Join "Bush's War" in marking a dismal anniversary.
This two-part "Frontline" documentary begins with the attacks of 9/11. Then, step by step, it moves toward the Bush administration's shock-and-awe response. With Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein successfully branded Public Enemy No. 1, the invasion of Iraq began five years ago this month.
But that's just the first part of "Bush's War." What "Frontline" calls a secret war — not so secret by now, but seldom exposed in such detail as in this film — airs on PBS from 9 to 11:30 p.m. EDT Monday (check local listings).
Behind the scenes, Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet were battling Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Interviewed on camera, Powell says that on 9/11, "I suggested to the president and my other colleagues that this was an opportunity to begin pulling together a worldwide coalition."
But according to journalist Bob Woodward, that same night Rumsfeld said, "Part of our response maybe should be attacking Iraq. It's an opportunity."
In this fractious environment, Rumsfeld distrusted the CIA's findings, so he set up his own Pentagon information-gathering unit. One of its reports drew the all-important link between Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Although both the FBI and CIA disputed the report's supporting evidence, Cheney cited it repeatedly as justification for attacking Iraq.
Richard Clarke, then the nation's counterterrorism czar, remembers being scolded by Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for declaring he didn't believe the report.
As Clarke recalls, "I said, 'I don't believe it, because it's not true.' And he said, 'You're wrong. You know you're wrong. ... Go back and find the rest of the reports, and find out that you're wrong.' And I understood what he was saying, which was, 'This is a report that we want to believe, and stop saying it's not true.'"
The film lays out this drama, through the rise of the insurgency (with no ready U.S. plan to counteract), the mythical WMDs, continuing disorder and danger, the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison, the strategy of a "surge" in U.S. troop strength, up to the present day, as public support of the war erodes and the 2008 presidential race is being waged, in part, on how (and how fast) we can get out of Iraq.
Produced by veteran "Frontline" producer Michael Kirk, "Bush's War" came together rather quickly — at least, by "Frontline" production standards. The idea was conceived only last November. But along with fresh reporting and new interviews, the film draws on a "Frontline" archive of some 40 prior programs on the war on terror, and a treasury of nearly 400 interviews shot since 9/11.
Richly told, "Bush's War" is a political thriller, all the more so for unfolding in the no-nonsense "Frontline" fashion, with the series' signature narrator (Will Lyman) lending his somber off-screen presence.
"Bush's War" gives us heightened understanding of a situation whose anniversary we will almost certainly be marking again and again.
"Frontline" this season has addressed a worldwide neglect of the genocide in Darfur, and the growing use of anti-psychotic drugs on children as young as 4. It has reported on the rise of Iraqi neighbor Iran as a challenge and threat to America, and it has looked at life and death through the eyes of Thomas Lynch, an acclaimed writer, poet — and small-town undertaker.
Many TV documentary and magazine shows could be likened to fruit-flavored soda. "Frontline," in somewhat startling contrast, tastes fresh-squeezed. A series like this wouldn't seem a good bet to have lasted a quarter-century. But here it is, in the midst of its 25th season, having thrived journalistically under David Fanning (executive producer since it began in 1983), and currently drawing an average cumulative audience of 4 million viewers each week.
It continues even in the face of politicians' annual threats to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where "Frontline," like most PBS shows, gets a large share of its money. (The federal tax bite for public television — plus public radio — for the average American is less than $2 per year.)
Another threat: the familiar argument that what public television offers isn't necessary in the era of cable TV's multiplicity, especially since PBS can't compete with the quantity and variety of cable's programming.
Last month a New York Times columnist wondered in print whether "the glory days of public television ... are past recapturing?" He took issue with PBS fixtures like "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" (whose 73-year-old anchor, he noted, has been in place since 1975), and with knockoffs from commercial TV like "America's Ballroom Challenge."
But in building its case that PBS is irrelevant or redundant, or both, the column made no mention of "Frontline." This was a conspicuous omission. Whatever the viewer's beef with PBS — and there's lots to complain about — "Frontline" is a series to be recognized, and valued, as unique (and a bargain at two bucks a year).