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The Disbelievers

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By Michael Powell

Washington Post

September 8, 2006

He felt no shiver of doubt in those first terrible hours.

He watched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and assumed al-Qaeda had wreaked terrible vengeance. He listened to anchors and military experts and assumed the facts of Sept. 11, 2001, were as stated on the screen.

It was a year before David Ray Griffin, an eminent liberal theologian and philosopher, began his stroll down the path of disbelief. He wondered why Bush listened to a child’s story while the nation was attacked and how Osama bin Laden, America’s Public Enemy No. 1, escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora.

He wondered why 110-story towers crashed and military jets failed to intercept even one airliner. He read the 9/11 Commission report with a swell of anger. Contradictions were ignored and no military or civilian official was reprimanded, much less cashiered.

“To me, the report read as a cartoon.” White-haired and courtly, Griffin sits on a couch in a hotel lobby in Manhattan, unspooling words in that reasonable Presbyterian minister’s voice. “It’s a much greater stretch to accept the official conspiracy story than to consider the alternatives.”

Such as?

“There was massive complicity in this attack by U.S. government operatives.”

If that feels like a skip off the cliff of established reality, more Americans are in free fall than you might guess. There are few more startling measures of American distrust of leaders than the widespread belief that the Bush administration had a hand in the attacks of Sept. 11 in order to spark an invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

A recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 Americans found that 36 percent suspect the U.S. government promoted the attacks or intentionally sat on its hands. Sixteen percent believe explosives brought down the towers. Twelve percent believe a cruise missile hit the Pentagon.

Distrust percolates more strongly near Ground Zero. A Zogby International poll of New York City residents two years ago found 49.3 percent believed the government “consciously failed to act.”

You could dismiss this as a louder than usual howl from the CIA-controls-my-thoughts-through-the-filling-in-my-molar crowd. Establishment assessments of the believers tend toward the psychotherapeutic. Many academics, politicians and thinkers left, right and center say the conspiracy theories are a case of one plus one equals five. It’s a piling up of improbabilities.

Thomas Eager, a professor of materials science at MIT, has studied the collapse of the twin towers. “At first, I thought it was amazing that the buildings would come down in their own footprints,” Eager says. “Then I realized that it wasn’t that amazing — it’s the only way a building that weighs a million tons and is 95 percent air can come down.”

But the chatter out there is loud enough for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to post a Web “fact sheet” poking holes in the conspiracy theories and defending its report on the towers.

Yeah, as if . . .

The loose agglomeration known as the “9/11 Truth Movement” has stopped looking for truth from the government. As cacophonous and free-range a bunch of conspiracists anywhere this side of Guy Fawkes, they produce hip-hop inflected documentaries and scholarly conferences. The Web is their mother lode. Every citizen is a researcher. There’s nothing like a triple, Google-fed epiphany lighting up the laptop at 2:44 a.m.

Did you see that the CIA met with bin Laden in a hospital room in Dubai? Check out this Pakistani site, there are really weird doings in Baluchistan . . .

The academic wing is led by Griffin, who founded the Center for a Postmodern World at Claremont University; James Fetzer, a tenured philosopher at the University of Minnesota (Fetzer’s an old hand in JFK assassination research); and Daniel Orr, the retired chairman of the economics department at the University of Illinois. The movement’s de facto minister of engineering is Steven Jones, a tenured physics professor at Brigham Young University, who’s studied vectors and velocities and tested explosives and concluded that the collapse of the twin towers is best explained as controlled demolition, sped by a thousand pounds of high-grade thermite.

Former Reagan aide Barbara Honegger is a senior military affairs journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. She’s convinced, based on her freelance research, that a bomb went off about six minutes before an airplane hit the Pentagon — or didn’t hit it, as some believe the case may be. Catherine Austin Fitts served as assistant secretary of housing in the first President Bush’s administration and gained a fine reputation as a fraud buster; David Bowman was chief of advanced space programs under presidents Ford and Carter. Fitts and Bowman agree that the “most unbelievable conspiracy” theory is the one retailed by the government.

Then there’s Morgan O. Reynolds, appointed by George W. Bush as chief economist at the Labor Department. He left in 2002 and doesn’t think much of his former boss; he describes President Bush as a “dysfunctional creep,” not to mention a “possible war criminal.”

You reach Reynolds at his country home in the hills of Arkansas. His favored rhetorical style is long paragraphs without obvious punctuation: “Who did it? Elements of our government and M-16 and the Mossad. The government’s case is a laugh-out-loud proposition. They used patsies and lies and subterfuge and there’s no way that Bush and Cheney could have invaded Iraq without the help of 9/11.”

They are cantankerous and sometimes distrust each other — who knows where the double agents lurk? But unreasonable questions resonate with the reasonable. Colleen Kelly’s brother, a salesman, had breakfast at the Windows on the World restaurant on Sept. 11. After he died she founded September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows to oppose the Iraq war. She lives in the Bronx and gives a gingerly embrace to the conspiracy crowd.

“Sometimes I listen to them and I think that’s sooooo outlandish and bizarre,” she says. “But that day had such disastrous geopolitical consequences. If David Ray Griffin asks uncomfortable questions and points out painful discrepancies? Good for him.”

Griffin’s book, “The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11,” never reviewed in a major U.S. newspaper, sold more than 100,000 copies and became a movement founding stone. Last year he traveled through New England, giving speeches in whitewashed churches and gymnasiums. He came to West Hartford, Conn., on a rainy autumn evening. Four hundred mostly middle-aged and upper-middle-class doctors and lawyers, teachers and social workers sat waiting.

Griffin took the podium and laid down his ideas with calm and cool. He concluded:

“It is already possible to know beyond a reasonable doubt one very important thing: The destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job, orchestrated by domestic terrorists,” he says. “The welfare of our republic and perhaps even the survival of our civilization depend on getting the truth about 9/11 exposed.”

The audience rose and applauded for more than a minute.

“Reality is a thin line between denial and paranoia.”

– Author unknown, but often quoted by the 9/11 truth movement

“Me?” You’ve asked the Rev. Frank Morales, the bohemian Episcopalian minister with the hipster goatee, where he stands on the nature of the conspiracy. We’re standing in the ancient graveyard of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery on Second Avenue. “I lean to LIHOP.”

The 9/11 truthers share a lieutenant colonel’s love of acronyms. They divide themselves into LIHOPS and MIHOPS and differences are not trifling. LIHOP stands for “Let It Happen On Purpose,” which means someone inside the U.S. government intentionally let the terror conspiracy go. MIHOP means “Made It Happen On Purpose,” and its gradations center on whether Bush was in or out of the loop (a surprising number believe he was clueless) and whether the Mossad or British intelligence was dealt into the deal.

Morales, 57, who came out of the Lower East Side housing projects, spent days at Ground Zero performing last rites for the dead, many little more than a collection of body parts.

“I didn’t presume to know who did it,” he says. “There was a lot of shucking and jiving. I wonder at what point massive incompetence crosses over into negligent homicide.”

To make sense of the truth movement’s anger, you need to hit the rewind button to early 2001, with the hindsight of today. There was, as the 9/11 Commission hearings made clear, a bad moon rising. Warnings kept coming of a “high probability” of a “spectacular” terrorist attack. A national security adviser warned Condoleezza Rice there were terrorist cells, probably al-Qaeda guys, in the country. CIA chief George Tenet said the “system was blinking red.”

A presidential bulletin on Aug. 6 had a catchy title: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Bush did not discuss it again with Tenet before Sept. 11.

So give the truth movement, many of whom are based in New York City, their props. They may be paranoid, but something nasty came our way. They pore over the paper trail with a Sherlock Holmesian intensity, alert to intriguing discrepancy.

Such as:

Former transporation secretary Norman Mineta told the commission he arrived in the presidential operations center — under the White House — at 9:20 a.m. on Sept. 11 and found Vice President Cheney. When an aide asked Cheney about the hijacked plane fast approaching the Pentagon, Mineta says the vice president snapped that the “orders still stand.” Mineta assumed the orders were to shoot the plane down. Conspiracy theorists interpret this to mean: Don’t shoot it down.

Cheney later said he was not in the operations center until after the plane hit. The commission never mentioned Mineta’s contradictory version.

In September 2001, NORAD generals said they learned of the hijackings in time to scramble fighter jets. But the government recently released tapes claiming to show the FAA did not tell the military about the hijackings until three of the four planes had crashed.

That would mean the FAA repeatedly lied. It would also mean, as Griffin points out, that the entire military chain of command stayed quiet about huge inaccuracies for four years “even though . . . the true story would put the military in a better light.”

More mysteries pile up. The 9/11 Commission says Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37. But Honegger says clocks stopped at the Pentagon at 9:32. Then there’s the collapse of the twin towers, which Jones, the physics professor, timed at just short of free fall. Griffin cites firefighters, including a captain, who said in hearings and on tapes from that day that they saw flashes and heard the sound of explosions before the collapse.

“It’s like the Nazi-facilitated Reichstag fire,” Honegger says from her home in California. “They guided and secretly protected it to justify their global agenda.”

Let’s put aside the could-anyone-do-something-that-spectacularly-twisted? question and touch on practicalities. Isn’t the problem with big ugly conspiracies — from the Gulf of Tonkin to My Lai to the 1961 Pentagon plan to provoke a war by attacking Americans and blaming it on Castro — that they are too big and ugly to keep secret?

Griffin shrugs. History is littered with government black-bag jobs. “How do you know they can’t keep big secrets? Can you be sure you know what you don’t know?”

* * *

There is a “morning after” quality to the conspiratorial romance. One moment you groove on the epiphanies and the next moment you’re lost in a dull haze of “this cannot be a coincidence,” “perhaps significantly” and “if so . . .”

What of incompetence? Or the raw absurdity of life? The truth movement makes much of a 2001 BBC report that a half-dozen of the hijackers were still alive. They mention Waleed al Shehri, a pilot who still flies commercial runs in Morocco. But the BBC retracted that.

It turns out the live guy and the dead hijacker spelled their names differently.

Then there’s the theory that Flight 77 did not hit the Pentagon and United 93 did not crash in Shanksville, Pa. But, like, what happened to the passengers? (Among the passengers on Flight 77 was Barbara Olson, wife of former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson).

“Why should any of us know where it went?” Griffin says. “It could have been it crashed in Kentucky. We don’t need a theory where it went.”

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-based left-leaning think tank, is no fan of the 9/11 Commission. He believes a serious investigation should have led to indictments and the firing of incompetent generals and civilian officials.

But he has no patience with the conspiracy theorists.

“They don’t do their homework; it’s a kind of charlatanism,” Berlet says over the phone. “They say there’s no debris on the lawn in front of the Pentagon, but they base their analysis on a photo on the Internet . That’s like analyzing an impressionist painting by looking at a postcard.”

Now comes a loud sigh.

“I love ‘The X-Files’ but I don’t base my research on it,” he says. “My vision of hell is having to review these [conspiracy] books over and over again.”

Let’s move on to Eager of MIT. “Demolition experts say, ‘Ohhh, it’s all science and timing.’ Bull!” Eager says. “What’s the technique? If 200,000 tons gives way, where do you think it’s going? Straight down.”

In the days after Sept. 11, experts claimed temperatures reached 2,000 degrees on the upper floors. Others claimed steel melted. Nope. What happened, Eager says, is that jet fuel sloshed around and beams got rubbery.

“It’s not too much to think that you could have some regions at 900 degrees and others at 1,200 degrees, and that will distort the beams.”

The truth movement doesn’t really care for Eager. A Web site casts a fisheye of suspicion at the professor and his colleagues. “Did the MIT have prior knowledge?” notes one chat room. “This is for sure another speculative topic . . . “

“It is no measure of health to be sane in an insane society.”

– Krishnamurti

Nico Haupt, a gaunt fellow in black sneakers, black socks, black jeans and black T-shirt, stands up in St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. He holds aloft two blue Oreos boxes taped to resemble the twin towers. A pen juts out, kind of like a Boeing airplane.

For an hour he’s shown videos of planes hitting the towers. If you note the glinting sunlight and angle of wings and you’re honest about vectors and maybe the hashish is kicking in, you’ll realize there were no planes .

Truth movement veterans distance themselves from Haupt, who has a bit of a temper. But Reynolds, the former Labor Department economist, also is a “no-planer.”

“There were no planes, there were no hijackers,” Reynolds insists. “I know, I know, I’m out of the mainstream, but that’s the way it is.”

But what about all those New Yorkers who saw airplanes hitting the twin towers? A chuckle rumbles down the phone line. “I don’t believe anyone in Lower Manhattan,” he says. “You hire three dozen Actors’ Equity dudes and they’ll say anything .”

Some days the 9/11 truth movement resembles an Italian coalition government — dissolution is a certainty. Honegger and Griffin believe bombs brought down the twin towers but have little truck with make-believe planes. There’s a faction that says the Mossad did it and another that says that’s insane, and maybe anti-Semitic.

Where are we going here? There’s a Journal of 9/11 Studies, documentaries, CDs and DVDs. Is conspiracy thought getting codified?

“That’s our worry, of course,” Griffin says. “I want my life back. But how can I ignore that we have become entranced by demonic power, so focused on lust for wealth and control that almost anything becomes possible?”

You reach Honegger a few nights later. She’d like to give it up, too. “I am sitting here in my little office trying to figure out what happened to my country on this day. I wouldn’t be a patriot if I didn’t try to prove the government’s story is preposterous.”