The controversy over ABC Entertainment's 9/11 docudrama underscores the power of information and the lethality of politics.
On the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers, "whodunit'' is no longer about Osama bin Laden. The focus as midterm elections approach seems to be on which political party bears the greatest responsibility for intelligence and operational failures leading to 9/11.
Are the Republicans to blame for failing to connect the 9/11 dots? Or do the Democrats bear the brunt?
"The Path to 9/11,'' a five-hour miniseries airing Sunday and Monday nights, suggests that both administrations are culpable to varying degrees. But the present controversy surrounds implications that the Clinton administration bungled opportunities to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
The docudrama, which ABC concedes is fictionalized in parts the timeline has been manipulated and some characters are composites is based on "The 9/11 Commission Report'' as well as other sources.
Most controversial is a scene in which the CIA and the Northern Alliance had surrounded bin Laden's house in Afghanistan in 1998 and were about to make their move pending authorization from Washington.
In the miniseries, then-national security adviser Sandy Berger essentially says, sorry, you're on your own. Obviously, bin Laden was not eliminated, and the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed shortly thereafter.
It never happened, says Berger. The CIA was never about to attack, according to the 9/11 commission's report. And, in fact, former CIA Director George Tenet decided the plan wouldn't work.
Inaccurate but true-ish? Dramatic if not quite real?
Dramatizing events and creating composite characters are acceptable practices in a miniseries that doesn't purport to be a documentary. But changing substantive facts in this case is both unfair and untenable, especially as it casts into doubt everything else posited as truth.
ABC apparently felt sufficiently chastened to change the Berger segment after Democratic officials complained. The network said Thursday that the scene would be toned down, according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, we can't help noting the rich irony of Berger's insistence on honesty. Isn't he the same fellow who "inadvertently'' lifted copies of classified documents from the National Archives, for which he was fined and placed on probation?
Other objections have come from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is shown in the ABC series as having warned Pakistan of the August 1998 missile strikes that many considered a ploy to distract Americans from the Monica Lewinsky scandal then in play.
Albright says she never warned Pakistan, though the 9/11 commission reported that a senior official notified Pakistan that missiles crossing that country's airspace would not be coming from India.
Albright's outrage is understandable, and should be shared by fair-minded Americans. These are not minor slights of no importance. They are critical to people's integrity as well as to our understanding of what happened. Surely conversations and events leading up to 9/11 are sufficiently dramatic without the application of poetic license.
In these fragile times, when Americans are subjected to so much information and disinformation and when the consequences of ignorance are so potentially lethal we can ill afford to play loose with the facts.
That said, Americans are smart enough to know that what happened on 9/11 was in the works long before the Bush administration took office. No amount of protest will change the fact that some of the dots now clearly visible were available for connecting during the Clinton administration.
Meanwhile, we are proving the overarching point of this film, which is that while we're busy squabbling over political scraps, our enemies are busy plotting our demise. They don't care who sits in the Oval Office or which political party prevails in November.
They do care that they were enormously successful on Sept. 11, 2001, and are surely inspired by our weak attention to their goals.
The 9/11 commission determined that Clinton's 1998 missile attack was not, after all, a wag-the-dog attempt to deflect attention from the Lewinsky scandal. But the commissioners also said that the intense partisanship of the time "likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden.''
To our great peril, nothing much has changed.