THE BLOG
09/13/2006 07:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Path to 9/11: Where Does ABC News Stand?

Following the final two-hour second installment shown on Monday night, further examination is in order of the highly-colored prism through which the producers peered in making a "docudrama" that notably strayed from history as it happened. The whole issue of bias has assumed such importance because the made-for-television film was shown on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, when several news-dominating events had been planned by the White House to play up the Bush Administration's commitment to fighting the all-purpose bugaboo of terrorism, and in the final weeks of a Congressional election season in which the standing of President Bush and his party were plummeting. Yet, ABC was determined to go ahead on the same night that the President addressed the public from the Oval Office in a politics-laden speech sandwiched between the first and second (fourth and fifth) hours of "The Path to 9/11."

To draw one obvious contrast, the Sunday night portion managed to splice in shots of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky while peddling the notion that officials at the highest level were distracted in the summer of 1998 and/or reluctant to take timely and effective military action against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. By the way, after the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, there is a scene involving JCS Chairman Shelton, NSC adviser Sandy Berger et.al. in which the statement is made that "no President has ever launched a military invasion in the last three months of his term." Does anyone recall President George Herbert Walker Bush's fateful invasion of Somalia in December of 1992?

Was it beyond the imagination of the screenwriters when focusing on August 2001--and the PDB (president's daily brief from the CIA) of August 6 that included a section entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S."--to do more than show NSC adviser Condi Rice perusing the text ? Quote from text of the PDB: "FBI information ... 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."

Incredibly, President Bush is portrayed-with no known factual basis--as responding pro-actively to the now-infamous PDB ! "As a result of the August 6 presidential daily briefing, the president is tired of swatting flies," then-national security adviser Rice is acted out as telling senior administration officials just days before the Sept. 11 attacks. "He believes al-Qaeda is a real threat, and he wants to consider real action. He specifically asked about the armed Predator."

How was the viewer of the film expected to make a connection between the primary "consumer" of the briefing and the fact that he was in Crawford, Texas in August? What about a background shot, say, of President Bush clearing brush on his ranch; or an enlarged real-time newspaper headline that flagged his emerging habit of spending an abnormally high number of vacation days away from the White House down in Texas? This could have suggested that the Bush White House, despite the marvels of modern communications, might not have been functioning on all cylinders in the month of August. (Where was Vice President Cheney, the de facto premier national security adviser to the president, if not co-president?)

There might even have been a flash forward in the movie to the long period in 2002 when Bush's national security team had in our satellite sights al Qaeda operative Zarqawi, inside a remote section of Iraq, and could have taken him out from the air--according to the former head of a CIA unit that hunted bin Laden, Michael Scheuer. If a faux documentary on 9/11 could range as far back as 1993, why not look forward a year--especially since "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad?" After all, the ABC drama closed with the December 5, 2005, judgment of the 9/11 Commission that the Bush administration merited very bad grades on implementing its recommendations: 5 F's; 12 D's; 1 A.

II

Far more disturbing than the dramatization of events in "The Path to 9/11" was the specter of the ABC News division allowing itself to serve as bookends for a half-ass docudrama. For two nights running, most of the audience of ten-twelve million would have been hard pressed to discern where the movie left off and "news" began. Cynthia McFadden in a special edition of "Nightline" on Sunday night and Charlie Gibson in the role of news anchor on Monday night tried to expunge the stain by generally dissing the film as "controversial" and punting to a website.

On September 10, at 10:40 pm, when the near three-hour movie discontinued, and the audience was urged to stay tuned for scenes from Part II, the ABC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C.--WSOC-TV (known for its sensationalist approach to local news)--plugged its "accurate and reliable coverage" in a short segment that included a piggybacking Republican Mayor Pat McCrory warning about the number of soft targets for terrorists in his region.

Nightline featured the first-rate investigative reporter, Brian Ross, and his "close but no bin Laden" reference to the trail going cold in the search for bin Laden along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. One of those interviewed was the CIA field commander for the agency's "Jawbreaker" team at Tora Bora, Gary Berntsen, who had reported in his 2005 book that there was definitive intelligence the supreme al Qaeda leader was holed up at Tora Bora in December 2001--and could have been caught if given sufficient Pentagon reinforcements. "He was there," Berntsen was quoted in Newsweek.

Despite the fact that a lot of blame had been placed on the administration of President Clinton, the ABC News team reported that the 9/11 Commission had identified five separate occasions over the years when it might have been possible for the U.S. to kill or capture bin Laden. The last real attempt, prior to 9/11/01, was the cruise missile attack on an al Qaeda base in Afghanistan in August of 1998 where--as had often been reported--bin Laden left the scene two hours earlier and escaped into Pakistan. Ross correctly ascribed the failure to get enemy number one to both presidents. Terry Moran reported from Kabul on the resurgence of the Taliban and the escalating war in Afghanistan. Nightline signed off with a current shot of Ground Zero.

On September 11, at 9:00 pm, ABC interrupted the second installment of the entertainment division's "The Path to 9/11" feature movie for a "Special Report from ABC News"--a live broadcast from the White House by President Bush. The anchor of the evening news, Charlie Gibson, referred to a recent series of presidential speeches that placed Iraq at the center of the global war on terrorism. But he noted that the White House insisted this speech was not to be "political." There was an old picture of the Manhattan skyline in the background, with the twin towers, and footage of President Bush laying wreaths at the three 9/11 sites where the planes crashed. Said the melodramatic Bush: In the "decisive ideological battle of the 21st century" against terrorism, "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad." Gibson and colleague George Stephanopoulos speculated that the call to arms had emphasized the war in Iraq as part of an effort to limit Republican losses in November.

With a "for continuing coverage, stay with ABC News," it was back to the movie. CIA director George Tenet was portrayed as having serious doubts over recommending actions against "aviation" threats from al Qaeda, after being informed by the soon-to-be-assassinated Afghan rebel leader Massoud. On September 4, 2001, Rice was depicted as chairing an NSC staff meeting in which Tenet argues with her about the legality of killing bin Laden. The counter-terrorism expert, Richard Clarke (now an ABC News consultant), sidelined by Rice at the beginning of the Bush term, is seen by 9/11 as playing an authoritative central role when advising Vice President Cheney and Rice on what to do in the underground command center, with the president off in Florida or in flight. Cheney is represented as receiving by phone a "shootdown" order from Bush, after recommending "extreme measures." (But, of course, there were no F-16's in the air in time to shoot down the commercial planes that had already done their damage.)

The docudrama ended with scenes of horror.

ABC then went straight to a news special with Gibson and Ross: "91106: Where Things Stand." Gibson: "The movie is not our focus in this hour."

The point is established that we know today where bin Laden is hiding in a contained area along the Pak-Afghan border; and that--in the words of Brian Ross--"almost for certain another attempted strike is coming" by al Qaeda against the United States. Gibson later characterizes the events of 9/11 as "above all an intelligence failure," a failure to connect the dots.

After a commercial break that included an ad for a new WW II movie--"Flags of Our Fathers"--there is an interview with FBI director Mueller, as he and Attorney General Gonzales are being driven to the White House, in which the former defends the FBI as having made "remarkable strides." There are shots of the National Terrorism Center, where a "threat matrix" is produced.

But critics are interviewed, Republicans and Democrats, regarding the terrorist threats that are not being addressed--an ABC News team succeeds in purchasing lots of ammonium nitrate that can be used in making bombs--and some continuing bureaucratic problems are identified, such as fights over turf. "Negroponte has yet to fully focus." An FBI official claims that the government has thwarted five terrorist attacks. But the real Clarke allows that only "some credit" should be given to President Bush. He avers that there is no failure of imagination, but a failure in implementation in preventing terrorist attacks: "We need to fix things."

ABC News signed off by showing the two giant beams of light that shoot up from the site where the twin towers stood.

III

Does it matter that ABC invented and distorted history in the doctored drama of "The Path to 9/11"? The film was billed as evoking an air of realism. Yet, the five-hour-long ordeal was full of warnings that its content was not to be trusted: "For dramatic and narrative purposes the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression." And: "Our aim has not been to assign individual blame. Our aim has been to provide the fullest possible account of the events surrounding 9/11 and to identify lessons learned." Hunh? As one critic opined: "What is the point of producing an elaborate docu-drama of current events using factual sources and actors playing real people with their actual names--and then disclaiming adherence to the truth through dramatic license and calling it essentially fiction? It just doesn't make any sense."

As for the ABC News division, it was consigned to playing second fiddle, alas. Are there any men left at ABC News? Why give the fictionalized movie respectability by being part of an almost seamless web?

Hear Lee Hamilton before the National Press Club just the other day: "It is either a documentary or it is a drama, and to fudge it causes me a great deal of concern and suggests to me that news and entertainment are getting dangerously intertwined...I do not think that is good for the country, because an event of this consequence is very hard to understand, and to distort it or not to present it factually in this kind of a presentation does not serve the country well." The former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, had this to say about the importance of truth: "Facts are not Republican and they're not Democratic. They're not ideological. Facts are facts."