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Title: Fixing the national security state : commissions and the politics of disaster and reform
Author: Kirchhoff, Christopher
ISNI:       0000 0004 2707 5440
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2010
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In the U.S. federal system, 'crisis commissions' are powerful instruments of social learning that actively mediate the politics of disaster and reform. Typically endowed with the legal authority to establish causes of dramatic policy failures and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence, commissions can prompt major governmental reorganizations. Yet commissions are also frequently accused of being influenced by dominant interests and faulted for articulating incomplete or politically expedient narratives of failure. Even when commission conclusions are accepted, the reforms they propose are not always adopted. Using the 9/11 Commission as a conceptual backdrop, this dissertation explores the relationship between disaster, public investigation, and reform by undertaking a detailed study of the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board and Iraq Study Group. Together, the cases constitute a study of the national security state seeking to correct failures across different domains of state power: border security, war-making capability, and dominance in space. I argue that commissions, as one-shot diagnostic and therapeutic instruments, are more effective than standing political institutions at confronting entrenched ways of seeing and knowing in complex systems of the national security state, which are defined by the interaction of ideology, large bureaucracies, and advanced technologies. The ability of commissions to see critically for society itself is not given but rather constructed through investigative and deliberative processes that must overcome the action of political interests. Commission credibility is therefore not an essential trait that derives a priori from the inherent stature of its members, but is rather the output of the investigative phase as commissions identify, compile, and publicize errors made by the state. In this adversarial process, an aggressive professional staff emerges as a determinant of commission success, leading to an important distinction between investigative commissions with 'super staffs' and advisory commissions that lack them. Process tracing recommendations over a multi-year period nevertheless reveals dynamics of agency and resistance at play between commissions and the institutions they attempt to reform, highlighting the partial success commissions are likely to achieve at coercing entrenched institutions to implement their recommendations.
Supervisor: Weinberg, Darin Sponsor: Gates Cambridge Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Commissions ; Disaster ; Reform ; Organizational learning ; Bureaucratic failure ; 9/11 Commission ; Columbia accident ; Iraq Study Group