In its miniseries The Path to 9-11, ABC retained a controversial scene that depicts Clinton administration officials declining to authorize the CIA to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, despite the fact that the scene is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report, on which the network originally claimed the film was based.
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The first part of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9-11, which aired on September 10, included a fabricated scene that depicts Clinton administration officials declining to authorize the CIA to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. ABC retained the controversial scene despite the fact that it is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report -- which ABC originally cited as the film's basis (although following criticism of the film's numerous inconsistencies with the report, network officials have since minimized that claim) -- and has even been disputed in recent days by conservative media figures such as Richard Miniter.
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 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 this depiction of the events surrounding the Tarnak Farms raid -- in which the Clinton administration simply abandons a certain opportunity to capture bin Laden -- is contradicted by the findings of the 9-11 Commission report. Indeed, 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 film'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."
Even conservative critics of the Clinton administration have assailed the film as factually inaccurate. For instance, conservative author and and journalist Richard Miniter criticized the scene in question as "based on an Internet myth" and having "no factual basis," as Media Matters for America noted.
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 miniseries was still being edited and that criticism was "premature and irresponsible" because "no one had seen the final cut."
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?
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.
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.