By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006
Former president Bill Clinton has urged ABC to "tell the truth" in its hotly disputed docudrama on the battle against Osama bin Laden as network executives scrambled to make last-minute changes to fictional scenes.
Clinton told reporters in Arkansas Thursday night that ABC executives should provide an honest accounting in "The Path to 9/11" -- "particularly if they're going to claim it's based on the 9/11 commission report, they shouldn't have scenes which are directly contradicted by the factual findings of the 9/11 commission. I just want people to tell the truth and not to pretend it's something it's not."
An ABC spokeswoman said yesterday that changes are being made to a number of scenes in the film, including one deletion involving The Washington Post. ABC plans to air the film tomorrow and Monday -- despite another letter from the Clinton camp yesterday asking that it be pulled -- although it is trying to figure out how to accommodate President Bush's prime-time speech Monday and a planned panel discussion after the movie.
Democrats -- joined yesterday by former vice president Al Gore -- have mounted a campaign against the film, which depicts Clinton administration officials as undermining attempts to capture or kill bin Laden. Actor Harvey Keitel, who plays an FBI agent in the film, has joined the critics, telling CNN's "Showbiz Tonight" that he has had arguments with the filmmakers over elements that were "wrong."
"You can't put these things together, compress them and then distort the reality. . . . You cannot cross the line from a conflation of events to a distortion of the event," Keitel said. "Where we have distorted something, we made a mistake, and it should be corrected."
In another salvo, nine prominent historians -- including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz and Michael Kazin -- released a letter urging the film's cancellation. Calling ABC's explanation that the movie will be identified as a dramatization "disingenuous and dangerous," they said: "A responsible broadcast network should have nothing to do with the falsification of history, except to expose it."
One scene that is being revised -- to what extent is unclear -- involves former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger refusing to approve a CIA plan to snatch bin Laden in Afghanistan, which Berger and the Sept. 11 commission say never happened.
The Post is mentioned in an advance copy of the movie, in which CIA officials are seen discussing with an Afghan rebel leader and each other the difficulties of keeping track of bin Laden.
"Besides," one CIA official says, "ever since The Washington Post disclosed we intercept his calls, UBL has stopped using phones altogether. He is using couriers like they did a thousand years ago."
Post management contacted ABC and objected to the reference yesterday. An ABC spokeswoman said that the scene had already been reviewed at the request of the network's lawyers and that the explicit reference to The Post will be cut.
An Aug. 17, 1998, Post article quoted a former CIA official as describing "intercepted electronic communications among bin Laden associates." Four days later -- the day after a U.S. cruise missile attack against bin Laden launched in retaliation for the bombing of two American embassies in Africa -- a Washington Times article said that bin Laden "keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones."
At a news conference in December, Bush said that "the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak." He chastised the media for helping "the enemy" by "revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for."
Scott McClellan, then the White House press secretary, said afterward that Bush was referring to the Washington Times article, which had also been cited in the Sept. 11 commission report.
But bin Laden's communications had been disclosed much earlier. Time magazine noted bin Laden's use of satellite phones in December 1996. Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen did the same thing on CNN in 1997 while reporting on an interview he had conducted with the al-Qaeda leader.