Previously on The Looming Tower, “Tuesday”
Unsurprisingly, the series finale of Looming Tower covers one of the most tragic days in U.S. history: September 11, 2001. What is surprising is that the actual attacks are not depicted on screen, but yet covered through news reports as the episode’s main focus plays out: the CIA’s and FBI’s response to the travesty.
In response to learning that two of the known terrorists, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, as well as at least 15 other passengers on the hijacked planes were Saudis, the CIA director George Tenet implores Richard Clarke to grant safe passage for Saudi nationals out of America. Even though Clarke appears to be suspicious of what prior knowledge Tenet had regarding the presence of Midhar and Hazmi on US soil, he agrees and asks Condoleezza Rice to make an exception to the newly placed flight ban. However, when Clarke informs Rice that FBI is gaining intel in Yemen that links Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda cells in Afghanistan to the attacks, she frankly proclaims that Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, wants the attacks blamed on Sadam Hussein and Iraq (weapons of mass destruction ringing any bells?). Considering this plea to spread false information and Tenet’s questionable behavior, it is no wonder Clarke goes on to apologize to the American people and ask for forgiveness at the 9/11 Inquiry in 2004.
“Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you.”
Further down the CIA chain of command, Leonard Bliss rehires Martin Schmidt as the head of Alec Station. After a pretentious rendition of “I told you so,” Schmidt lays out the demands of doubling the agency size, a larger budget, and an official declaration of war. He even tells a weeping Diane Marsh that they are going to make things right. Apparently making things right to Marsh entailed lying under oath at the 9/11 Inquiry. Marsh testifies that she personally delivered Mihdhar’s and Hazmi’s files to the FBI herself when in fact she placed the two files among 94 other files of suspected al-Qaeda operatives enrolled in domestic flying lessons. Mr. Kearns of the commission challenges her testimony with the fact that her name does not appear in any of the physical sign-in logs at the various FBI offices across the country; Marsh, however, sticks to her story.
Across the waters in Yemen, Ali Soufan is summoned by CIA agent John Chihoyne to investigate if the 9/11 attacks were formulated by al-Qaeda. Chihoyne finally gives Soufan the photos of Khallad at the terrorist meeting in Malaysia, the very same al-Qaeda operative he had begged Alec Station for more information on. Furious, Soufan demands once again for Captain Amin to allow him to interrogate Bin Landen’s alleged former body guard, Abu Jandal. Soufan is temporarily thrown in jail, but is finally assisted by General Ghaleb al-Qamish once he learns that John O’Neal is more than likely dead as a result of terror attacks.
Confirming his suspicions, General al-Qamish bequeaths Soufan with photos of Jandal meeting with Khallad, giving them just cause for an interrogation. Soufan masterfully gets Jandal to tell him everything he knows in regard to the 9/11 attacks by challenging his religious justification of killing more than 3,000 innocent Americans. Nowhere in the Qur’an is it stated that Arabia should be relieved (by means of murder) of all Christians and Jews and only inhabited by Muslims. In fact, the Qur’an states, “Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he has slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves a soul, it is as if he saved mankind entirely.”
Soufan proclaims, “This is the word of Allah. This is Islam.”
There a few questions that go unanswered in this series finale. Throughout the season it is insinuated that CIA director George Tenet schemed with the Saudi Arabia ambassador to grant Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi access into the United States. Even when Tenet asks Clarke to gain safe passage for Saudi nationals out of the USA following the attacks, Clarke asks Tenet if he knew of the two hijackers’ presence on U.S. soil and says their conversation is not over. However, clearly this matter is never fully pressed because the real-life Tenet testifies in the 9/11 Inquiry that he was unaware of whose responsibility it was to know about Mihdhar and Hazmi being in the country and to then notify the FBI. Following the attacks, the one responsible, Diane Marsh, is not fired from the CIA but merely moved from intelligence to operations. Additionally, it is implied that Marsh lied under oath during the Inquiry regarding her personally providing Mihdhar and Hazmi’s profiles to the FBI. Even if it was simply stated in text at the end of the episode, I wanted to learn if anyone, including Tenet and Marsh, were professionally or criminally reprimanded for their actions or inactions leading up to the 9/11 attacks.
Despite the excellence of the overall series, I was not looking forward to this finale episode. I wanted to keep putting off the inevitable: reliving the 9/11 attacks. In just the past month I traveled to New York to visit a friend and we visited the 9/11 memorial site. Having never seen the Twin Towers in person, the visit put the devastation of the attacks into greater perspective for me. Now represented by two square pools of water engraved with names of the victims, I was finally able to witness their massive size and how the Towers were in the heart of NYC. With this new-found reverence, I didn’t want to see the Towers’ destruction once again.
However, this episode was thankfully not full of reenactments of the devastating events of September 11, 2001. The focus was upon what the entire series has been about: how the United States CIA and FBI dealt with the events. The Looming Tower production employed real-life news and radio coverage of the attacks to keep the audience abreast of the timeline of events and to pay homage to the citizens, firefighters, police officers, FBI and CIA agents who lost their lives. Quite poignantly, the episode ends with footage of rescue and recovery efforts that took place at Ground Zero and with the final declaration that John O’Neal died a hero as he was last seen alive on the 48th floor of the North Tower helping people escape the building.
- Mihdhar’s wife is visited by a man and woman who give her the news that her husband has achieved martyrdom and will wait for her and his children in Paradise. The man gives her an envelope presumably filled with money courtesy of Sheikh Usama. She unconvincingly states she now feels closer to Allah.
- In real life, it took agent Soufan five days to get Jandal to reveal information regarding al-Qaeda.
- Agent Robert Chesney, covered in soot, makes his way to Liz’s apartment and informs her that he has not been able to contact O’Neal all day. She plays him the very touching message O’Neal left on her answering machine that morning. He stated that there was some explosion on the upper floors but that once the North Tower roof was repaired, he wanted to take her back to the restaurant she visited for her 18th birthday.
- O’Neal’s remains were found on September 21, 2001 amongst the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers.
- In the news coverage, the pentagon destruction was also covered. This was a thoughtful inclusion since when many people think of 9/11, they typically only think of the fall of the Twin Towers.
- In Washington D.C., all federal buildings were evacuated in response to the attacks.
- Soufan hangs up on agent Vince Stuart when he learns that Stuart was aware that Alec Station had information regarding the meeting in Malaysia and did not disclose this fact to the FBI.
The Looming Tower S1E10 Review Score
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Tahar Rahim, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nezar Alderazi, Sullivan Jones, Erica Cho, Katie Flahive