Moore's liberties make 'Fahrenheit 9/11' a guilty thrill


Michael Moore's film is not journalism. It is an extended piece of stand-up, a satiric riff by one deeply hostile individual, writes David Leigh.

It is generally agreed that Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is not one for the intellectually fastidious. This wildly club-swinging production is nonetheless politically potent, as anyone could testify who has seen its large and appreciative cinema audiences this side of the Atlantic.

Moore, whose film became the first documentary to take more than $100 million, claimed this week, as he surfaced at the Democratic convention in Boston, that he was shifting US presidential votes away from the Republicans.

So it is worth asking what his factual basis might be. Are any of Moore's facts right? In particular, is his biggest conspiracy theory true?

In his let's-join-up-all-the-dots way, this Emile Zola from Flint, Michigan, accuses Bush of a corrupt relationship with the Saudis. He says - or hints heavily - that Bush had business links with the Bin Laden family, which induced him to allow the lot of them to escape from the US on chartered planes in the aftermath of 9/11, and, secondly, to allow Osama himself to get away later, while Bush hastily diverted the public's attention to irrelevant Iraq.

There is only one source given for this material - a New York writer called Craig Unger who is interviewed on screen by Moore about it. Unger has written a book called House of Bush, House of Saud.

Few over here have yet had a chance to read it, because its first UK publishers, Random House, took fright at the prospect of being sued by rich Saudis. A smaller firm, Gibson Square, proved braver and Unger's book is due out this month.

Unger is not in the big league of historians. To quote his book jacket: "He has written about the two George Bushes for the New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair". And his subtitle is downright false: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties. The relationship has not been a secret.

The text is solidly enough researched. It does indeed demonstrate convincingly that Bush had a business buddy called Jim Bath back in Houston, Texas, in the 1970s, who in turn acted as fixer and frontman for a pair of rich young Saudis.

One of them was a brother of Osama bin Laden, and the other, years later, donated to Osama's Afghan guerrilla war against Soviet Russia.

The book does go on to show too that some Saudi money went into a struggling oil firm, Harken, in which the young Bush was involved. And it does show that the Bin Ladens and all the other rich Saudis holidaying in the US at the time of 9/11 were hustled home in an astonishingly privileged way, probably thanks to the cigar-chomping Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to Washington.

The book also documents two important general points. One is that the undeservedly wealthy Saudis have invested an estimated $860 billion in US companies and purchased US arms worth several hundred billions of dollars.

The other key fact demonstrated is that the Saudi royals have helped preserve their close link with the US by aiding successive administrations in unsavoury plots and plans.

These included arming the Nicaraguan contras, covertly arming Saddam in Iraq (in the days when it suited the US to encourage him), and using Saudi conduits to funnel money to the crazed Osama bin Laden himself (ditto).

Unlike Moore's film, the underlying Unger book is perfectly fastidious with the facts. But Unger's dots don't join up to make a conspiracy either.

For a start, they do not show that a Bin Laden directly funded Bush.

For another thing, the Bin Ladens are a huge clan, and knowing a single one of them does not automatically tar you with the Osama bin Laden brush.

Most important of all, there is a fundamental misreading of the nature of the relationships at work here. Many western politicians in the 70s, 80s and 90s sought to shake down the Saudis and relieve them of their oil money, either to prop up their local economies, or to line their personal pockets. Britain's Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was a case in point, and ended up going to jail as a result.

Naturally, this required the turning of a blind eye to the alarming characteristics of Saudi society - for example, its brutality, corruption, despotism, misogyny, fanaticism, hypocrisy, dishonesty and greed.

And equally naturally, it is very embarrassing for the likes of George Bush when the consequences of that sort of behaviour blow back in your face. Who would want to advertise it?

But this does not make a conspiracy. There is no real evidence in Unger's book that Bush wanted Osama bin Laden to escape, or that he invaded Iraq as a deliberate distraction.

In fact, the 9/11 commission last week blamed the Defence Department arch-hawk Paul Wolfowitz for the Iraq obsession, quoting the president telling Tony Blair that Iraq was not the immediate problem, whatever Wolfowitz said.

Moore's defenders say that, if not factually correct, then his film is in some way "essentially" true.

Iraqi babies and US blue-collar soldiers are indeed being blown to bits for no good reason. The west's unholy relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family's unholy relationship in turn with its barbaric Islamists, did, in a general sense, lead to 9/11. And western politicians do seem to want to distract us from those nasty facts.

But this makes Fahrenheit 9/11, in documentary terms at least, a fraud. The film is not journalism. It is an extended piece of stand-up - a satiric riff by one deeply hostile individual.

This shouldn't discourage people from going to this exhilarating movie. But it means that if you have a respect for accuracy, watching will be a guilty pleasure.