||THE first words spoken on â€œThe Path to 9/11â€ are at check-in at Logan Airport at 7:13 a.m. â€œO.K., Mr. Atta,â€ an American Airlines agent says over the clickety-clack of computer keys. â€œOne way, nonstop to Los Angeles, no return.â€
Moments before American Airlines Flight 11 hits its target, ABCâ€™s mini-series pivots back 8½ years to a Ryder rental van that blew up in the parking garage of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.
And the events leading up to disaster unfold like a spy thriller. The two-part narrative, which ABC is scheduled to broadcast Sunday and Monday night, follows a few men and women who took the Osama bin Laden threat seriously and devoted their careers to battling it. Many are real, like the former F.B.I. counterterrorism expert John P. Oâ€™Neill, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and who is played by Harvey Keitel. A few are composites, like an intrepid C.I.A. officer with the code name Kirk (Donnie Wahlberg).
The terrorists are ruthless and implacable. Some foreign informants and obscure civil servants turn out to be inspiringly tough-minded and smart: low profiles in courage. But â€œThe Path to 9/11â€ is an unsparing, and at times hyperbolic, portrait of bureaucratic turf wars, buck passing and complacency. Senior managers at the F.B.I. and C.I.A. are overwhelmed and quicker to protect their own hides than national security. Itâ€™s always the enemy within that nettles the most.
ABC has been under assault by bloggers and former officials who claim the film paints an unfairly censorious portrait of the Clinton administration, with a lobbying campaign reminiscent of the one that drove CBS to cancel â€œThe Reagansâ€ biopic in 2003. (CBSâ€™s parent company, Viacom, kicked it to the cable channel Showtime.) Some kind of reaction was inevitable this time.
All mini-series Photoshop the facts. â€œThe Path to 9/11â€ is not a documentary, or even a docu-drama; it is a fictionalized account of what took place. It relies on the report of the Sept. 11 commission, the King James version of all Sept. 11 accounts, as well as other material and memoirs. Some scenes come straight from the writersâ€™ imaginations. Yet any depiction of those times would have to focus on those who were in charge, and by their own accounts mistakes were made.
The first bombing of the World Trade Center happened on Bill Clintonâ€™s watch. So did the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. The presidentâ€™s staff â€” and the civil servants who worked for them â€” witnessed the danger of Al Qaeda close up and personally. Some even lost their lives.
In 2001 President Bush and his newly appointed aides had ample warning, including a briefing paper titled â€œBin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,â€ and they failed to take it seriously enough, but their missteps are not equal. Itâ€™s like focusing blame for a school shooting at the beginning of the school year on the studentâ€™s new home room teacher; the adults who watched the boy torment classmates and poison small animals knew better. (Itâ€™s safe to assume that any future mini-series about American foreign policy will not delve flatteringly into Mr. Bushâ€™s march to war in Iraq.)
The outside pressure was intense enough to persuade ABC to re-edit one of the more contested made-up scenes in the film. In the version sent to critics, it depicted C.I.A. operatives and their Afghan allies armed with guns and night-vision goggles creeping in the dark to snatch Mr. bin Laden from his compound in 1998. The men are told to stand by, in harmâ€™s way, as the C.I.A. director, George J. Tenet and the national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, cavil by videoconference. Rather than take a firm decision, Mr. Berger flips off his videophone, and Mr. Tenet aborts the mission. (Among other things, ABC agreed to excise Mr. Bergerâ€™s hissy fit.)
In reality the C.I.A. got close, but never that close. In May 1998 Mr. Tenet scrapped a heavily rehearsed raid to kidnap Mr. bin Laden from his compound before it was mounted. â€œNo capture plan before 9/11 ever again attained the same level of detail and preparation,â€ the Sept. 11 commission report said. â€œWorking-level C.I.A. officers were disappointed.â€
The international manhunt for the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, is thrilling, but those early successes, led by local F.B.I. agents, district attorneys and the New York Police Department, also fed public complacency. It was easy for people to dismiss the terrorist threat as real but manageable.
â€œWeâ€™re not safe yet,â€ Mr. Oâ€™Neill laments after he has been sidelined at the bureau by rivals. â€œAnd nobody seems to care.â€
Lingering serenity collapses in the second part, which opens once again with ominous fragments of Sept. 11: military pilots ordered to scramble â€” â€œIs this real world or exercise?â€ â€” and a flight attendant on Flight 11 shakily saying over a plane phone, â€œWeâ€™re flying way too low.â€
As the terrorist threat mounts, one of the more jarring moments is a real-life clip of President Bill Clinton addressing the nation about Monica Lewinsky.
The Sept. 11 commission concluded that the sex scandal distracted the Clinton administration from the terrorist threat. But in hindsight, surely the right-wing groups who drove for impeachment must look back at their partisan obsession with shame, like widows sickened by the memory of spats about dirty dishes and gambling debts.
The inserted news clips of Mr. Bush are not exactly inspiring. He is shown sweaty and dismissive in jogging shorts, dodging questions about tax cuts. Condoleezza Rice â€” who is impersonated by Penny Johnson Jerald, who played the conniving wife of David Palmer in â€œ24â€ â€” cannot be too thrilled with her moment on screen either. She humors, but does not heed, the counter-terrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke; actually she demotes him.
Madeleine K. Albright has also objected to her portrayal, and Mr. Clarke, who is the Cassandra of Al Qaeda and one of the filmâ€™s heroes, has complained about factual distortions.
But there is no dispute that in 2000, the destroyer Cole was attacked, Washington dithered and Mr. bin Ladenâ€™s men kept burrowing deeper and deeper into their plot to attack America on its own soil. The film ends where it began, only the morning of Sept. 11 is finally shown, with slow, elegiac music, in its full horror.
Dramatic license was certainly taken, but blame is spread pretty evenly across the board. Itâ€™s not the inaccuracies of â€œThe Path to 9/11â€ that make ABCâ€™s mini-series so upsetting. Itâ€™s the situation on the ground in Afghanistan now.
The television movie about the rise of Al Qaeda comes at a time when the Taliban is flaunting a resurgence in Afghanistan. Sept. 11 drove the United States to clean out that terrorist hole-in-the-wall, once and for all. After all the lessons learned from Sept. 11, the Taliban is back and growing stronger while the American military there seems as bogged down as it is in Iraq, powerless to check the spiraling violence.
Hindsight is heartbreaking and disturbing to watch, even in a made-for-television movie. But itâ€™s even harder to take when those steps continue to contaminate the present.
THE PATH TO 9/11
ABC, Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m., Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central.
Directed by David L. Cunningham; written by Cyrus Nowrasteh; Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Nowrasteh and Hans Proppe, producers; Marc Platt, executive producer. Produced by UHP Productions and distributed by Touchstone Television.
WITH: Harvey Keitel (John P. Oâ€™Neill), Stephen Root (Richard A. Clarke), Donnie Wahlberg (Kirk), Barclay Hope (John Miller), Patricia Heaton (Ambassador Bodine), Shaun Toub (Emad Salem), Amy Madigan (Patricia Carver), Dan Lauria (George J. Tenet), Penny Johnson Jerald (Condoleezza Rice), Shirley Douglas (Madeleine K. Albright) and Nabil Elouahabi (Ramzi Yousef).