A Media Matters for America review of the conclusion of ABC's two-part miniseries, The Path to 9/11, contained scenes that were factually inaccurate, and that showed President Bush taking aggressive action there is no indication he ever took.
Reviews of the first part of ABC's "docudrama" The Path to 9/11, conducted by Media Matters for America and others, revealed that the film contained invented and factually inaccurate scenes that cast the Clinton administration as unwilling to aggressively combat terrorism. The second half of the miniseries, which aired on September 11, also contained scenes that were factually inaccurate -- this time showing President Bush taking aggressive action there is no indication he ever took.
Part two of The Path to 9/11 contained a dramatic re-enactment of a September 4, 2001, meeting between then-Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke, then-CIA director George Tenet, and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. In the film, Rice tells Clarke and Tenet:
RICE: Morning, gentlemen. As a result of the August 6  Presidential Daily Briefing [PDB], the president is tired of swatting flies. He believes Al Qaeda is a real threat, and he wants to consider real action. He specifically asked about the armed Predator. Where are we with that?
The PDB -- a highly classified intelligence estimate -- for August 6, 2001, was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." This scene from the film, however, is factually inconsistent with the 9-11 Commission report, upon which the writer and director of the "docudrama" claimed the film was heavily based.
Bush's reported use of the phrase "swatting flies" had nothing to do with the August 6, 2001, PDB. As the 9-11 Commission report noted, Rice testified before the commission that Bush used the phrase earlier that year:
In early March, the administration postponed action on proposals for increasing aid to the Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks. Rice noted at the time that a more wide-ranging examination of policy toward Afghanistan was needed first. She wanted the review very soon.184
Rice and others recalled the President saying, "I'm tired of swatting at flies."185 The President reportedly also said, "I'm tired of playing defense. I want to play offense. I want to take the fight to the terrorists."186 President Bush explained to us that he had become impatient. He apparently had heard proposals for rolling back al Qaeda but felt that catching terrorists one by one or even cell by cell was not an approach likely to succeed in the long run. At the same time, he said, he understood that policy had to be developed slowly so that diplomacy and financial and military measures could mesh with one another.187
The commission also noted that Rice testified that Bush used the phrase in May 2001, and that Clarke disputed Rice's testimony, claiming that Bush actually used the phrase in March 2001.
Additionally, both Rice and Bush downplayed the significance of the August 6, 2001, PDB. In her testimony before the commission, Rice stated several times that the August 6, 2001, PDB was a "historical" document and that it contained "no new threat information." The White House released a "fact sheet" in April 2004, when portions of the August 6, 2001, PDB were declassified, which stated:
The article advised the President of what was publicly well-known: that Bin Ladin had a desire to attack inside the United States. Bin Ladin had stated publicly in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would try to "bring the fighting to America." Most of the information in the article was an analysis of previous terrorist attacks by al-Qaida and a summary and discussion of general threat reporting from the late 1990s. The draft was prepared by CIA after consultation with an FBI analyst.
And, as Media Matters has noted, investigative journalist Ron Suskind, in his recent book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006), fleshed out some details regarding Bush's receipt of the August 6, 2001, PDB. Specifically, Suskind reported that the "analytical arm of CIA was in kind of a panic mode" during that month and CIA officials "flew to Crawford [Texas] to personally brief the President -- to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts." At the end of one such briefing, Bush reportedly responded to the CIA briefer, "All right ... You've covered your ass, now."
In another scene in part two of the miniseries, Vice President Dick Cheney, after conversing with Bush over the phone immediately following the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, announced: "The president has just given the shoot-down order":
CONTROLLER 1: You are to establish combat air patrol over Manhattan.
PILOT: Huntress, please advise. Do we have shoot-down authority?
CONTROLLER 1: Do you know of the rules of engagement?
OFFICER: Stand by.
CHENEY (on phone with Bush): Sir, the fighters are up. But they -- they want to know what to do. Sir, it may require extreme measures.
CLARKE: Where's Don Rumsfeld?
CONTROLLER 2: Is that American 77 or United 93 that just hit the Pentagon?
CONTROLLER 3: I've still got 93 on my screen. About 20 minutes out of Washington.
CONTROLLER 2: If that plane's headed for Washington, it could be serious.
CONTROLLER 3: I know. I know. A whole bunch of people just left the room. They're making phone calls.
CHENEY: The president has just given the shoot-down order.
However, as Salon.com editor in chief Joan Walsh wrote in a September 11 article on the film, "the worst lie I haven't seen critiqued has to do with whether Bush gave the go-ahead for American fighter jets to shoot down hijacked airliners." As Walsh noted, Vanity Fair published an analysis of the recordings from the control room at NORAD's Northeast headquarters from September 11, 2001, indicating that Bush did not actually give the order to shoot down the hijacked airplanes; he authorized military commanders to make the decision themselves, and he did not grant that authorization until 10:18 a.m. -- 15 minutes after United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and 41 minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon. However, as Vanity Fair also noted, Cheney and other White House officials would later "recount sober deliberations about the prospect of shooting down United 93."
In fact, the 9-11 Commission specifically noted that even though Cheney had testified that he remembered calling Bush to discuss rules of engagement for fighter jets in the air, there existed "no documentary evidence for this call," adding that "the relevant sources are incomplete." Moreover, as Media Matters has noted, the Commission did cite a number of sources, none of which supported Cheney's claims. According to the report, those sources were: "(1) phone logs of the White House switchboard; (2) notes of [I. "Scooter"] Lewis Libby [Cheney's then-chief of staff], Mrs. [Lynne] Cheney, and [then-White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer; (3) the tape (and then transcript) of the air threat conference call; and (4) Secret Service and White House Situation Room logs, as well as four separate White House Military Office logs (the PEOC Watch Log, the PEOC Shelter Log, the Communications Log, and the 9-11 Log)."
From the 9-11 Commission report:
The Vice President remembered placing a call to the President just after entering the shelter conference room. There is conflicting evidence about when the Vice President arrived in the shelter conference room. We have concluded, from the available evidence, that the Vice President arrived in the room shortly before 10:00, perhaps at 9:58.The Vice President recalled being told, just after his arrival, that the Air Force was trying to establish a combat air patrol over Washington.213
The Vice President stated that he called the President to discuss the rules of engagement for the CAP [combat air patrol]. He recalled feeling that it did no good to establish the CAP unless the pilots had instructions on whether they were authorized to shoot if the plane would not divert. He said the President signed off on that concept. The President said he remembered such a conversation, and that it reminded him of when he had been an interceptor pilot. The President emphasized to us that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft.214
The Vice President's military aide told us he believed the Vice President spoke to the President just after entering the conference room, but he did not hear what they said. Rice, who entered the room shortly after the Vice President and sat next to him, remembered hearing him inform the President, "Sir, the CAPs are up. Sir, they're going to want to know what to do." Then she recalled hearing him say, "Yes sir." She believed this conversation occurred a few minutes, perhaps five, after they entered the conference room.215
We believe this call would have taken place sometime before 10:10 to 10:15.
Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete. Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the Vice President's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the President and Vice President immediately after the Vice President entered the conference room.216
Walsh also noted other problems with the movie's second half:
What does Monday night hold? Another big ABC lie has been that the second half of the film apportions blame more fairly, laying out the mistakes of the Bush administration as well. That's only true if you think Condoleezza Rice is the president. Like Albright, she comes off as a schoolmarmy, hierarchy-obsessed smarty-pants more interested in protecting the president -- who is described as really, really wanting to get bin Laden -- than protecting Americans. But Bush himself gets off unbearably easy.
There's no reference to his monthlong vacation after receiving the Presidential Daily Briefing "Bin Laden determined to strike in the United States." There's no scene showing Rice or Cheney ignoring the warnings of former Sens. Gary Hart [D-CO] and Warren Rudman's [R-NH] terrorism commission, as they did. There's certainly no scene of the president reading "The Pet Goat" for many painful minutes after he's informed of the attack on our soil the morning of Sept. 11.
Finally, part two of the "docudrama" retained a scene that had previously been exposed as factually inaccurate, in which a major airline disregards security warnings and lets one of the hijackers board his flight. The film depicts Mohammed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 9-11 plot, checking in for his flight at Boston's Logan Airport at an American Airlines ticket counter. A security warning appears on the American Airlines employee's screen. The employee calls a supervisor, who hands Atta his ticket and allows him to pass, telling the employee that they will simply keep Atta's checked luggage off the plane until it is confirmed he has boarded.
In fact, as the 9-11 Commission report described on the first page of its first chapter, the security warning actually occurred as Atta was checking in for his flight in Portland, Maine. But Atta flew US Airways Express from Portland to Logan Airport, where he transferred to American Airlines Flight 11, which would later crash into the North Tower at the World Trade Center:
Atta and [suspected hijacker Abdul] Omari boarded a 6:00 A.M. flight from Portland to Boston's Logan International Airport.1
When he checked in for his flight to Boston, Atta was selected by a computerized prescreening system known as CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), created to identify passengers who should be subject to special security measures. Under security rules in place at the time, the only consequence of Atta's selection by CAPPS was that his checked bags were held off the plane until it was confirmed that he had boarded the aircraft. This did not hinder Atta's plans.2
Atta and Omari arrived in Boston at 6:45. Seven minutes later, Atta apparently took a call from Marwan al Shehhi, a longtime colleague who was at another terminal at Logan Airport. They spoke for three minutes.3 It would be their final conversation.
Between 6:45 and 7:40, Atta and Omari, along with [suspected hijackers] Satam al Suqami, Wail al Shehri, and Waleed al Shehri, checked in and boarded American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:45.4
From part two of The Path to 9/11:
AMERICAN AIRLINES EMPLOYEE: Mr. Atta -- one-way, non-stop to Los Angeles. No return.
AMERICAN AIRLINES SUPERVISOR (handing tickets to Atta): Thank you.
ATTA: Thank you.
EMPLOYEE: CAPPS warning. Should he be searched?
SUPERVISOR: No. Just hold their bags till they board.