What's Fact, What's Fiction in 'The Path to 9/11'?


Sept. 11, 2006 — -- "The Path to 9/11," ABC Entertainment's two-part miniseries about the events leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, has been in the headlines for days because of fictionalized scenes that portray members of the Clinton administration obstructing attempts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. President Clinton and his supporters launched a full-bore political campaign, urging ABC Entertainment and its parent company The Walt Disney Company to pull the film.

ABC Entertainment decided to air the mini-series, though it said on Sunday some scenes were edited, but would not specify which ones.

So what aired, and what was fact and what was fiction?

John Lehman, a Republican 9/11 commissioner, watched it and said the episode portrayed events fairly.

"It very well portrayed the events in a way that people can understand them without doing violence to the facts," he said.

Clinton and many Democrats thought otherwise.

Clinton spokesman Jay Carson told ABC News that "ABC's claims of edits notwithstanding, the scenes ABC put on its air [Sunday] night are completely false and directly contradicted by the 9/11 Commission report. ABC regrettably decided not to tell the truth [Sunday] night and instead chose entertainment over the facts." Clinton staffers complained that they had been reassured by the company that the film would be edited to better reflect the findings of the 9/11 Commission; that they did not happen, they said. ABC Entertainment would not comment.

Three times during Sunday's episode, ABC Entertainment ran disclaimers that it contained "fictionalized scenes" for "dramatic and narrative purposes."

A review of the preview copy and the version that aired indicated that the filmmakers, in editing, de-emphasized the implication that President Clinton was too preoccupied with the Monica Lewinsky scandal to focus on terrorism. Likewise, the film no longer pushed the notion that it was largely based on the 9/11 Commission Report.

But these edits were not enough for critics of the film.

"Although I am not one to easily believe in conspiracy theories and have spent a great deal of time debunking them, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the errors in this screen play are more than the result of dramatization and time compression," said former Clinton counterterrorist czar Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant who is portrayed positively in the film. "There is throughout the screenplay a consistent bias and distortion seeking to portray senior Clinton Administration officials as holding back the hard charging CIA, FBI, and military officers who would otherwise have prevented 9/11."

One scene that had already been singled out by critics as factually incorrect was edited by ABC, but not much. It depicted Clinton's National Security Adviser Sandy Berger refusing to give the order to take bin Laden out, something contradicted by Berger and the 9/11 Commission. Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 Commission, says "that never happened."

Another disputed scene depicted Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as the heavy in a scene where she justifies the decision to inform the Pakistanis about a U.S. strike against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The 9/11 Commission Report says that was done by the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Albright has called claims that such was her decision "false and defamatory."

But Lehman says there's a larger truth to keep in mind.

"The Bush administration and the Clinton administration made big mistakes," Lehman said. "The Bush administration did not take Osama bin Laden or the overall terrorist threat nearly as seriously as they should have, and the Clinton administration pulled back from it because of legal concerns and diplomatic concerns."

In the movie, the opportunities to capture bin Laden were clear cut. A CIA operative named "Kirk," played by Donnie Wahlberg, is led to an al Qaeda camp by the military commander of the Northern Alliance. He spots bin Laden through binoculars merely yards away.

The 9/11 Commission report, however, says such opportunities existed but were not so clear cut in reality.

Former CIA Director George Tenet testified before the commission in 2004 about one close call with the al Qaeda leader in February 1999, the so-called "Desert Camp" incident where U.S. intelligence believed it tracked bin Laden to an area south of Kandahar, but officials were afraid of hitting a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.

"There's also a question, I believe, as to whether bin Laden was inside or outside the camp," Tenet said.

There was also an opportunity in May 1999 in Kandahar, which the 9/11 Commission Report calls "most likely the best" opportunity to target bin Laden with cruise missiles before 9/11. Several CIA sources offered very detailed reports of bin Laden's whereabouts.

"If this intelligence was not 'actionable,' working-level officials said at the time and today, it was hard for them to imagine how any intelligence on Bin Laden in Afghanistan would meet the standard," the report states. "Communications were good, and the cruise missiles were ready. 'This was in our strike zone,' a senior military officer said. 'It was a fat pitch, a home run.' ...Working-level CIA officials agreed."

But CIA Director Tenet assessed the accuracy of the intelligence as only 50-50, and in consultation with the White House the go-ahead was never given.

"The Path to 9/11" shows Clinton administration successes, such as the capture of terrorist Ramzi Youssef and the foiling of the Millennium bomb plot -- but no one would confuse this with a pro-Clinton film.

Tonight the miniseries focuses on the Bush administration and its failures -- whether fact or fiction, or a little bit of both.

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