Max Holland: The Historian as Hustler

Roundup: Talking About History

[Max Holland worked on the Lyndon Johnson presidential tape recordings at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs from 1999 to 2003. The full version of this article appears at Washington Decoded.]

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.”

When HNN posted the sidebar, Naftali wrote a response taking issue with the Spectator article, which, he claimed, relied on “unnamed sources, untruths and half-truths.” 

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....

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