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Profile: Ernest May

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Ernest May was a participant or observer in the following events:

Ashton Carter.Ashton Carter. [Source: Aspen Institute]Over a period of nine months, faculty from Harvard University, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Virginia meet in a collaborative effort called the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group. Its members include experts on terrorism, national security, intelligence, and law enforcement. The project director is Philip Zelikow, future executive director of the 9/11 Commission. Future 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick is also a member, along with Ernest May, who will be a senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission. The culmination of the group’s efforts is a report written by Zelikow and its two co-chairs: former Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and former CIA Director John Deutch. A condensed version of the report is published in the journal Foreign Affairs in late 1998. They write: “Long part of the Hollywood and Tom Clancy repertory of nightmarish scenarios, catastrophic terrorism has moved from far-fetched horror to a contingency that could happen next month. Although the United States still takes conventional terrorism seriously… it is not yet prepared for the new threat of catastrophic terrorism.” They predict the consequences of such an event: “An act of catastrophic terrorism that killed thousands or tens of thousands of people and/or disrupted the necessities of life for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, would be a watershed event in America’s history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented for peacetime and undermine Americans’ fundamental sense of security within their own borders in a manner akin to the 1949 Soviet atomic bomb test, or perhaps even worse. Constitutional liberties would be challenged as the United States sought to protect itself from further attacks by pressing against allowable limits in surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and the use of deadly force. More violence would follow, either as other terrorists seek to imitate this great ‘success’ or as the United States strikes out at those considered responsible. Like Pearl Harbor, such an event would divide our past and future into a ‘before’ and ‘after.’” [Carter, Deutch, and Zelikow, 10/1998; Foreign Affairs, 11/1998; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. xi-xiv]

Entity Tags: Jamie Gorelick, Philip Zelikow, John Deutch, Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group, Ernest May, Ashton Carter

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Historian Ernest May.Historian Ernest May. [Source: Belfer Center]An eminent historian finds serious flaws in a historical treatise about former President John F. Kennedy. The book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, was written in 1997 by conservative historians Ernest May and Philip D. Zelikow, and purports to be an unprecedentedly accurate representation of the events of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis based on transcriptions of recorded meetings, conferences, telephone conversations, and interviews with various participants. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/2000] Zelikow is a former member of George H. W. Bush’s National Security Council and a close adviser to future National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. [US Department of State, 8/5/2005] May is a Harvard professor. Both will participate heavily in the creation of the 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 387-393] Almost three years after the Kennedy book’s publication, Sheldon M. Stern, the historian for the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 through 1999, pores over it and the May/Zelikow transcripts. In the original edition, May and Zelikow admitted that their final product was not perfect: “The reader has here the best text we can produce, but it is certainly not perfect. We hope that some, perhaps many, will go to the original tapes. If they find an error or make out something we could not, we will enter the corrections in subsequent editions or printings of this volume.” But when Stern checks the book against the tapes, he finds hundreds of errors in the book, some quite significant. Stern concludes that the errors “significantly undermine [the book’s] reliability for historians, teachers, and general readers.” May and Zelikow have corrected a few of the errors in subsequent editions, but have not publicly acknowledged any errors. Stern concludes, “Readers deserve to know that even now The Kennedy Tapes cannot be relied on as an accurate historical document.” [Atlantic Monthly, 5/2000] One error has then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy talking about the planned “invasion” of Russian ships heading to Cuba, when the tapes actually show Kennedy discussing a far less confrontational “examination” of those vessels. May and Zelikow imply that the Kennedy administration was discussing just the kind of confrontation that it was actually trying to avoid. Another error has CIA Director John McCone referring to the need to call on former President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a “facilitator,” where McCone actually said “soldier.” May and Zelikow will be rather dismissive of Stern’s findings, saying that “none of these amendments are very important.” Stern will express shock over their response, and respond, “When the words are wrong, as they are repeatedly, the historical record is wrong.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 42]

Entity Tags: Kennedy administration, Philip Zelikow, John F. Kennedy, Sheldon M. Stern, Robert F. Kennedy, Ernest May, John A. McCone, 9/11 Commission, George Herbert Walker Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Dwight Eisenhower

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, a long-time associate of Zelikow and consultant to the commission, complete an outline of the commission’s final report, although the commission has barely began its work and will not report for another 16 months. The outline is detailed and contains chapter headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings. The outline anticipates a 16-chapter report (note: the final report only has 13) that starts with a history of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the US. There will then be chapters on US counterterrorism policy, threat reporting leading up to 9/11, and the attacks themselves will be in chapter seven (in the final report, the day of 9/11 chapter is moved to the start).
"Blinding Effects of Hindsight" - Zelikow and May even have a chapter ten entitled “Problems of Foresight—And Hindsight,” with a sub-chapter on “the blinding effects of hindsight,” (actually chapter 11 in the final report, slightly renamed “Foresight—And Hindsight;” the “blinding effects” sub-heading does not appear in the final version, but the chapter starts with a meditation on the value of hindsight).
Kept Secret - Zelikow shows the report to Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice-chairman Lee Hamilton and they like it, but think it could be seen as evidence that they have pre-determined the outcome. Therefore, they all decide it should be kept secret from the commission’s staff. According to May it is “treated as if it were the most classified document the commission possessed.” Zelikow comes up with his own internal classification system, labeling it “Commission Sensitive,” a phrase that appears on the top and bottom of each page.
Staff Alarmed - When the staff find out about it and are given copies over a year later, they are alarmed. They realize that the sections of the report about the Bush administration’s failings will be in the middle of the report, and the reader will have to wade past chapters on al-Qaeda’s history to get to them. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “Many assumed the worst when they saw that Zelikow had proposed a portion of the report entitled ‘The Blinding Effects of Hindsight.’ What ‘blinding hindsight’? They assumed Zelikow was trying to dismiss the value of hindsight regarding the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 performance.” In addition, some staffers begin circulating a parody entitled “The Warren Commission Report—Preemptive Outline.” One of the parody’s chapter headings is “Single Bullet: We Haven’t Seen the Evidence Yet. But Really. We’re Sure.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 388-389]

Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton, Ernest May, Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After the 9/11 Commission becomes unhappy with the information it is getting from detainees in US custody who may know something about the 9/11 plot (see Summer 2003), it asks CIA Director George Tenet to let it either talk to the detainees itself, or at least view interrogations through a one-way mirror. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 119-126]
Reasoning - Dieter Snell, the head of the Commission’s plot team and a former prosecutor, is extremely keen that the detainees, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, be interviewed. According to author Philip Shenon, he is aware that “testimony from key witnesses like the al-Qaeda detainees would have value only if they were questioned in person, with investigators given the chance to test their credibility with follow-up questions. The face-to-face interrogations would be especially important in situations in which the al-Qaeda members were giving conflicting testimony.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 182]
Request Denied - However, Tenet denies the request because he does not want the Commission to know where the detainees are, and he claims questioning by a Commission staffer could apparently damage the “relationship” between interrogator and detainee and “upset the flow of questioning.” In addition, Tenet is worried that if the Commission has access to the detainees, Zacarias Moussaoui might also be able to compel them to testify in court, so he rejects compromise proposals.
Pushback - The Commission decides “to push the issue” and drafts a letter outlining why they should have direct access. Although the draft is seen by Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it is never officially sent. At a White House meeting attended by Rumsfeld and commissioners Lee Hamilton and Fred Fielding, Tenet and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales repeat the arguments Tenet made previously, but Tenet says the Commission can submit written questions, and a CIA “project manager” will try to get them answered. After the administration “plead[s]” with the Commission not to use public pressure to get access to detainees, the Commission decides to drop the matter.
Relatives and Media Blamed - Hamilton and Commission Chairman Thomas Kean will later partially blame the victims’ relatives and media for this failure: “Interestingly, there was no pressure from some of the usual sources for us to push for access. For instance, the 9/11 families never pressed us to seek access to detainees, and the media was never engaged on this issue.” Kean and Hamilton will later say that the “project manager” arrangement works “to a degree.”
Report Includes Disclaimer - However, a disclaimer will be inserted into the 9/11 Commission Report in the first of two chapters that draw heavily on detainees’ alleged statements (see After January 2004). It will say that the Commission could not fully judge the credibility of detainee information, so, according to Kean and Hamilton, “it [is] left to the reader to consider the credibility of the source—we had no opportunity to do so.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 119-126]
Criticism from Staffer - Commission staffer Ernest May will later criticize the Commission’s “reluctance ever to challenge the CIA’s walling off al-Qaeda detainees.” May will also say: “We never had full confidence in the interrogation reports as historical sources. Often we found more reliable the testimony that had been given in open court by those prosecuted for the East African embassy bombings and other crimes.” [New Republic, 5/23/2005] CIA videotapes and transcripts of interrogations are not provided to the Commission (see Summer 2003-January 2004).

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Thomas Kean, Fred F. Fielding, Lee Hamilton, US Department of Defense, Ernest May, Dietrich Snell, 9/11 Commission, Alberto R. Gonzales, Central Intelligence Agency, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Ernest May, a consultant hired by the 9/11 Commission to help with the drafting of its final report, tells the Commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, that the report is “indulgent” towards senior officials in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He thinks that the report is incomplete in many ways as it is being censored by the two groups of commissioners—Democrats and Republicans. However, he believes the effect on the report goes beyond what is reasonable. According to May, the report fails to hold accountable officials that should take a share of the blame for failing to prevent 9/11, and the judgments about Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as their senior aides, are overly forgiving. However, these comments do not spur Zelikow to take any action and do not have an impact on the final version of the report. In addition, May generally does not share them with other staffers on the Commission. In an article published after the report, May will write, “The report is probably too balanced,” adding: “Individuals, especially the two presidents and their intimate advisers, received even more indulgent treatment. The text does not describe Clinton’s crippling handicaps as leader of his own national security community. Extraordinarily quick and intelligent, he, more than almost anyone else, had an imaginative grasp of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. But he had almost no authority enabling him to get his government to address this threat.” Daniel Marcus, the Commission’s lawyer, will agree with some of this. “We did pull our punches on the conclusions because we wanted to have a unanimous report,” he will say. “There was this implicit threat, occasionally made explicit on both sides of the aisle on the Commission, that by God, if you get explicit in criticizing Bush on this, we’re going to insist on being explicit in criticizing Clinton, and vice versa.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 387, 413]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, Daniel Marcus, 9/11 Commission, Ernest May

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

As the 9/11 Commission report is being finalized, the consultant charged with drafting it, Ernest May, comes to favor an account of the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism before 9/11 given by former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. Clarke has said that the administration did not pay enough attention to the problem of terrorism, whereas his former superior, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, had argued the administration did what it could, but the attacks were unstoppable. May comes to this conclusion after reviewing the documentation obtained by the commission, despite the fact that he is close to the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow, who had worked with Rice in the past (see 1995 and January 3, 2001) and is trying to downplay Clarke’s role. The language of the draft report reflects May’s views, but others working on the report, including an unnamed prominent Democrat on the staff, say the language is “inflammatory,” and get it taken out of the report. According to May, the report is then written in such a way as to avoid “even implicit endorsement of Clarke’s public charge.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 390-391]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Condoleezza Rice, Ernest May, Philip Zelikow, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The final text of the 9/11 Commission’s report is drafted in the two months before publication on July 22, 2004. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 274, 296] Although staff members have input into the process, the finished text is subject to vetoes by the ten commissioners, Executive Director Philip Zelikow, and staffer Ernest May, whose main task is the writing of the report. May will later comment, “no language appeared anywhere in the final text unless Zelikow or I or both of us—and all the commissioners—had accepted it.” [New Republic, 5/23/2005] Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice-chairman Lee Hamilton will later write that “there was some concern we not end up with a ‘staff report’—commissioners were determined to review every word, and supply their own comments, corrections, and language for the report.” They will add: “While we did expect there to be a good deal of commissioner editing, we did not anticipate the extent of back-and-forth that took place through June and the first part of July. Commissioners went through the report six or seven times, word by word….” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 274]

Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton, Ernest May, Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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