TV Review: Two-part 'Frontline' documentary on Iraq war a political thriller

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NEW YORK -- 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 from 9 to 11:30 tonight on WQED.

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."

'Frontline: Bush's War'
  • When: 9 tonight and tomorrow night on WQED.

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.' "

Part two of "Bush's War," airing 9 to 11 p.m. tomorrow on WQED, begins with the swift American victory in Iraq, followed within hours by looting by Baghdad citizens, to which Rumsfeld responded with a breezy, "Stuff happens."

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.


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