K.C. Johnson Missed the Point About Naftali


Max Holland is a journalist and author. He lives in Washington D.C. His books include The Kennedy Assassination Tapes: The White House Conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the Assassination, the Warren Commission, and the Aftermath (Knopf, 2004).

I write in response to K.C. Johnson’s “Holland, Naftali, and the Wisdom of Discretion.”  In it he chides me for supposed bias in my criticism of Tim Naftali’s work for the 9/11 Commission. (See The Historian as Hustler).

I agree with what I believe to be Johnson’s underlying point:  it’s improper to criticize a former colleague based on personal animus.  But he seems to have missed the reasons for the article, which he did not fault on factual grounds.

When Naftali signed on to write a history of counterterrorism for the 9/11 Commission, he already had a commercial contract to write a history of counterterrorism for Basic Books.  This might have been okay if he had told the Commission about the contract but he did not (a point which has been confirmed by Daniel Marcus, the panel’s general counsel).  The Commission might have refused to retain Naftali as a consultant had they known about the contract, or chosen to retain him regardless.  In either case, as a simple ethical matter he was obliged to let them know.

The fact that Naftali turned in his draft to the Commission late is not just a case of so-what’s-new-about a tardy academic.  The 9/11 Report, like the Warren Report, was a once or twice in a lifetime occasion.  Any historian would (and should) have been honored to contribute to the sober task of finding out what had gone wrong.  Time was of the essence; it wasn’t akin to preparing an article for a scholarly journal.  Taxpayers had a right to receive close to what they paid for, which was a monograph that would assist the Commission’s staff prepare a sound report with useful recommendations.  The Commission (and taxpayer) did not receive what had been contracted, but Naftali did—twice.  So this was not merely another, ho-hum case of a writer’s dilation because of Naftali’s undisclosed dual purpose.

Johnson criticizes me for assessing the quality of Naftali’s report for the Commission by quoting anonymously three Commission staffers.  He says I should instead have quoted (named) reviewers of Naftali’s book.  But Blind Spot was published more than a year later, and though it covers some of the same material, is a different work.  Had Johnson bothered to do his own reporting, he would have discovered, as I did, that Commission staffers who read Naftali’s monograph considered it useless for their purposes, and only part of that problem stemmed from it being two months late.

After doing his best to obfuscate the issues raised in the article, Johnson also throws in two red herrings, both of which misrepresent what I published elsewhere.

In 2005, I wrote an article that criticized the Commission for its neglect of the Government Printing Office, and failure to observe the venerable practice of publishing supplementary volumes with underlying documents, depositions, and testimony (not to mention an index).  When these tasks are left to the private marketplace, they do not happen; either that, or the cost is prohibitive.  Perhaps this is a trifling issue to Johnson, but librarians (and librarians’ associations) that I talked to do not agree with him.  And any historian who has ever used the voluminous material released through GPO by the Pearl Harbor, Warren, Watergate, Church, and/or Iran-Contra panels will understand the loss.

Another article Johnson references criticized transcripts of President Kennedy’s tape recordings published by the Miller Center, where I once worked.  Along with my co-author, Sheldon M. Stern, formerly the resident historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, I expressed concern about meaningful inaccuracies, not the omission, as Johnson puts it, of “all utterances, sounds, and potentially pregnant pauses.”  Here Johnson is lifting out of context a debate we had at the Miller Center about what responsibility we, as scholars, had in rendering the tapes in written form.

Johnson says my 2003 departure from the Miller Center “apparently wasn’t a pleasant one.”  It was pleasant for me, and they wanted me to stay.  The dispute he refers to occurred almost a year later, when the Miller Center wanted to assert copyright claims over transcripts of Johnson presidential recordings I prepared either before or after leaving the Center’s employ.

The bottom line here is that any harsh criticism (or effusive praise, for that matter) raises the issue of whether there is a personal element involved.  But the key question is whether the facts are correct and the judgments appropriate.  Readers should judge the merits of the article in question on those grounds.

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