nov. 27, 2002 (Report issued July 22, 2004)
Purpose: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as it's alternately known, was tasked with providing a "full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks."
Controversial findings: Headed by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R), the 9/11 Commission said that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, faulting mainly the FBI and CIA. The panel also recommended several steps the U.S. should take to prevent another such attack, some of which have been implemented.
Fallout: Critics say the 9/11 Commission was hampered by resistance and political meddling from the Bush administration, especially since its report was issued in the heat of Bush's reelection campaign. Commission members say their 20-month investigation was compromised by misstatements from Pentagon and FAA officials, among others. Kean said last week that the U.S. is more vulnerable now than at any time since 9/11. (Slate's Tim Noah responds that none of the 9/11 Commission's ideas would help that.)

7. IRAQ INTELLIGENCE COMMISSION
Formed: Feb. 6, 2004 (Report issued March 31, 2005)
Purpose: To investigate why prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMD was so faulty
Controversial findings: Led by retired federal appellate court judge Laurence Silberman (R) and former Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA), the panel harshly criticized U.S. intelligence agencies, saying they were "dead wrong" about Iraq's WMD capabilities and generally knew "disturbingly little" about threats from "many of our most dangerous adversaries." It found, however, no evidence of "political pressure" to influence the prewar WMD intelligence.
Fallout: From the beginning, critics objected to Silberman, a "reliable, aggressive, and determined Bush advocate" infamous on the Left for overturning Oliver North's Iran-Contra conviction in 1990. The report itself was criticized for scapegoating the CIA when the Bush administration allegedly ignored contrary intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Blaming the intelligence community for the "blatant falsehoods" that Iraq had WMDs, says Salon's Joe Conason, "is to absolve the rest of the Bush administration of any responsibility for the disasters that followed."

 

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