By Steve Gorman
Under pressure from former President Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, ABC scrambled on Friday to make 11th-hour changes to a miniseries suggesting he was inattentive to the Islamic militant threat that led to the September 11 attacks.
Officials at the Walt Disney Co.-owned network said they were still tinkering with the five-hour production, titled The Path to 9/11, which is scheduled to air without commercial interruption in two parts on Sunday and Monday.
But ABC declined to say how the movie was being reshaped or whether any changes would address specific complaints lodged by Clinton, his former aides and congressional Democrats that the film contained numerous inaccuracies and distortions.
The Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety, citing sources close to the project, reported the network was considering canceling the miniseries altogether.
The docu-drama, which ABC says is based largely on the official 9/11 Commission Report, opens with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and traces subsequent events leading up to the coordinated suicide hijackings five years ago that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Much of the controversy focuses on a scene depicting CIA agents and Afghan fighters coming close to capturing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, only to have then-White House national security advisor Samuel Berger refuse to authorize completion of their mission.
An unfinished version of the film circulated by ABC to TV critics for review portrays Berger as abruptly hanging up the phone while the CIA is pressing him to approve the raid.
In letters of protest to Disney President Robert Iger, Berger and former White House aide Bruce Lindsey said no such episode ever occurred.
The executive producer of the film, Marc Platt, acknowledged to Reuters on Thursday the Berger scene was a "conflation of events."
The film also drew denunciations from Clinton supporters for strongly suggesting his administration was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal to deal effectively with the gathering threat of Islamic militancy. Lindsey said the 9/11 Commission Report disputed that notion.
POLITICS AND SHOWBIZ
The show has added fuel to the election-year debate over which party, the Republicans or Democrats, is tougher on terrorism.
The Democratic Party, in a message posted on its Web site, called the miniseries "a despicable, irresponsible fraud" and urged an e-mail campaign demanding Iger keep "this propaganda off the air."
Joining the clamor for changes in the miniseries was the star of the film, Harvey Keitel, who said he accepted the role as an FBI counter-terrorism expert under the premise the story was to be told as "history."
"It turned out not all the facts were correct," he said on the Headline News network’s "Showbiz Tonight." "You can’t put things together, compress them, and then distort the reality. … You cannot cross the line from conflation of events to a distortion of the event."
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission and served as a consultant for the miniseries, has defended the production as balanced. But he told The Washington Post he asked for changes that would address complaints raised by the former Clinton officials.
The newspaper quoted one unidentified ABC executive as saying changes were "intended to make clearer that it was general indecisiveness" by federal officials that left America vulnerable to attacks, "not any one individual."
Trade publication the Hollywood Reporter, citing unnamed sources, said the scene involving Berger and an aborted mission to capture bin Laden would be toned down so that no particular individual was made to appear culpable.
The controversy was reminiscent of the furor stirred by a CBS miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, which the network canceled after Republicans complained it unfairly and inaccurately portrayed the former president. "The Reagans" ended up airing on sibling cable channel Showtime.
Further complicating the situation for ABC was a prime-time address to the nation President George W. Bush has planned for 9 p.m. EDT on Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, right in the middle of part two of ABC’s miniseries.
The network said it would air the first hour of the film, break for 20 minutes to carry Bush’s speech live, then broadcast the rest of the movie.
(Additional reporting by Mark Egan, Ellen Wulfhorst, Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss)
© 2006 Reuters