How the 9/11 Commission Spent $25,000 on a Footnote
In November 2005, The Washington Spectator published an article by this author about the publishing practices of the 9/11 Commission. “The Politics (and Profits) of Information” described how that panel skirted its obligation to publish a complete, documented, and indexed record of its investigation via the Government Printing Office, a laudable purpose achieved by every comparable probe.
“The Making of a Washington Expert,” a sidebar to the Spectator article, described how the Commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, arranged for an associate from the University of Virginia, Tim Naftali, to write a history of US counterterrorism policy—even though Naftali had no expertise or background in the subject. In the end, the monograph Naftali belatedly delivered as a consultant was deemed unsuitable for publication as a Commission document. That did not stop Naftali, however, from advertising himself subsequently as the Commission’s “official historian.”
At the time, the internal papers of the 9/11 Commission were not yet publicly available. That began to change on January 14, 2009, when the National Archives released the first tranche of Commission records. To date, approximately 35 percent of the panel’s archives have been opened. Among them are many documents that flesh out the story of Naftali’s consultancy.
The story is more complicated than was previously reported. Tensions between Naftali and the Commission’s “Front Office” surfaced well before he submitted his monograph. More importantly, the Commission was unaware that Naftali already had a contract to write a trade book on counterterrorism, and that it would be subsidizing him.
Naftali’s self-aggrandizement at taxpayers’ expense might be a forgotten matter, except that he is now on the public payroll, and has been since 2006 as director of the Nixon presidential archives. A future issue of Washington Decoded will examine Naftali’s increasingly troubled and controversial tenure at the Nixon Library.
The idea for a historical monograph on US counterterrorism policy arose during a meeting of the commissioners on May 21, 2003, some five months after they had begun their inquiry. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, perhaps the most conservative member of the panel, opined that the proposed work plan of Team 3, which was analyzing US counterterrorism policy, appeared to be “framed too narrowly.” He wanted the final report to include a narrative about US policy that harked back to at least 1983, when Hizbollah militants destroyed a Marine barracks in Beirut.
Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, cautioned against an expansion. The Commission should not lose its focus: there was “full strategic warning” after August 1998 (when al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Africa), Zelikow said, and the issues were clear from that point forward until the “fall of the buildings.” This “core policy story” had to be told in an authoritative way, without getting bogged down in pre-history.
The idea of a separate monograph began percolating, however, because it seemed to make sense to frame, in historical perspective, what policymakers did (or did not do) from 1998 to 2001. Were the choices Washington made over those three years a too-conditioned reflex, a function of how policymakers had responded to terrorism during the previous 25 years?