A Compelling 'Path to 9/11'

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on America, ABC Entertainment is presenting a six-hour miniseries titled “The Path to 9/11,” a forceful, compelling docudrama chronicling the struggles faced by America’s counter-terrorist experts between the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the fatal one in 2001.

Unlike the tone of too much of our reporting on terrorism, where anyone who fights terrorism is depicted as either assembling naked Muslim pyramids if in Iraq, or listening to Grandma’s phone calls if at home, this film treats the fight against terror as deadly business — and not just deadly business, but a noble struggle for the survival of our nation.

Serious scholars of current events, not to mention some of those named in the film, may take issue with parts of this presentation. The movie is based on the report of the 9-11 commission, which itself is not infallible in its conclusions on what went wrong and what needs to fixed. Moreover, up front the moviemakers note it has composite characters and manipulates the time of events for a better movie experience. As a “docudrama,” it has taken certain poetic license with history.

It’s sad, but predictable, that some on the far left have dismissed this film as a “right-wing” snow job. The first line of attack on the film came from loyal Clinton Democrats who are simply incapable of accepting any blame, or even a dollop of criticism, over the mistakes leading up to 9-11.

The Center for American Progress, led by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, has been marching on several fronts, at both Media Matters for America and at the blog Think, which set up a campaign called “Tell ABC to Tell the Truth About 9-11” and claims the film is guilty of “whitewashing” the Bush administration’s failures.

These folks either haven’t watched the film, in which case they ought to remain silent, or have seen it, in which case they are being disingenuous.

 Both Clinton and Bush officials come under fire, and if it seems more anti-Clinton, that’s only because they were in office a lot longer than Team Bush before 9-11. Indeed, the film drives home the point that from our enemies’ perspective, it’s irrelevant who is in the White House. (One scene has Muslims shooting machine guns at a video image of Bill Clinton.) They simply want to kill Americans and destroy America.

The film doesn’t play favorites, and the Bush administration takes its lumps as well. Condoleezza Rice, for one, takes a hit. Among other things, she is presented as foolishly demoting National Security Council counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke to a smaller role devoted to cyber-security. The famous Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, which warned of an impending domestic attack from bin Laden, is presented as spelling out the approaching cataclysm in black and white, and to no avail.

FBI officials in Phoenix in 2001 waved red flags about Muslims taking flight lessons, and were ignored. FBI officials in Minneapolis sent distress signals about Zacarias Moussaoui, and they went unheeded. All that, and more, is there.

 Now I will confess a personal bias here. Whether from our politicians or, more dramatically, from our news media, there is a most unhealthy obsession with criticism. As one network scribe once put it, “Good news is no news, bad news is great news.” Yes, mistakes were made. But we cannot, and ought not, overlook the extraordinary work being performed by so many who are so devoted to our nation’s security.

 And “The Path to 9-11” doesn’t ignore this truth. The film underscores that many, many men and women, most of them toiling in anonymity, in and out of uniform, have been working ceaselessly to protect America and are richly deserving of a nation’s gratitude. Some individuals, like Richard Clarke and former FBI counter-intelligence expert John O’Neil, the newly appointed head of security at the Twin Towers who died inside the World Trade Center, are presented heroically.

One can quibble with some elements, but only a fool would ignore the message: America’s intelligence apparatus was woefully unprepared for 9-11, and remains dangerously inadequate today. It is a frightening, sobering warning.

Most people will find this movie not just engrossing, but necessary. The people who will hate this movie are the radicals who dismiss the war on terrorism as a phantom issue. As one blogger at the Daily Kos pleaded about the ABC film: “So who is the greater threat to democracy? Terrorists or media consolidation?” Nothing, but nothing will bring this crowd to reality.

ABC chief Bob Iger reportedly has told his staff he believes this is one television show all of America needs to see. He’s right.