Path to 9/11 writer/producer Cyrus Nowrasteh hints at ABC’s changes to the docudrama this weekend.
HH: Throughout today’s program, I am joined in studio by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who is the writer and one of the producers on ABC’s epic film airing on 9/10 and 9/11, the evenings of Sunday and Monday next, the Path To 9/11. Also joined in studio by Prusanna Puwanarajah, who is an actor in said film, and we’ll get to both Prusanna and Cyrus in just a moment. By way of introduction, I have seen the Path To 9/11. It is a magnificent film. It is neither conservative nor liberal. It is historical. It is dramatic. It is riveting. It is also a source of a great deal of discomfort and unease because of the accurate portrayal of the enemy it presents. And for that, I think most Americans will thank you, Cyrus. Welcome to the program. Good to have you on.
CN: Good to be here, Hugh. Thank you.
HH: Now it is a huge project. So before we talk about the particulars, when did it get started? How long did it take to make? And why is it showing without commercials? What is ABC saying about that? And I salute them for.
CN: Well, I salute them as well. I mean, I was contacted in November, 2004, initially, asked if I’d read the report, would I take a look at it, and see if I…
HH: The report being the 9/11 Commission Report?
CN: Yes, the 9/11 Commission Report. Take a look at it, and see if you think there’s a movie there. They were considering at the time anywhere from six to ten hour mini-series, based on the report and other sources. So I started the process of looking into it.
HH: And at the end of this, what do you know now that you did not know when you began the Path To 9/11?
CN: Well, the connection between the two attacks, the first attack being the ’93 bombing, and of course, the 9/11 attack. And once I started doing the research and seeing boy, there was a direct through-line there, it really struck me.
HH: So you start in 2004. It’s only 2006. I’m actually kind of amazed that you got this done in two years.
CN: I think this was a priority of the network. I think they really believed in it. I think they thought it was important, and it was really moved along speedily.
HH: Let’s give people a skeleton idea of both nights’ program. It begins with a little bit of reminiscence about 9/11, the actual events as they began to unfold that morning, and how Mohammed Atta and crew passed through despite a warning on their computer terminals. That itself is an indictment of the entire apparatus that was in place at that time. We were warned as he got on the plane.
CN: Yes. There was what they call a CAPS warning that came up on the computer, which means he should be looked at a little more carefully. What they do is they set aside his baggage to look at it, didn’t put it on the plane until he was aboard. The other thing that’s striking is one of the other terrorists, for example, doesn’t even have a picture I.D. He doesn’t even have a photo in his passport, doesn’t even understand the questions that the ticket agent is asking him. But yeah, we show the sieve of security.
HH: So clearly, as of 9/11, this country was not serious about international terrorism.
CN: The evidence in the report seemed to indicate that.
HH: Then it goes back and flashes back to 1993, with an amazing sequence. And I still find it hard to believe, because I’d been to the World Trade Center many, many times before it was destroyed. There was no security on the entrance of vans into the bottom of the building?
CN: Not in 1993.
HH: Does that strike you as amazing, looking back?
HH: When you filmed that, it’s a very realistic explosion sequence, a very frightening and chilling sequence. Is that based on actual detail from the 9/11 Commission Report?
CN: Absolutely. Well, wait. No, not so much from the report. One thing you’ve got to remember is I used other sources as well. Most notably, The Cell by John Miller and Michael Stone, as well as Relentless Pursuit by Samuel Katz. You know, the report touches upon the ’93 attack, but doesn’t go into it in any kind of depth. The 9/11 Commission Report is really concentrated on 1998 onward. So in order to go back to ’93, I really had to look at other source material.
HH: One of the things that’s only implied is where do they come from. They, being the fanatics who will kill and be killed in the course of this. Ramzi Youssef is really almost the center point of this, and in fact, you play the opposite number who takes him down in Pakistan, is it not, and what year is that happening?
PP: Well, that’s ’95, I think, Cyrus, is it? ’95, ’96? A couple of years afterwards. He spent two years as a fugitive.
HH: And Prusanna, when you catch up, when you enter into the picture, the World Trade Center’s been bombed, he’s on the road, he’s been to the Philippines, he scarred himself…
HH: And now he’s moved into Pakistan, and is about to go to Afghanistan when your character betrays him to the U.S. intelligence Pakistani security services.
PP: That’s right, yes.
HH: When you got approached to do this…you’re not an actor, right? Or you are an actor now, but you weren’t when you began this.
PP: Well, I am an actor, I suppose, but this is my first gig. So this is the beginning of my being an actor, if you like.
HH: And how did you find out about the opportunity to play this role?
PP: It was through my agent in London, Stephen Hatten, who had been approached about it, whether he had essentially actors of any kind of ethnic background. And he said go along, see what it’s like, see what the casting is about. And straightaway, when I was speaking to David Cunningham, the director, what was apparent was that he was a guy who was sensitive to the whole issue that it was going to be an interesting and insightful and unconventional production in that sense. So it was interesting, straightaway.
HH: Okay, so you’re playing the fellow who betrays Ramzi Youssef. Does he have a name, or do you we simply know him as the man who’s now in the witness protection program?
PP: Well, his name is Ishtiak, and I’ve read somewhere I think his name was Patrick Ishtiak. But I’m in the back recesses of my mind to get that name, but his name is Ishtiak, and yes, he is now somewhere in the witness protection program.
HH: Going back to Ramzi Youssef, who his character betrays. Where does he come from, Cyrus?
CN: You know, Ramzi Youssef is a real mystery. Still is. There’s even some question as to whether Ramzi Youssef is his real name, and his background. Now my sense of it is they say he’s from Balukistan, which is an area in Pakistan which is pretty intense in terms of its anti-Shiite mentality, and that he very much was part…I also have heard that he was part Palestinian.
HH: His uncle is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, correct?
HH: Do we understand that to be true? Or is that also subject to some rumor and innuendo?
CN: The overwhelming majority of the source materials indicate that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is his uncle.
HH: Now it’s interesting, of course, that today that name, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was on the President’s lips, KSM. That’s what makes your program so riveting, is that the names in the headlines today are the characters in your film on Sunday and Monday night. It’s a very…it must be a little bit disconcerting.
CN: Well, I think it just shows how pertinent all of this is, and how important it is.
HH: How did he get…Youssef, into the country? Because if they hadn’t struck at the World Trade Center, who knows what would have happened about this. But that was something of a rallying cry.
CN: Youssef came in with another sort of dummy operative. They were in separate lines at Customs. What happened is the dummy operative started to throw a fit, caused a big ruckus, just as Youssef was at the window with his Customs inspector. That ruckus that was going on distracted the Customs inspector, and he let Youssef right through.
HH: That’s a level of sophistications even as far back as ’92? Is that when he came in?
CN: Yeah. I mean, he was in and out a couple of times the previous year, but yeah, he came in in late ’92 to lay the foundation for the attack.
HH: The blind sheik…had he come to the attention of the authorities before 1993 bombing?
CN: Yes, he had, but only because of Imad Salem, the Egyptian informant, the ex-colonel. He was working in New York as security at a hotel, and the NYPD had come to him to ask him about Russian mafia figures at that particular hotel coming and out. They wanted him to help them out with them. And he said to them, well, what are you guys doing about the blind sheik? And they said who?
HH: That’s the first of many fumbles recorded, bipartisan fumbles recorded in this film, but it’s one of the most stirring, because the 1993 bombing did not have to occur.
CN: It did not have to occur. Imad Salem was very much in that circle, and informing the FBI of what they were up to, and what they intended.
HH: What did the inability to respond to that, and come up with the money, tell you about the general mindset of the Bureau at that time, 13 years ago?
CN: Well, I think they didn’t take these guys seriously, and I think that they didn’t know whether to trust Imad Salem. There were all kinds of rumors and innuendos about his relationship with the agent who was handling him, a woman. There was people trying to push for their own cases, et cetera, with the bureaucracy, and it just didn’t get the priority it deserved.
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HH: Cyrus Nowrasteh, there’s controversy surrounding this film which will be showing in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as the British Broadcast System, and all around the world. The controversy concerns whether or not edits were made. I have a preview copy, as do 900 other people. It’s not like I’m special. Is what I have what others will see on Sunday night?
CN: You know, I’m not sure yet. But as I understand it, there will be some minor changes.
HH: Are those changes of concern to you?
CN: You know, changes are always of concern, but I think I can live with these.
HH: There is a UPI and an AP story today saying that Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright and others are all upset with this. They’re not singled out for any particular abuse. Condi Rice comes in for some as well. Why the hue and cry?
CN: Boy, that’s a good question. You know, I don’t even know if these people have seen the movie. This all started at the National Press Club screening in Washington, D.C., the evening of August 23rd. There was a Q & A afterwards. Governor Thomas Keane, who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and a senior consultant and credited as co-executive producer on the movie, myself and executive producer Mark Platt conducted a Q & A. We only showed night one. You can’t invite people to a 7:30PM screening, and show them a five hour movie. However, in their gift bags, as they left, was a DVD of night 2. In the Q & A, Richard Ben-Veniste, and some of his staffers, felt that the movie misrepresented some of these people. And they questioned well, why didn’t you show this, or why didn’t you show that? And Governor Keane, myself and Mark Platt responded. And what was wonderful, really, was a number of other people in the audience got up and just talked about how powerful they thought the film was, how much they liked it, how impressed they were, and most important to me, Mary Fetchett, the mother of a victim who died in the first plane that went into the towers, got up and thanked us for doing the movie.
HH: Can you tell us where the edits have been made? In what scenes?
CN: You know, I haven’t seen the edits, yet. I think there’s been a lot of concentration on this big sequence involving an attempted capture of bin Laden, and there’s just been a lot of discussion about Lewinsky stuff in the movie. I don’t know. You know, I think that the heartbeat of this movie is there. I think people…I just wish they would just relax and watch it.
HH: There is quite a lot of attention to the fact that we did not take serious action against Osama bin Laden throughout the 90’s, nor in the first 8 months of the Bush administration, where they focused on bin Laden. It was clear from the record that that was the case. As to the specific attempt when the composite character, Kirk, is in the field about to snatch bin Laden, does that have history behind it?
CN: Well, I’ll tell you what it is. Yes, it is a…but it is a conflation, it is a fusing together of a number of different attempts. I have heard, and you’ve got to understand, we’re dealing with classified missions here.
CN: I have heard that there were as many as nine to thirteen capture and or kill attempts on Osama bin Laden in the late 90’s. And rather than show a dozen straight sequences of trying to do the same thing, and each time failing or lacking the will to execute the action, we sort of did a melding together for one major sequence.
HH: Okay. And there’s also a sequence in which there is a question about whether or not the cruise missile attempt on Osama bin Laden following the bombing of the embassies had been tipped to Pakistani intelligence. Is that based on any particular series of sources?
CN: It was based on a number of sources, yes.
HH: And so you’re confident that we did give Pakistan advance warning that we would be trying to hit him?
HH: And as a result, that might have compromised that mission?
HH: You see, that’s what people are really upset about. That’s what it comes down to, is that there’s an argument in this film that not only were we not purposeful, but that we were self-defeating. And that’s much worse than being feckless, is to be self-sabotaging. Do you think that’s the source of most of the complaints?
CN: Sure. I mean, these are half measures.
HH: In your opinion, ought Bush to have been acting more vigorously in the first 8 months? Should he have known?
CN: Of course.
HH: I just wanted to put that on the record, because you’re not really a conservative apologist in any way, shape or form. Although if you read the blogs, Cyrus, you’ve been working as an arm of Rove, Inc., for a couple of years now. It seems that…
CN: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing what you see on there. These people should look at my IMDB. I did a movie called 10,000 Black Men Named George for Showtime, where the hero is an African-American communist who led a union struggle. Also, I did the Day Reagan Was Shot for which I was attacked viciously by a lot of conservative groups. And for me, if the subject matter is compelling, I research it, I look for the truth in it, and I try to tell the story.
HH: Let’s go to the story. Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. What makes these guys tick? You’ve been studying them for a number of years, and you’ve had to portray Zawahiri very effectively. Bin Laden does not have an actor playing him in the film. What’s your understanding as a writer about what’s driving him?
CN: Boy, that’s asking me to be kind of a psychologist. I mean, look. These guys are very religiously, politically active guys. It all goes back to Egypt, especially for Zawahiri. And the whole period when Sadat was opening up to Israel, and he became involved in the plot to murder…
HH: Muslim Brotherhood, correct?
CN: Right, yeah. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood, for which the blind sheik was also associated. And I just think these guys come out of that revolutionary Islamic mentality.
HH: Let me ask you, Prusanna. You’ve been in London, of course, for the last couple of years. You’re a medical doctor.
HH: And obviously, London’s on edge right now.
HH: As you made this, were you aware with its intersection with the threats in your home country?
PP: Well, I think really, since the 7th of July last year, and the bombings that we suffered in London, things have escalated in terms of concerns that are just in society in large. I think before that, we saw that the problem with terrorism as very much an issue that was domestic to us, for instance, the IRA. Things have become more international now, and we have problems in our own cities of rifts forming, reforming, within communities that have spent twenty or thirty years trying to find common ground amongst white Caucasians, essentially, and folks who have immigrated over the years. And things have really become difficult.
HH: Do you think the Path To 9/11 will have much of an audience on the BBC?
PP: Oh, I think it’ll be massive. I think it’ll be massive.
HH: Terror is on the front shelf of everyone’s bookcase right now?
PP: Absolutely, and I think there is something about this movie in particular that is straight forward and clear and truthful, and I think it’ll be important.
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HH: Cyrus, you just heard Frances Townsend say that terrorists adapt to everything that we do, that it’s a living, breathing organism. Was that your experience researching the Path To 9/11? That if we did A, they adapted to A and did B?
CN: Oh, absolutely. And you see it with Ramzi Youssef in the mini-series. After the failure of the ’93 bomb, where he was hoping that the towers would collapse, he started thinking in a different direction. Could he come up with a bomb that would escape detection at an airport? And could he put it under a seat and blow up an airliner. And he ran tests to see if it would work. He was constantly sort of shifting with how law enforcement was coming at him.
HH: You also talk about him in the film. He blows himself and scars his face attempting to carry out a terrorist attack in Pakistan. Then he’s in the Philippines, and he screws up there. He’s kind of a Keystone Cop figure, but a very malignant one. Why did it take so long to catch up with the fellow who does so many things so wrong?
CN: You know, I think he had a good network protecting him, he had multiple passports, identities. He stayed in safe houses, many of them, by the way, owned by Osama bin Laden. And he was clever, and I guess reckless at the same time.
HH: Prusanna, how was your character recruited? When you prepared for the role, do you know how…was it Pakistani or American intelligence that got to the betrayer of Youssef?
PP: Well, it was actually him that presented himself…
HH: Out of what motivation? I know in the end, he’s talking about he doesn’t want to kill innocents. Your character is saying that. Is that legit? Or did he want the money?
PP: Well, I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I think there’s more to it from what I’ve read, from the book that Cyrus mentioned, Relentless Pursuit. Ishtiak was a student of Islam in Islamabad, and sort of got roped into Youssef’s close circle in a way that I think young people at the time did. He was kind of…he was, as it says in the film, a rock star. He was kind of a Mozart figure. I mean, people were drawn to him. And what I understand about Ishtiak was that he was drawn in quicker than he could realize, intellectually speaking, what it was exactly that he was being asked to do. Then later on, the bigger picture became apparent to him, and cross referencing that with his thought on Islam. He was just unable to do it, and I think that’s why he came forward.