Denver radio shows promote inaccuracies connected to ABC's The Path to 9/11

On their shows following ABC TV's broadcast of the first half of The Path to 9/11, Denver radio hosts highlighted an inaccurate scene suggesting that the Clinton administration was derelict in its pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

On September 11, the day after the ABC television network broadcast the first half of the miniseries The Path to 9/11, radio hosts Jon Caldara and Peter Boyles touted an inaccurate scene suggesting that the Clinton administration was derelict in its pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The featured guest of The Caplis & Silverman Show -- Dereliction of Duty (Regnery, 2003) author and retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert “Buzz” Patterson -- also touted that scene and voiced additional dubious claims to criticize President Clinton.

During an appearance on the September 11 broadcast of KHOW AM's The Caplis & Silverman Show, Patterson, a former Clinton military aide, made unsubstantiated and demonstrably false allegations in response to co-host Dan Caplis's request that Patterson “tell us about those situations where [Clinton National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger thought he had a clean shot at Osama bin Laden and then asked the president or tried to seek that authority from the president to take that shot.” Patterson's response echoed -- with significant distortions -- unsubstantiated allegations that he leveled in Dereliction of Duty, which purports to draw upon his experience as a military aide charged with accompanying the president at all times from May 1996 to May 1998 bearing the so called “nuclear football” containing the launch codes for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The screenwriter of The Path to 9/11, Cyrus Nowrasteh, reportedly based some of the scenes in the program on Patterson's book and consulted Patterson about the program's accuracy, which Patterson falsely affirmed.

Early in the interview on The Caplis & Silverman Show, Patterson described having accompanied President Clinton to the 1996 President's Cup golf tournament. In his book (pp. 23-30), Patterson claimed that during the event, held September 13-15, 1996, Berger repeatedly called Patterson in order to obtain from Clinton authorization to launch a strike against Iraq, which two weeks before had attacked the United States-protected portion of Iraq known as Kurdistan in violation of the 1991 Gulf War cease fire. Patterson set the scene in his book as follows: “On September 11, two days before the golf outing, President Clinton told a crowd in Sun City, Arizona, that 'action is imminent' in Iraq and that 'the determination of the United States in dealing with the problem of Iraq should not be underestimated.' ” In his interview with Caplis and Silverman, however, Patterson apparently changed his story, declaring that the strike in question -- which he misdated as having occurred in July 1996 -- was designed to kill Osama bin Laden:

CAPLIS: And if you would, tell us about those situations where Sandy Berger thought he had a clean shot at Osama bin Laden and then asked the president or tried to seek that authority from the president to take that shot.

PATTERSON: Yeah, there were actually several of them, and I'll tell you that my first book, Dereliction of Duty, I actually start the book off with the first one that I experienced happened only one month into my time and President Bill Clinton -- we were at a professional golf tournament -- and we had a strike planned. We had fighters and bombers in the air. And on three occasions, Sandy Berger called me -- because the military aide is also the call screener for the president -- so in this case, Mr. Berger was calling me to get to the president to get the go-ahead to launch the strike. And on three occasions the president really couldn't be bothered. He didn't want to have his golf tournament interrupted. He wanted to watch the tournament. And I had to go back to Berger each time and say, “Sir, the president is not willing to accept your phone call.” So we ended up having to cancel that attack because we lost the cover of nighttime over the Middle East, and the president never did make a decision. In fact, he jumped into the limousine headed back to the White House that day and said, “I'll give Berger a call later,” which was obviously too late.

SILVERMAN: Hey, Colonel Patterson, this is Craig Silverman. I'd like a little more detail about that. What golf tournament was it?

PATTERSON: It was the President's Cup in Manassas, Virginia, in July of 1996.

SILVERMAN: Sure, where the Americans are competing against the Australians --


SILVERMAN: --the South Africans, etcetera. And, did you go up to the president and say, “Sandy Berger's on the line,” and he said, “Don't bother me?

PATTERSON: Yeah. The third time -- not only was Berger angry at me the first two times because I was not getting the answer he wanted. The third time the president got angry at me because I kept interrupting him. I mean, literally, the final time I went up to the president, I said, ” OK, sir, this is the situation. These are my peers -- Air Force pilots -- in those cockpits. We have a limited amount of time to pull this off. I need you to give Mr. Berger a call or take his call right now." And he basically just snapped at me and said, “I'll get back to him when I want to!”

SILVERMAN: So, did he know specifically it was about bin Laden, a strike on bin Laden?

PATTERSON: He knew, because he'd ordered the operation in the first place. And this was the point of my book, throughout my time at the White House. It wasn't so much that President Clinton didn't take the phone and say, “No, don't initiate the attack.” President Clinton told us to prepare this attack, this plan. We had, you know, sent fighters and bombers to the region. They were actually in the air ready to go. And he wouldn't -- at that point he wouldn't take the situation seriously enough to even make a decision. And again, I don't care if it is “Yes, we go” or “No, we don't go.” But, you know, not making a decision, not talking to your senior foreign policy adviser, to me is dereliction of duty.

Later in the interview, Patterson described a scene, also contained in his book, in which Berger held off a missile strike against bin Laden's camp for more than an hour while Berger tried unsuccessfully to contact Clinton for authorization to proceed. Ultimately, in his account, the mission had to be scrubbed because a two-hour window of opportunity closed without Clinton providing final authorization. Patterson said in the interview that the episode “occurred in late 1998, actually just prior to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.” In fact, while Patterson in his book (p. 129) dated this episode to “fall 1998,” the embassy bombings occurred August 7, 1998. In his book (p. 19), Patterson notes that his White House service ended in May 1998 -- before the alleged incident took place. According to a story posted by the right-wing news website WorldNetDaily, Patterson “insisted” that "[t]here are others who can corroborate his accounts" but “they are still in military service and therefore legally bound not to come forward and make statements.” WorldNetDaily reported that Patterson “affirmed” that "[t]hree of the four other military aides who rotated being at the president's side were additional sources for his book."

CAPLIS: Hmm. Sound from the memorial at the Pentagon today. You're with Dan and Craig. Denver's talk station, 630 KHOW. Really privileged to have Colonel Buzz Patterson on the line with us. Author of Dereliction of Duty and Reckless Disregard. He just described one situation in which Sandy Berger was trying to reach the president -- President Clinton, that is -- for authority to finalize an action against Osama bin Laden. Planes already in the air and President Clinton wouldn't take that call. He was at a golf tournament, and the colonel was there with him, and then the colonel kind enough to stay, take some calls ... as well as talk about some other occasions on which the U.S. had bin Laden in its sights. Colonel, you want to just walk us through some of those other instances?

PATTERSON: Yeah, the other one that I was personally -- that I include in my book -- occurred in late 1998, actually just prior to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. And I think it's chapter 7 of Dereliction of Duty where I talk about, well, we had two hours of very actionable intelligence. We knew we had bin Laden, where we thought he was going to be. We had a cruise missile strike planned to attack his camp. And we had two hours of very -- we had to react in two hours. And in the situation room, Sandy Berger was trying to get President Clinton to come to the phone. The president was upstairs in the White House residence, and Sandy Berger was in the situation room downstairs, below the West Wing. And Berger attempted for over an hour to try to get the president to return his phone call, and the president would not do that, would not return his phone calls. We finally got the president on the line for the second hour of the two hours of intelligence, and the president wouldn't make a decision.

Berger has disputed Patterson's allegations. The Daily News of New York quoted Berger in an article [purchase required] published March 18, 2003, saying, “At no time during my years at the White House was I unable to reach President Clinton for timely decisions on military action or national security,” and "[t]he two incidents described in this book that involve me, regarding Iraq and Bin Laden, simply are false."

Still later in his interview with Caplis and Silverman, Patterson referred to an inaccurate scene contained in an early version of The Path to 9/11 in which “Sandy Berger hangs up on the CIA operative who's actually in Afghanistan with his eyes on bin Laden -- ready to snatch bin Laden.” Patterson falsely claimed that it “in fact happened” :

CAPLIS: And colonel, you've been generous with your time. You know, we only have a few more minutes. We want to get into a number of things you were an eyewitness to so folks driving home can get that amazing insight. One of which -- and before we get into some more instances in which, you know, you had a shot at bin Laden and then the president wouldn't address it. Talk about this ABC docudrama. Because, if you weren't with us earlier, the colonel says that the producer of this came to him and showed it to him before it aired to ask him if it was accurate and the colonel said yes, but then what have they changed?

PATTERSON: They took out the scene -- you know, it's basically, if you think about the fact that we had eight to 10 times to get bin Laden as one scene in the movie -- then the movie also -- well there was one scene -- they took that out last night, where actually Sandy Berger and George Tenet have an argument, and Sandy Berger hangs up on the CIA operative that's actually in Afghanistan with his eyes on bin Laden -- ready to snatch bin Laden -- which in fact happened.

According to 9/11 Commission Republican co-chairman Thomas Kean and the report of the 9/11 Commission, the incident in fact did not happen. As CNN reported:

Plans to snatch bin Laden in Afghanistan in early 1998 were canceled by then-CIA chief George Tenet before any proposal was sent to the White House, according to the 9/11 commission's final report.

Kean, the commission's chairman, said he told ABC that the scene involving Berger was inaccurate, and he told CNN that ABC informed him it would revisit the scene.

In a September 5 letter to ABC president Robert Iger, Berger wrote of the charge that he refused to authorize a strike when CIA operatives had bin Laden in their sights that, "No such episode ever occurred [emphasis in original] -- nor did anything like it." As Media Matters for America has noted, ABC apparently removed the portion of the scene in which Berger slams down the telephone from the version of the program it broadcast September 10. However, the version broadcast by ABC retained the suggestion that the Clinton administration aborted a fully operational mission at the last second. As Media Matters for America noted, this suggestion is clearly undermined by the 9/11 Commission report, which describes Tenet as having aborted the mission weeks before its target date and further notes that both intelligence and military officials had serious doubts about its probability of success.

On the September 11 broadcast of 850 KOA's The Jon Caldara Show, host and Independence Institute President Jon Caldara also asserted as factual the debunked scene in which Berger purportedly called off a mission to kill bin Laden, saying of the scene that “it is fictitious as far as what was said in dialogue. What wasn't fictitious was they had an opportunity; they didn't take it.” Caldara apparently played a segment from an earlier version of the program, which is similar to a corresponding segment in the program as aired.

From the September 11 broadcast of 850 KOA's The Jon Caldara Show:

CALDARA: In the last hour we were talking mostly about ABC's program The Path to 9/11. What is it that some of Bill Clinton's old buddies didn't want them to show? Now remember, this was a docudrama. Docudrama. Which means that the conversations that are made, that happened behind closed doors, where there's no recorders, no transcription, writers have to take a guess. I'm going to play for you a sizable part of what was not aired. Let me say it again: a sizable portion of a scene which was not aired. What was yanked. The scene that Bill Clinton did not want you to see. Now, I don't remember seeing this. Maybe, maybe, maybe it just aired and I missed it. But I remember the scene pretty well. They are in the special-ops room of CIA. They've got George Berger [sic], the national security adviser, on a teleconference screen. There's Richard Clarke, the terrorism czar, out in Afghanistan somewhere. Our operatives are locating Osama bin Laden. All they want is a simple permission to kill him. Now at this point you hear a discussion between Sandy Berger and then George Tenet, the head of the CIA, as they all try to do what is known as CYA, cover your ass. Listen in to what Bill Clinton did not want you to see.

[Plays segment from The Path to 9/11]

MALE VOICE (on radio): Human traffic near the package. We have women and children approaching the package. Do we have clearance to load the package?

CARVER: Our people are in place. Now it's been confirmed that Osama bin Laden is in the building on the site.

TENET: Didn't you hear what he said? There are women and children nearby. How close are they? Can we clear 'em?

MALE VOICE: We need to go now.

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

BERGER: What do we know, Patricia?

CARVER: We know that the special action team has pinpointed the target. 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 if it all goes bad it comes down on my head -- like [former Attorney General] Janet Reno in Waco. The buck stops down the hall. [Laughs.]

CARVER: Mr. Berger, sir.

CALDARA: And they missed their opportunity. They had them; they let him go. Now this was a scene that Bill Clinton and friends did not want you to see. Why? Oh, they don't want you to remember that part. Now, let's remember it is fictitious as far as what was said in dialogue. What wasn't fictitious was they had an opportunity; they didn't take it.

On the September 11 broadcast of KHOW AM's The Peter Boyles Show, host Peter Boyles promoted to his listeners the disputed scene in The Path to 9/11, without noting that the scene was inaccurate.

From the September 11 broadcast of KHOW AM's The Peter Boyles Show:

BOYLES: The best book that I've read about that first time period [when the World Trade Center was first bombed] is Woodward's book, Bush at War. And there isn't any doubt on two occasions -- and Woodward is never seen as this -- he's certainly not seen as Pat Buchanan -- but there was two occasions where they -- the belief was they [the Clinton administration] could have killed Osama. One was on the road, they could have killed him. And, I saw a promo for that ABC film and they showed Sandy Berger and somebody's talking to Sandy Berger saying, “we got the guy, we got him, you know, can we deliver the package?” or whatever it was. That was the one time. And they actually had these mercenaries. They could have killed him, and they chose not to. And the other time was they were going to -- I don't know if you read this one, about his mother's suitcase. His mother was flying to see him. The family's very wealthy. And they had a way they could put heavy, explosive charges in some trailers and put it in her suitcases and kill him that way. Those were the two ways, and both times the administration at the time decided not to.

A tip from Colorado Media Matters reader S.W. contributed to this item. Thanks, and keep them coming .