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Originally published Friday, September 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Pre-9/11 "docudrama" stirs furor

Top officials of the Clinton administration have launched a preemptive strike against an ABC-TV "docudrama," scheduled to air Sunday and...

The Washington Post

Top officials of the Clinton administration have launched a preemptive strike against an ABC-TV "docudrama," scheduled to air Sunday and Monday, that they say includes made-up scenes depicting them as undermining attempts to kill Osama bin Laden.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright called one scene involving her "false and defamatory." Former national security adviser Sandy Berger said the film "flagrantly misrepresents my personal actions." And former White House aide Bruce Lindsey, who now heads the William J. Clinton Foundation, said: "It is unconscionable to mislead the American public about one of the most horrendous tragedies our country has ever known."

ABC plans to make minor changes to its docudrama about the runup to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a network executive said Thursday.

Thomas Kean, the Republican who chaired the 9/11 Commission and is a co-executive producer on the film, said in an interview that he recently asked for changes that would address complaints raised by the former Clinton aides and that ABC is considering his request.

"These are people of integrity," Kean said of the filmmakers. "I know there are some scenes where words are put in characters' mouths. But the whole thing is true to the spirit of 9/11."

Former President Clinton, speaking with news reporters after a Democratic fundraiser in Arkansas on Thursday, said he hadn't seen the ABC film. "But I think they ought to tell the truth, particularly if they are going to claim it is based on the 9/11 Commission report," he said.

The ABC executive said the "adjustments and refinements" are "intended to make clearer that it was general indecisiveness" by federal officials that left the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks, "not any one individual." The executive, who requested anonymity because the network is making only written comments, said small revisions have been under way for weeks.

The network's move came as the children's publishing company Scholastic deleted from its Web site materials about "The Path to 9/11," developed in partnership with ABC, that were being offered to 25,000 high-school teachers. "We determined that the materials did not meet our high standards for dealing with controversial issues," Chairman Dick Robinson said in a statement.

ABC's entertainment division said the six-hour movie, "The Path to 9/11," will say in a disclaimer that it is a "dramatization ... not a documentary" and contains "fictionalized scenes." But the disclaimer also says the movie is based on the Sept. 11 commission's report, although that report contradicts several key scenes.

Berger said in an interview that ABC is "certainly trying to create the impression that this is realistic, but it's a fabrication."

Marc Platt, the film's executive producer, said that although it "does contain composite and conflated scenes and representative characters and dialogue, we've worked very hard to be fair. If individuals feel they're wrongly portrayed, that's obviously of concern. We've portrayed the essence of the truth of these events. Our intention was not in any way to be political or present a point of view."

The former Clinton aides voiced their objections in letters to Robert A. Iger, chief executive of ABC's corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., but the network refused to make changes or to give them advance copies of the movie. They were not interviewed by ABC; it hired Kean as a co-executive producer but no Democratic members of Kean's Sept. 11 panel.

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"By ABC's own standard, ABC has gotten it terribly wrong," Lindsey and Clinton adviser Douglas Band said in their letter.

"The content of this drama is factually and incontrovertibly inaccurate and ABC has a duty to fully correct all errors or pull the drama entirely. It is unconscionable to mislead the American public about one of the most horrendous tragedies our country has ever known."

"In an undertaking this gargantuan," Platt said, "it's impossible to interview every single person available, and we didn't believe we needed to."

Democrats ratcheted up the pressure Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and four Democratic colleagues wrote to Disney chairman Iger, urging him to cancel the movie. The Democratic National Committee obtained more than 100,000 signatures on a petition demanding cancellation, and party chairman Howard Dean tried to reach Iger by phone. Spurred by the Center for American Progress, which is headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, 25,000 people have sent letters of protest to ABC.

The fierceness of the debate reflects a recognition that a $40 million miniseries can damage Clinton's legacy in the anti-terrorism fight on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Among the scenes that the Clinton team said were fictional:

• Berger is seen as refusing authorization for a raid to capture bin Laden in spring 1998 to CIA operatives in Afghanistan who have him in their sights. A CIA operative sends a message: "We're ready to load the package. Repeat, do we have clearance to load the package?" Berger responds: "I don't have that authority."

Berger said that neither he nor Clinton ever rejected a CIA or military request to conduct an operation against bin Laden. The Sept. 11 commission said no CIA operatives were poised to attack; that Afghanistan's rebel Northern Alliance was not involved, as the film says; and that then-CIA Director George Tenet decided the plan would not work.

• Tenet is depicted as challenging Albright for having alerted Pakistan in advance of the August 1998 missile strike that unsuccessfully targeted bin Laden.

"Madame Secretary," Tenet is seen saying, "the Pakistani security service, the ISI, has close ties with the Taliban." Albright is seen shouting: "We had to inform the Pakistanis. There are regional factors involved." Tenet then complains that "we've enhanced bin Laden's stature."

Albright said she never warned Pakistan. The Sept. 11 commission found that a senior U.S. military official warned Pakistan that missiles crossing its airspace would not be from its archenemy, India.

• "The Path to 9/11" uses news footage to suggest that Clinton was distracted by the Republican drive to impeach him. Veteran White House counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke, who also disputes the film's accuracy, is portrayed as telling FBI agent John P. O'Neill: "Republicans went all out for impeachment. I just don't see the president in this climate willing to take chances."

O'Neill responds: "So it's okay if somebody kills bin Laden, so long as he didn't give the order. ... It's pathetic." The Sept. 11 panel found no evidence that the Monica Lewinsky scandal played a role in the August 1998 missile strike, but added that the "intense partisanship of the period" was one factor that "likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden."

Clinton allies have complained that advance copies were sent to a number of conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, but not to liberals. Limbaugh, saying that the screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a friend of his, told his radio audience that the film "indicts the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger. It is just devastating to the Clinton administration. It talks about how we had chances to capture bin Laden in specific detail."

ABC said copies of the film were sent to media organizations and commentators without regard to ideology, and that Democrats and Republicans were invited to a screening in Washington.

At the screening, Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission, assailed the film as inaccurate. He said some scenes he saw at a screening are "complete fiction. ... The mischaracterizations tended to support the notion that the president [Clinton] was not attentive to anti-terrorism concerns. That was the opposite from what the 9/11 Commission found."

Nowrasteh, who has described himself as a conservative, told Frontpage magazine that the movie illustrates "the frequent opportunities the administration had in the '90s to stop bin Laden in his tracks — but lacked the will to do so."

Nowrasteh drew criticism from Reagan administration officials for his Showtime movie "The Day Reagan Was Shot." He told the Los Angeles Daily News then that he "made a conscious effort not to contact any members of the [Reagan] administration because I didn't want them to stymie my efforts."

Kean, interviewed earlier, said the film — which will air without commercials — is educational because it includes the commission's recommendations. He said the filmmakers have made past changes — in one case reshooting an entire scene — based in part on his recommendations. "The suggestion that this is some right-wing group in Hollywood is absurd," he said.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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