The ABC television network is using the fifth anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to rewrite history. On September 10 and 11, ABC/Disney will broadcast "The Path to 9/11", a 6-hour, two-part "docudrama" written and produced by conservative filmmakers who place a lion’s share of the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on alleged failures of the Clinton administration.
This is not the first time that Hollywood has used 9/11 as a pretext to air pro-Bush propaganda in the guise of a docudrama. On the second anniversary of the terrorist attack, the Showtime cable network broadcast "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," written by conservative Republican Lionel Chetwynd. Dubbed "a reelection campaign movie" by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, the film starred actor Timothy Bottoms in the role of George W. Bush, depicting him as a leader of Churchillian stature who takes personal charge in the 9/11 aftermath while brushing off worries about his own safety with declarations such as, "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come on over and get me. I’ll be home!" In reality, as opposed to the bizarro world of docudrama, Bush’s safety on 9/11 was guaranteed by hustling him off to an undisclosed location, while Cheney went into hiding for months.
What makes "The Path to 9/11" somewhat different is its claim to be based on the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission). Thomas Kean, the Republican co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, served as an advisor to the film, although Lee Hamilton, the commission’s Democratic co-chair, did not. ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson is claiming that its miniseries is a public service that goes beyond mere entertainment. "Some things you do for commerce and some things because they are the right thing to do," he told Variety magazine.
If the goal were simply to inform the public, however, ABC would have produced an actual documentary rather than a docudrama, which gives the producers license to distort facts whenever and however they wish, while also pretending that their work is somehow a re-enactment of reality.
The show’s political slant is evident from the fact that Rush Limbaugh is talking up the movie, noting that its screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a personal friend. Several weeks prior to the broadcast, publicists sent out advance DVDs of the film to conservative bloggers, and screenings have been held for conservative pundits like U.S. News & World Report writer Michael Barone. Even relatively obscure right-wing blogs such as Patterico’s Pontifications, written by Los Angeles County attorney Justin Levine, have been favored with advance screenings. Levine reciprocated by declaring that the film is "free of political spin, politically correct whitewashing and partisan wrangling" and "one of the best made-for-televison movies seen in decades. … The Clinton administration will likely go ballistic over this film." In its politically-spin-free way, Patterico pontificates, the film also "lays out viscerally powerful arguments in favor of the Patriot Act and airport profiling."
When challenged to explain why the right-wing blogosphere is abuzz with praise for the film, director David Cunningham responded that "we are also being accused of being a left wing movie that bashes Bush" — a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence. I searched Technorati for mentions of the film and found 260 references, mostly from conservative websites, every single one of which had nothing but praise for the film. And although I found numerous examples of conservative pundits and bloggers who reported seeing pre-broadcast screenings, no leftist pundits or bloggers had been given a chance to see it (unless you count Salon.com’s roundup of several 9/11-themed movies).
As further evidence of the filmmakers’ fundamental dishonesty, "Path to 9/11" had its own blog until recently, where screenwriter Nowrasteh attempted to explain away the right-wing blogobuzz about the film by saying, "We can’t control who writes what." It’s clear, however, that they did carefully control who could see the film prior to broadcast. And in response to criticisms and questions posted in the comments section of their own blog, they airbrushed it out of existence Sunday afternoon, which is why my links above to the apologetics by Cunningham and Nowrasteh no longer work, although the Google cache to the original blog still exists.
The Honest Truthiness
So what is it that conservatives love so much about this film? According to Barone, one "gripping scene" shows "CIA agents surrounding bin Laden’s encampments and then being called back when National Security Adviser Sandy Berger refuses to give a go-ahead for the operation." Conservative filmmaker Govindini Murty was also impressed by the same scene, writing a glowing review that was published both on her own blog and on Human Events, the "national conservative weekly." She writes:
One astonishing sequence in "The Path to 9/11" shows the CIA and the Northern Alliance surrounding Bin Laden’s house in Afghanistan. They’re on the verge of capturing Bin Laden, but they need final approval from the Clinton administration in order to go ahead. They phone Clinton, but he and his senior staff refuse to give authorization for the capture of Bin Laden, for fear of political fall-out if the mission should go wrong and civilians are harmed. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in essence tells the team in Afghanistan that if they want to capture Bin Laden, they’ll have to go ahead and do it on their own without any official authorization. … The episode is a perfect example of Clinton-era irresponsibility and incompetence.
The only problem with this "perfect example", which Murty praises because it "honestly depicts how the Clinton administration repeatedly bungled the capture of Osama Bin Laden," is that it didn’t happen. In reality, it was CIA director George Tenet, not Berger, who called off the operation — which never got anywhere near "surrounding Bin Laden’s house in Afghanistan." According to the 9/11 commision report on which the movie is supposedly based,
Tenet told us that given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to "turn off" the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger’s recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.
The CIA’s senior management clearly did not think the plan would work. Tenet’s deputy director of operations wrote to Berger a few weeks later that the CIA assessed the tribals’ ability to capture Bin Ladin and deliver him to U.S. officials as low.
In an interview with the far-right Front Page Magazine, "Path to 9/11" screenwriter Nowrasteh said that the 9/11 report "details the Clinton’s administration’s response — or lack of response — to Al Qaeda and how this emboldened Bin Laden to keep attacking American interests. The worst example is the response to the October, 2000 attack on the U.S.S. COLE in Yemen where 17 American sailors were killed. There simply was no response. Nothing."
Again, the actual commission report described thing differently:
As evidence of al Qaeda’s responsibility for the Cole attack came in during November 2000, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger asked the Pentagon to develop a plan for a sustained air campaign against the Taliban. Clarke developed a paper laying out a formal, specific ultimatum. But Clarke’s plan apparently did not advance to formal consideration by the Small Group of principals. We have found no indication that the idea was briefed to the new administration or that Clarke passed his paper to them, although the same team of career officials spanned both administrations.
The commission’s executive summary explains that by the time Al Qaeda was definitely identified as the party responsible for attacking the Cole, Clinton had left office, and it was Bush who declined to take action:
After the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, evidence accumulated that it had been launched by al Qaeda operatives, but without confirmation that Bin Ladin had given the order. The Taliban had earlier been warned that it would be held responsible for another Bin Ladin attack on the United States. The CIA described its findings as a "preliminary judgment"; President Clinton and his chief advisers told us they were waiting for a conclusion before deciding whether to take military action. The military alternatives remained unappealing to them.
The transition to the new Bush administration in late 2000 and early 2001 took place with the Cole issue still pending. President George W. Bush and his chief advisers accepted that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the Cole, but did not like the options available for a response.
Bin Ladin’s inference may well have been that attacks, at least at the level of the Cole, were risk free.
There is another political wrinkle to this that should be noted. The attack on the Cole occurred in October 2000, near the end of Clinton’s presidency and at the peak of the election campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore. A military strike under those circumstances, in the absence of clear evidence linking Al Qaeda to the Cole attack, would have been instantly denounced by Republicans as an election-season publicity stunt designed to benefit Gore. And it was the FBI and CIA that failed to provide the clear rationale that Clinton would have needed to justify such action. In Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, he describes the handling of the Cole attack as follows:
The Yemeni government also dragged its feet in the investigation, leading to President Clinton’s becoming personally involved. The U.S. government left the Yemenis in no doubt about the two alternative paths that Yemeni-American relations could take.
Meanwhile in Washington neither CIA nor FBI would state the obvious: al Qaeda did it. … It was difficult to gain support for a retaliatory strike when neither FBI nor CIA would say that al Qaeda did it. …
Clinton left office with bin Laden alive, but having authorized action to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on al Qaeda. He had defeated al Qaeda when it attempted to take over Bosnia by having its fighters dominate the defense of the breakaway state from Serbian attacks. He had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America, and therefore had greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs. He had put an end to Iraqi and Iranian terrorism against the United States by quickly acting against the intelligence services of each nation.
Because of the intensity of the political opposition that Clinton encountered, he had been heavily criticized for bombing al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, for engaging in "Wag the Dog" tactics to divert attention from a scandal about his personal life. For similar reasons, he could not fire the recalcitrant FBI director who had failed to fix the Bureau or to uncover terrorists in the United States. …
When Clinton left office many people, including the incoming Bush administration, thought that he and his administration were overly obsessed with al Qaeda. … Why was Clinton so worked up about al Qaeda and why did he talk to President-elect Bush about it and have Sandy Berger raise it with his successor as National Security Advisor, Condi Rice? In January 2001, the new administration really thought Clinton’s recommendation that eliminating al Qaeda be one of their highest priorities, well, rather odd, like so many of the Clinton administration’s actions, from their perspective.
William Rivers Pitt has written a detailed account of the initiatives initiated under Clinton to deal with Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism. PBS has produced a documentary (not a docudrama) that offers fascinating insights into the life and career of John O’Neill, the counterterrorism expert who presciently warned about Al Qaeda prior to 9/11 and who is portrayed in "The Path to 9/11" by actor Harvey Keitel. The New Yorker has also written a nuanced, detailed profile of O’Neill that avoids political spin.
If people want to understand the failures that led to 9/11, they should turn to these and other examples of actual journalism rather than the mix of fact, fantasy and deliberate distortion that ABC/Disney plans to broadcast on the fifth anniversary of America’s deadliest terrorist attack.
Sheldon Rampton is the co-author, with John Stauber, of several books including Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq, which will be published by Tarcher/Penguin in September.