Could the United States have prevented the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001?
No one can say with absolute certainty, but a sprawling and controversial two-part docudrama that begins Sunday on ABC makes a strong case that the most lethal terror attacks in American history might have been derailed if not for widespread intelligence failures and a disheartening lack of decisiveness by U.S. officials.
The Path to 9/11, which will run a total of five hours over two nights (8 to 11 p.m. Sunday and 8 to 10 p.m. Monday), covers an 8 1/2-year period, from the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City by Islamic terrorists through the attacks of 9/11 and beyond.
Though it's a dramatization, much of the miniseries is based on details from a 2004 report issued by the bipartisan 9/11 commission created by Congress and the White House to investigate the attacks and recommend steps to prevent similar incidents.
The commission concluded that neither the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Department, nor a number of other agencies had done their jobs properly - and if they had, the attacks might have been averted. These intelligence and operational breakdowns occurred during the presidential administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The chairman of that commission, former New Jersey Republican governor Thomas Kean, was a senior consultant for the miniseries and is listed in the credits as a co-executive producer.
In materials accompanying a review copy of the program, ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson called Kean's involvement as a key adviser "crucial to the project."
"When you take on the responsibility of telling the story behind such an important event, it is absolutely critical that you get it right," McPherson said.
The program, filmed in New York, Washington, Toronto, and Morocco, has a cast of nearly 250, many of whom are unknown Middle Eastern actors portraying both friend and foe of the United States.
Among the handful of recognizable names is veteran actor Harvey Keitel, who powerfully portrays the story's central character, FBI counterterrorism expert John O'Neill, who doggedly follows the ominous growth in power and influence of the al Qaeda terror network and its charismatic leader, Usama bin Laden. (The government and press would only later begin referring to him as Osama bin Laden.)
(In a terrible bit of irony, a frustrated O'Neill would leave the FBI just weeks before 9/11 and take a post as security chief at the World Trade Center. He was among those killed on 9/11.)
Other noteworthy cast members include Donnie Wahlberg as an undercover CIA agent, Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as CIA Director George Tenet, and Stephen Root (News Radio) as Richard Clarke, a National Security Council counterterrorism adviser.
The first installment of The Path to 9/11 spends considerable time on the worldwide manhunt for Ramzi Yousef, one of the key players in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. After narrowly missing him in Pakistan and the Philippines (where he tests a small bomb that kills an airline passenger and nearly brings the plane down as well), authorities finally catch up with him.
Following his trial and conviction, as Yousef is being flown over New York City in a helicopter, an FBI agent points to the twin towers of the World Trade Center and tells his captive tauntingly, "They're still standing."
Staring at the towers, Yousef replies, "If I had had enough money and explosives they wouldn't be."
During the hunt for Yousef, it's learned that bin Laden was the money man behind the WTC bombing, and the Saudi millionaire is eventually linked to other terror attacks around the world, including U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.
In 1998, American operatives and their allies from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance find themselves with a golden opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden. They have his compound surrounded but must wait for Washington to give them the OK to move in. Higher-ups in D.C. debate the political fallout of taking any action, and finally, it becomes evident that no top official will take responsibility for the mission, and it's aborted - much to the chagrin of Wahlberg's CIA character.
"I don't get it," he fumes. "Everybody in that room agrees that we're at war with this guy, but they flinch at the idea of whacking him?"
Even before its broadcast, the miniseries became the target of much criticism, mostly from those who believe that it lays too much of the blame for intelligence failures on the Clinton administration, which was in office during the run-up to 9/11.
They also point to the fact that the script for the show was written by conservative filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh.
And indeed, there are a few gratuitous news clips of Clinton awkwardly trying to defend himself at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal - the clear implication being that the President was too preoccupied with avoiding impeachment to pay proper attention to the growing al Qaeda storm on the horizon.
But in the miniseries' second night, Bush and his own coterie of advisers are portrayed as just as inept as they bumble, dither, and continually underestimate the threat of terrorism against U.S. targets.
For example, in the summer of 2001, the FBI's Phoenix office noted that several Middle Easterners who were on terror watch lists were taking pilot training and even suggested that they might be part of a coordinated attempt by bin Laden to highjack U.S. airliners. But when those reports were forwarded to FBI headquarters in Washington, officials there were afraid that any response could be seen as "racial profiling" and might subject the bureau to congressional censure, so the information was stuck in a drawer.
In response to the criticism, Nowrasteh defended the program's objectivity on an ABC Internet blog last week:
"We cover the failures and mistakes of two administrations, as well as the successes," he wrote.
David Cunningham, the miniseries' director, also chimed in on the same blog: "We have worked hard to make this not a political movie," he wrote. "Because our show is chronological, if a viewer watches just the first night of the miniseries, it could be perceived as anti-Clinton. If a viewer watches just the second night, it could be perceived as anti-Bush."
The miniseries is a powerful and well-constructed tale, though it's sometimes difficult to keep the characters straight and follow the action as it jumps from one part of the world to another. Because of its violence - it includes shootings and torture as well as the now-familiar depiction of the 9/11 hijackings and subsequent airliner crashes - the program carries a TV-14 parental guideline.
In December of 2005, the 9/11 commission graded the government in its response to a number of recommendations made in the report aimed at preventing future terror attacks. The overall grade was not a good one.
As the miniseries ends, this stark message from the commission flashes silently on the screen:
"We believe that the terrorists will strike again. If they do, and these reforms have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?"