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9/11: Wild Conspiracies and Rational Concerns

Even when you cut through the conspiracy theories about 9/11 and head straight for the facts, the government's version still seems fuzzy.
 
 
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According to a recent Zogby poll, less than half of all Americans agree that "the 9/11 attacks were thoroughly investigated and that any speculation about U.S. government involvement is nonsense."

You could almost hear a wail of frustration rising up from the gatekeepers of acceptable discourse.

Just after the Zogby poll was released, William Arkin, the Washington Post's normally circumspect military affairs columnist, had a fit of apoplexy over some e-mail from 9/11 skeptics. "National security is men's work," he wrote -- absurdly bringing gender politics into a debate that's already quite muddled -- and conspiracy theorists are, presumably, not real men, but "predatory and devious, seekers of polarization and not light, abusive of the political system [and] contemptuous of anything that even resembles the 'truth.'"

One wonders what he really thinks.

Outside of the world of punditry, the 9/11 conspiracies should come as no surprise, especially when you consider how ripe the events of 9/11 are for "alternative" analysis.

That begins with the basic premise that underlies the most common conspiracy theories. I, for one, have no problem accepting the notion that a small group of true believers -- people like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon "cabal" -- used the attacks of 9/11 to seize and consolidate power. And I'm comfortable accepting that they view liberal democracy as a threat, their political opponents as a national weakness, and American militarism as the best hope for humanity.

They've proved, to my mind, that they're happiest when governing in secrecy -- a prerequisite for a conspiracy. Think about the administration's obsession with classifying everything under the sun, or Dick Cheney going all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid divulging who, exactly, crafted America's energy policy.

The administration's hardliners also represent a nexus between the more authoritarian end of our political spectrum and the anti-egalitarian business Right; the administration and its backers, allies and former partners are making an unprecedented fortune in all corners of the "war on terror," and that goes to motive.

It's a group of ideologues that knows its prescriptions aren't popular. The Project for a New American Century, where a "White House in waiting" of hard-right operatives weathered the Clinton years, urged a massive "rebuilding" of America's military capabilities ( PDF), but warned that it wouldn't be easy unless there was a major attack on the American homeland. "The process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor," they wrote.

And while Arkin might consider the preceding paragraph evidence of the most "predatory and devious" kind of fringe thinking, I’d say it’s simply naïve to dismiss the many occasions in history when exaggerated or false external threats were used to rally a nation to a war footing (and abridge civil rights at home) -- from the explosion aboard the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor to the Reichstag fire to the Gulf of Tonkin.

So you have suspects and motive, and they accord more or less with some distinctly mainstream progressive analyses. That's not, however, evidence of anything. So, to repeat, while there's a pretty clear record of Bush Republicans taking advantage of 9/11 - think Rudy Giuliani's 2004 GOP convention speech that mentioned September 11 four score times - there's nothing concrete to suggest that they were behind it.

Indeed the place to start considering the events behind 9/11 is to look at the federal government's official version of what happened and see if it's accurate. If there are holes or serious flaws -- and there are -- then we should try to get an accurate version of what happened and proceed from there.

Let's start with a simple fundamental problem with the 9/11 report:

We may not know who all the hijackers really were.

Three days after the attack, the FBI released the names of those infamous 19 hijackers (photos here).

But the following was reported, not on some fringe website, but by the BBC on Sept. 23:

Another of the men named by the FBI as a hijacker in the suicide attacks on Washington and New York has turned up alive and well.

Saudi Arabian pilot Waleed Al Shehri was one of five men that the FBI said had deliberately crashed American Airlines flight 11 into the World Trade Centre on 11 September.

His photograph was released, and has since appeared in newspapers and on television around the world.

Now he is protesting his innocence from Casablanca, Morocco. …

He acknowledges that he attended flight training school at Daytona Beach in the United States, and is indeed the same Waleed Al Shehri to whom the FBI has been referring. …

Abdulaziz Al Omari, another of the Flight 11 hijack suspects, has also been quoted in Arab news reports.

Abdelaziz Al Omari "lost his passport in Denver." He says he is an engineer with Saudi Telecoms, and that he lost his passport while studying in Denver. …

Meanwhile, Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, a London-based Arabic daily, says it has interviewed Saeed Alghamdi.

Khalid Al-Midhar may also be alive.

He was listed by the FBI as a hijacker in the United flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.

FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged on Thursday that the identity of several of the suicide hijackers is in doubt.

But if you go to the 9/11 Commission report, and look at pages 38 and 39 in section seven ( PDF) you'll see the same 19 hijackers without any suggestion that there's a doubt about their identities. Mueller later said all the doubts were resolved, according to CBS. But what about the guys who are saying that the rumors of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated?

In my research for this article, I went through several websites dedicated to debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories, but was unable to find anything disputing the BBC story (and anyone who has contrary evidence is invited to send it to me or post a refutation in the comments section of this article).

Besides the doubt around the identities of the hijackers, there were also two passports belonging to the hijackers that were supposedly found, intact, near the World Trade Center. That was reported by the Associated Press (citing CBS News) and the British newspaper, the Guardian.

There's a pretty clear dividing line between the idea that the Bush administration's ideologues used the attacks of 9/11 to consolidate power and the idea that they participated in those attacks. The former is a fairly mainstream liberal critique; the latter is rank conspiracy theory, unsupported by any serious evidence.

Having taken a long bath in the world of 9/11 conspiracism, I still think the most likely scenario is that the Bush administration was obsessed with rival powers -- Russia and China -- and ignored the terror issue. After the attacks, the security agencies were under enormous, unrelenting pressure to show Americans they were in control and they needed to show that they were on top of the investigation at all costs. These things would certainly require sanitizing in the 9/11 report and other official narratives for the sake of expediency and creating the appearance that the government was on the job.

Having said that, I'd also be receptive to evidence that the Bush administration had a far greater degree of knowledge about the how and why of the attacks, and looked the other way and let them happen. All I'd need to buy that would be a bit of evidence. After all, we've recently learned in a report published on AlterNet that New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had a direct link to the most powerful office in Washington (Dick Cheney's), said she had been warned of a terrorist attack.

But that kind of evidence is almost certainly not forthcoming; there will be no further serious investigation into the events of 9/11. Ironically, that's largely because of the 9/11 "truth movement" itself -- by embracing fanciful notions that the government blew up the World Trade Center with thermite charges, or that the Pentagon was hit by a missile -- makes it hard for the rest of us to express rational skepticism of the official account.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.