WSJ's Fund claimed Berger and Albright "persuaded ABC to alter scenes involving them" -- but central falsehoods remain

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

Columnist John Fund claimed that Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright "persuaded ABC to alter the scenes involving them" in the miniseries The Path to 9/11. But while the scenes were apparently edited from earlier versions, both still presented depictions contradicted by both Clinton officials and the 9-11 Commission report.

In a September 11 online column, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund misleadingly claimed that Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "persuaded ABC to alter the scenes involving them" in the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, the first part of which ABC aired on September 10. In fact, while both scenes were apparently edited from an earlier version screened by ABC and distributed to journalists and conservatives, the final version of both scenes still contained information that was at odds with not only the Clinton officials' version of events, but also the 9-11 Commission report. The edited scene involving Albright depicted her defending the decision to inform the Pakistani government of an attempt to strike Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with missiles, even if that warning tipped off bin Laden. Albright had previously disputed the scene by noting that it is not supported by the findings of the 9-11 Commission, which notes "specul[ation]" that bin Laden was alerted to the strike, but did not assign blame or even reference Albright. Additionally, as Media Matters for America noted, the final cut of the film still depicted Berger refusing to allow the CIA and Northern Alliance fighters to attempt to capture bin Laden. That scene is also contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report, which reported that former CIA director George Tenet apparently quashed the plan more than three weeks earlier.

Although Fund argued that "docudramas" -- as ABC has billed The Path to 9/11 -- "are a poor way to teach children and adults history," he nonetheless insisted that they portray "real events," and he quoted Cyrus Nowrasteh, the writer of The Path to 9/11, as saying of the scene: "The sequence is true, but it's a conflation."

Albright sequence

The Albright scene, which was portrayed as taking place in 1998, shows Tenet criticizing the decision to inform Pakistan of a missile strike against bin Laden before the strike occurred, and Albright defending the decision. Tenet asks Albright when "the Pakistani government was informed" of the attack, and Albright responds that "we had no other choice" but to inform Pakistan that the strikes were from the United States out of concern that if Pakistan believed the strike was from India, there was the risk of "igniting a nuclear exchange between two countries looking for an excuse to go to war with one another." Tenet again presses Albright to explain when the Pakistanis were alerted, and suggests they may have warned bin Laden of the strike, stating: "Madame Secretary, the Pakistani security service, the ISI, has close ties with the Taliban." Albright responds that "[w]e tried to time the disclosure through General [Joseph W.] Ralston [vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] so that any warning would be too late," adding: "We had to inform the Pakistanis."

But while the 9-11 Commission report notes that "[o]fficials in Washington speculated" that the United States may have inadvertently "sent a warning to the Taliban or Bin Ladin," it does not assign blame, or suggest Albright had any involvement. From the report:

Later on August 20, Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea fired their cruise missiles. Though most of them hit their intended targets, neither Bin Ladin nor any other terrorist leader was killed. Berger told us that an after-action review by Director Tenet concluded that the strikes had killed 20-30 people in the camps but probably missed Bin Ladin by a few hours. Since the missiles headed for Afghanistan had had to cross Pakistan, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was sent to meet with Pakistan's army chief of staff to assure him the missiles were not coming from India. Officials in Washington speculated that one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or Bin Ladin.

Albright noted the 9-11 Commission's findings in a September 5 letter to Roger Iger, president and CEO of ABC parent Walt Disney Co., in which she disputed the "false and defamatory" scene before it aired, and added that said she "supported the strike" and did not "insist[]upon" notifying Pakistan:

While I have requested a copy of the broadcast, I have yet to receive one. I have been informed by some who had been given the right to view the broadcast that the drama depicts scenes that never happened, events that never took place, decisions that were never made and conversations that never occurred; it asserts as fact things that are not fact.

For example, one scene apparently portrays me as refusing to support a missile strike against bin Laden without first alerting the Pakistanis; it further asserts that I notified the Pakistanis of the strike over the objections of our military. Neither of these assertions is true. In fact, the 9/11 commission reports [sic] states (page 117), "Since the missiles headed for Afghanistan had had to cross Pakistan, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was sent to meet with Pakistan's army chief of staff to assure him the missiles were not coming from India. Officials in Washington speculated that one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or Bin Ladin."

I fully and unconditionally supported the strike against bin Laden. The planned notification to the Pakistani military was not objected to by the Pentagon, nor insisted upon by me. It is my understanding that the notification to Pakistan was delivered once the missiles were already in the air. At no time did I inform the Pakistanis independently that a strike was to take place. The scene as explained to me is false and defamatory.

A September 11 article in Editor & Publisher reported that the scene involving Albright contained "new dialogue, and some old dialogue cut," but the scene "still indicted her for telling Pakistan about the later missile attack on bid [sic] Laden."

Berger sequence

The scene involving Berger was also portrayed as taking place in 1998. It shows CIA officers, in league with Northern Alliance fighters, positioned outside an isolated compound in Afghanistan known as Tarnak Farms, waiting for authorization while preparing a raid of the site after receiving visual confirmation in a prior scene that bin Laden is staying there. Berger tells his colleagues, "I don't have the authority" to initiate the raid. 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.

But as Media Matters documented, this depiction of the events surrounding the 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.

After Berger asserted that the scene represented a "total fabrication," ABC edited it to remove a reported and much-criticized shot of Berger slamming down the phone, but still baselessly depicts the Clinton administration choosing at the last minute to not pursue a certain opportunity to capture bin Laden.

From the controversial Albright sequence in ABC's The Path to 9/11:

KIRK (talking on the phone): What's the word? Did we get him? Say again. Did we get bin Laden? Say again.

KIRK (talking to Ahmed Shah Massoud, Northern Alliance commander): Commander, commander, bin Laden slipped out before the missile struck.

MASSOUD: By accident? Sheer luck? He received notice from Pakistan. Using missiles for assassination was destined for failure. You know why? Because Washington informed Pakistan. You tried to kill Osama, the Taliban assault me. Don't you see? This is your doing.

[...]

TENET: The Pakistani government was informed when, exactly, of the pending attack?

ALBRIGHT: The president feared missiles crossing Pakistan's airspace could be mistaken as an attack from India, possibly igniting a nuclear exchange between two countries looking for an excuse to go to war with one another. We had no other choice.

TENET: I recognize that but when did we let them know? Madame Secretary, the Pakistani security service, the ISI, has close ties with the Taliban.

ALBRIGHT: We tried to time the disclosure through General Ralston so that any warning would be too late.

TENET: These are cruise missiles launched from thousands of miles away. They take hours to hone in on their targets.

ALBRIGHT: We had to inform the Pakistanis. There are regional factors involved here.

TENET: And the end result being that we've enhanced bin Laden's stature in the Islamic world. He's thumbing his nose at us.

BERGER: Well, that's the risk we take with covert military actions. Kennedy learned it at the Bay of Pigs; Reagan with Iran-Contra.

TENET: Wait a second, Sandy. When I took over at Langley, I warned the administration about using covert operations to solve failed foreign policy.

BERGER: Mr. Director, you need to just do your job.

TENET: I am trying to do so, sir. If you'll let me.

From Fund's September 11 Wall Street Journal online column titled "ABC's Untrue Path":

Five years after 9/11, it's easy to find partisan divisions. But here's an issue we should be able to agree on: Docudramas -- the portrayal of real events and people by actors -- are a poor way to teach children and adults history. It's especially iffy to take dramatic license in telling the story of events in which many of the principal players are still living, such as 9/11 or President Reagan's administration.

Just ask ABC. Last night, it aired the first part of a six-hour miniseries, "The Path to 9/11." Sandy Berger, who served as President Clinton's national security adviser, bitterly complained about a fictional scene in which he stopped CIA agents who were about to kill Osama bin Laden. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright had similar complaints. Both persuaded ABC to alter the scenes involving them. It's not known if the network also altered scenes in tonight's installment that portray Bush administration officials such as Condoleezza Rice in a negative light.

The makers of docudramas always have smooth explanations for why they need to adjust history for the purposes of storytelling. Cy Nowrasteh, the screenwriter for "The Path to 9/11," told National Review: "The Berger scene is a fusing and melding of at least a dozen capture opportunities. The sequence is true, but it's a conflation. This is a docudrama. We collapse, condense, and create composite characters. But within the rules of docudrama, we're well documented."

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.