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ND grad Roemer serves on 9/11 panel

Claire Heininger | Friday, April 23, 2004

Forgive Tim Roemer for disliking the blame game. As one of 10 commissioners on the National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon the United States, he has seen recent bursts of partisan politics steal the limelight and personal agendas dominate the national press. But amid the September 11 commission’s uglier moments, Roemer – who holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Notre Dame and represented South Bend for 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives – has not lost sight of its true purpose.”There’s been a lot of finger-pointing and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey,” the 47-year old said. “But the goal of the panel needs to be tough, penetrating, bipartisan questions to target the threat and to move forward.”Moving forward, however, first requires the painful process of looking back. And as Roemer has emphasized since the panel’s creation – which came about largely due to legislation he, along with Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, authored and helped push through Congress – a deep and comprehensive examination of the attacks is not only what the families of September 11 victims deserve.It’s what they demand. “[Family members] could say, ‘I’m tired, I’ve lost a husband or a wife,'” he said. “But when they have every excuse to walk away from the system, they’ve demanded a change. They’ve fought tenaciously, aggressively and sometimes successfully to make this system accountable in the future.”Prying that accountability from the top levels of the American government has been a grueling process, Roemer said. From forcing intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA to disclose records to grilling National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about who knew what and when, the commission has tried to thoroughly expose the government’s internal workings – and internal failures and gaps – more publicly than ever before, he said. And perhaps more openly, he added, than ever again.”This will be the most rich, penetrating and in-depth look at our government that the American people may ever get,” he said. “It’s a truly phenomenal, maybe once in a lifetime, once in history look at how government functions. … Only in America could this take place.”However, not all Americans have agreed with the transparency of the commission. Critics have blasted panel members for being too public too prematurely with their opinions, and some have even called for a voluntary gag order to preserve the panel’s integrity. Roemer points to one answer for the critics’ complaints – the past.”Many previous commissions with prominent members, distinctive reports – nothing has changed as a result of those commissions’ hard work and valiant efforts,” he said. Recalling the Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination chiefly behind closed doors, Roemer said that the “conspiracy theorists still poking today” never got the answers they were looking for. This panel, he added, must be different. Americans are watching, and watching closely. Many are interested because of the political blame game. Many are in awe of just how much intelligence has come to light, he said, and many – especially those who have lost their loved ones – have a bittersweet personal stake. Roemer, who credits his South Bend upbringing and Notre Dame experience with his “sense to use your conscience, deepest beliefs and hopefully your analytical and academic skills to … be constructive rather than destructive in the political process,” said he has always cared about the audience of victims’ families the most.”Maybe a part of their healing process is their involvement in figuring out what’s going on and what cost them dearly,” he said. Roemer recalled a meeting in his office shortly before the commission’s work began. A widow of a September 11 victim took off her husband’s wedding ring – which had been recovered from Ground Zero with part of his finger still in it – and put it in Roemer’s hand. The former Congressman still remembers her telling him, “We hope you won’t lose sight of the symbolism of this ring.” Through the pressure and the partisanship, it is clear that he hasn’t. “Those kind of poignant and profound moments,” he said, “stick with you.”