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Pre-9/11 drama ‘The Looming Tower’ explores the failure of intelligence when division gets in the way

A new drama takes viewers back to the events that led to the 9/11 attacks. Hulu’s "The Looming Tower," based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, retells the true story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the years before the fall of 2001, and how U.S. intelligence services withheld information from each other at critical junctures. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new TV drama that starts next week takes viewers back to the events that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

    It looks at how U.S. intelligence services might have stopped them from happening and, as Jeffrey Brown tells us, the lessons its creators say it offers for the current time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    “The Looming Tower” dramatizes the true story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the years leading up to the attacks on September 11, how the FBI and CIA were each attempting to track his movements and plans, and yet, at critical junctures, withheld information from one another.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    You got a stash of intel that you refuse to share with my agents.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neil, the real-life, hard-living FBI agent who, early on, recognized al-Qaida’s threat, but felt stymied by the CIA’s refusal to share what it knew.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    How would you know if it was a law enforcement matter or a foreign intelligence matter if you haven’t looked at the hard drive?

    The bull in a China shop, you know, that of approach to life, gulping life and all of that. I have never done that, never been asked to do it. I had to go to work to figure out how to do it, which is what I need now.

  • Peter Sarsgaard:

    If we did have any intelligence whatsoever, it would be for us to decide how best to use it, before you do what you always do, go around the globe arresting people and putting them on trial.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Peter Sarsgaard plays his counterpart in the CIA, a composite character who fears the FBI will compromise his agency’s hard-earned intelligence.

    What did come to feel was the key to playing this character?

  • Peter Sarsgaard:

    Well, you know, feeling like the smartest person in the room, you know, feeling like no one can really understand things like you can understand things. You know, I’m playing an incredibly intelligent guy, a guy who knows a lot, and is myopic because of it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It is astounding and horrifying to watch, I mean, as a citizen, the two of you, and your characters so hating each other, so against each other, so not willing to share.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Or both thinking we’re right. Right?

  • Peter Sarsgaard:

    Yes, yes, yes. I think that’s a lot of it. Yes.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    I’m not moving. Neither is he.

  • Peter Sarsgaard:

    No.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Here’s to losing. You practice?

  • Actor:

    Islam? Not in a long time.

    You?

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Church and me broke up a lifetime ago. Talk to me about the interview.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    The question was, how do you take such a vast tragedy and make it human?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The series is based on the 2006 book of the same name written by Lawrence Wright, a “New Yorker” magazine staff writer, playwright and screenwriter.

    It earned him the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    The way that I do those kinds of stories is to try to find individual stories. I call them donkeys. The idea is that it sounds like, you know, a derogatory term, but a donkey is a beast of burden, who can carry a lot of information on his back and can take the reader or the viewer into a world they don’t understand.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The series opens just before al-Qaida’s attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998. That’s about halfway into Wright’s book, a fuller history of al-Qaida’s ideology and key members.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    How many Arabic speakers do we have in the bureau?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Wright interviewed hundreds of people, including Ali Soufan.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Eight. Eight. Thank you. Eight Arabic speakers out of more than 10,000 agents. That’s how serious our government takes this threat.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Then a young Lebanese-American FBI agent who, during the hunt, was one of the very few Arabic speakers working in the bureau. In the show, he’s played by French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim.

  • Ali Soufan:

    You know what? It’s a dramatization.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Soufan has since retired from the FBI and worked as a consultant on the series.

  • Ali Soufan:

    So, I think what the show is trying to do is say, you know, 10 years’ worth of information, and try to convey in one episode, in one scene, to the audience, to the person who’s sitting in their living room watching, to convey the feelings, to convey what was going on and how it accumulated over the years. And I think you need dramatization to do that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But 17 years after the attacks, why revisit this story now? One reason, says Wright, is that television has changed, for the better.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Stop telling me to calm down. There are bombs going off around the world. That doesn’t make me feel calm.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    I felt like it was probably the most precious thing I had ever done. And I was jealous of it. And I didn’t want it to be handled poorly. But the other thing that happened in the interim between 9/11 and today is, television changed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there’s another reason, say Wright and Soufan.

  • Lawrence Wright:

    You know, the theme of this season is, divided, we fail. And we were divided, and we failed to stop 9/11.

    But I think the country has never been more divided than it is right now. And we are our own worst enemy. And this business of attacking the intelligence agencies for partisan reasons increases that kind of division, and it makes us less effective and less safe.

  • Actor:

    Where were you born?

  • Actor:

    Lebanon, sir.

  • Actor:

    Beverly, would you get me Louis Freeh on his cell phone?

  • Ali Soufan:

    As the FBI is being attacked, as the intelligence community is being attacked, we need to actually humanize these agencies. They are made of humans who are great patriots, who took an oath to defend the country against all enemy, domestic and foreign.

    And basically, you know, their oath is to the Constitution, not to a politician. And that’s why they are being attacked. And I hope that the American people realize the sacrifices that people in the intelligence community and the FBI, they do every day, when they watch this show.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    “The Looming Tower” debuts on Hulu February 28.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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