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Context of 'March 1996: Movie Features Planned Suicide Attack with Commercial Jet'

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Back Sunday.Back Sunday. [Source: Paramount Pictures]Black Sunday, a big-budget action film, has a storyline centered on a terrorist group trying to hijack the blimp used by television networks to film the Super Bowl football game from the air. The plot by a group of Palestinian terrorists is to load the blimp’s cabin with explosives and poisoned shrapnel, and detonate them over the thousands of spectators at the Super Bowl stadium, including the president of the United States who is attending the game. To stop the terrorists, the FBI calls upon a Mossad agent who has received wind of the plot. This film will be recalled after 9/11 for its resemblance to that day’s attacks. (Canby 4/1/1977; Kakutani 9/13/2001)

Executive Decision.Executive Decision. [Source: Warner Bros.]Executive Decision, a military action film, has a plot about a group of Arab terrorists who hijack a transatlantic jet to gain the release of their leader, who is imprisoned in the United States. But what looks initially like a traditional hijacking is in fact a suicide mission. The plane carries a huge load of nerve gas that has been smuggled out of Russia, which the terrorists intend to explode over Washington, killing millions. The release demand is a ruse to convince US authorities to let the plane approach Washington unharmed. But thanks to an intelligence analyst who has been following the group’s efforts to obtain chemical weapons, the ruse is unraveled and the Pentagon considers asking the president for permission to shoot down the plane over the Atlantic. However, a Special Ops commander proposes a daring plan to avert a shoot down. Using a new Stealth fighter plane, he offers to board the jet in mid-air and disable the bomb. (Maslin 3/15/1996) This movie is one of many works of fiction that will be remembered after 9/11 for their eerie similarity to the attacks. (Kakutani 9/13/2001)

The FAA’s Office of Civil Aviation Security Intelligence sends an internal memo summarizing the al-Qaeda hijacking threat. After reciting information available on the topic, a few principal scenarios are presented. One of them is a “suicide hijacking operation.” The 9/11 Commission will comment on this and another memo the previous year, “In 1998 and 1999, the FAA intelligence unit produced reports about the hijacking threat posed by bin Ladin and al-Qaeda, including the possibility that the terrorist group might try to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a US landmark.” However, FAA analysts consider this an option of last resort, because “it does not offer an opportunity for dialogue to achieve the key goal of obtaining [Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman] and other key captive extremists.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 345, 561; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 53)

Characters from ‘The Agency.’Characters from ‘The Agency.’ [Source: CBS]The pilot episode of a major new CBS drama series called The Agency was originally scheduled to be broadcast on this day, and would have featured a storyline about Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group plotting to blow up a department store in London, England, but the episode is postponed due to its resemblance to the events of September 11. (Salamon 9/29/2001; Hunter 10/31/2001; Jenkins 2012, pp. 62-63) The Agency, according to The Guardian, is “a new CBS drama, full of best-and-brightest types rolling up their sleeves and attacking problems of national security.” (Patterson 10/5/2001) The series will “tell stories of everyday life inside ‘The Agency,’” according to the New York Times. (Sciolino 5/6/2001) The Guardian has reported that the show’s villains will include “Arab terrorists, Colombian drug dealers, Iraqis, and German urban guerrillas.” (Campbell 9/6/2001) Wolfgang Petersen, who directed blockbuster movies such as In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, is the show’s principal executive producer. (Bark 9/27/2001; Goldstein 9/29/2001)
Storyline Includes Planned Al-Qaeda Attack - The storyline of the pilot episode of The Agency features “terrorists from Osama bin Laden’s cells, waging a holy war against the West,” according to the New York Times. Early in the episode, it is revealed that the CIA has identified al-Qaeda as a security threat and that the terrorist group is planning a major attack in Europe. Fortunately, a CIA officer was able to infiltrate al-Qaeda and discovered the date of the planned attack. However, the agency has just three days to thwart the plot. Agents then discover that the terrorists intend to bomb the Harrods department store in London. They pass on this information to British intelligence officers, thereby helping to prevent the attack at the last minute. (Salamon 9/29/2001; Jenkins 2012, pp. 62-63) Bin Laden’s name is mentioned twice in the episode. (Bark 9/27/2001)
CIA Liaison Assisted with Script - Michael Frost Beckner, the creator of The Agency, will later say that he wrote the show’s pilot episode “over a year before 9/11,” presumably meaning around mid-2000. (Hollywood, Health and Society 4/2/2002 pdf file) He worked with Chase Brandon to develop the script, and submitted early drafts to Brandon for approval. (Jenkins 2012, pp. 56) Brandon is the CIA’s entertainment liaison officer, and before taking that post spent 25 years in the agency’s elite clandestine service. (Campbell 9/6/2001; Alford and Graham 11/14/2008)
Storyline 'Originated from the CIA' - The similarity between the storylines of The Agency and real-world events, according to CNN, is because the show’s producers and writers have been “researching each storyline in detail. They read intelligence manuals, pull from actual CIA cases, and confer at length with the show’s consultant, retired [CIA] operative Bazzel Baz.” (Hunter 10/31/2001) Bill Harlow, the CIA’s chief spokesman, will suggest that the reason for the similarity is that the show “simply got lucky that the headlines intersected with its storylines so neatly.” But Beckner will reveal that the storyline for the pilot episode was suggested to him by Brandon. “In other words,” author Tricia Jenkins will note, the story about al-Qaeda plotting to bomb Harrods “originated from the CIA.” (Jenkins 2012, pp. 66-67) Beckner will also say the pilot episode resembled what happened in the US on September 11 because the CIA “would let in anyone, including a little writer like me, to hear that al-Qaeda and bin Laden are going to attack us.” (Hollywood, Health and Society 4/2/2002 pdf file)
Show's Premier at CIA Headquarters Canceled - The Agency received extensive assistance from the CIA during its production. As well as the CIA reviewing scripts, it is the first television series that was permitted to film inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it used agency employees as extras. The pilot episode was even going to be premiered at CIA headquarters, on September 18, but the event was canceled because the agency was busy responding to the 9/11 attacks. (Taubman 8/26/2001; Boliek 9/17/2001; Jenkins 2012, pp. 56)
CIA Liaison Thinks Series 'Couldn't Be More Timely' - CBS cancels the broadcast of the pilot episode on September 27, when it was originally scheduled to be aired, in response to the 9/11 attacks. Gail Katz, one of the show’s executive producers, will comment, “Our show seems to be too close to what’s in the headlines” and it is therefore “not appropriate for viewing.” (Hunter 10/31/2001) Instead, another episode of The Agency is aired, in which agents work to prevent the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Adalian and Schneider 9/23/2001; Salamon 9/29/2001) Brandon, however, is upbeat about the series coming out at a time when terrorism has become such a major issue. “If anything, a show like The Agency couldn’t be more timely,” he will say. This, according to Brandon, is because, “Right now, the American public needs a sense of reassurance.” Brandon will add: “Our whole national consciousness is going to change. And I think a responsible film or TV episode about the agency, even one that weaves elements of terrorism into the storyline, can show the magnitude of what’s at stake.” (Goldstein 9/29/2001) Indeed, the show’s tag line is “Now, more than ever, America needs the unsung heroes of The Agency.” (Lowry 10/2/2001)
Modified Version of Episode Later Broadcast - The pilot episode of The Agency is one of a number of movies and television dramas featuring storylines about terrorism that are canceled or rewritten in response to 9/11 (see (January 1998-2001); February 1999-September 11, 2001; June-September 11, 2001; Before Before September 11, 2001; September 13, 2001; November 17, 2001). (Ednalino 9/17/2001; Hoberman 12/4/2001) A subsequent episode, based around a planned terrorist attack in the US using anthrax, will also be rescheduled, because its original broadcast date coincides with the actual anthrax attacks in the US (see October 18, 2001). (Adalian 10/16/2001; Silverman 11/6/2001) A modified version of the pilot episode, with all references to bin Laden removed, will be broadcast on November 1. (South Florida Sun Sentinel 10/25/2001; Jenkins 2012, pp. 145)


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