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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Author: Terror spy show a TV whitewash

UPDATE: Here is a detailed press release from Peter Lance describing the whitewash. In essence, National Geographic told Lance the documentary would be based on his book, would mention his book, and he would get to write the script. These are some of the considerations which led him to sell them the rights to the book in the first place. Instead, an outside production company was hired who rewrote the whole show from the perspective of some of the very FBI investigators who Lance accuses in his book of near criminal negligence. When Lance objected to the biased pro-FBI slant of the rewrite, instead of considering his objections, National Geographic decided to change the title of the documentary so they could go forward without him - despite the fact that the entire documentary is based on the research that he did for his book:

They took a documentary based entirely on my work which was highly critical of the negligence of agents like Cloonan and former AUSA Patrick Fitzgerald - currently the U.S. Attorney for Chicago and Special Prosecutor in the CIA leak case - and make it appear that they were somehow on top of the Ali Mohamed scandal.



From the Miami Herald Friday:

An investigative journalist says his book on a Sept. 11 coverup has been mangled by documentary makers who want him to sign a `non-disparagment agreement.'

BY GLENN GARVIN
ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

What was already expected to be a controversial documentary that charges that Osama bin Laden's top spy infiltrated three different branches of U.S. national security has gotten even hotter, with veteran investigative reporter Peter Lance calling the TV documentary based on his book a whitewash that's ``like doing Schindler's List from Hitler's perspective.''

The documentary, Triple Cross, is scheduled to air on the National Geographic Channel Aug. 28, with Lance's book of the same name set for publication a few weeks later. But their accounts of the way bin Laden's master spy Ali A. Mohamed outwitted the CIA, the FBI and the U.S. Army may be overshadowed by the acrimonious war of words between Lance and the network.

Lance, who in early treatments of the Triple Cross script functioned as the on-screen narrator, was so infuriated by the program's eventual direction that he refused to appear. National Geographic's producers at one point held back transcripts of interviews they were supposed to share with Lance, and still won't let him see the final documentary unless he signs what they call a ``non-disparagment agreement.''

As the dispute has mushroomed, some sources interviewed for the Triple Cross documentary have contacted National Geographic, asking to be removed from the program.

''We went in under the impression that this documentary was based on Peter Lance's book and his findings,'' said Russ Caso, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., whose office has investigated the Mohamed case. ``But after a while, we didn't think National Geographic was doing a 100 percent job. . . . We felt we weren't looking at an unbiased piece.''

Though screen adaptations of novels often turn rancorous, it's virtually unknown in the world of documentaries, where authors usually work closely with filmmakers who buy the rights to their books. ''It's probably happened before,'' said John Ford, executive vice president of programming at National Geographic Channel, ``but I can't tell you when. I certainly don't know of a case.''

Ford says his network stands behind the documentary, which underwent its finishing touches just this week. And he strongly denies that it's a puff piece or whitewash.

''It exposes how different parts of the U.S. national security apparatus failed to connect the dots on Ali Mohamed over a decade and a half,'' he said. ``They all had information that could have shut him down, if they'd shared it. It's like a Tom Clancy thriller, but true.''

Mohamed turned up in FBI surveillance photos as early as 1989, training radical Muslims who would go on to assassinate Jewish militant Meir Kahane and detonate a truck bomb at the World Trade Center. He not only avoided arrest, but managed to become an FBI informant at the same time he was smuggling bin Laden in and out of Afghanistan, writing most of the al Qaeda terrorist manual and helping plan attacks on American troops in Somalia and U.S. embassies in Africa.

Finally arrested in 1998, Mohamed cut a deal with the Justice Department. His whereabouts remain shrouded in official secrecy.

Lance, an Emmy winner who spent nine years as a producer-reporter at ABC, was one of the first journalists on the trail of the Mohamed story. He documented parts of it in two earlier books, 1000 Years For Revenge and Cover Up, both harshly critical of government counterterrorism efforts, especially at the FBI. He says Triple Cross will be the toughest yet.

''The FBI allowed the chief spy for al Qaeda to operate right under their noses,'' Lance said. ''They let him plan the bombings of the embassies in Africa right under their noses. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed and more than 4,000 wounded because of their negligence.'' When the FBI finally realized what was happening, he said, it buried the story to hide not just its kid-gloves treatment of Mohamed, but other misbehavior by agents in the case.

But early versions of the documentary script, Lance said, made it look just the opposite. FBI agents and Justice Department officials were interviewed sympathetically and at length, he said. ''The overwhelming impression was that the FBI was on top of Ali Mohamed,'' Lance said. ``It was outrageous. . . . They hijacked my research and watered down key findings in order to appease some prominent feds.''

National Geographic's Ford, however, denied that the network cozied up to the FBI: ``Peter wanted us to include accusations and conclusions in our documentary that we could not independently verify, and we weren't willing to do that.''

Lance retorted that it was ``reprehensible for them to suggest there was anything in my research they couldn't confirm. If there were, why didn't they just call me up and ask?''

Ultimately, however, Ford said it was the network's call to make. ''In our contract,'' he said, ``we had final editorial control.''