Like most people, I hadn't seen ABC's hotly contested "Path To 9/11" before it aired last night and Sunday (well, like most people who were featured inaccurately in the movie and had requested copies, and like most people who weren't right-wing bloggers and columnists). The information about its contents was documented extensively in a number of places, so I was well aware of the factual anomalies and flat-out fictionalizations relating to Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Clinton. It was also widely reported that hey, the documentary was tough on the Bush administration, too.
After watching part two last night, however, I now know that that was not the case. On the contrary, barely two minutes into the final hour following President Bush's speech and the most jaw-dropping bit of spin I've ever seen occurred: They presented the now-infamous "Bin Laden Determined To Strike In U.S." briefing of August 6, 2001 as being a galvanizing force for Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, and the Bush administration, who all instantly recognized its significance. Literally, my jaw dropped.
Here's what happened on the screen: Wide on Condi in her office, reading. Foreboding music in background. She sees the title of the report: "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." Her brow furrows. She flips pages. The music gets more urgent. Intercut, we see a chopper move in Afghanistan. Time is of the essence. It's urgent. As Condi flips, we see what she sees: Ramzi Yousef. "Bring the figthing to America." We know she knows that. A few scenes later, she chairs a Situation Room meeting on September 4, 2001. She begins, no nonsense: "The president is tired of swatting flies. He believes al Qaeda to be a real threat, and he want to consider real action." She goes on to ask if the Predator is ready to strike, all business. George Tenet seems not to know, and seems lukewarm about the idea of killing Bin Laden. Rice is coolly for it, and says that it's legal. After all, she read the memo.
In reality, this is NOT what happened. At the 9/11 Commission hearings, Rice testified that the August 6, 2001 briefing was a "historical document" and not considered a "warning" : "This was not a 'threat report... [it] "did not warn of any coming attack inside the United States." Contrary to Bush being "tired of swatting flies," he was out in Crawford doing just that as he cleared some brush on vacation, ignoring the warnings he'd received and saying that attack was not considered "imminent." (Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine" opens with Bush in Crawford receiving a hyper-nervous CIA operative who tries to warn him about the attack; Bush tells him "All right. You've covered your ass, now").
The memo stated that Al Qaeda members were in the U.S. and moving freely in the country, including New York, and -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. It also identified "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." Oh yeah, it was called "BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN U.S." And it is well-documented that the threat was all but ignored by the White House during a month of near-total vacation.
Later on in the film, the Bush administration is seen as instantly aware that the attack was by al Qaeda when, in fact, according to former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, Bush immediately assumed it was perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and all but demanded that Clarke find a link to that effect ("They were talking about Iraq on 9/11. They were talking about it on 9/12").
There are a number of other inconsistencies in the film (for example, it also clearly shows Cheney getting the shootdown order for United 93 from Bush, and the record is unclear on this authorization, per pages 40 - 42 of the 9/11 Commission Report), and the careful listener would be hard-pressed to find rumblings about Saddam. But to me, this scene was the most glaring example of exaggeration, to the point of exoneration. The purpose of the film is very clear: To spin the Clinton administration as allowing the al Qaeda threat to spin out of control, leaving the Bush administration to clean up the mess. As events surrounding that August 6th memo make all too clear, that simply was not the case. If only they had been.
Bush did say the "swatting flies" line and task Rice to examine the threat of al Qaeda, but what we know from the historical record is completely counter to this portrayal. It is, however, entirely consistent with how this miniseries handled other disputed sections: Completely inconsistently with the facts. This is the sad irony of this movie: When it was good it was very good, and very moving. I said that yesterday. But you couldn't trust it. And when it comes to 9/11, the public trust is still what matters most.
Here's the clip: You decide for yourself (and apologies: I shot it with my camera holding up a towel behind me to block reflection. But it's good enough for our purposes.) Text of the original August 6, 2001 memo below.
The following is a transcript of the August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing entitled Bin Laden determined to strike in US. Parts of the original document were not made public by the White House for security reasons.
Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and "bring the fighting to America."
After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -- -- service.
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told - - service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike.
The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S.
Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but that in ---, Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own U.S. attack.
Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation. Although Bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
Al Qaeda members -- including some who are U.S. citizens -- have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.
Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s.
A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.
We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a ---- service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.
Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.