"The Path to 9/11," a five-hour dramatization laying out the history of the Sept. 11 plot from the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, will be aired over two nights on the anniversary of the attack next week by ABC Television.
The movie is billed as a dramatization based on the report of the U.S. commission that investigated the events of Sept. 11 and circumstances leading up to it. According to a disclaimer shown at the beginning of each episode, it "has composite and representative characters and incidents, and time compressions have been used for dramatic purposes."
But a portion of the film showing an aborted effort to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa has aroused the ire of some of the officials portrayed.
A statement from Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton at the time, calls the scenes involving him "complete fabrications."
And Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., called on ABC to show disclaimers throughout each episode, not just at the beginning. "ABC has a responsibility to make clear that this film is not a documentary, and does not represent an official account of the facts surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks," she said.
In one scene, CIA operatives working with Ahmed Shah Masud, the charismatic Afghan mujahedin leader who fought al-Qaida and their Taliban sponsors, are assembled on a hillside above bin Laden's residence at Tarnak Farms. "It's perfect for us," says "Kirk," a composite character representing several of the CIA operatives and analysts involved in the hunt for the terrorist leader.
But the team is forced to abort the mission when Berger hangs up on them in the middle of a conference call, after telling them he cannot give the go ahead for the action.
"I don't have that authority," he says.
"Are there any men in Washington," Masud asks Kirk afterwards in the film, "or are they all cowards?"
"The incidents depicted did not happen," said Berger in the statement. "They are not contained in the Sept. 11 Commission report, which is the most authoritative review of the events before and after the attack."
Indeed, the commission's report -- although it reveals the Clinton White House was concerned about the possible repercussions of a failed capture effort -- says that it was CIA Director George Tenet who nixed the capture plan, which would never have involved U.S. personnel in the assault, and which was canceled before being put into operation.
Officials from both the White House and the CIA have characterized the back-and-forth about the plan as a breakdown of communications. The White House believed that they were authorizing the killing of bin Laden, but those at the CIA charged with carrying out the operation itself saw their authority limited to a capture operation that might result in his death.
"There were shouting matches" between senior officials about the plan, said one senior member of the Sept. 11 commission staff who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is now working in a sensitive government position. However, the staffer said, the scene at Tarnak Farms "didn't happen, and frankly it's silly."
But former GOP Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey, the chairman of the Sept. 11 commission and a consultant to the production, defended the film, saying it showed "a colossal failure of government.
"If you portray that accurately," he added, "people from both (the Clinton and Bush) administrations will complain."
"I would say it's balanced," Kean said.
The film does paint a rather unflattering portrait of the incoming Bush administration -- showing how they demoted White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, and failed to act against al-Qaida even after their responsibility for the November 2000 attack on the USS Cole became clear.
"The difference is, the stuff they show the Bush administration doing actually happened," said Jay Carson, a spokesman for former President Clinton.