'The Looming Tower': Former FBI Agent Mark Rossini Says Hulu's New Show Gets It Right

It’s easy to understand why someone would want to turn Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower into a television series. Published in 2006, Wright’s deep-dive account of the long history and cross currents of Middle Eastern politics and Islamic militant rivalries that culminated in the birth of Al-Qaeda was eminently cinematic.

It took more than a decade for an adaptation to happen, but on February 28 Hulu released the first three episodes of its 10-part The Looming Tower series. Created by Wright, Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney, the government-centered docudrama features a large cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Alec Baldwin, and it has attracted a fair amount of attention in New York and Washington, where airplanes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

LT_102_JW_1012RT Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim in Hulu's "The Looming Tower." The series focuses more on the clashes between the FBI and the CIA than cross currents of Middle Eastern politics and Islamic militant rivalries. JoJo Whilden

But rather than attempt to replicate Wright’s global view of the sociopolitical events that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hulu’s Tower concentrates on the poisonous FBI-CIA rivalries and feckless policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that provided Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network with an opportunity.

As the terrorist plot unfolded in America in the summer of 2001, one of those assigned to Alec Station, the CIA's bin Laden unit, was FBI special agent Mark Rossini. As Rossini told Newsweek in January 2015, he and another FBI agent discovered that the CIA knew that two of the future hijackers were already in the U.S. But the agency kept that information from the FBI, possibly in hopes of recruiting the terrorists as double agents.

Newsweek spoke with Rossini, now based in Paris with a private intelligence firm, to get his his take on The Looming Tower.

mark-serious-suit-500nu-background Former FBI agent Mark Rossini markrossini.com

Did the show bring back any bad memories?

It was surreal. I was almost numb. I had the great pleasure of being present on the set and speaking with the actors and crew before and during the filming of two episodes. What I witnessed on the set was so moving it brought tears to my eyes. For the crew and actors, I knew this was not just another job. This was real and raw and it meant something special to them that they were recreating history and telling a story. All that time on the set, and watching the screening—as in most days of my life—brings back bad memories.

How accurate is The Looming Tower, in terms of what you experienced leading up to 9/11?

I did not see all 10 episodes, but from the three that I did see they were accurate in telling the story of what was going on inside the FBI and CIA.

The show creates composite characters for dramatic purposes. Does that subtract from its veracity?

No. Not at all. While a few of us were pieced together in characters, the story—the reality—is shown.

LT_104_JW_0868RT Wrenn Schmidt and Peter Sarsgaard shoot a scene for Hulu's "The Looming Tower." JoJo Whilden

You were at the center of one of the most troubling episodes leading up to 9/11, when the CIA refused to allow you and another FBI agent to alert your headquarters that two Al-Qaeda operatives were already inside the US. How does The Looming Tower deal with that?

Unfortunately, I have not seen that episode, but I am told by the cast and [fellow FBI counterterrorism agent] Ali Soufan that it is portrayed effectively. I am glad I have not seen it—I don’t know if I am ready to watch it. I am a bit nervous. I still cannot watch footage of the planes hitting the towers. I turn the TV off or walk away.

For millions of Americans, especially those under 25 years old, 9/11 is ancient history. What’s the one thing you want them to take away from the show?

I want them to know that “It” did not have to happen, and I want them to know why. I want them to know the truth. I would tell them to not get distracted by all the looney conspiracy theories. Read, study and educate yourself. And finally, to please read the document I’ve put together on the whole thing.