By Steven T. Jones
SF Bay Guardian
Sure, the people with the 9/11 conspiracy theories are a little odd. But not everything they’re saying is entirely crazy.
THE GRAND LAKE Theater in Oakland was filled almost to capacity March 10, just as the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park was the night before and the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco would be the next night, all for a documentary with bad production values and even worse leaps of logic.
This was the local premiere of The Great Conspiracy: The 9/11 News Special You Never Saw, a benefit screening for the Northern California 9/11 Truth Alliance, whose activists have been laboring for more than three years to dispel popular belief in the government’s version of the events on that fateful day.
And to fill that void, they offer a wide variety of alternative theories, carefully laid out in the dozens of books and DVDs that local truth-movement leader Carol Brouillet sold from a table in the theater lobby, or in the hundreds of Web sites devoted to debunking the official story.
Brouillet is what most people think of when they use the term “conspiracy theorist.” Ever since she saw the Oliver Stone film JFK — which she describes as her moment of awakening — she has been trafficking in the dark world of a shadow government executing secret plots. She’s been gathering every relevant document she can find, meticulously connecting every dot into an elaborate proof.
It is a worldview in which there are no tragic accidents or strange coincidences, no pieces that don’t fit into the puzzle, only a carefully orchestrated grand plan by powerful interests to achieve world domination. And for those who tend to see the world in this way, as Brouillet and others told me, “9/11 is the mother of all issues.”
The film by Canadian television producer Barrie Zwicker rehashed much of the disparate “evidence” that has been developed since 9/11: indications of an intentional military stand-down on the morning of 9/11, the belief that the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and Building 7 couldn’t have fallen the way they did without being laden with explosives, speculations as to what really hit the Pentagon.
The crowd at the Grand Lake was mostly true believers who had heard it all before and seemed a little bored by the event. After all, the presidential election is over, and the best opportunity to do something with this evidence has passed, turning the whole movement into little more than a giant echo chamber. More than half the crowd left after the film without staying for the discussion afterward with the filmmaker and other researchers.
Yet Zwicker and Brouillet feel hopeful that things are about to change, that the mainstream media will have to deal with this stuff at some point, that somehow, in some way, the people will rise up and finally demand a real investigation into 9/11.
Breakthrough moment! The intrepid San Francisco Bay Guardian FINALLY wades into the 9/11 fray. City editor Jones adroitly covers his “respectable journalist” ass with careful research and distanced language, but he also lays out the 9/11 truth movement’s official complicity case with admirable clarity and verve.
“Belief in the official story is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Zwicker told me. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the movement is gaining ground.”
They may be wrong about their chances for success anytime soon. Some of their theories are completely ridiculous. And when you talk with many of the people in this movement, they are passionate to the point of seeming crazy.
Yet the most disturbing thing about the 9/11 truth movement, something you learn when you really dissect their most compelling evidence, is that the activists are raising critically important questions about the Bush administration’s lies, cover-ups, and geopolitical strategy — questions that are being almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.
And they may well be right that more went down on 9/11 than the government wants us to know.
Pick a theory
Everyone who has seriously considered the 9/11 attacks is a conspiracy theorist. To not try to put the pieces together is to be incurious about the most profound event of this new American century.
The Bush administration offered its conspiracy theory while the buildings were still ablaze, has done little since then to deviate from it — and has done almost nothing to prove its veracity beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It goes like this: Nineteen fanatical Muslims conspired with Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to plan and execute the hijacking of four commercial airplanes using box cutters and the element of surprise, and to fly those planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and probably the White House.
Three of those planes hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy before the U.S. military could react — two of them causing the most catastrophic structural failures of steel skyscrapers in history — while a passenger rebellion in the fourth airplane forced the hijackers to crash it into a Pennsylvania field. All this was unexpected and couldn’t have been prevented. The attacks were an act of war launched by a well-organized and well-funded international terrorist operation.
To believe this theory, you must accept that, despite receiving an unprecedented flurry of intelligence warnings about imminent terrorist attacks on the United States, the military was caught so off guard that it couldn’t even pull the commander in chief out of his elementary-school photo op or get fighter jets in place during the 34 minutes between when the second tower and the Pentagon were hit — even though everyone knew that the United States was under attack and that Flight 77 was known to have been hijacked and was being tracked on radar the entire time it barreled toward the nation’s military headquarters. (Each of these facts is from the official 9/11 Commission Report.)
And you have to believe that the Bush administration cover-ups that came next — from denying information requests from the commission, Congress, and criminal courts to telling lies about its intelligence and actions — were entirely about avoiding political embarrassment or for some undisclosed national security reason, and that nothing more ominous (or related to the geopolitics of oil) was remotely intertwined with any of this.
You have to believe, in other words, that one of the most secretive and manipulative administrations in U.S. history is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about an event it has aggressively exploited to implement long-standing and far-reaching political plans, from the USA PATRIOT Act to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 9/11 truth movement has it own theories, which range from the plausible to the preposterous. One of them goes like this: A pair of Texas oilmen become president and vice president in 2000, thanks to support from the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, and neoconservative ideologues determined to have the United States retain its dominance as the last remaining superpower.
Those political leaders and strategists believe the key to continued U.S. economic and military supremacy — indeed, the American way of life — is control of Eurasia and its vast oil reserves. It’s a belief they’ve openly expressed in lectures, papers, and books. And their meetings with top energy officials confirm that the United States will need to have that control sooner than later, despite rising anti-Americanism in an area that also happens to be the center of the Islamic world.
They know the American people won’t support such crude empire building without some trigger, some “new Pearl Harbor,” as Dick Cheney’s Project for the New American Century called it in a paper it put out in 2000. So when they start getting intelligence briefings with titles like “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” they either simply do nothing, or maybe some faction of them actively facilitates this attack by the former Central Intelligence Agency asset’s terrorist group.
To believe this theory, you have to believe U.S. officials are willing to allow the deaths of thousands of innocent people — and to perpetuate a vast set of lies and cover-ups — in order to further what they consider to be vital U.S. strategic and economic interests. Put another way, you have to believe the attacks of 9/11 could have been another in a long line of appalling events in U.S. history that were manipulated and, in some cases, entirely fabricated as a pretext for war — from the sinking of the Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
It’s not terribly surprising that a lot of people — including people who are by no means crazy conspiracy theorists — are willing to consider that possibility.
“The official story of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory,” researcher Ken Jenkins told the International Inquiry into 9/11, a conference activists staged at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre a year ago. “So it’s not a matter of whether you believe in conspiracy theories, but a matter of which theory you believe.” Understandable paranoia
To blindly believe the U.S. government at times like these is to ignore history and dismiss warnings from people in positions to know how power is really wielded in this country.
Even before President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in 1961 about the secretive power of “the military-industrial complex,” a significant segment of the public already understood the world in those terms, employing what groundbreaking historian Richard Hofstadter in 1952 dubbed the “paranoid style of political thought.” He didn’t necessarily mean it in a derogatory way. As the old joke goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Since the dawn of civilization, there have been people whose worldviews were formed by the fear of enemies, real or imagined. But it was the 20th century that ushered in conspiracy theories as an important form of political communication, used by people to understand an increasingly complex world and by governments to manipulate their citizens.
It has little to do with ideology. Both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany effectively used conspiracy theories to maintain their power. In the United States, the paranoid style of political thought was most pervasive among conservatives, starting with the Russian Revolution, but it spread across the political spectrum after U.S. excesses in the cold war came to light.
Suddenly, it seemed crazy not to be paranoid, as people were targeted by a series of terrifying plots by mysterious forces: the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO, CIA-backed revolutions, medical and nuclear tests conducted on unknowing citizens, the rise of deceptive advertising and public relations campaigns, the recently declassified Operation Northwoods plan for the CIA to stage the downing of a commercial airliner as a pretext for invading Cuba, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra.
The Muslim world was also given good reason to be paranoid about covert U.S. influence as it watched the CIA help install the Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal family before propping up and then taking down Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In fact, many Muslims saw the first Gulf War as nothing but a pretext for building U.S. military bases in the region, which al-Qaeda cites as the reason for its terrorist attacks.
Under President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the paranoid style of political thought has become the dominant U.S. worldview, animating the administration’s foreign policy, its domestic suspension of civil liberties (and even its views on Social Security), and the themes and language of the president’s speeches — which are almost always based on the perception of threats to the American way of life.
Just consider this analysis from Hofstadter, which could today be applied equally to bin Laden, Bush, and the 9/11 truth movement writers: “A feeling of persecution is central to the paranoid style, but whereas the clinically paranoid person perceives a world hostile and conspiratorial against him or herself, the spokesperson for the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”
The movement begins
Michael Ruppert approaches investigations like a cop, which is what he was with the Los Angeles Police Department until 1978, when he says he got mixed up in an elaborate plot involving the CIA, Iran, international smugglers of arms and drugs, the Mafia, and the company Brown and Root, which (as Kellogg, Brown, and Root) is now a subsidiary of Halliburton.
Ever since then, he has been an investigator and journalist out on the political edge, using books, lectures, and his From the Wilderness Web site (www.copvcia.com) to build the case that the United States is run by a shadow government controlled by military and financial elites, funded by laundered drug profits and control of world gold and oil supplies, and bent on world domination.
So when 9/11 hit, Ruppert was one of the earliest and strongest critics of the official story, laying the foundation and basic framework for many truth movement researchers and writers who followed. All the 9/11 researchers and activists interviewed for this story give credit to Ruppert.
His basic argument is that there were just too many breakdowns in the intelligence and defense systems, too many facts that can’t be explained by the official theory, and too clear a motive and opportunity for Cheney (whom Ruppert, like many of his allies, believes is actually running the White House) to execute his imperial designs for this to have been anything other than an inside job.
“When you get to the bottom of all this, nobody did what they were supposed to be doing, and it shows very clear criminally negligent behavior at best, and I think you have a clear case for conspiracy,” he told last year’s conference in San Francisco.
That conference was convened by Brouillet, who told me she “knew it was a cover-up from the very beginning” but really became the untiring hub of the Bay Area’s 9/11 truth movement in February 2002, after seeing Ruppert speak in San Francisco.
Also involved from the beginning was longtime San Francisco writer, poet, and activist Don Paul, who wrote a column for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper a week after the attacks that said, “We can allow the possibility that at least part of the U.S. government at least allowed the attacks of 9/11.”
Ruppert elaborated on his theories in the book Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil, which is divided into sections on motive, means, and opportunity.
Although Ruppert bristles at the “conspiracy theorist” label, his theories about what happened on 9/11 can get pretty elaborate and hard to believe. He has argued that some of the planes were actually remote-controlled from Building 7, which was then demolished to destroy the evidence. He claims that a missile was actually what hit the Pentagon, while Flight 77 was secretly diverted to an evacuated airport in Cleveland, that the Twin Towers were felled by planned explosive demolitions and that they were likely looted of gold and other valuables first, and that the entire plot involved less than two dozen people.
Yet there is much of Ruppert’s theory that sheds some light on aspects of the Bush administration’s behavior that didn’t make sense before. For example, many pundits have puzzled over why Cheney has fought so voraciously to keep secret the records of the National Energy Policy Development Group he convened shortly after taking office.
He successfully fought efforts by Congress, the General Accounting Office (which sued the White House for the first time ever, backing off only after getting its budget threatened), Judicial Watch, and the Sierra Club to get those records, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which seemed strange for something as seemingly benign as energy policy — particularly given that the politically embarrassing revelation of Enron’s involvement had already been reported by the press.
Yet Ruppert postulates it was those meetings — held between January and April of 2001 — that confirmed for Cheney that the United States would face economic collapse unless it was able to take effective control of Eurasia (including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia), where 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves lie.
And as was made clear years earlier by the Project for the New American Century — convened by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and other powerful neocons — such a venture would require a “new Pearl Harbor” before the American people would support it.
“I’m convinced the deepest, darkest secrets of 9/11 are buried in that task force,” Ruppert told me.
The only records from the task force that have been released, seven pages Judicial Watch persuaded a judge to hand over, give a certain amount of credence to Ruppert’s view. They include detailed maps of the oil fields in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia and projects and contractors involved with those fields.
“These men, led by Dick Cheney, chose what they thought was their only logical option. I believe it seemed to them the ‘right’ thing to do; after all, it was only a few thousand lives,” Ruppert wrote. “I believe bin Laden was and remains a CIA/U.S. Government/Wall Street asset. That would explain why he has never been caught.”
While Ruppert and a few other writers and activists were developing and promoting their theories about what happened, the Bush administration did little to try to advance or prove its own explanation of the events of 9/11. In fact, the entire way the administration has operated in the past five years has only given the conspiracy theorists more grist for their mills.
It’s absolutely true, for example, that the government’s theory has never been subjected to the usual rigors applied to a case of mass murder. The government has never sought to have any of its evidence heard in a court of law. In fact, its refusal to make relevant witnesses and evidence available has caused the only successful 9/11-related prosecution — a German court’s conviction of Mounir el-Motassadeq on charges of helping alleged 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta’s terrorist cell in Hamburg — to be overturned on appeal last year.
Even Zacarias Moussaoui — an alleged coconspirator who acted suspiciously at flight school and was arrested by Minneapolis FBI agents the month before the attacks (agents who at the time told FBI headquarters they were “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center,” according to testimony to the 9/11 Commission) — has been ordered released by a judge because the federal government refuses to allow for his fair trial.
Congressional inquiries were obstructed and denied documents and testimony by the White House, yet even with a cursory review of the intelligence documents they could get, the hearings revealed the fact that the Bush administration had received dozens of urgent, credible warnings that the attacks were coming.
“It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings,” Rep. Cynthia McKinney, the only member of Congress who has consistently challenged the White House over 9/11, wrote on Truthout.org in May 2002. “The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure today’s revelations would have been hidden by the White House.”
Until then, Bush had opposed the creation of an independent commission to look into 9/11, even though such commissions have been formed immediately after every major U.S. tragedy, such as Pearl Harbor and JFK’s assassination. He finally bowed to political pressure from the victims’ families to allow the creation of a supposedly independent 9/11 Commission.
But who did Bush name to head the commission? Henry Kissinger, the man who oversaw more dastardly covert operations designed to further U.S. realpolitik interests than any person alive, someone who can’t even travel to many foreign countries because he’s sought as a material witness for so many ongoing war-crimes prosecutions. If you’re looking for someone to cover up your official misdeeds, Kissinger is the man. Unfortunately for Bush, Kissinger refused to disclose his client lists — something required under federal conflict of interests laws — so he didn’t get the job.
Instead, Republican Thomas Kean was picked to head the commission, and for executive director, he chose one of Bush’s own staffers, Phillip Zelikow, a neoconservative hawk who had cowritten a book with then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice — a key figure in the intelligence breakdown — who has since been promoted to secretary of state. Oh yeah, and she just recently hired Zelikow as a member of her staff.
Zelikow and Kean were also nice enough to let Bush and Cheney — both of whom 9/11 activists accuse of culpability in the attacks — testify together, in private, and without being placed under oath. And even after all that, the administration used its executive authority to classify whole sections of both the commission and congressional reports, most notably the section on Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden and 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers are from.
Despite consistent denials that the administration could have foreseen the attack, the New York Times recently reported on a classified section of The 9/11 Commission Report from the spring of 2001 in which the Federal Aviation Administration warned airports that if “the intent of the hijacker is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable” to a flight from overseas.
And the report that was released is riddled with contradictions, conclusions unsupported by the facts, apologias for gross incompetence, and the omission of any facts that don’t neatly fit with the official theory. It was, as a Harper’s Magazine cover story labeled it, a “whitewash” that “defrauds the nation.”
Investigation as whitewash
There are some obvious signs that the 9/11 Commission hadn’t sought for its report “to be independent, impartial, thorough, and nonpartisan,” as the authors billed it. Rather, it seemed to see its charge as providing a detailed proof of the government’s theory. One key sign is that it didn’t actually try to investigate who really hijacked those planes.
The 19 hijackers were identified by name on the morning of 9/11, names that were taken from the passenger logs and haven’t changed since. But in the days after 9/11, several of those identified hijackers contacted a variety of reputable news outlets — including the Guardian of London, the London Telegraph, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, Arab News, and Asharq al-Awsat — to say they were alive and innocent.
One of those alleged hijackers, Waleed al-Shehri — whom the U.S. government says was one of two “Shehri brothers” who helped crash Flight 11 into the World Trade Center — told the BBC, other journalists, and U.S. authorities just after the attacks that it was his picture in the papers and that he had indeed attended flight school in Daytona Beach, Fla., during the time the government says he did. But he was living in Morocco on 9/11 and working as a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Another alleged hijacker from the same flight, Abdulaziz al-Omari, told journalists he had lost his passport while studying in Denver.
Now, it’s entirely possible the real hijackers had stolen the identities of these and the five other identified hijackers who have turned up in various press reports. Yet what’s amazing is that the 9/11 Commission never even addressed the issue and stated the identities and backgrounds of the hijackers (all gathered from U.S. intelligence services) as if they were incontrovertible facts.
Such ambiguities would have really mucked up riveting prose like “As it began, some of the hijackers — most likely Wail al Shehri and Waleed al Shehri, who were seated in row 2 in first class — stabbed the two unarmed flight attendants who would have been preparing for cabin service.”
Yet The 9/11 Commission Report wasn’t really intended to be an investigation as much as it was meant to bring closure to this terrible period, to reassure everyone that the system worked, that problems were being fixed, and that everyone was going to be OK. And in that respect, it was a phenomenal success.
The book, with its built-in drama and relevance, spent weeks atop the best-seller lists and was even a finalist for the National Book Award. Like all good conspiracy-theory proofs, it explained everything in such staggering detail and such a tone of certainty that the casual, uninformed reader came away feeling convinced.
Curiouser and curiouser
Most people’s understanding of 9/11 snapped into place at some key moment, in most cases on that heart-wrenching morning as we watched the unspeakable tragedy unfold. We accepted the dominant story because the alternatives were too horrible to consider and we just haven’t wanted to revisit it.
Yet why haven’t the mainstream media raised the possibility of official complicity, or seriously questioned flaws in the official story?
“I think it’s a good question, but I don’t think we have a good answer,” said Aly Col?n of the Poynter Institute, a media foundation.
Modern standards of objective journalism make it difficult to raise speculative questions that reflect badly on official sources, but Col?n said the galvanization of patriotism that followed the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made it even tougher for journalists to question the accepted reality of 9/11.
“It is more challenging now to raise these kinds of questions than it had been before,” he told me.
But some items did break through the media filter, causing people to reexamine their beliefs about 9/11. One was the commission’s only true investigative success: its overcoming of White House opposition to publicly releasing the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” It mentions “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings.” Bush was handed the memo at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, at the start of a month-long vacation.
The other was the much-anticipated release of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, which carefully avoided suggesting official complicity in the attacks, taking issue only with how the White House used the attacks to further its imperial agenda and with Bush family ties to Saudi interests that might have facilitated the attacks.
But the film did expose people to the infamous video of Bush continuing to read to schoolchildren even after being told by an aide that the second tower had been hit and that “America is under attack.” We all got to watch our commander in chief do nothing for an unbearably long time as people were jumping from the Twin Towers, a hijacked plane was barreling toward the Pentagon, and Cheney was being whisked to a bunker by the Secret Service to take control of the situation.
Later, as the war waged in Iraq, it became increasingly clear the White House had lied about that country’s weapons of mass distraction. And we learned from former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke that the Iraq plans had been laid on 9/11 even though the officials acknowledged Hussein wasn’t responsible.
People began to take note. A Zogby poll taken just before last year’s Republican National Convention showed that 41 percent of New York State residents, and 49 percent of New York City residents, agreed with the statement that some U.S. officials “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around 9/11/01 and that they consciously failed to act.”
A fragmenting movement
But as the public reached its pinnacle of being open to considering alternative views of 9/11, the truth movement fractured into disparate subgroups, each pushing its own pet theories, torn by internal divisions over strategy, and unable to mount a cohesive strategy that would break through the din of election-year politics.
Ruppert implored the attendees at last year’s conference to keep it simple and break down their theories into 20-minute presentations based on direct evidence that U.S. officials had the motives, means, and opportunity, rather than on complex analyses of the physical evidence.
“We have to find the same sheet of music so we can sing the same notes,” Ruppert told the crowd.
Yet against the backdrop of a bloody war in Iraq, a high-stakes presidential race, and new 9/11 revelations unearthed by the commission and independent researchers, his warning went unheeded. There was just too much juicy stuff coming from all directions.
And frankly, the Rupperts of the world weren’t doing themselves any favors: their refusal to consider anything less than a grand conspiracy made it hard for the press to take them seriously. In the wake of the presidential election, Ruppert tells us he left the movement in frustration because “there’s no other public forum. There’s no other place to go.”
But other 9/11 activists soldier on undeterred, just as their compatriots in the effort to uncover who really killed JFK still meet to pore over the yellowing evidence of that crime. Time may prove them correct — just as polls now show most Americans don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — but justice is probably a long way off.
Bay Area residents Don Paul and Jim Hoffman recently met me at Caf? Abir in San Francisco to run through their evidence.
“Everywhere you probe, you find a hole, and the more you probe the hole, the more other problems come up,” Paul told me, later adding, “Internal explosives must have brought down the Twin Towers.”
Paul and Hoffman deeply believe this to be true, something they say is proved by the way the buildings fell — straight down, unslowed by their load-bearing steel frames — and by the way fine powder shot out the sides of the towers as they fell.
Having recently seen a PBS special and read the Popular Mechanics investigation that tried to debunk the explosives explanation and supported the government’s “pancake theory” — the notion that the upper parts of the buildings crushed the lower floors into one another — I argued with them for a while: Why wouldn’t the pressure of this collapse cause the dust? Why haven’t any reputable structural engineers supported your theory? How could they have planted so many explosives without being noticed?
Pretty soon our heated conversation was drawing attention from people around us, and random people started jumping in. And to my surprise, all of them expressed doubts over the official 9/11 story.
“It did not go down the way they said,” bystander Eric Basher said. “I don’t know if Bush did it, but something isn’t right here.”
E-mail Steven T. Jones