The 9/11 Commission Report has been perhaps the most praised official government document in history. In a throwaway line he likely regrets, John Updike wrote in the New Yorker last November that it was a "masterpiece produced by a committee," comparable only to the King James Bible.
But in a remarkable piece published in the Washington Spectator, Max Holland exposes the Report’s serious limitations. Primary among them is what the Report left out: its staff reports, its public hearings. The 9/11 Commission never bothered to have these published in book form. (They are available on the Internet — for how long, one never knows — to anyone with high-speed Internet access who enjoys reading hundreds of pages of documents in front of a computer screen.)
Take a look at the shelf space occupied by some major probes since 1945: these include the 1946 congressional inquiry into the Pearl Harbor attack (40 volumes); the 1964 Warren Commission investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination (27); and the 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of the intelligence agencies (15).
By contrast, the 9/11 Commission climaxed in the publication of a single, 567-page volume—without an index. The relative poverty of this effort at the culmination of a twenty-month, $14 million investigation reflects a downward trend in the government’s obligation to disseminate information to the public.
Holland acknowledges that the hearings are being published privately by Oceana Publications. The cost? $395. How many libraries can be expected to come up that money in their acquisitions budget?
Equally disturbing is the whiff of cronyism and profiteering surrounding the document. The Commission made the unprecedented decision to choose a private publisher (Norton) over the the U.S. Government Printing Office to print the report. The result was an inferior, more expensive product. The Commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow, as Holland and others have pointed out, had a “long-standing relationship” with Norton.
Verging on the scandalous, however, is the Commission’s sponsorship of an an ancillary study of the history of U.S. counterterrorism policy. This plum assignment was handed out to Zelikow’s University of Virginia colleague, Timothy Naftali. (I interviewed Zelikow, Naftali, and Holland in a 2000 piece I wrote for Lingua Franca on the Presidential Recordings Project.) Naftali’s project, which cost the US taxpayer at least $15,000 according to Holland, was considered unusable, and the Commission declined to publish it even as one of their own monographs. Naftali now has the best of both worlds. Since his study was paid for by the government, he now markets himself as “the official historian of the 9/11 Commission.” But since the Commission found his work unpublishable, he has managed to attract a private publisher, Basic Books.