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ABC faced growing pressure Friday about its planned miniseries on the buildup to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Former Clinton administration officials, historians and a Democratic petition with nearly 200,000 signatures urged the network to scrap the five-hour drama.
The network said the movie, scheduled to air commercial-free on Sunday and Monday, is being edited to deal with concerns that it distorts history. ABC had no response to the calls to abandon it.
A group of historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz, wrote to ABC parent Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger, urging him to scrap the series. They said that permitting inaccuracies to heighten drama is “disingenuous and dangerous.”
“A responsible broadcast network should have nothing to do with the falsification of history, except to expose it,” they wrote.
The Democratic National Committee said it delivered a petition with nearly 200,000 signatures to ABC’s Washington office urging the network drop its “right-wing factually inaccurate mocudrama.”
Former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose depictions are at the center of the controversy, asked Thomas Kean, the Republican ex-governor of New Jersey who led the commission looking into the attacks, to use his influence with filmmakers to pull it.
“You can’t fix it,” Berger said on CNN. “You gotta yank it.”
The film’s executive producer, Marc Platt, responded that many of the film’s most vocal critics haven’t yet seen it.
“I’m not sure that what they think is there, is there,” he said Friday by phone from London.
Platt called the growing uproar “a distraction in some ways from the bigger intentions (of the film), which is a shame. And that’s quite frankly what the whole 9/11 story is about.”
Stressing that the miniseries is a docudrama, Platt said “elements and issues that are outside the boundaries of what we believe to be fair and reasonable will be addressed” until airtime. “I hope people will watch the film and draw their own conclusions.”
In a statement Thursday, ABC said the editing process for the $40 million film was ongoing.
“No one has seen the final version of the film, because the editing process is not yet complete, so criticisms of film specifics are premature and irresponsible,” the network said.
In another complication, President Bush has asked broadcast networks to clear time for an address to the nation Monday night at 9:01 p.m., just at the start of the last hour of “The Path to 9/11″ on the East Coast. ABC announced plans Friday night to cover what is expected to be a 20-minute speech before resuming the film.
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. “They shouldn’t have scenes that are directly contradicted by the findings of the 9/11 report.”
In a statement Friday, former Vice President Al Gore said, “I am deeply concerned that ABC is considering going forward with their plans to broadcast this so-called docudrama.”
Several Democratic senators have also urged that the movie be canceled.
Harvey Keitel, one of the actors in “The Path to 9/11,” also said he had questions about whether some of the material was accurate.
“When I received the script, it said ABC history project,” Keitel said in an interview with CNN Headline News’ “Showbiz Tonight.” “I took it to be exactly what they presented to me, history. And that the facts were correct. It turned out not all the facts were correct, and ABC set out trying to heal that problem. In some instances it was too late because we had begun.”
A cut of the film distributed to TV critics depicts a team poised in darkness outside bin Laden’s cave fortress in Afghanistan, while an actor portraying Berger in Washington stalls on giving the final go-ahead to carry out the seizure. He confers via video phone to CIA chief George Tenet.
“Look, George,” Berger says, “if you feel confident, you can present your recommendation to the president yourself.”
Tenet responds angrily, then Berger’s screen goes blank. He has hung up.
Having waited on the phone for clearance, the mission’s lead CIA agent must give the rest of the team the bad news: the mission is aborted.
The next scene shows archival footage of Clinton’s video testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Another scene in the movie depicts counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explaining to FBI agent John O’Neill that he doesn’t believe Clinton will take chances to kill bin Laden at a time Republicans were pressing for impeachment.
“It’s pathetic,” O’Neill said.
Democratic senators protesting the movie suggested it “could be construed as right-wing political propaganda.”
Albright objected to a scene that reportedly shows her warning the Pakistani government before an airstrike on Afghanistan, which resulted in bin Laden’s escape. She said the scene was false and defamatory.
The film quotes the actor playing Tenet responding to the notification by saying: “The end result being that we’ve enhanced bin Laden’s stature in the Islamic world. He’s thumbing his nose at us.”
Director David Cunningham, in an earlier interview with The Associated Press, said people putting the film together would hear conflicting reports all the time. “These might be from experts who were there in the same room, and they’re telling us completely opposite things.” He said he would use the 9/11 commission report to try to resolve those disputes.
“There was no agenda for this movie to go after a particular party or person,” Cunningham said. “We were showing what happened, and the people who were involved along the way. This is not a blue-state/red-state movie.”
Kean defended the miniseries.
“It’s something the American people should see,” he said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Friday. “Because you understand how these people wanted to do us harm, developed this plot, and how the machinations of the American government under two administrations not only failed to stop them, but even failed to slow them down.”
Kean said he hoped people would watch the miniseries to “understand better what went on, and hopefully understand what still needs to be done.”
The controversy is reminiscent of the one that erupted over a 2003 CBS miniseries about President Ronald Reagan. In the face of political pressure over that film’s accuracy, CBS canceled it, and it later aired on the Showtime cable network.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York and AP writers Devlin Barrett in Washington and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.