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Asleep at the Switch: The Path to 9/11

Wednesday, 06 September 2006 12:00 AM

NEW YORK -- Granted, five hours is a major time commitment for a TV program. But ABC's controversial miniseries, "The Path to 9/11," is worth it.

The drama, based largely on the 9/11 Commission reports, is not another rehash of the dark day the World Trade Center was attacked. Instead, it shows, with patience and no small amount of artfulness, what led up to that attack, starting years before.

The lavishly produced "Path to 9/11," which will be shown Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC, will also reveal to the public the heroic efforts of FBI agent John O'Neill, who led the earliest efforts to stop al-Qaida. The tough-as-nails O'Neill was on to Osama bin Laden and his followers long before their 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but his pleas fell largely on deaf ears.

I'd never heard of O'Neill, played strongly here by Harvey Keitel, until I read a 2003 profile of him in the New Yorker. He's the central figure (and deservedly so) in this five-hour film shot partly in Morocco.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, was the senior consultant on this series. In ABC's press release, he says this film will be "enormously helpful to those of us who have been working hard to get the commission's recommendations implemented."

And, since polls show more than half the American public still believe Saddam Hussein was somehow involved with the 9/11 attacks, it's worthwhile noting that not once in five hours is the word "Iraq" mentioned. Kean says this film will reach a wide audience and "help people better understand the issues involved." I suspect — and hope — he's right.

President Bush's political opponents will not be terribly happy with this controversial megaproject. That's because much of this film takes place during the Clinton years. However, the problems revealed here are more systemic than political. The FBI and CIA were still more concerned with bank robbers and Soviet era-type spying than with fighting terrorism.

O'Neill and former White House counterterrorist czar Richard Clarke (played ably by "NewsRadio's" Stephen Root) were almost alone in sounding alarm bells in the White House about the gathering al-Qaida threat, and twice they had bin Laden in their sights. Then-CIA Director George Tenet (later to become infamous for his "slam-dunk" remark) was caught between a rock (not Iraq) and the politicians.

Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Shirley Douglas) resisted action, for domestic (the Monica Lewinsky affair) and diplomatic reasons.

Part I of the miniseries flashes back from one of the doomed 9/11 airliners to the World Trade Center bombers, led by the elusive Ramzi Yousef, whom O'Neill finally tracked down. Yousef was recently in the news again, TV news networks retelling his early 1990s mishaps with liquid-explosive prototypes. One blew up his bomb lab in Manila.

Numerous Arabic actors portray Yousef and his shadowy co-conspirators, with English subtitles. Intrigue is everywhere; a few brave informants keep O'Neill and Clarke abreast of Yousef and bin Laden's plans. After the USS Cole and African embassy bombings by al-Qaida, O'Neill and Clarke try again to overcome official resistance to killing bin Laden. Few — including the public — seem concerned.

One good example: When O'Neill flies to Yemen to run the USS Cole investigation, he is resisted by testy U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, played by Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond"). Bodine is far more concerned with protecting her turf.

The story jumps around, as it must, and is filled with interesting, humanizing vignettes. In one, 9/11 team leader Mohammad Atta and another jihadist are taking pilot training in Florida. When their plane won't start, they simply abandon the aircraft on a taxiway. The airport supervisor fails to report the incident because "they're Saudis, nothing will happen to them."

Two New York City cops looking through the rubble of the charred World Trade Center in 1993 find the vehicle identification number of the truck that carried Yousef's bomb. They're warned about removing evidence from a crime scene. Fearful that the truck will be bulldozed over, they remove the VIN anyway - and it becomes the big break in the case, leading to the arrest of infamous radical cleric "the blind Sheik."

Another key player featured in "The Path to 9/11," is the charismatic Gen. Massoud (played by Mido Hamada), the anti-Taliban leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, also a bitter bin Laden foe.

He and a composite character, a CIA agent called "Kirk" (played by Donnie Wahlberg), are about to take out bin Laden, but are waved away by Tenet and his superiors on a satellite phone as they're ready to strike. Later, Massoud learns of plans for an attack on U.S. soil, telling Kirk that if he's killed, an attack is imminent.

Two days before 9/11, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaida agents posing as an Arab TV crew.

Twenty-year FBI veteran O'Neill finally turned in his badge after a ridiculous, petty incident involving his temporarily lost briefcase.

O'Neill was immediately hired by a grateful World Trade Center, as its chief of security. The final irony: A few days later, al-Qaida finally got its most intractable enemy. O'Neill died in the attack on the twin towers.

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NEW YORK -- Granted, five hours is a major time commitment for a TV program. But ABC's controversial miniseries, "The Path to 9/11," is worth it. The drama, based largely on the 9/11 Commission reports, is not another rehash of the dark day the World Trade Center was...
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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 12:00 AM
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