Spy guy: Snooping stoppage allowed 9/11, says Naftali

The man who runs the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Project is jetting through Charlottesville on a book tour layover, with San Francisco, L.A., New York, Miami, and Chicago in the rearview and three Canadian cities to come, including his old stomping grounds in Montreal.

Now living part-time in Charlottesville and part-time in D.C., Naftali has a new book, but it's not about dead presidents. It's an exposé of the colossal intelligence failure that allowed 9/11.

Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism is "fascinating" according to a recent review in Business Week. The National Review calls it the back story to the 9/11 Commission. Naftali calls it a prequel.

"I'm in history because I love to tell stories," he says. "I have a very low boredom threshold."

The 43-year-old Naftali has studied the history of counterespionage, watched the watchers so to speak, since he was an undergrad at Yale. Espionage is spying, and counterespionage means stopping others from spying on you, by playing a mole back on his handlers or by feeding agents false goods, perhaps.

Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors, where Naftali likes to play. While still a wee Canuck, at the ripe old age of 13, Naftali's father thought the young tyke should spend a summer abroad. In Russia in 1976.

And thus young Naftali got a behind-the-iron curtain view of the Cold War. That facility at peering through the looking glass, as well as his ability with the Russian language, has translated into another book, about the Cold War from the Soviet side, the upcoming Khrushchev's Cold War.

While Naftali was at Yale, the chief American counterintelligence spook at the end of World War II happened to be a professor there. He left some papers, and Naftali was entrusted with taking a look at this secreted history. Interviews with the chiefs of German, French, and British counterintelligence followed. "That's like your first taste of caffeine," he remembers. "It was the beginning of this treasure hunt."

Blind Spot developed when Naftali's Miller Center colleague, Philip Zelikow, then head of the 9/11 commission, tapped Naftali to brief the feds on the back story. "It was," says Naftali, "a historian's dream."

"The blind spot," he explains, "is our inability to conceive of a terrorist attack on our own country at home. We didn't take stock of the fact that 9/11 was as much a policy failure as it was an intelligence failure. To blame it on the CIA is really ludicrous."

On his book tour, he's often asked how well we are doing now.

"Not as well as I would have liked," he says. "After Pearl Harbor, the United States did not dismantle the entire intelligence community. It is an odd thing to do, but that is what we did after September 11."

Naftali sees how counterterrorism measures affect daily life too. He's just finished taking his citizenship test. Does anyone doubt that he passed with flying colors?

Timothy Naftali