Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Review: The Path To 9/11

I wrote a bit the other day about my thoughts before the broadcast of ABC's 9/11 docu-drama, The Path To 9/11. I had some concerns about it, and some thoughs about both the production and the hype in the run-up to the broadcast. I've now seen it, and had a chance to think about it a little bit.

My first thought on having digested The Path To 9/11 was a thought I've had before. What the hell is Bill Clinton talking about? As a Clinton watcher since the early 90s, my opinion is that ABC was far, far more generous to Bill Clinton, and his administration, than was warranted. I think that there was some pre-show hype from the right hand side of the poitical commentariat in this country that was vastly overblown (yes, Rush, that means you) and the Clinton people reacted to that.

Just as a motion picture, an example of story-telling art, I thought it worked. Very well. The casting was good, the performances were uniformly strong, the grainy jittery camera work was appropriate to the subject matter, the music was well set. The settings were well chosen, any special effects were well-integrated - it was a strong, effective piece of film-making. I thought it was, at times, harrowing to watch. When it started, when they showed the flights taking off, I felt the pit of my stomach knot up.

As a documentary, well, it wasn't. And ABC acknowledged that. They put a disclaimer on-screen at the beginning and in the middle and at the end. They didn't just put it on-screen, they put it on-screen and read it. Anyone watching knows that it's a dramatization. Including "fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue as well as time compression."

So the question becomes, in dramatizing the story, in putting together the "fictionalized scenes" and the "composite...characters," did they do actual violence to the story? Did they libel anyone?

I don't see it.

The portrayal of the film shows the Clinton administration concerned with Al Qaeda, concerned with Bin Laden. But it also portrays the administration as believing that it was not a military problem. While there were some who felt that we were at war, the overwhelming impression is that the administration, as a whole, believed that we were dealing with criminals. In the film, the attitude is summed up in a conversation between FBI agent John O'Neill and "Kirk" (one of the composite characters, a CIA agent played by Donnie Wahlberg).
O'Neill: The fact is, terrorism is perceived by this administration as being a law and order problem. Period.
Kirk: How do you win a law and orderly war?
O'Neill: You don't.

Is that conversation and dialogue fictional? Probably? Does it represent the attitudes of the Clinton administration? Let's go to the 9/11 Commission Report, 3.1 (p. 72):
An unfortunate consequence of this superb investigative and prosecutorial effort was that it created an impression that the law enforcement system was well-equipped to cope with terrorism. Neither President Clinton, his principal
advisers,the Congress,nor the news media felt prompted,until later,to press the question of whether the procedures that put the Blind Sheikh and Ramzi Yousef behind bars would really protect Americans
against the new virus of which these individuals were just the first symptoms.

Frankly, the portrayal of the Bush administration, while shorter (Bush was inaugurated less than 8 months before 9/11), was no better. (For long-time fans of the Fox show "24," Condoleeza Rice is the one who has the most legitimate complaint about the show, as Penny Johnson Jerald is someone to whom a "24" viewer has a extremely negative reaction beforehand.) But it is a fact, it is not disputable, that the United States government, neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administration, had taken the kind of military action before 9/11 that became obviously necessary after 9/11. The Clinton people can tell us, as long and as loud as they want, that Clinton spent the last several years of his Presidency "focused like a laser beam" on terrorism. That will never make it so. No one who lived through those years will ever believe it.

One of the individuals portrayed in the film as someone who really "got it" is Richard Clarke. Clarke has also had harsh words. It's tough to be sure why that is, as he certainly came across well. And his own words have supported the portrayal of the Clinton administration that was shown in the film. He is quoted, on the PBS Frontline page covering the special on John O'Neill, as saying:
Certainly after the embassy bombing in Africa in 1998, it was very obvious that what John was saying, what I was saying, was right: that this was more than a nuisance; that this was a real threat. But I don't think everyone came to the understanding that it was an existential threat. The question was, "This group is more than a nuisance, but are they worth going to war with? After all, they've only attacked two embassies. Maybe that's a cost of doing business. This kind of thing happens. Yes, we should spend some time some energy trying to get them, but it's not the number one priority we have." ...

I think if you ask most terrorism experts in the mid-1990s, "Name the major terrorist organizations that might be a threat to the United States," they would have said Hezbollah, which had a relationship with Iran. They would have said Hamas, which is a Palestinian group. Most people would not have said Al Qaeda. Most people wouldn't have known that there was an Al Qaeda.

Bottom line? The villains in this piece are not the Clinton administration officials who didn't capture Bin Laden. They are not the Bush administration officials who did not stop the attacks. They aren't the FBI agents who under-reacted to Zacharias Moussaoui's flight training or the judges that didn't let the FBI examine his laptop. No, the villains are, as is rightly the case, the terrorists themselves. Ramzi Yousef. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Osama Bin Laden. In hindsight, there were "dots" that could have been connected. There were missed opportunities, there were turf battles, there was red tape, there was bureaucratic infighting. But the villains are the ones the planned and executed the attack, not the ones who failed to prevent it. And that is clearly what the movie shows. All things considered, it's an impressive accomplishment.

Technorati tags: Clinton, ABC, Path To 911, Sandy Berger, 911



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