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Controversy Over ABC's 9/11 'Docudrama' Hits Fever Pitch

ABC's 9/11 film featuring made up events, faces harsh criticism from real-life characters such as former president Bill Clinton.
 
 
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For the very latest in the controversy check out the video interview with E&P's Greg Mitchell, HERE.

Just bubbling up from the blogs into the mainstream press -- a New York Times article appears on Wednesday -- is debate over the "The Path to 9/11," the TV movie to be aired on ABC this coming Sept. 10 and 11. Liberals have charged that it reportedly pins most of the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on President Clinton, often citing conservative bloggers or talk show hosts who made this very point after attending screenings.

Meanwhile, at least three real-life figures portrayed in the movie (Richard Clarke, Madeline Albright and Sandy Berger) have raised factual objections. ABC, and an adviser to the series -- former Gov. Thomas Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission -- have said it is balanced and objective, and a docudrama, not literal truth.

But few of its critics have actually seen the film. E&P obtained an advance review copy on Tuesday, and we summarize the film below. It's possible that some changes may have been, or will be, made in this cut.

The nearly four-and-a-half-hour film, based on a script by Cyrus Nowrasteh and directed by David Cunningham, stars Harvey Keitel. It is ambitious and striking in execution, often relying on handheld cameras, tight close-ups and creative visuals.

The first half, to be aired Sunday, explores the terrorist threat starting with the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, and there is little question that President Clinton is dealt with severely, almost mockingly, with the Lewinsky scandal closely tied to his failure to cripple al-Qaeda.

"The Path to 9/11" ends with a long segment on the day of the attacks and top officials' response -- though we only see President Bush in his speech to the nation, not in the Florida classroom with "The Pet Goat."

The attention on Clinton's culpability arrives about halfway through Part I, following the successful prosecution of several men involved in the 1993 WTC bombing. Keitel, an FBI security expert and clearly a tough-guy hero in this story, mentions Osama bin Laden (or "the tall one") for the first time. Richard Clarke, the White House terrorism expert and another sage in this story, agrees "we're at war." [CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Clarke was an adviser to the film. He was not. ]

After ABC airs an interview with bin Laden, O'Neill gets the okay to "snatch" bin Laden if he can, with a legal OK from the Justice Dept. U.S. operatives hook up with Massoud, the anti-Taliban leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and he takes them to a village where bin Laden is staying. A 15-man attack team is formed.

Meanwhile, back at CIA headquarters in Langley, the nervous Nellies -- i.e. Sandy Berger, the Clinton national security adviser, and (off and on) CIA director George Tenet -- raise questions, such as how to get money for this program, how covert should it be, aren't women and children in the village at risk? Besides, Massoud is a drug dealer. A decision is put off.

Clarke explains to O'Neill afterward that "they are worried about political fallout" and "legalities." O'Neill complains that terrorism is "perceived by this administration as a law and order problem." A CIA planner angrily declares, "It's not about sitting around a conference room covering your ass."

Right away comes a quick cut to Clinton making his famous statement about not having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Clarke tells O'Neill that Clinton won't give the order to get bin Laden in this climate, with Republicans calling for his impeachment. O'Neill says that Clinton wants bin Laden dead -- but not if he has to order it. "It's pathetic," he declares.

Back in Afghanistan, the operatives plan for the snatch job anyway, hoping for approval once it's clear they have their man. One night, they call Langley -- they are ready to get bin Laden, he is nearby. "Do we have clearance?" they ask. Berger says he doesn't have authority, he would have to check, they're not all on "the same page."

A CIA official tells Berger the president has approved snatches in the past. Berger wonders about the quality of the intelligence. The CIA woman says it's never 100%. With that, Berger punts and asks Tenet if HE wants to offer a recommendation to the president. Tenet asks: Why does the buck always stop with me, like with the Waco disaster?

At that point, Berger simply hangs up -- and the operatives abroad pack up and leave. Massoud asks if they are "all cowards in Washington." Again there is an immediate cut to Clinton, parsing sexual terms in his taped testimony on the Lewinsky case -- and then a clip of him hugging Monica. (The New York Times story today -- see below -- notes that Clarke disputes much of this scenario.)

A little later in the film, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi is attacked, with many deaths. A CIA agent in tears yells at Tenet, saying he should have ordered the killing of bin Laden when they had the chance. O'Neill to Clarke: "Clinton has to do SOMETHING."

It's now August 1998. In the White House Situation Room, Tenet and Clarke say we need to move on the Taliban, who are protecting bin Laden. A new character, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, says that is too "major" an operaton, "The president is not willing to go that far." They should focus solely on bin Laden.

Finally Clinton acts. Told that bin Laden is meeting in an isolated location in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 1998, Clinton orders attacks there, as well as taking out a chemical arms factory in the Sudan. But the chemical warehouse turns out to be a pharmaceutical plant, and bin Laden escapes from the other attacks, only raising his stature among his followers. A reporter notes that Republicans and "pundits" are accusing Clinton of acting only to divert attention from the Lewinsky scandal.

An angry Massoud says that the attacks failed because the U.S. told Pakistan about them in advance. Tenet asks Albright about this and she confirms it, saying regional factors had to be considered. Berger pipes up, saying covert operations usually don't work or backfire -- look at the Bay of Pigs. Now Tenet is steamed and he goes on a rant.

Cut to O'Neill at a bar, praising Tenet for showing "cujones."

Part I ends with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad meeting with bin Laden in 1999 to discuss "the plane operation." Later Mohammad is told that bin Laden approves, but feels 10 planes are too many -- they won't be able to find that many reliable hijackers. He is also told that the target is important, for they need to maximize casualties.

PART II

Part II picks up with O'Neill learning of the bombing of the USS Cole in October, 2000. Again Clinton's crew gets hammered in this narrative. Clinton's ambassador to Yemen (a she-devil played by Patricia Heaton) won't let O'Neill do his job.

Clarke is shown advocating massive attacks on al-Qaeda camps but Albright and others say there's not enough proof that bin Laden was behind the Cole attack -- and Clinton has priorities more urgent than a "rogue attack" on some "caves."

Much of the story then shifts to the plans and movements by the hijackers. For some reason, ringleader Atta is about 15 times better looking than the original.

We also see Clarke warning Secretary of State Rice of a "spike" in terror warnings -- he wants to meet personally with Bush -- but she assures him that the president is "on it." Later she tells Clarke that his terrorism job is being "redefined" and he objects.

O'Neill, meanwhile, is thinking about quitting because "despite the red flags no one is taking terrorism seriously." But the script focuses on the CIA and FBI not sharing information, the FBI not acting on warnings about flight schools, and other slip-ups -- not any true lack of interest in the White House. O'Neill partly blames "political correctness."

Tenet complains that there are so many threats coming they are "overloaded," they need more analysts and translators, and more "actionable" tips. O'Neill quits and becomes head of security at -- the World Trade Center. Along the way we get subtle endorsements for the Patriot Act and airport profiling.

But what about the famous Aug. 6, 2001 "PDB" that warned the president about bin Laden's determination to strike within the U.S.? We see Secretary Rice reading it in private and looking concerned, but we never see the president's reaction.

However, on Sept. 4, 2001, Rice tells officials that thanks to the warnings in the PDB, the president is convinced al-Qaeda is a "real threat … the president is tired of swatting flies." She seems to advocate taking some strong action and Clarke agrees, but Tenet argues against it. So in this telling, it appears that President Bush is in the vigilant/aggressive camp, perhaps thwarted by Clinton holdover Tenet.

Finally we see how this plays out tragically on Sept. 11, 2001. O'Neill dies inside the WTC. Much attention is given to the decision to shoot down United flight 93, but the movie's time frame now badly needs fixing given the recent revelations about what officials knew about that flight and when. The president, in any case, seems firmly in control, appearing on TV to promise help for all, and declaring, "terrorism against our nation will not stand."

The film closes with a statement that the 9/11 Commission has given many failing grades on the response to its recommendations.

To state again: This was a review copy of the film and tweaks have possibly already been made. ABC announced Tueday it would air the film without commercials due to its sensitive and controversial nature.

***

The New York Times story today notes ABC's claims of objectivity but points out that "some critics -- including Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar -- questioned a scene that depicted several American military officers on the ground in Afghanistan. In a posting on ThinkProgress.org, and in a phone interview, Mr. Clarke said no military personnel or C.I.A. agents were ever in position to capture Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan, nor did the leader of the Northern Alliance get that near to his camp.

"It didn't happen," Mr. Clarke said. "There were no troops in Afghanistan about to snatch bin Laden. There were no C.I.A. personnel about to snatch bin Laden. It's utterly invented."

"Mr. Clarke, an on-air consultant to ABC News, said he was particularly shocked by a scene in which it seemed Clinton officials simply hung up the phone on an agent awaiting orders in the field. 'It's 180 degrees from what happened,' he said. 'So, yeah, I think you would have to describe that as deeply flawed.'"

"ABC responded Tuesday with a statement saying that the miniseries was 'a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews.'"

Gov. Kean said the scene in Afghanistan and the attempt to get bin Laden "is a composite."