During the September 7 editions of MSNBC News Live, MSNBC anchors made a series of misleading or baseless claims while reporting on the controversy surrounding ABC's two-part miniseries The Path to 9/11.
On September 7, during the 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and 2 p.m. ET editions of MSNBC News Live, MSNBC anchors Alex Witt and Chris Jansing, as well as MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell, made a series of misleading or baseless claims while reporting on the controversy surrounding ABC's upcoming "docudrama," The Path to 9/11. During the 9 a.m. broadcast, Witt suggested that the Clinton administration failed to act on a plan to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden; stated that the Monica Lewinsky controversy was "a distraction from bin Laden"; and quoted from an article by the conservative news outlet NewsMax.com, which claimed that former Clinton administration officials are upset about the "docudrama," not because of its reported factual inaccuracies, but because, in Witt's words, "this information was meant to be kept behind closed doors and not get out." As Media Matters for America has documented, The Path to 9/11 has been heavily criticized for its reported factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies in representing the 9-11 Commission report, as well as misrepresentations regarding the Clinton administration's counterterrorism policies.
Similarly, during the 10 a.m. broadcast, Jansing asked Democratic strategist and former House Judiciary Committee chief Democratic counsel Julian Epstein: "Do you think we would be safer now if President Clinton wasn't, for example, distracted by the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal?" Later, Jansing did not challenge Republican strategist Rich Galen's assertion that Clinton national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger is just "cry[ing] wolf" over the ABC miniseries and suggested that "the Clinton administration err[ed] too much on the side of diplomacy." For her part, during the 11 a.m. broadcast, O'Donnell wondered why the Clinton administration "shouldn't ... take the lion's share for the blame, in terms of 9-11." She later asked, during the 2 p.m. broadcast, "Some say, 'Hey, the liberals, they have Michael Moore, why can't we have someone on the right producing documentaries, docudramas?' "
During her interview with MSNBC terrorism analyst Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism adviser to President Bush, on the 9 a.m. broadcast, Witt quoted from a letter Berger sent to ABC listing his objections to a scene in the miniseries that reportedly shows him refusing to give the order to have bin Laden killed. Witt said Berger wrote, "In no instance did President Clinton or I ever fail to support a request from the CIA or U.S. military to authorize an operation against bin Laden or Al Qaeda," then Witt asserted, "But there was a plan" that "field officers said was probably as good as it was going to get," but that the plan "was shut down." Witt asked Cressey: "Does that constitute a missed opportunity?" In fact, according to the 9-11 Commission Report, it was then-CIA director George Tenet who halted the 1998 CIA mission to capture bin Laden. The 9-11 Commission noted that, in 1998, the CIA "[d]evelop[ed] a [c]apture [p]lan" for bin Laden that was ultimately never put into action. According to the report:
Tenet told us that given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to "turn off" the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger's recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.30
Witt also asked Cressey to respond to an assertion made by NewsMax in a September 5 article by James Hirsen, which suggested, according to Witt, that "the frustration of Clinton supporters over this film" is not due to the film's reported inaccuracies, but stems from the fact that "this information was meant to be kept behind closed doors and not get out." The article, headlined "ABC's 'Path to 9/11': Bill Clinton's Inconvenient Truth," asserted that former Clinton administration officials' "frustration likely stems from the extensive efforts that were taken to keep this information from being made public." Hirsen made debunked claims about the Clinton administration in defense of the miniseries in an earlier MSNBC appearance, as Media Matters has noted.
Additionally, both Witt and Jansing suggested that Clinton was "distracted by the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal," and that this "distraction" diverted Clinton's attention from bin Laden. But, the 9-11 Commission concluded in its report that it "found no reason to question" Clinton officials' claims that the Clinton administration's response to Al Qaeda's August 7, 1998, dual attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was based "solely on national security considerations." According to the 9-11 Commission report:
The air strikes marked the climax of an intense 48-hour period in which Berger notified congressional leaders, the principals called their foreign counterparts, and President Clinton flew back from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard to address the nation from the Oval Office. The President spoke to the congressional leadership from Air Force One, and he called British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from the White House.47 House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott initially supported the President. The next month, Gingrich's office dismissed the cruise missile attacks as "pinpricks."48
At the time, President Clinton was embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal, which continued to consume public attention for the rest of that year and the first months of 1999. As it happened, a popular 1997 movie, Wag the Dog, features a president who fakes a war to distract public attention from a domestic scandal. Some Republicans in Congress raised questions about the timing of the strikes.
Everyone involved in the decision had, of course, been aware of President Clinton's problems. He told them to ignore them. Berger recalled the President saying to him "that they were going to get crap either way, so they should do the right thing."51 All his aides testified to us that they based their advice solely on national security considerations. We have found no reason to question their statements.
From the September 7 editions of MSNBC's MSNBC News Live:
9 a.m. ET broadcast:
WITT: Let me give you a quote here now, Rich -- Roger, because there's apparently a scene in this movie in which the former national security adviser Sandy Berger, he is seen refusing authorization for CIA operatives to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan. This happened in 1998. Berger himself says in a letter to ABC -- here's the quote: "In no instance did President Clinton or I ever fail to support a request from the CIA or U.S. military to authorize an operation against bin Laden or Al Qaeda." But there was a plan. There was one that field officers said was probably as good as it was going to get. It was shut down; you know that. Does that constitute a missed opportunity, Roger?
CRESSEY: No, Alex, because that plan was shut down by the director of the CIA, George Tenet. The CIA leadership evaluated that plan and recommended to the president that this was not a good plan. So, the CIA field operative can say it was shut down by the administration, and, in fact, it was shut down by his own leadership. It's that type of misrepresentation that is outrageous. So, if they want to tell an accurate story, do so. If they want to tell a fantasy story, they can do that as well. Just don't associate the fantasy with the facts that are contained in the 9-11 Commission Report.
WITT: OK, speaking of the 9-11 Commission, Roger, it said that, quote, "Pretty intense partisanship was going on at the time," partly because President Bush [sic] was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Would that be a justifiable cause for distraction for the president? I mean, can you argue that that wasn't a distraction from bin Laden?
WITT: OK, Roger, here's a quote I want to take from NewsMax, and that is among the communities that the news media -- that filmed President Clinton when he was speaking on Long Island a few years ago. There's a quote from here that talks about the frustration of Clinton supporters over this film, and here's the quote: "Their frustration likely stems from the extensive efforts that were taken to keep this information from being made public." What's your response to that? In other words, this information was meant to be kept behind closed doors and not get out.
RICHARD MINITER (conservative author and journalist): Roger, quick question for you, and I'd like -- I'd like the viewers to think about this. If Roger Cressey and [former White House counterterrorism adviser] Richard Clarke were able to do everything they could in the Clinton years and were not stopped by Berger and Clinton, 9-11 might not have happened.
CRESSEY: Well, we weren't stopped by the national security adviser to the president, so --
MINITER: You were -- you were stopped by Clinton.
CRESSEY: -- I think that's a little -- that's a little misleading.
MINITER: You were stopped by Clinton and sometimes you were stopped by each other.
10 a.m. broadcast:
JANSING: You know, there's -- part of the controversy over all this is, if President Clinton had done his job, if his administration had done their job, would 9-11 have ever even happened? And there's this new ABC docudrama that's coming out called The Path to 9/11 that is loosely, they admit, loosely based on the 9-11 Commission report. What do you think about that? Do you think we would be safer now if President Clinton wasn't, for example, distracted by the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal?
GALEN: Let me go back to this ABC thing because I want to -- I want to mention one thing. One of the people that is screaming the loudest about this ABC thing, which, by the way, is not an abomination -- there's only three scenes that even the Democrats are concerned about over in a six-hour docudrama -- but one of the guys is Sandy Berger. Sandy Berger, we should remember, is the Fawn Hall of the Clinton administration. In April of last year, he pled guilty to stealing documents, classified documents, from the archives, the National Archives, having to do with the Clinton administration and terrorism. I'm not saying that -- that the Clinton administration did anything wrong or should have done more or anything else. I'm just saying that one guy had something to hide enough, so that he actually -- he actually committed a crime to steal that information. So, for him now to claim that somehow ABC and Disney are saying something wrong, I think he's -- he's the boy who cried wolf.
JANSING: You know, Frank, ABC has admitted that this isn't by the book. That, you know, not every single thing that's in here is exactly from the 9-11 Commission Report. They admit that some of the things were dramatized or changed. Given the topic matter and the sensitivity of this, even five years later, do you think that liberties are OK even in what's called a "docudrama?"
FRANK GAFFNEY (former Reagan official): You know, I personally would prefer to stick to the facts. I think the facts are sufficiently compelling and troubling, and as I say, I think that there's blame enough to go around. Whether they got all the facts right or not, I leave to others to say. I haven't seen the film. But my sense of this is that what they've captured, and I think usefully so, is an insight into an approach to these threats in the past that hadn't worked and that cost us dearly and that some who today, not for partisan sniping purposes, but, you know, to try to establish for the American people that we face a choice: Are we going to go back to that kind of approach or are we going to deal on offense with these enemies in a way that has a chance of defeating them before they're able to inflict more harm on us? That's, I think, the choice before us today.
JANSING: Well, I think this is an important question, especially in light of how many people are concerned about what's going on in the war on terror and letting it affect their vote in the midterm elections. So, James, I'm wondering about this whole balancing act that every administration has to do between diplomacy and more serious action, and maybe, is Frank right? Did the Clinton administration err a little too much on the side of diplomacy?
11 a.m. broadcast:
O'DONNELL: P.J., let me start with you. According to the 9-11 Commission Report, by 1997, the U.S. intelligence community knew bin Laden was doing more than just financing terrorism. The Clinton administration was in office for more than three years after that, so why didn't -- or why shouldn't they take the lion's share for the blame, in terms of 9-11?
2 p.m. broadcast:
O'DONNELL: Bob, let me ask you, because one of the criticisms of this particular film is that the Clinton administration or folks associated with them wanted a copy of it but didn't get it. But that ABC Entertainment sent out to right-wing commentators, previews of this particular movie, including Rush Limbaugh, who on the air, had said that his friend wrote this particular "docudrama." Some say, "Hey, the liberals, they have Michael Moore, why can't we have someone on the right producing documentaries, docudramas, et cetera"? Bob?
(Former REP.) BOB BARR (R-GA): Well, of course they can. But all of this simply further reduces the credibility of television and the entertainment, and the news business, particularly. You know, there's nothing wrong if they want to send an advanced copy out to the right or the left or somebody else that they like. That's fine. That's their right to do so, and they don't have to send it to somebody else, I suppose.
O'DONNELL: Bob --
BARR: But it really -- it really diminishes the credibility of the product.
O'DONNELL: There's been a lot of criticism of this docudrama from both of you. But what's noteworthy, I think, is that the co-chair of the 9-11 Commission, the highly respected Tom Kean, was a consultant. And here's what he had to say about this particular docudrama.
O'DONNELL: Roger, I have to ask you there, because Tom Kean says that they made the changes that he said were necessary. How then did these, what you call "serious factual inaccuracies," make it into this docudrama?
CRESSEY: Norah, this is what I find most disappointing and baffling. Governor Kean did a tremendous job in chairing the commission; built a real reputation of bipartisanship and trying to advance the debate. And to associate himself with such egregious misrepresentation and just falsehoods in the script, you know, I can't -- I don't understand it. He dropped the ball. Either that, or he was used by ABC Entertainment.
The point, the problem I have with this, Norah, the reason why this upsets me so much is it's an insult. It's an insult to the memory of [FBI special agent and the agency's leading expert on Al Qaeda] John O'Neill, who died on 9-11. It's the insult to all of us, both Republican and Democrats, who worked on Al Qaeda leading up to 9-11, and it's an insult to all the families who lost people from misrepresenting the commission like this on nationwide TV, because a lot of people will watch this and say, "Oh, this must be the way it actually happened."