Timothy Naftali: Accused of Self-Aggrandizement

Historians in the News

Timothy Naftali's Response

Max Holland's Comment on Naftali's Response

Designating Norton as the publisher of the 9/11 Report was not the only plum handed out during Philip Zelikow's tenure as director. Zelikow engaged in some blatant cronyism when he arranged for a colleague from the University of Virginia, Tim Naftali, to write a history of U.S. counterterrorism policy from the Johnson to the Clinton administration.

The commission's prime directive was to investigate the 9/11 attacks, of course, but a historical account of counterterrorism policy is the kind of ancillary study that comparable commissions have published. As part of its final report, the Church Committee, which investigated activities of U.S. intelligence agencies, included an invaluable 100-page study of the CIA that was based upon access to classified internal histories.

But like other aspects of the commission's work, the Naftali study was not published as part of the commission's output; it was not even deemed fit for posting on the Internet. Why was it commissioned in the first place? Naftali, a Canadian citizen at the time, could not review classified materials. His study would have to depend entirely on open sources, meaning that at best it would represent a marginal addition to public knowledge. Naftali was not even a noted expert on the subject.

Naftali's unfamiliarity with the topic probably contributed to what happened next: he belatedly turned in a work that was way too long. Indeed, because of its tone and perspective it was quickly deemed unusable, according to sources on the commission. Since there was no time left to edit it, the commissioners would not even agree to have it posted on-line as a monograph.

There's an interesting coda to this story, too. Months before the commission closed its doors, in August 2004, some staff members found it odd that Naftali was engaged in research that clearly seemed tangential to his assignment. Sure enough, once the commissioners decided to "pass" on Naftali's history and gave him permission to use the study any way he liked, he took his manuscript—which had cost U.S. taxpayers at least $15,000—and nine months later published Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. Naftali advertises the book as having been written partly "at the request of the 9/11 Commission" and markets himself as "the official historian" of the commission.

The commissioners reportedly have gagged over this self-aggrandizement, brazen even by Washington standards. They are nonplussed that someone should have secured work from the commission through a personal favor, produced work of no usefulness to the commission, yet managed to exploit the opportunity for his own professional and financial gain.

Response of Timothy Naftali

I feel compelled to respond to Max Holland's piece because we were once colleagues and friends and his comments give a false impression of the work I did for the 9/11 Commission. Regrettably our friendship ended when Max left the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs after a series of disagreements with both Philip Zelikow (as director) and me (as Max's direct supervisor). So far as I can tell he never reveals in his published attacks that he and I were once personal friends, collaborators and colleagues before a painful falling out.

Max's article relies on unnamed sources, untruths and half-truths. A number of 9/11 staffers, including but not limited to Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, wanted me to write a background study on US counterterrorism policy between 1968 and 1993, the prehistory of the period under review by the Commission. Although I had never published on counterterrorism policy before, for over fifteen years I had written and lectured widely on the history of US national security policymaking with a special interest in studying how our government counteracted foreign secret organizations (counterespionage). Another scholar was asked to write on the period 1993-1998. Neither report was to be based on classified material, but it was assumed that you could develop a fresh and useful historical narrative on the basis of open sources, declassified materials and interviews. Thanks to the National Security Archive, I ultimately consulted many helpful declassified records on this subject and found a great deal of additional material at the Johnson and Reagan presidential libraries and at the Nixon presidential materials project in the National Archives, especially in the tapes. I also uncovered a lot through interviews with former US government officials.

The Commission staff read my study and instead of finding it useless, as Max alleges, actually cited it in at least two places in the final report. The piece was then thoughtfully edited by staffers and carefully copyedited for public distribution, but the Commission ultimately decided not to issue it as a singleton, signed report (the other case study was never written). When the piece came out in a slightly different form as the middle chapters in Blind Spot, noted counterterrorism experts such as Martha Crenshaw and Andrew C. McCarthy gave it very positive reviews.

As for Max's charge that I exaggerated my connection to the 9/11 Commission: public references to my affiliation with and my work for the Commission were cleared in advance with the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, the follow-on to the 9/11 Commission. Last spring the president of the Project, Christopher Kojm, expressed his satisfaction with the press release for the book and wished me well with it. In any case, I would not present myself as the official historian of anything. I value my independence too much.

Comment by Max Holland

The information about Naftali's study was derived from repeated interviews of several individuals with first-hand knowledge of the commission and its work. These sources set the rules for attribution. The thrust of the sidebar entitled"The Making of a Washington Expert" would have been identical if the author of the study were named Tim Jones instead of Tim Naftali.

The one thing Naftali is correct about is that his study was mentioned in two footnotes to the final report, rather than one. But I can understand why Al Felzenberg, the former deputy for communications at the 9/11 Commission, neglected to mention the second footnote when we discussed Naftali's contribution to the work of the commission. The second footnote is a secondary reference. The text in question quotes from President Reagan's National Security Directive 138, and Naftali's study is cited rather than the NSD itself.

By clicking on this link, HNN readers can decide for themselves whether Naftali is repeatedly represented as the commission's"official historian."

Related Links

  • Max Holland: The Politics (and Profits) of Information: The 9/11 Commission One Year Later

  • Sheldon M. Stern and Max Holland: Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Crafting a New Historical Genre.

  • Read entire article at Max Holland, in the Washington Spectator

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