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Monday, July 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Sumana Chatterjee and David Goldstein
But is it true?
That's a question millions of viewers are asking as the film enters its second week of distribution. This weekend, the number of screens showing the film doubled, from 868 to 1,725. More than 6 million people had seen the film by Wednesday, and millions more will watch it in the next few days.
Political commentators have weighed in. Detractors of President Bush have praised the film for its scathing view of the way he has handled the war on terrorism. Supporters of the president say Moore has used the facts selectively to distort the record.
A close viewing of the film and a review of the record provide a more nuanced picture. Many of the details Moore uses to slam Bush are true. Others are partially true and open to interpretation. Some are clearly false.
This is a guide to some of the film's key points.
Bush's leadership on Sept. 11
President's actions, timing still a matter of controversy
In one of the film's most controversial sequences, Moore shows the president at an elementary school in Florida on Sept. 11. Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center towers, and Bush is sitting in front of second-grade students reading "My Pet Goat." His chief of staff, Andrew Card, comes in about 9:05 a.m. and whispers in his ear. Card was telling Bush, we later learned, "America is under attack."
The president appears frozen. The movie slows the frames, which exaggerates each movement. Bush remains in the classroom for seven minutes before leaving to talk to his staff about the attacks.
Moore suggests the president's possible thoughts during those minutes: Should I have vacationed less and worked more? Should I have listened to anti-terrorism experts warning of an al-Qaida attack?
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and the government's response interviewed Bush. The commission staff said in an interim report that the president "felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."
The report says nothing about what Bush's staff did while he was in the classroom but notes that "as far as we know no one was in contact with the Pentagon." The president's motorcade left the school at 9:35 a.m., and Bush talked with Vice President Dick Cheney for the first time at 9:45 a.m.
According to the interim report, the government's response to what had happened at the World Trade Center and to two other hijackings was in disarray during the period that Bush was at the school. Two F-15 fighter planes had taken off at 8:53 a.m., but their pilots didn't have clear orders on what to do or where to go and were in a holding pattern off Long Island, N.Y.
Sometime between 9:21 and 9:25 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration realized that a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had been hijacked. That plane would strike the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., the commission reported.
A few minutes later, air-traffic controllers heard screaming aboard United Airlines 93 and determined that it also had been hijacked. It was headed to Washington and gaining speed.
What happened next is contested. The Sept. 11 panel reviewed tapes and flight and radar data, and conducted hundreds of interviews.
It found that while Bush read the children's book, air-traffic controllers wondered if the military had been asked to intercept the plane and who had the authority to shoot down planes. By the time the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field at 10:03 a.m., no one at the FAA had asked the military's help to stop the aircraft, according to the panel.
Though the president told the commission that he authorized the military to shoot down the hijacked planes, there's no record of that conversation. Cheney said the president authorized the shoot orders in a brief conversation shortly after 10 a.m., not in time to intercept the planes headed to Washington.
The commission's interim report reaches no conclusion about the president's actions.
Saudi flights after attacks
There's a question about who gave go-ahead
Moore says the administration allowed 142 Saudi Arabian nationals, including about two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, to leave the United States after Sept. 11 without proper questioning by law-enforcement agencies. In the film, Craig Unger, author of the book "House of Bush, House of Saud," tells Moore that none of the Saudis underwent serious scrutiny.
"So a little interview, check the passport, what else?" Moore asks.
"Nothing," Unger replies.
The Sept. 11 commission's interim report said law enforcement interviewed 30 of the 142 Saudis, including 22 of the 26 people on the flight that took most of the bin Laden relatives out of the country. The report said none was of interest to the investigation.
It says Saudi Arabia asked for help to get its nationals out of the United States. Because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, the Saudi government was worried about reprisals.
The commission says it doesn't know whom in the administration the Saudi government contacted, but that the request eventually reached Richard Clarke, who was the White House counterterrorism chief at the time.
Clarke told the commission he refused to approve the request, suggesting that it be sent to the FBI so the agency could vet the Saudis for terrorism connections. He said the FBI approved the flights.
However, an FBI spokeswoman denied to The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, that it had "anything to do with arranging and clearing the flights." She said the bureau interviewed some passengers but that none was "of investigative interest."
Despite some media reports, the movie doesn't allege that the Saudis were allowed to leave while U.S. airspace was still closed.
Bush, bin Laden connections
Head of watchdog group says it couldn't establish key link
The movie paints a sinister connection between Bush and the bin Laden family. It implies that James Bath, a friend from the president's days in the Texas Air National Guard, might have funneled bin Laden money to an unsuccessful Bush oil-drilling firm called Arbusto Energy.
The accusation is a stretch, said Bill Allison, the managing editor for the Center for Public Integrity, an independent watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
"We looked into bin Laden money going into Arbusto, and we never found anything to back that up," Allison said.
The center's investigations into Bush's years in Texas found that Bath managed the assets in Houston of Salem bin Laden, Osama's oldest brother. Bath also invested $50,000 in Arbusto in 1977 and 1978. There's no evidence that the money came from the Saudis, Allison said.
Moore further hints that a relationship between the Bush and bin Laden families was forged through their common involvement in the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based private equity firm heavily invested in the defense industry.
President Bush's father, the first President Bush, served as a senior adviser and board member to the Carlyle Group. James Baker, secretary of state in the first Bush administration, has been a partner. The current President Bush was a board member of a Carlyle subsidiary in the 1990s but withdrew in 1994 when he became governor of Texas.
The bin Laden family, whose wealth comes primarily from its Middle East construction company, invested in the Carlyle Group in 1994, then withdrew in late October 2001, after the terrorist attacks.
The bin Laden family's investment in Carlyle has been reported as $2 million, a small fraction of the billions that the group manages.
Most bin Laden family members reportedly severed ties to Osama years ago.
The war on terrorism
Commission expected to sharply criticize Ashcroft's early effort
Moore says the administration used the threat of terrorism to make Americans willing to give up some civil liberties, but that Attorney General John Ashcroft "turned a blind eye and deaf ear" to fighting terrorism before Sept. 11.
While the administration disagrees with that assessment, former FBI Director Louis Freeh told the Sept. 11 commission that fighting terrorism "was not a national priority." From 2000 to 2002, "we asked for 1,895 people more agents, linguists and analysts. We got a total of 76" during that time, Freeh said.
The commission is expected to issue harsh criticisms of Ashcroft's anti-terrorism efforts before the attacks.
Moore criticizes Congress for quickly passing a sweeping anti-terrorism bill known as the USA Patriot Act, without reading it. The law gave broad powers to federal law enforcement to eavesdrop on individuals, detain and deport immigrants, and coordinate with intelligence agencies.
While it's impossible to know whether legislators read the bill, it's true that Congress short-circuited the usual legislative process and passed it in less than a week.
Bush and veterans
Administration proposed both increases and cut.
Moore charges that the Bush administration has cut veterans benefits. In 2003, the administration proposed to increase health-care spending for the Veterans Affairs Department over the previous year. Veterans' groups argued that it wasn't enough, particularly at a time when soldiers were in combat and would need health care when they were discharged. Congress wanted to add more money to the budget, but the administration opposed a higher increase.
The administration did cut services to higher-income veterans whose disabilities weren't connected to military service. It also proposed charging veterans higher copayments for prescription drugs.
President was often away from Washington; critics say work was done during those times
Citing The Washington Post, Moore says Bush spent 42 percent of his first eight months as president on vacation. The Post calculated the numbers in early August 2001 as Bush embarked on a monthlong "working vacation" at his Texas ranch, according to administration officials at the time.
The president's supporters say Moore failed to note that Bush met with advisers and other officials and was briefed on issues.
Mark Knoller, a veteran CBS Radio White House correspondent and unofficial chronicler of presidential trips, said his own numbers from the first eight months of 2001 show that Bush spent all or part of 50 days at his Texas ranch; all or part of 40 days at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland; and all or part of four days at his family's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
That works out to nearly 39 percent of his first eight months in the White House.
Afghan president's oil link
Unocal says Karzai had no link to company
Moore suggests that one of the first official acts of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who took office after the United States toppled the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime following the Sept. 11 attacks because it was sheltering bin Laden, was to help seal a deal for the California-based oil conglomerate Unocal to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. It alleges that Karzai had been a Unocal consultant.
A Unocal spokesman denies it. "Karzai was never, in any capacity, an employee, consultant or a consultant of a consultant," Barry Lane said. He said Unocal also never had a plan to build a Caspian Sea pipeline.
What's true in the movie is that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was a Unocal consultant in the mid-1990s, Lane said.
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