ABC affiliate KMGH downplayed falsehoods in Path to 9/11

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KMGH 7News reported that protesters against the station's broadcast of the ABC network-produced The Path to 9/11 "believe the producers of the mini-series were irresponsible because they allegedly did not stick with the facts (emphasis added)." But as Media Matters for America has shown, an entire scene is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission Report.

On the September 10 broadcast of ABC affiliate KMGH's 7News at 10 p.m., co-anchor Mitch Jelniker reported that protesters against the station's broadcast of the ABC network-produced The Path to 9-11 "believe the producers of the mini-series were irresponsible because they allegedly did not stick with the facts (emphasis added)." However, critics of the film have not simply "alleged[]" that parts of it are factually untrue. In fact, as Media Matters for America has shown, ABC's September 10 broadcast of the first half of the film included a scene that is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission Report.

The scene in question takes place in early 1998. CIA officers are positioned outside an isolated compound in Afghanistan known as Tarnak Farms. In league with Northern Alliance fighters, they are preparing a raid of the site after receiving visual confirmation in a prior scene that Osama bin Laden is staying there. The lead CIA officer -- "Kirk" -- is awaiting authorization from a group of senior administration officials in Washington, including then-national security adviser Sandy Berger, then-CIA director George Tenet, and counterterrorism official Richard Clarke. When asked for approval, Berger tells his colleagues, "I don't have the authority." He claims he cannot call President Clinton "until we're all on the same page," then attempts to shift the responsibility to Tenet, telling him that "if he feels confident," he can request authorization from Clinton.

The scene ends without the Clinton officials taking any action. The film then cuts to Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud asking Kirk, "Are there any men in Washington? Or are they all cowards?"

But the 9-11 Commission Report's findings contradict this depiction of the events surrounding the Tarnak Farms raid, in which the Clinton administration simply abandons a certain opportunity to capture bin Laden. In fact, the report describes Tenet as having aborted the mission weeks before the target date of June 23. The report further notes that both intelligence and military officials had serious doubts about its probability of success. From the report:

Military officers reviewed the capture plan and, according to "Mike," "found no showstoppers." The commander of Delta Force felt "uncomfortable" with having the tribals hold Bin Ladin captive for so long, and the commander of Joint Special Operations Forces, Lieutenant General Michael Canavan, was worried about the safety of the tribals inside Tarnak Farms.

[...]

The Counterterrorist Center planned to brief cabinet-level principals and their deputies the following week, giving June 23 as the date for the raid, with Bin Ladin to be brought out of Afghanistan no later than July 23.

On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed, including Bin Ladin. Success was to be defined as the exfiltration of Bin Ladin out of Afghanistan. A meeting of principals was scheduled for May 29 to decide whether the operation should go ahead.

The principals did not meet. On May 29, "Jeff" informed "Mike" that he had just met with Tenet, Pavitt, and the chief of the Directorate's Near Eastern Division. The decision was made not to go ahead with the operation. "Mike" cabled the field that he had been directed to "stand down on the operation for the time being." He had been told, he wrote, that cabinet-level officials thought the risk of civilian casualties -- "collateral damage" -- was too high. They were concerned about the tribals' safety, and had worried that "the purpose and nature of the operation would be subject to unavoidable misinterpretation and misrepresentation-and probably recriminations-in the event that Bin Ladin, despite our best intentions and efforts, did not survive."2

[...]

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.3

The CIA's senior management clearly did not think the plan would work. Tenet's deputy director of operations wrote to Berger a few weeks later that the CIA assessed the tribals' ability to capture Bin Ladin and deliver him to U.S. officials as low.

The 9-11 Commission's findings clearly undermine the ABC program's suggestion that the Clinton administration aborted a fully operational mission at the last second. Nonetheless, in a later scene, CIA analyst Patricia Carver bursts into a meeting at CIA headquarters in August 1998 on the day Al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. She proceeds to upbraid Tenet: "You should have ordered those people we had on the ground in Afghanistan to kill Bin Laden -- because we had him."

ABC apparently edited the Tarnak Farms scene to remove a reported and much-criticized shot of Berger slamming down the phone, but the network did not change other inaccuracies in the scene.

ABC retained the scene despite its inconsistency with the 9-11 Commission Report, and despite Berger's recent complaint that it represented a "total fabrication." Further, Berger and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated in a September 8 letter, "Actors portraying us do contemptible things we never did, and say things we neither said nor believed."

ABC's decision to retain the scene came after it had attempted to forestall criticism of falsehoods in the movie by asserting in a September 7 statement that the mini-series was still being edited and that criticism was "premature and irresponsible" because "no one had seen the final cut."

Media Matters for America has noted that even some conservative media figures -- as well as nonpartisan journalists -- who had seen a preview copy of the program decried its inclusion of dialogue and scenes that departed from the historical record as documented in the official 9-11 Commission Report in order to portray the Clinton administration in a negative light.

On the September 8 edition of CNN's American Morning, conservative radio host and former Reagan administration official Bill Bennett acknowledged that "the Clintons had a point" in pressuring ABC to correct the film and admonished ABC for "falsify[ing] the record," adding, "I think they should correct those inaccuracies."

On the September 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, conservative author and journalist Richard Miniter criticized the scene involving Berger as parts of the film as being "based on an Internet myth." Miniter added, "[T]he idea that someone had [Osama] bin Laden in his sights in 1998 or any other time and the -- Sandy Berger refused to pull the trigger, there's zero factual basis for that":

WOLF BLITZER (host): But let me ask you about Sandy Berger specifically, was he defamed by this scene as depicted -- none of us, at least I haven't seen it, you haven't seen it.

MINITER: I've seen this scene and you've seen this scene too. This scene is based on an Internet myth. I did extensive reporting into the Clinton years, and as you say, I'm not afraid to take a few shots.

BLITZER: Hold on one second. I -- we're not hearing you. So talk -- start again. Was Sandy Berger defamed in this scene?

MINITER: Well, that's a legal question. But certainly if I was the producer, I wouldn't have gone with this scene, because there's no factual basis for it. It seems to be drawn from an Internet myth, from a profound misunderstanding of what actually happened.

If people wanted to be critical of the Clinton years, there's things they could have said, but the idea that someone had [Osama] bin Laden in his sights in 1998 or any other time and the -- Sandy Berger refused to pull the trigger, there's zero factual basis for that.

BLITZER: Because -- you've heard other 9-11 Commission members saying it wasn't Sandy Berger who pulled the trigger, it was George Tenet, the CIA director. Based on what you know, is that accurate?

MINITER: Even that's not accurate. We just never had eyes on bin Laden at the -- in the pre-9-11 situation. The 9-11 Commission investigated this. The House and Senate Joint Committee investigated this and published a 1,000-page report. I looked into it extensively. Most of the sources for my book, Losing bin Laden [Regnery, 2003], are Clinton administration officials. There's just no basis for this at all, none.

On the September 7 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz criticized ABC for "putting a movie on a serious, sensitive topic on the fifth-year anniversary of 9-11 that contains fiction."

From the September 10 broadcast of KMGH's 7News at 10 p.m.:

MITCH JELNIKER: Tonight ABC ran part one of a two-part mini-series entitled The Path to 9-11. The mini-series has generated a storm of controversy over the past few days -- so much that it prompted ABC to make some changes just before airtime. The producers de-emphasized the role of 9/11's Commission Report as a source of material for the mini-series. It also changed a scene indicating President Clinton's preoccupation with his potential impeachment over the Lewinsky scandal affecting an effort to get Osama bin Laden. Some of those against the movie showed up at out doorstep this afternoon waving signs at passing motorists. They believe the producers of the mini-series were irresponsible because they allegedly did not stick with the facts. We've already received a number of responses from both sides. If you'd like to share your thoughts, feel free to log on to thedenverchannel.com and take part in our discussion. The second part of The Path to 9-11 airs tomorrow night here on Denver's 7.

From ABC's The Path to 9/11:

PATRICIA CARVER (CIA analyst): Our people are in place, sir. They're in danger.

BERGER: I understand that, Patricia. But I don't have that authority.

CARVER: Excuse me, sir. But what authority do we have here?

UNIDENTIFIED: Is the president leaving it up to us?

TENET: The president has approved every plan presented for review.

BERGER: I can't call him until we're all on the same page.

CARVER: Same page? Mr. Berger, is this some type of codespeak, sir?

MALE VOICE (on radio): There are women and children near the target. They are moving towards the target. Do you want us to act now?

CARVER: Our people are in place.

MALE VOICE: We must go. Can we go now?

TENET: Yeah, but they said women and children are nearby. How close are they? Can we clear them?

MALE VOICE: We need to go now.

CARVER: This is the nature of intelligence, sir. We rarely get perfect information. We do the best we can with what we know.

BERGER: What do we know, Patricia?

CARVER: We know enough to try. Now excuse me, sir. You are the national security adviser. Can't you give the order?

BERGER: Look, George. If you feel confident, you can present your recommendation to the president yourself.

TENET: So it all goes bad it comes down on my head -- like [former Attorney General] Janet Reno in Waco. The buck stops down the hall.

MASSOUD: Are there any men left in Washington? Or are all they all cowards?

[...]

TENET: Patricia?

CARVER: You should have ordered those people we had on the ground in Afghanistan to kill bin Laden -- because we had him.

UNIDENTIFIED: Patricia, you have no right to talk to the director that way.

TENET: Paul.

CARVER: Those deaths. We are responsible for that because we didn't act on the information we had, and we could have had him.

UNIDENTIFIED: We don't know for sure it's him.

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