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Digital Tools to Sift Through WikiLeaks’ 9/11 Messages

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City Room Blog – NYTimes.com
by Jennifer 8. Lee

Jeff Clark used pager message data released by WikiLeaks to created a visualization of the events of the day. The words, which are sized to their overall frequency over a 24-hour period starting from 3 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, brighten and fade in the video depending on how often they were used.

Programmers are introducing tools to analyze the hundreds of thousands of pager messages, supposedly dating from Sept. 11, released last week by WikiLeaks, an organization that releases sensitive documents and materials.

More than half a million messages were released by WikiLeaks, which has not disclosed who turned over the messages. Jeff Clark, a data visualization research who is not involved in WikiLeaks, interpreted the data in the aggregate, creating a video that shows the most commonly used terms that day, like “complex has evacuated” or “possible terrorist act.” The words grow brightest when they hit their peak and are sized by how frequently there were used.

“I recognize the pager data was very much like Twitter data, because it’s basically a time stamp with a bit of text,” said Mr. Clark, who had done work with Twitter.

He also created small time lines showing when certain key phrases hit their peaks, and then ordered the phrases by the peak time to create a moving narrative of the day.

Over the weekend, another programmer, Colin Keigher, created a searchable database of the messages, which makes them much easier to parse than the original 40-megabyte file. “I made it in a format that was easier for everyone else,” he said.

There is no way to verify the authenticity of the messages, and the programmers say their data comes entirely from WikiLeaks.

Daniel Schmitt, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, said that the organization would not reveal the source of the intercepted messages, but that the messages represented the traffic on the top four pager services at the time. The pages were identified by message number, but it was not clear from most of the messages who was the sender and who was the recipient. The messages come from a program that was monitoring such messages before Sept. 11 attacks even took place, and Mr. Schmitt said the organization believed it had been given the information to raise awareness around issues of privacy and data retention.

The search tools allow people to find the individual messages, which are chilling — especially ones from the front lines of the emergency personnel and airline employees who were watching everything unfold in real time. Of the voluminous mass of messages, a few stood out. (The messages cited below are quoted verbatim, including errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.)

After the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, crashed at 8:46 a.m. into the World Trade Center’s north tower, the initial impression at 8:50 a.m. was that the explosion may have been a bomb:

1)BOMB DETINATED IN WORLD TRADE CTR. PLS GET BACK TO MIKE BRADY W/A QUICK ASSESSMENT OF YOUR AREAS AND CONTACT US IF ANYTHING IS NEEDED

The first, spartan message sent out by New York police officials was no more alarming than numerous emergencies that the police had dealt with before:

“NYPDOps Div” < |1 PCT WORLD TRADE CENTER|— 1 PCT — WORLD TRADE CENTER — POSSIBLE EXPLOSION WORLD TRADE BUILDING

But it soon became clear that it was a plane crash, and news organizations from NBC to CNN began reporting the story — initially described by many as an accident involving a small plane. But a message sent at 8:58 a.m. — four minutes before the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the World Trade Center’s south tower — apparently revealed that someone understood that American Airlines 11 had been hijacked.

Initialreports indictate that AAL11, B767, after initial hijacking on flight from BOS-LAX, has crashed into the side of the World Trade Center in ATCSCC/bl

Another message at 9:02 a.m. showed that the news was traveling.

BREAKINGNEWS: PER OPB, IT APPEARS AA 757 HIJACKED AND RUN INTO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER. THIS IS NOT A JOKE AND JUST BREAKING RICK-Rick

Minutes later, at 9:04, one of the first reports of the second plane crash was sent, though many were watching on television at the time.

anotherexplosion wtc!!!.

At that point, terrorism started being raised as a possibility.

But one of the most chilling messages was one apparently sent at 9:12 a.m. as internal United Airlines communication:

AAL757 has crashed into the world trade center… were missing UAL 175.(767) and a 2nd aircraft has crasshed into the other twr of the World Trade Center. Barber

By 9:16 a.m., both airplanes had been identified:

EWRarpt clsd by PONYA: 2nd a/c has impacted WTC; ZNY ATC 0 due events; unable to confirm but believe aircraft were AAL11 BOS-LAX; and UAL175 NY ATCSCC/bl

Within a minute of the 9:37 a.m. plane crash into the Pentagon, pager messages trickled out, many from Defense Department employees or visitors: “Explosionat Pentagon too,” “anexplosion at the Pentagon Bldg. This bizzare!” “PENTAGONMAY HAVE HAD TROUBLE,” “Blast@ Pentagon|Just a few ago.”

At 10:01 a.m., reports of the south tower collapse appeared: “Southerntower collapse,” “Oneof the towers has now collapsed,” “heENTIRE Tower has collapsed. All 110 floors GONE!!!”

And by 10:02 a.m., the possibility of a fourth hijacked plane was raised: United Airlines 93, which crashed 80 miles southwest of Pittsburgh just seconds before the message below was sent.

ANOTHERPLANE INBOUND FROM PITTSBURGH HIJACKED NO OTHER DETAILS JOC

Within hours of the initial attacks, some messages raised the possibility that Osama bin Laden might be behind the attacks: “Ben Laden most likely responsible,” “Justchecking in. They don’t know who is responsible yet (they think Laden),” “Osama bin Laden top of suspect list for Robyn” and “OsamaBin Louden gave a report to an Arabic newspaper that the US was going to suffer attacks.”

The messages were also full of early misinformation. One message repeated a false report that the military had brought down United Airlines 93 in Somerset County, Pa., while others echoed reports of a fire on the Washington Mall.