Back in 2003, when CBS planned to broadcast a docudrama entitled The Reagans, which smeared Ronald and Nancy Reagan, I wrote a column for National Review Online condemning it. I advised viewers to not watch it and to write CBS protesting its broadcast. In the last few days, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of having that column quoted by Clintonites attacking ABC’s The Path to 9/11. Supposedly, conservatives like me, who criticized the Reagan smear, are hypocrites for not objecting to this miniseries because Bill Clinton and members of his administration believe it falsely depicts their actions before 9/11. But those who cry hypocrisy are often the most splendid hypocrites. I don’t recall many liberals leaping to Reagan’s defense. Or how about Rathergate, when CBS News presented as authentic a forged memo that could be recreated by anyone with Microsoft Word and five minutes to spare? And what about Michael Moore’s notorious propaganda film, Fahrenheit 911? It twisted the truth into more knots than you’ll find in a barrel of pretzels, but Moore wound up in an honored seat next to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention. Now, when the Clinton administration appears to be getting a little rough treatment, conservatives are supposed to saddle up and ride to their rescue. Conservatives might well be expected to imitate the liberals and ignore the issue, but let’s be more mature, set aside liberal transgressions, and examine the fairness of The Path to 9/11.
The makers of the miniseries say they employed dramatic license, condensing and simplifying events to fit into a short length of time. They invented scenes, which they thought were consistent with what had happened. Critics don’t believe some of these are truthful. One oft-mentioned example is a scene in which Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national-security adviser, is shown hanging up, when pressed by CIA director George Tenet to okay an attack upon Osama bin Laden. Berger contends this never happened. He’s probably correct, but his theft in 2004 of documents associated with 9/11 from the National Archives undercut protests by him of dishonest treatment. It’d be easier to sympathize with his outrage if he hadn’t shoved those papers, which bore his handwritten notes about Clinton administration’s antiterrorism policies, into his pants to smuggle them past the archivists. He then cut selected documents into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Copies of the documents are said to exist, but there aren’t any copies of the notes made upon them, and we’ll never know what was so damaging that, in order to destroy it, a former high government official risked a stay in Leavenworth. Despite his own alterations to the historical record, Berger’s vociferous objections to the hang up scene caused ABC to amend the miniseries to placate him.
Former President Clinton’s objections to the ABC miniseries are more varied. One is that the program says he failed to take advantage of opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden. Clinton defenders have said this is untrue and that Clinton’s ordering of a cruise missile attack upon a camp in Afghanistan where bin Laden was thought to be residing demonstrated he was willing to pull the trigger on the terror leader. The attack failed, however, and Clinton refrained from trying again. In a NewsMax interview, former-Clinton insider Dick Morris mentions other opportunities that were missed and describes Clinton as gun shy after an air attack in Belgrade during the first days of Clinton’s Balkan intervention accidentally destroyed the Chinese embassy there. He said Clinton wanted to kidnap bin Laden, fearing that killing him might cause Clinton to be accused of using assassination as a policy tool. Morris also offers another, more political motive for Clinton’s reluctance to act, saying Clinton was afraid an attack would be described in the media as an attempt “to ‘wag the dog’ and distract people from the Monica Lewinsky affair.”
Despite the accounts of Morris and others, Clinton now insists he had no real opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden. In 2002, however, in a speech to a Long Island business group, he claimed that, in 1996, the Sudanese government had offered to turn bin Laden, who was in Sudan, over to the United States. Clinton said that he hadn’t taken them up on this offer because he didn’t believe his administration had the evidence to hold bin Laden legally. He further said he had asked the Saudi Arabian government to take bin Laden into custody but that they had refused because the terror leader was a “hot potato.” Osama wound up in Afghanistan where he plotted the 9/11 attacks.
Clinton later denied he made the no-evidence-to-hold-him speech, but, when a tape of his words emerged, he amended his flat denial to an admission that he had said what was reported, but that what he had said was not true. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he used the kind of word juggling that gave us the phrase “what the meaning of is is” to answer her questions about his Sudan story. Clinton said, “I’d said that we were told we couldn’t hold him, implying that we had a chance to get him. But we didn’t. That’s not factually accurate.” One suspects there’s an “is is” loophole in there somewhere.
As with Berger’s objections, the ABC miniseries was altered to soothe Clinton’s concerns. Clinton also succeeded in limiting remarks linking his inattention to terror with his preoccupation with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment. One can easily understand why Clinton doesn’t want history to connect the horrors of 9/11 with his sordid antics in the Oval Office, but was he distracted by the scandal? Morris says yes. At the time, Clinton defenders essentially agreed when they insisted the scandal was interfering with Clinton performing his duties and that this was why we should forget all about it, leave Clinton alone, and just “move on.” Back then it was a distraction that should be ended; now it is a distraction that didn’t happen.
While the Democrats have complained the most about The Path to 9/11, the Bush administration doesn’t get reverential treatment in it. They are depicted as having missed hints that an attack was coming and having been slow to correct the Clinton administration’s faulty antiterrorism policies. At the end of the miniseries, just after we are shown a vivid depiction of the horrific destruction of the World Trade Center, text appears giving the 9/11 Commission members’ scoring for the implementation of their suggestions. It’s a bad report card that the viewer will probably attribute only to Bush failures, and not also to recalcitrant Democrats in Congress. Wisely, the Republicans didn’t demand the editing that the Democrats have. To put it mildly, the Democrats went nuts.
Clinton’s lawyers threatened to sue, and various Democratic congressmen and Senators promised to use their offices to punish ABC. In protesting The Reagans, conservative critics called for a boycott and strove to expose its falsehoods. I don’t recall anyone setting a pack of lawyers on CBS, or Republican politicians threatening to use the power of the federal government to put them out of business. The heavyhanded tactics of the Democrats have gotten them the changes they wanted but have left the impression that the miniseries was gutted to hide errors made by Clinton that might politically damage the Democratic party.
So was it fair for The Path to 9/11 to use dramatic license to condense and highlight Clinton failures? I don’t think so. While the distortions weren’t as egregious or as virulently political as those in The Reagans, it would have been better for ABC to have invested another night in the project so that shortcuts weren’t necessary. I also suspect that time wasn’t the only consideration in the decision to be inventive. Hollywood writers prefer action over exposition and like to convey a situation — the rejection of opportunities to kill bin Laden — with a nevocative scene — Berger hanging up. Explaining the failures that led to 9/11 shouldn’t be done this way. A lot of people were murdered that terrifying day, and it is disrespectful to repackage facts for dramatic effect. Those facts, unimproved, are more than enough to demonstrate that the Clinton administration’s approach to the terror threat was disastrous.
– Edward Morrow is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including The Halloween Handbook