ABC’s ‘Path’ Not Taken

By Ruth Marcus (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/09/06):

Does it matter that ABC invented and distorted history in its “warning: this is not a documentary” docudrama, “The Path to 9/11”? After all, the first night of the faux drama was trounced by the brother-against-brother actual drama of “Sunday Night Football.”

But consider: The gripping final report of the Sept. 11 commission (budget: $13.5 million) became a surprise bestseller at 1.5 million copies. The not-so-gripping, not-so-accurate ABC production (budget: $40 million) was seen by about 13 million viewers on the first night.

As Thomas H. Kean, who served as the commission’s chairman and then made the unfortunate decision to lend his prestige to the project as co-executive producer, correctly predicted this summer, “More people will see this than will ever read our report.” Such is the drawing power of even shoddy television.

ABC’s response to the pre-screening uproar was twofold — both folds simultaneously inadequate and disingenuous. First, it removed the most flagrantly dishonest scenes: Bill Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger slamming down the phone on a fictional CIA operative pleading for permission to attack Osama bin Laden in the spring of 1998; White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke suggesting that the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the looming impeachment had sapped the president’s willingness to “take chances” on getting the terrorist leader. Yet, these and other misleading insinuations remain, in subtler form.

Second, ABC watered down the original statement that the docudrama was “based on the 9/11 Commission report.” In fact, it larded the five-hour miniseries with warnings that its content couldn’t be trusted: “For dramatic and narrative purposes the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression.” But that didn’t come close to solving the problem. Everything about the docudrama — its use of grainy black-and-white shots, its herky-jerky cinema vérité footage — is intended to evoke an air of realism.

The linkage to the commission’s report is made clear just after the opening credits when the mournful music falls silent and a black screen with white lettering appears: “The 9/11 Commission is an independent, bipartisan commission created by Congress in late 2002.” And, next, a quote from the report: “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.”

The fullest possible account? Hardly, and certainly not the fairest or most accurate.

Take the depiction (even sans Berger phone-slamming) of the spring 1998 plan to capture bin Laden in his Afghanistan compound. It’s portrayed in the first installment as a blown opportunity, stymied by backside-covering politicians worried about “political fallout.”

Pressed for the final go-ahead, with bin Laden cornered, Berger is shown trying to pass the buck to Tenet, who tries to throw it back. A disgusted Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, — who in real life never got near the place — looks over bin Laden’s camp and asks, “Are there any men left in Washington, or are they all cowards?”

This is more drama than docu-. Such an operation was planned but called off well in advance. According to the Sept. 11 commission report, “Tenet told us that given the recommendations of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to ‘turn off’ the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back.”

Overall, the Clinton administration is shown as unwilling to respond aggressively to bin Laden. “The point is, terrorism in this administration is perceived as being a law-and-order problem, period,” the head of the FBI’s New York office, John O’Neill, says in one scene.

ABC might have checked in with Clarke (who would have been easy to find, since he is an ABC News consultant). Clinton, Clarke said in a statement, “repeatedly authorized the use of lethal force against bin Laden and his deputies and personally requested the US military to develop plans for ‘commando operations’ against them.”

By contrast, the second night’s sins are more those of omission — omissions that work mostly in President Bush’s favor. While it finds time to make up incidents involving Clinton administration officials, the docudrama leaves out the departing administration’s repeated warnings to the Bush folks about the al-Qaeda threat.

Meanwhile, Bush is portrayed — without any factual basis — as responding aggressively to the famous “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” presidential daily briefing. “As a result of the August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing, the president is tired of swatting flies,” then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is shown telling senior administration officials just 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.”

In fact, the commission found, “The President told us the August 6 report was historical in nature”; it reported no significant response by Bush nor any inquiry about the Predator drones.

The docudrama is an inherently flawed form, one that invites embroidery. The irony of “The Path to 9/11” is that this dramatic license was so unnecessary, given the richly detailed narrative in a document available to the docudrama’s creators. It was called “The 9/11 Commission Report.”