Decoding the Secrets of JFK and 9/11

Conspiracies are a staple of American political discourse. They are like popcorn for movie-goers, "The Da Vinci Code" for mystery freaks. Extraordinary events occur in American life, and the official explanations can seem flimsy, unconvincing, even downright deceitful. In any discussion of recent American history, there is always someone lurking on the margins, ready to explain surface confusions and contradictions by invoking a "secret code" that makes plain an underlying, long-hidden and often breathtaking reality.

Conspiracies also live long lives, and often events viewed with certainty in one era are viewed wholly differently in another.

For evidence of this process look no further than the most vexing conspiracy in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. For decades, there was wide agreement that there was no conspiracy at all. Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, in a lonely if incomprehensible act. The death traumatized the U.S. and remains perhaps the most riveting, sad and perplexing moment in our nation's past.

The Warren Commission, charged with investigating Kennedy's murder, pleased few people, and for years conspiracy theories flourished, centered around the idea that only a group could have killed the president in Dallas, and that this group probably was directed by rogue elements in the CIA, the organized crime group known as the Mafia and Cuban exiles disappointed by Kennedy's failure to follow through with a coup against nationalist leader Fidel Castro.

But over time, doubts about Oswald's supreme role were dispelled, and as recently as a decade ago, an acclaimed book entitled "Case Closed" persuasively argued for a lone gunman.

Over the past 10 years, however, new evidence, chiefly in the form of recollections by close associates of President Kennedy and newly released government documents, have caused a sea-change in our understanding of the Kennedy assassination. Much of this evidence is cogently presented in a new book, "Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK." Written by the dogged Lamar Waldron, one of the premier researchers into Kennedy's death (and with the assistance of writer Thom Hartmann), "Ultimate Sacrifice" demolishes the lone-gunmen theory. Among the book's most startling revelations is the rock-solid account of a planned attempt on JFK's life in Tampa, Fla., only days before his murder in Dallas.

Questions remain about exactly who organized Kennedy's death and why. Waldron presents strong evidence that organized crime figures, angered by an attack on their interests by the Kennedy administration, took revenge on the president. He explains the subsequent government cover-up by saying Kennedy loyalists wished not to disclose the truth about further efforts to depose Fidel Castro. An alternative theory, recently expressed by David Talbot, the founding editor of Salon, who is writing a biography of Robert F. Kennedy, gives a grander role in the assassination to rogue elements of the CIA.

The details are important, but the larger meaning of our new understanding of the Kennedy assassination leads some to wonder if the official version of the second-most important conspiracy in American history -- the conspiracy to launch the 9/11 attacks -- may not be accurately decoded for many years.

The C-word

At Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the speaker of the C-word was none other than the master of ceremonies himself, President George Bush. On the heels of reminding us that "our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home," Bush uttered the C-word in reference to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It is said that, prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy," Bush declared. The president offered no evidence for his conspiracy theory because the implication was clear: Everyone knows we have "connected the dots" and know what happened on 9/11.

But have the dots been connected? Has the conspiracy behind 9/11 been decoded?

Bush evinces no doubt. "We now know," he says, "that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to Al Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late."

In a nutshell, in his State of the Union speech, Bush presented the official version of 9/11. Through a combination of incompetence and complacency, and the cunning of a determined enemy, the sworn guardians of the American people were "too late" to stop a conspiracy that resulted in a devastating attack. Were they?

Since the president himself presents a Republican conspiracy theory to explain 9/11, some critics of the president counter with a conspiracy theory of their own: the possibility that the attacks of 9/11 were encouraged by elements of the U.S. government, or that the government looked the other way, permitting al Qaida to carry out its attack on "the homeland." The most persuasive reason to consider a counterconspiracy comes after tallying the beneficiaries of the attacks, chiefly President Bush who, it is often said, has exploited the attacks repeatedly for political gain. The attacks of 9/11 enabled Bush to define his rudderless presidency and to mount an invasion of Iraq, which in hindsight was the ambitious goal of his first term.

There are of course many puzzling circumstances surrounding the 9/11 attacks, virtually all of them compiled and analyzed in a recent book by two British authors, "9/11 Revealed: The Unanswered Questions." In their skillful survey of "alternative scenarios," Rowland Morgan and Ian Henshall sow many doubts about the official version of 9/11. How did so many of the hijackers gain valid entry into the U.S? Why were they so free to operate? Why were the country's air defenses not triggered after the hijacked planes veered off course? In what ways did the Pakistani and Saudi governments assist the hijackers? Were the hijackers in the U.S. for another purpose and then double-crossed their U.S. sponsors in a classic, if horrible, case of blowback?

While these and other questions raise doubts about the official version of 9/11, they don't yet add up to a persuasive counterconspiracy theory.

To leave open the possibility that President Bush has not come clean about 9/11 is not necessarily to enter into a loony house of mirrors but rather to raise serious questions in a grand American tradition. President Bush himself was bred on conspiracy theories. When he was a child in the 1950s, America was still gripped by the fear that a vast Communist conspiracy controlled the country. Agents were planted everywhere. Even the fluoride in American water systems was part of the plot. The chief conspiracy theorist in this era was Joe McCarthy, a U.S. senator who shrewdly manipulated fears of secret communist plots to promote his own political interests.

McCarthy was a scoundrel, and probably insane. But in 1951 he uttered words that can be safely said today by honest critics of the official version of the 9/11 attacks -- a version that is predicated on a large number of peculiar lapses by otherwise capable government officials. As McCarthy said to the America of George Bush's childhood:

"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."

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