Democrats Object to ABC's Sept. 11 Portrayal

Several top-level Democrats demand that ABC change scenes in an upcoming Sept. 11 docudrama. They say it unfairly portrays Clinton administration officials as letting Osama bin Laden slip through their fingers. And Republicans are reacting to President Bush's speeches about the war on terrorism. Madeleine Brand and Juan Williams talk politics.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

First the political heat in Washington. NPR's senior political correspondent, Juan Williams, is here now, as he is every Friday. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, let's start with the reaction by Republican lawmakers to President Bush's proposal for military tribunals for the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The president unveiled his plan this week, and Juan, it looks a lot like the plan the Supreme Court struck down earlier this summer. Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham and others oppose it, along with some top military lawyers. So what are their objections specifically?

WILLIAMS: Well, the key one is pointed at - I believe it's Brigadier General James Walker said that there's no civilized country that will deny a defendant the right to see evidence, and the United States shouldn't - and I believe I'm quoting here - shouldn't be the first. So this is the same theme that Lindsay Graham, who himself has been a military lawyer, and now the senator, of course, from South Carolina, says that is key to what the Supreme Court rejected in the past, in the Hamdan case, and which the White House said they were surprised that the Supreme Court would deny them the authority to handle these detainees in any way they chose because they're not prisoners of war because they represent no established state or nation.

But I think they're going to run into the same problem, and apparently the split here is not between Democrats and Republicans. It's inside the Republican Party and it's one that's going to create a huge row for the president.

BRAND: Well, is the White House willing to be flexible and come up with a compromise?

WILLIAMS: They need a deal, Madeleine, and so that's the attitude that they are talking about this morning, looking to try to craft a compromise. The problem is that they don't want to put themselves at risk of losing down the line, and they don't want to put themselves in the position where - and this is what they keep coming back to - they reveal evidence that might somehow inform terrorist action in the future.

BRAND: Well, what happens if they don't agree on legislation. What happens to the prisoners?

WILLIAMS: Well, they would stay there. I mean - I think that what you're talking about is whether it happens in short order or in a longer timeframe. What the president and what many in the Republican Party want - wanted essentially was to force the Democrats' hand and force the Democrats into an embarrassing position as we approach the midterm election. Clearly that's not going to happen.

What we have now is a sort of internal intramural fight among Republicans. And so if they can settle it now, it's to their advantage, although it doesn't have the same political potency it would have had if Democrats were in the opposition and the ones who were stalling the deal. And if they don't settle it now, then it will get settled after the election. I don't think there's any question they will broker some deal down the line. The matter is one of timing right now.

BRAND: Well, speaking of timing, tell us more about the back room deals and what led to the timing of unveiling all this this week.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there's been a long term discussion between Secretary of State Rice and the administration, and her primary opponent in that discussion was Vice President Cheney, who was arguing for the status quo, and arguing that we shouldn't do anything differently, we shouldn't reveal the location of these prisoners, we shouldn't reveal how we've been - what information we've been able to get from them, even their identities.

He really felt that that's giving information to our enemies, to the terrorists. And Secretary Rice has been making the case, this is hurting us in the international community, hurting America's reputation abroad.

And I think one of the key things here that pushed it is the poll numbers. I mean the White House doesn't like to admit it, but they look at polls and the polls are clear that the American people think that we are in part losing the war on terror because we are losing the support of countries and people around the world because of our treatment of these so-called detainees.

BRAND: All right. Turning to another, related topic, there's a political firestorm over a docudrama ABC is planning to air Sunday and Monday nights. It's called The Path to 9/11. Tell us what's going on there.

WILLIAMS: Well, this is an ABC show that was written by a conservative and puts President Clinton in the position of missing many an opportunity to take out Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of al-Qaida, and President Clinton and others. It's interesting. Even former Governor Kean of New Jersey, who was one of the 9/11 commissioners says, No, it's not exactly right, but it's a drama, you know, have to give them some dramatic license. But the idea that it would in the American mind that it's Bill Clinton and not the Bush administration that was responsible for so many of these problems I think, especially before an election, again - everything, you know, nine weeks out to the midterms is in a political context - just struck President Clinton to the point where he was willing down and write a letter to the president of ABC. ABC now says they're going to make changes. The question is how substantial those changes are going to be, because they're not willing to cancel the show.

BRAND: NPR's senior political correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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