Right wing uses ABC docudrama to push debunked claim blaming Clinton administration for 9-11


In anticipation of ABC's docudrama The Path to 9/11, the right-wing media have resurrected a debunked claim that attempts to place blame for the 9-11 attacks on the Clinton administration. Specifically, a review of the miniseries on the right-wing website Human Events Online asserted that the Clinton administration erected a "wall" to prevent information-sharing between government agencies. In fact, the "wall" long predated Bill Clinton's presidency.

In anticipation of the September 10 premiere of the first part of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11 -- a six-hour docudrama reportedly based on the findings of the 9-11 Commission Report -- the right-wing media have resurrected an already-debunked claim that attempts to place the blame for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the feet of the Clinton administration. Specifically, a review of the film on the right-wing website Human Events Online recounted a scene in which the CIA withholds from the FBI "crucial information identifying some of the 9/11 hijackers" and asserted that this occurred because of "the 'wall' put up by certain Democrat [sic] officials to prevent information sharing between government agencies." While conservatives have repeatedly claimed that this "wall" was erected during former President Bill Clinton's tenure, it in fact long predated his administration, as Media Matters for America has noted.

ABC describes The Path to 9/11 as "a dramatization of the events detailed in The 9/11 Commission Report and other sources" and will air over the course of two nights -- September 10 and 11. As noted by the weblog Think Progress, the film was written and produced by conservative activist Cyrus Nowrasteh. In recent days, members of the right-wing media, including syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh (subscription required) and conservative websites FrontPageMag and Human Events Online have begun promoting The Path to 9/11 as a film that "really zeros in on the shortcomings of the Clinton administration" and "honestly and fairly depict[s] how Clinton-era inaction ... allowed the 9/11 conspiracy to metastasize." The September 1 Human Events Online review described one scene that purportedly shows how 9-11 occurred "in part" because Democrats under Clinton purportedly created a firewall between U.S. intelligence agencies and U.S. law-enforcement agencies that prohibited critical information-sharing:

The miniseries also has a scene in which the CIA has crucial information identifying some of the 9/11 hijackers in advance of 9/11, but refuses to share the information with the FBI because of the "wall" put up by certain Democrat [sic] officials to prevent information sharing between government agencies. The CIA is depicted as sitting in a meeting with the FBI (with John O'Neil [sic: O'Neill] present), and showing the FBI surveillance photos of terrorism suspects -- some of whom will later turn out to be the 9/11 hijackers. The CIA asks the FBI for help in identifying the men in the photos, but refuses to give the FBI any of the information they have on who the men are. John O'Neil protests that it's impossible for the FBI to help the CIA identify the men if they won't provide any information whatsoever on them. When O'Neil tells the FBI to keep the photos so they can at least work on them, the CIA becomes hostile to O'Neil and takes the photos back. Tragically, John O'Neil himself will later die in the 9/11 attacks, in part because agencies like the CIA refused to share crucial information like this. Scenes like these really challenge the prevailing liberal media and Hollywood mindset by showing that the Patriot Act's information-sharing and surveillance provisions are crucial to the safety of this country, and that political correctness and bureaucratic inefficiency are Islamic terrorism's greatest friend.

The suggestion that Clinton administration officials erected the so-called "wall" echoes a similar accusation popular among conservative media figures: that a 1995 policy, instituted by former deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick and former Attorney General Janet Reno, prohibited Defense Department officials from sharing with the FBI military intelligence purportedly identifying lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. But as Media Matters has noted, the memo and guidelines in question merely clarified long-unwritten restrictions on the sharing of information between the FBI's intelligence arm and the Justice Department's criminal division. Indeed, the 1995 documents had no bearing on the military's ability to share information with other intelligence agencies.

Former Sen. Slade Gorton [R-WA], a 9-11 Commission member, specifically addressed and debunked the theory that Gorelick's memo prevented such intelligence-sharing in an August 18, 2005, letter to the editor in The Washington Times:

The one witness who did name Atta came to our staff shortly before the commission's report went to the printer. He said he thought he had seen something showing Atta in Brooklyn early in 2000. We knew, in fact, that Atta first arrived in the United States in June 2000 with a visa. For this and other reasons, the witness simply was not credible on this subject.

Additionally, the assertion that the commission failed to report on this program to protect Ms. Gorelick is ridiculous. She had nothing to do with any "wall" between law enforcement and our intelligence agencies. The 1995 Department of Justice guidelines at issue were internal to the Justice Department and were not even sent to any other agency. The guidelines had no effect on the Department of Defense and certainly did not prohibit it from communicating with the FBI, the CIA or anyone else.

Moreover, the "wall" that conservatives accuse Democrats of erecting had been built well before Gorelick -- or Clinton -- took office. The joint House and Senate intelligence committees' report of pre-September 11 intelligence failures stated: "The 'Wall' is not a single barrier, but a series of restrictions between and within agencies constructed over sixty years as a result of legal, policy, institutional, and personal factors." Similarly, a ruling by the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review -- when it met for the first time in 2002 -- traces the origin of the "wall" to "some point during the 1980s."

Nor did enforcement of the "wall" end with the Clinton administration. In his April 12, 2004, testimony before the 9-11 Commission, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft conceded that his own deputy Attorney General, Larry Thompson, reauthorized the "wall" in August 2001.

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