Media conservatives leap to lockstep defense of ABC's 9-11 “docudrama”

Media conservatives, including film blogger Govindini Murty, Rush Limbaugh, L. Brent Bozell III, and Andrew C. McCarthy, have all spoken out to defend the reportedly dubious portrayals of historical events in the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11. In doing so, these conservatives have used strikingly similar themes, praising the miniseries' “honesty” or “accuracy” and its “nonpartisan” nature.

A number of conservative media figures have leaped to the defense of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, claiming that the “docudrama” -- which has been widely criticized for its alleged fabrications -- is “nonpartisan” and factually honest. However, initial reviews and fact-checks of the miniseries, which is scheduled to air in two parts on September 10 and 11, have shown that it twists and invents facts and storylines to create a false picture of the Clinton administration's role in failing to prevent the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while largely ignoring Bush administration failures.

The weblog Think Progress noted that the film was written and produced by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who has claimed that the film is based largely on the 9-11 Commission Report. As Media Matters for America and Think Progress have noted, two former Bush administration counterterrorism officials, Richard A. Clarke and Roger Cressey, have debunked some of what Cressey characterized as the “factually wrong” claims in The Path to 9/11 regarding the Clinton administration's counterterrorism efforts.

Editor & Publisher's September 5 review of the film wrote of its “severe[]” treatment of Clinton:

The first half, to be aired Sunday, explores the terrorist threat starting with the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, and there is little question that President Clinton is dealt with severely, almost mockingly, with the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal closely tied to his failure to cripple al-Qaeda.

“The Path to 9/11” ends with a long segment on the day of the attacks and top officials' response -- though we only see President Bush in his speech to the nation, not in the Florida classroom with “The Pet Goat.”

E&P noted the manner in which the Lewinsky scandal was insinuated into the film's plot:

Clarke explains to [FBI terrorism expert John] O'Neill afterward that “they are worried about political fallout” and “legalities.” O'Neill complains that terrorism is “perceived by this administration as a law and order problem.” A CIA planner angrily declares, “It's not about sitting around a conference room covering your ass.”

Right away comes a quick cut to Clinton making his famous statement about not having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky. Clarke tells O'Neill that Clinton won't give the order to get [Osama] bin Laden in this climate, with Republicans calling for his impeachment. O'Neill says that Clinton wants bin Laden dead -- but not if he has to order it. “It's pathetic,” he declares.

Back in Afghanistan, the operatives plan for the snatch job anyway, hoping for approval once it's clear they have their man. One night, they call Langley -- they are ready to get bin Laden, he is nearby. “Do we have clearance?” they ask. [National security adviser Sandy] Berger says he doesn't have authority, he would have to check, they're not all on “the same page.”

A CIA official tells Berger the president has approved snatches in the past. Berger wonders about the quality of the intelligence. The CIA woman says it's never 100%. With that, Berger punts and asks [CIA director George] Tenet if HE wants to offer a recommendation to the president. Tenet asks: Why does the buck always stop with me, like with the Waco disaster?

At that point, Berger simply hangs up -- and the operatives abroad pack up and leave. [Ahmed Shah] Massoud [leader of the Northern Alliance] asks if they are “all cowards in Washington.” Again there is an immediate cut to Clinton, parsing sexual terms in his taped testimony on the Lewinsky case -- and then a clip of him hugging Monica. (The New York Times story today -- see below -- notes that Clarke disputes much of this scenario.)


Finally Clinton acts. Told that bin Laden is meeting in an isolated location in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 1998, Clinton orders attacks there, as well as taking out a chemical arms factory in the Sudan. But the chemical warehouse turns out to be a pharmaceutical plant, and bin Laden escapes from the other attacks, only raising his stature among his followers. A reporter notes that Republicans and “pundits” are accusing Clinton of acting only to divert attention from the Lewinsky scandal.

E&P also contrasted the film's treatment of Clinton to that of Bush:

O'Neill, meanwhile, is thinking about quitting because “despite the red flags no one is taking terrorism seriously.” But the script focuses on the CIA and FBI not sharing information, the FBI not acting on warnings about flight schools, and other slip-ups -- not any true lack of interest in the White House. O'Neill partly blames “political correctness.”

Tenet complains that there are so many threats coming they are “overloaded,” they need more analysts and translators, and more “actionable” tips. O'Neill quits and becomes head of security at -- the World Trade Center. Along the way we get subtle endorsements for the Patriot Act and airport profiling.

But what about the famous Aug. 6, 2001, “PDB” that warned the president about bin Laden's determination to strike within the U.S.? We see Secretary Rice reading it in private and looking concerned, but we never see the president's reaction.

However, on Sept. 4, 2001, Rice tells officials that thanks to the warnings in the PDB, the president is convinced al-Qaeda is a “real threat ... the president is tired of swatting flies.” She seems to advocate taking some strong action and Clarke agrees, but Tenet argues against it. So in this telling, it appears that President Bush is in the vigilant/aggressive camp, perhaps thwarted by Clinton holdover Tenet.

Finally we see how this plays out tragically on Sept. 11, 2001. O'Neill dies inside the WTC. Much attention is given to the decision to shoot down United flight 93, but the movie's time frame now badly needs fixing given the recent revelations about what officials knew about that flight and when. The president, in any case, seems firmly in control, appearing on TV to promise help for all, and declaring, “terrorism against our nation will not stand.”

Media Matters has identified four conservative media figures -- film blogger Govindini Murty, syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III, and National Review Online contributor Andrew C. McCarthy -- defending The Path to 9/11 using almost identical language. The common themes among their praise of the film included:

  • Touting the film's “honesty” or “accuracy”
  • Defending the film as “nonpartisan”
  • Noting that Bush was in office for only eight months before the attacks

Murty, after viewing an advanced screening, wrote a glowing review of the film, which was posted on conservative websites such as Accuracy in Media and Human Events Online. Murty lauded “Nowrasteh and the producers” for going “out on a limb to honestly and fairly depict how Clinton-era inaction, political correctness, and bureaucratic inefficiency allowed the 9/11 conspiracy to metastasize.” Murty continued, claiming that The Path to 9/11 “is not a partisan miniseries or a 'conservative' miniseries,” and “is equally honest in depicting the Bush administration.” Murty went on to note, however, that “since Bush was in power for only eight months when 9/11 occurred, he can hardly be blamed for the entire disaster.”

McCarthy, in a September 4 entry on the National Review Online's weblog The Corner, similarly defended the film as a “generally good history” that “accurately conveys the excruciating missed opportunities.” McCarthy also claimed: “It is not partisan. The Bush administration is portrayed as just as asleep-at-the-switch as the Clinton administration,” adding: “The fact, though, is that Clinton had eight times as long as Bush to deal with this crisis, and his administration's performance was wanting.”

On the September 5 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio program, Limbaugh defended the film's content, saying: “I think the thing that struck me the most about the film -- and, by the way, I should tell you, Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote it, says he bases this on the 9-11 Commission Report, and in the opening credits it mentions this. And quite a lot of the movie does come from the 9-11 Commission Report.” Limbaugh continued: “As for the Bush administration, they don't get off the hook here. They are not let off the hook. They, too, are portrayed as -- well, they're caught up and sort of hamstrung by the existing procedures that are in place. They haven't had a chance to change them, such as getting rid of the 'wall ' and this sort of thing." As Media Matters has noted, 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.

Bozell, in his September 6 nationally syndicated column, did note that the film is not entirely factually accurate but minimized the extent to which it distorts the truth, writing that “it has taken certain poetic license with history.” Bozell continued: “Both Clinton and Bush officials come under fire, and if it seems more anti-Clinton, that's only because they were in office a lot longer than the Team Bush before 9-11.” Bozell added: “The film doesn't play favorites, and the Bush administration takes its lumps as well.”