If you're looking for someone to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ABC's miniseries The Path to 9/11 provides goats in spades. The docudrama (not quite movie, not quite documentary) examines the history of Islamic terrorism from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the 2001 attacks. Along the way, filmmaker David Cunningham gives viewers plenty of reason to point fingers at a Clinton administration that appeared feckless and misguided dealing with a growing terrorist threat and a Bush administration portrayed as uninterested in al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.
Five years after the attacks, the history of 9/11 remains an acutely sensitive subject. No one wants to shoulder blame for security lapses, and Clinton administration officials have been especially critical of how they say the miniseries muddies the water between truth and fiction.
The five-hour movie, which aired on Sept. 10 and 11, drew heavily on the 9/11 Commission's final report and two books. But it was controversial for ABC to tout Cunningham's film as something close to an official history, even billing the miniseries as "The Official True Story" in the overseas release. ABC dropped that moniker in the domestic release after heavy criticism from Clinton-era officials like former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and former antiterrorism czar Richard Clarke. Both dispute the portrayal of a scene in which tribal forces and CIA operatives stand ready to capture or kill Osama bin Laden but fail to win approval from weak suits in Washington.
More than five years after 9/11, major players like Berger, Clarke, and former CIA boss George Tenet still can't decide exactly how close they were to taking out bin Laden. But taken as a film adaptation with necessary editing of events to collapse an eight-year history into a five-hour timeslot, The Path to 9/11 shows how the Clinton administration failed to stop the growing threat of al-Qaeda-a position heretofore ignored by the national press.
Last week's ABC docudrama, The Path to 9/11, achieved high ratings despite, or because of, the relentless attacks against it by Clinton-era national security officials embarrassed by the dramatization of their incompetence (see left). ABC aired the film despite their objections, and that's good news: Some media bias may succumb to concerns about national survival.
Actually, The Path to 9/11 was not about the Clinton administration, though the fecklessness of those years and the incomprehension during the first eight months of the Bush administration were clear. The two-night broadcast was more a close-up view, long overdue, of the enemy-and not just the enemy of the United States or even the enemy of the West, but the enemy of civilization. It was chilling.
Those who want to go beyond the docudrama should read Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Wright is the real deal, a reporter who lays out the facts as he understands them, without agenda or conceit. His superbly researched and compellingly written account of the genealogy of al-Qaeda drives home the lesson that every American must grasp, and not only grasp, know: Our enemies intend to win. In their eyes there are no innocent civilians. And if our enemies obtain WMDs, they will use them.
The Path to 9/11 was only a hint, an intimation. The Looming Tower provides the indictment and the proof, the undeniable evidence of the evil that intends to blot out anything and anyone in its path.