Seven Questions: The Path to 9/11 Controversy

Observers on the right and left have criticized ABC’s docudrama, The Path to 9/11, for inaccuracies in its portrayal of the run-up to the 9/11 terror attacks. American Airlines might even sue the network. But where does a commitment to history end and artistic license begin? To find out, FP spoke with The Path to 9/11 scriptwriter and producer, Cyrus Nowrasteh.

FOREIGN POLICY: Didnt you feel that dramatizing the events of September 11 would be stepping into a hornets nest?

Cyrus Nowrasteh: Always. But I did not think we would have the intensity and the underhandedness of the reaction, or that it would become a national obsession. Whenever you deal with docudramawith real people and real eventssomeone is going to be upset. Thats just the reality. I cant think of that. I have to do a job. First and foremost, I am a screenwriter. The writer of a historical play is not a historian. I do think one is obliged to be as historically accurate as he can be, and I have done that.

FP: Do you consider the script a historical document?

CN: No, but I stand by the original version of the movie, and I stand by the edited version. I dont think the edits were warranted. There has to be conflation of events. The most obvious problem any dramatist faces is that of sheer length. I had to collapse the events of eight and a half years into five hours. I dont know any other way to do it except collapse, conflate, and condense.

The scene that has given the critics the most problems is when [Clinton administration National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger, [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet, and [counterterrorism advisor Richard] Clarke are on videoconference in Washington while an Afghan tribal team is trying to capture Osama bin Laden. Theyve surrounded bin Ladens compound, and theyre waiting for the order to go in. Theres a CIA collection team with them. That sequence is a conflation.

FP: But Clarke has responded to the film by asserting that CIA agents and Massoud were never that close to capturing bin Laden.

CN: Ive interviewed CIA agents who have told me otherwise. But that is the one concession we made. [In the original,] we had a CIA agent on the ground near bin Ladens compoundinside the wall evenand we took that out for the final presentation. We also cut Sandy Berger cutting off the phone linewhich wasnt actually in the script. But I liked what the director had done with that sequence because I thought it symbolically represented what was going on. [These critics] take everything literally. They dont know how to watch a movie. What happened after the most powerful group of political power brokers and their lawyers tried to stop this from airingthe Clinton Foundation, et al? Seventy seconds were taken out of a five-hour movie.

FP: But many Americans still have erroneous ideas about what happened on 9/11. Many still believe Saddam Hussein was involved. Dont you feel a responsibility for avoiding inaccuracies or conflation? Dont you think you have misled people?

CN: No, I think the hubbub is because we got to the truth. ABC was anticipating an attack from the Republicans. No one expected an attack from where we got it.

FP: American Airlines is considering legal action over a scene depicting 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta being allowed to board Flight 11 despite a warning to airline officials. People see that and think it happened. Most Americans wont read the 9/11 report. How do they know where to draw the line between compression and reality?

CN: That whole sequence was vetted. Attorneys and advisors looked at it. Everyone thought, under the circumstancesI dont know about [the threatened lawsuit]. No one has called me about it.

FP: How many parts truth and how many parts fiction is the movie?

CN: Im not going to answer that. Ultimately, and Ive found this with every docudrama Ive done, people in the same room at the exact same moment during a major historical incident can have completely different versions of what happened. Its the Rashomon effect. We have tried to be as accurate as possible. There are numerous attorneys who vetted this material. The chairman of the 9/11 Commission himself signed off on the movie.

FP: Did you expect the reaction to be as strong as it has been?

CN: No, this was a witch hunt. It was like a national book burning. Its Salem all over again.

Cyrus Nowrasteh is the screenwriter and producer of The Path to 9/11, which aired September 10 and 11 on ABC.