A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA
Copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
9/11 videos and the pursuit of truth
by Christopher Sharrett
As the monstrous, unprovoked war by the U.S. on Iraq turns into an unmitigated disaster, the lies that caused the U.S. population initially to accept the invasion need revisiting. At this writing, only the most unthinking, gung-ho sectors of our population would swallow the Orwellian notion that “peace and democracy” have been the basic goals of an assault that has taken at least 600,000 Iraqi lives and over 4o00 U.S. military personnel. The earlier lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction poised for use against the U.S. was transparent to anyone with a passing knowledge of Iraq’s service as a U.S. client state. With the devastating impact of the 1991 Gulf War (Fig. 1) and subsequent economic sanctions, Iraq was reduced to Third World status, its industrial infrastructure mostly gone, including weapons that Iraq used in the 1980s, with U.S. approval, to subdue Iran and internal resistance movements. The foundational lie underneath the Iraq war is, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Iraq’s hinted involvement therein.
The assaults on New York and Washington of 2001 — represented by the apocalyptic numerals “9/11” — stay in the public consciousness in part due to their fusion (Fig. 2) to a steady stream of anxiety-producing, color-coded “terror alerts” that have succeeded in making the U.S. people let pass with little criticism a host of draconian laws challenging the Bill of Rights. This state of affairs is generally accepted by Democratic and Republican politicians with little or no fuss as the way we now live, even with an unremitting cascade of official lies discernable to anyone reasonably awake. The administration’s linking of 9/11 to Iraq is an unconscionable act, one exposed by everyone from administration insiders to members of the mainstream press (and, in fact, by Bush himself, who clumsily recanted the idea in a series of disingenuous remarks carried in third-page stories long forgotten), but to little productive effect. That is, except for a noticeable part of the U.S. population now coalescing into something called the 9/11 Truth Movement, which Bush predictably denounced (from the podium of the U.N. no less), as he declared no quarter on “outrageous conspiracy theories” of 9/11.
The Truth Movement already has its intellectual vanguard, including retired theology professor David Ray Griffin, author of the bestselling The New Pearl Harbor, (Fig. 3) Kevin Ryan, a chemist and former laboratory manager for the prestigious Underwriters Laboratories, and Steven Jones, a physics professor at Brigham Young University, whose peer-reviewed paper on the collapse of the World Trade Center caught the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jones, founder of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, was placed on (Fig. 4) leave by BYU and then forced into early retirement, one of several academics penalized merely for addressing the event. Jones and Griffin seem to the Truth Movement what Vincent Salandria , Mark Lane, Harold Weisberg, Josiah Thompson, and Sylvia Meagher were to Kennedy assassination research in their ability to bring focus and intellectual rigor to public debate, although the political outlooks of Jones, Ryan, and Griffin seem more centrist than that earlier generation of researcher/activists. The Movement’s verdict on 9/11 is radical enough. As they argue, the conspiracy goes beyond the obvious point that U.S. authorities exploited the attacks to advance state interests (see Jeremy Earp’s film Hijacking Catastrophe), or that the state apparatus was asleep at the switch. The Movement asserts that 9/11 was a state-sponsored operation.
The official story of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the partial, quickly repaired damage to the Pentagon, recounted in the dissembling, heavily narrativized 9/11 Commission Report, remains largely unchallenged, including especially by high-profile sectors of the left. Noam Chomsky, who usefully contextualized 9/11 within (Fig. 5) the history of U.S. imperialism, has nothing to say about the official history of the attacks, and only derision for its critics. Liberal-left publications such as The Nation and Z Magazine have not only avoided the issue of U.S. complicity in the 9/11 attacks but used their pages to blast proponents of “conspiracy theory” — on this point such outlets are in lockstep with dominant state attitudes. One recurring tactic is to accuse critics who denounce the official narrative of insanity, a traditional authoritarian maneuver: call people insane in order to dismiss the complaints and, ultimately, the complainers. Hysterical personal invective invariably takes the place of analysis. In a representative Sept. 25, 2006 column in The Nation, Alexander Cockburn rages against conspiracy “nuts,” calling David Ray Griffin a “high priest” of this bonkers cabal. For Cockburn, the “nuts” have no knowledge of incompetence or corruption. He concludes (after some ruminations about anti-Semitism, the Bible, and his school days) with the accusation that the nuts have “combined to produce a ludicrous distraction” from the crimes of the Giuliani regime.
Although conspiracy is a commonly-invoked juridical principle, dominant discourse prohibits its application to state-sponsored crimes, as author/radio commentator Ralph Schoenman remarks, outside of channels easily marked as the lunatic fringe. The liberal-left seems to have a particular aversion to conspiracy notions, despite the long record in very recent history of clandestine actions. Tonkin Gulf, Watergate, and the (Fig. 6) Iran-Contra affair provide demonstrable examples without my risking liberal ire by mentioning the Kennedy and King assassinations. Of course the state acknowledged these cases as non-governmental conspiracies, saying that plots to kill Kennedy and King were “highly probable.” The post-Vietnam/Watergate atmosphere of state relegitimation demanded the conclusions of the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations.[open notes in new window]
Some of the left prefers long-distance psychoanalysis of the populace instead of close reading of evidence, arguing that conspiracy talk runs counter to a structural understanding of events, or that it siphons off energies that might be more productively used to transform society, one of Chomsky's recurring themes. The assumption here is that conspiracy researchers are monomaniacs with no real social concerns. Whenever the topic of political conspiracy comes up, the mainstream left hurriedly invokes Richard Hofstadter’s tired “paranoid style in American politics” and the rantings of McCarthy. Hofstadter’s important work is wrenched from historical context without heed to the events of the last forty years. Condemning broad, obvious structural economic problems is permissible, but getting too close to certain government operations seems to make the liberal-left unusually nervous, as if some balloons must not be burst. If this is indeed the case, one can perhaps glimpse liberalism’s need to retain some faith in the standing political-economic order for all its woes, refusing to believe that the capitalist state would go that far in pursuing its ends. To be sure, there are those in the left who want no part of the dominant opinion-making liberal magazines — surprisingly, Howard Zinn gave a positive blurb to David Griffin’s book The New Pearl Harbor.
Another complaint aimed at 9/11 research and previous investigations into governmental conspiracy is that plots are “too complicated,” or that “leaks” or “death-bed confessions” and such would surely occur. It doesn’t seem to matter that Tonkin Gulf has long since been exposed as government fabrication, even by very (Fig. 7) mainstream sources (see for example Jeremy Isaac’s and Taylor Downing’s 1993 book Cold War: An Illustrated History — 1945-1991). In terms of earlier history, U.S. foreknowledge of the attack on (Fig. 8) Pearl Harbor has been the subject of well-argued accounts by some important historians, including Charles Beard and John Toland. Gore Vidal brings up the topic in his “American Chronicles” novel The Golden Age — although the material on Pearl Harbor earned him a snide New York Times review, to which Vidal responded with his formidable erudition. Robert Stinnett’s recent Day of Deceit: the Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, traduced by some reviewers, is only the most recent contribution to our knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. From another era, Watergate provides another instructive example, especially in the little attention paid by the media to the role of FBI bigwig Mark Felt, recently revealed to be Deep Throat (not a surprise to conspiracy nuts out there), in shaping the public view of the Nixon crimes, simultaneously protecting the executive police agencies.
Of course, the response of the liberal-left is that Watergate and Vietnam happened. Official crimes are accepted as such once the government and the media acknowledges them. Crimes such as the1973 CIA-sponsored coup in Chile are seen as plausible simply because the arrogance of power admits to them, with the state almost brandishing its prowess in the press. Crimes are acceptable for public discourse, with or without the conspiracy tag, when they do little to disturb complacency, especially when their consequences affect foreign nations or the internal racial Other.
State power is by no means an omniscient, all-powerful Ming the Merciless force. Its main and always-dependable ally is public acquiescence. “Leaks” indeed occur, sometimes in torrents, but they need (a) an interested, adversarial press, a rare animal these days, and (b) a truly concerned citizenry. Chomsky recently remarked in an interview carried on YouTube that “Bush would probably be put in front of a firing squad” if he and his underlings were found to be part of a crime as serious as collusion in 9/11. But who would arrange the punishment? The Democrats, now in charge of the House, have no interest even in Articles of Impeachment, although the case for such is manifestly more impressive than during the Watergate crimes. Two stolen Presidential elections, events that would provoke chaos in healthy democracies, caused small and very fleeting ripples within the press and public. State or private power can easily pull off atrocious crimes as long as the population is anesthetized, alienated, and represented by lapdog political parties.
Of course, many conspiracy notions, such as the control of the world by the Freemasons or the Elders of Zion, are ridiculous and often repugnant — and some of this bilge indeed appears in the 9/11 Movement. Also, “conspiracy,” like “scandal,” can connote an arcane aberration within an otherwise healthy political-economic system — just catch the bad guys and things are okay. But manifestly state power has come increasingly to rely on clandestine acts in order to preserve its democratic façade while advancing horrendously reactionary interests as imperialism feels cornered. The 9/11 Truth Movement stays unimpressed and undeterred by intellectual intimidation that insists on pounding away at the speciousness of conspiratorial ideas. Its members represent a range of (sometimes off-putting) ideologies, making use of the democratizing possibilities of media.
The most visible emblems of the movement’s activities are its numerous websites, and most especially its plentiful DVDs. Like Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered series, the 9/11 documentaries fully exploit the potentials of cyberspace and home video. They are cheaply produced and widely distributed through the Internet, enjoying public screenings simultaneous with retail sale. Many of these videos have fun with copyright law and intellectual property, encouraging viewers to bootleg freely in the interest of getting the word out. They have little hesitation in making use of each other’s ideas — with or without the usual permissions — to a point that the works often seem repetitious. As cinema, the 9/11 videos are for the most part fairly negligible (with notable exceptions — Improbable Collapse has some dramatic force via editing, scoring, and narration), composed mostly of newsclips, footage of the World Trade Center under attack, computer graphics, and occasional talking heads, usually driven by voiceover narrations that range from dramatic to lackluster. Even at their most technically limited, the 9/11 research videos are infinitely more watchable than Hollywood’s recent offerings on the subject, such as the neo-disaster film United 93, and Oliver Stone’s mawkish, execrable World Trade Center. The best 9/11 videos make dramatic use of editing, split-screen images and other visual gymnastics, but their power rests in the information offered.
The most popular, high-profile of the 9/11 videos is Dylan Avery’s Loose Change, a streetwise deconstructive work, beginning with its making sport of the archetypal “Warning” basic to home video, here an invitation to copy until your heart’s content. Made on a tiny budget taken from Avery’s intermittent service sector jobs, driven by an original ambient/techno/rap score and very competent computer graphics, Avery outlines the issues basic to most of the 9/11 documentaries.
Avery argues that the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) weren’t brought down by the assaults of the hijacked airliners alone but were destroyed by controlled demolition charges placed within the buildings sometime before the event. (Fig. 9) (Exactly when is unclear, although several 9/11 videos note that the buildings were easily accessed, undergoing extensive maintenance, and had power “downs” — making the twin towers unusable for stretches of time during the weeks before the attacks.) This idea has been met with usual knee-jerk reactions, including by me. I reconsidered the collapse of the towers after looking at this and other videos, and recalling my own impression of the events of 9/11. As I watched the WTC collapse within two hours of the attacks, it struck me that the fall of both towers seemed odd, occurring very quickly for mammoth skyscrapers, and in the manner of demolitions of obsolete buildings. Loose Change helps focus one’s questions.
Avery points out that the two towers collapsed straight down in freefall, within a matter of seconds, landing in their “footprints” (foundations), a physically impossible act barring the intervention of explosive charges, according to physicist Steven Jones and a slowly emerging group of scientists interested in this case. Avery highlights in newsclips a number of explosions in the form of jets of debris (said by Movement opponents to be merely the result of air pressure) emanating from lower floors of the towers as the buildings start to come down, creating huge clouds of dust much larger than the (Fig. 10) circumference of each tower, as pieces of steel beams are thrown upward and outward at great velocity. The video includes comments from on-scene witnesses, firefighters, and local and national newspersons, who mention secondary explosions in the towers after the airplanes crash, and the resemblance of the collapse of both towers to controlled demolition, an idea that was set aside in later news commentary. In one segment taken from a documentary by the Naudet brothers, French filmmakers chronicling the New York Fire Department, we see a group of firemen just returned from the site, discussing in some detail the demolition-like features of the collapse. One firefighter chops at the air with his hand to simulate the staggered nature of the collapse as each floor of one tower came down on another in a manner reminiscent of demolition.
Both Avery and Eric Hufschmid (Hufschmid’s video is Painful Deceptions: an Analysis of the September 11th Attack) cite a PBS documentary entitled America Rebuilds, featuring a brief interview with Larry Silverstein, billionaire leaseholder on the WTC complex (although built with public revenue, it became private property). Incredibly, Silverstein remarks that he ordered Building 7 of the complex “pulled.” The (Fig. 11) building collapsed late in the day although it was not hit by an airplane. Silverstein says he ordered Building 7 “pulled” since he feared further loss of life (one can only speculate on his reasoning — the area had been cleared of employees and onlookers). “Pull” is industry shorthand for controlled demolition. The collapse of Building 7 some distance from the twin towers is one of the most vexing issues of that day. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could come to no conclusion as to its collapse, its lackadaisical verdict a shameful insult to taxpayers, and far more importantly 9/11 victims. Like the twin towers, Building 7 collapsed in freefall, creating an enormous dust storm caused by concrete, furniture, carpets, and office equipment pulverized into (Fig. 12) micron-sized powder, forming an environmental nightmare that wrecked the health of rescue workers. For Avery and Hufschmid (supported by the science of Steven Jones), the transformation of all the WTC concrete into fine dust is an indicator of demolition. The huge pyroclastic cloud, seen in any number of photos of the WTC collapse, is exclusive to natural phenomena such as volcano eruptions, or to demolitions in which powerful charges create sudden, rapidly-propelled storms of fine dust.
The Building 7 skyscraper was damaged on one part of its façade and had only a few small, widely spaced fires. It seemed not to threaten its surroundings. Avery states that Building 7 headquartered several U.S. intelligence agencies, and was a command center for New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Loose Change speculates that Building 7 may have played a role in routing the hijacked planes to their destinations. Avery notes that Silverstein took out a billion-dollar insurance policy on the complex that specifically covered terrorism. (In a recent press release, Silverstein states that he used the term “pull” to refer to evacuation of rescue teams, an unlikely usage in context.) Quick financial gain by a number of people may have been the proximate reason for 9/11, countering arguments that the attacks were extremely costly to finance capital and large sectors of the U.S. economy. Certainly the ensuing wars on Iraq and Afghanistan were the larger payoff to state and private power. The ultimate function of the attacks is best summarized in the title of James Bamford’s book, A Pretext for War.
Avery and author David Griffin have been countered by various proponents of the official narrative, ranging from Popular Mechanics to a Nova documentary. The debunkers argue that the buildings’ floors buckled and melted under the extreme heat caused by the jet fuel of the crashed planes, the towers then “pancaking,” meaning that one floor would simply collapse upon another, creating a chain reaction until all floors ended up at the foundation like a stack of pancakes or phonograph records. Backpedaling on this theme, more recent defenders of the official narrative hold that joints of the building snapped — in unison it seems — under the weight of the airplane fragments. The Nova film and a similar History Channel documentary also note that the towers were improperly built, with insufficient vertical support to each floor. Kickbacks, construction shortcuts, and corruption need to be considered, but the idea that the WTC towers were made virtually of tissue paper seems a strained defense. Loose Change and Painful Deceptions argue, with the help of compelling period footage of the WTC construction, that both towers had massive vertical steel cores making them engineering marvels, (Fig. 13) designed to withstand major hurricanes — and airplane crashes. After all, the WTC was built in close proximity to three major airports. To rebut the claim that the steel joints of the buildings simply melted, Avery and Hufshmid note that the kerosene-based jet fuel of the two hijacked planes mostly burned off at the time of impact, and it never burned hot enough (blast furnace temperature would be required) or nearly long enough to melt steel. They further argue, again with documentary footage and examination of the historical record, that no steel-frame skyscraper has ever collapsed from fire, even buildings totally (Fig. 14) consumed in flames for several days. They observe that satellite imaging detected molten metal in the WTC foundations long after the attacks, even after rainstorms and firefighters pouring water on the debris. This highly unusual liquid steel could be the result of super-hot explosive charges whose heat had nowhere to go.
One difficulty with the documentarians’ view of the WTC destruction as controlled demolition is their failure to offer a thesis as to why this particular form of terror would be undertaken. One can see how the total collapse of the buildings created an alarming “shock and awe” spectacle, but couldn’t the planners simply load the jets with high explosives that would accomplish the same effect? Sorting through each and every aspect of the mechanics of the attacks may be fruitless; that such an event could be accomplished as an act of state terror is plain enough with the discovery of the Operation Northwoods documents, about which more below. And it would seem reasonable at this stage to place the burden of proof on state authority in any case.
Avery and Hufschmid also discuss the assault of Flight 77 on the Pentagon. Both documentarians note that the hole in one side of the building (a side that was under renovations, largely empty, and far away from the offices of Pentagon officials like Donald Rumsfeld) was far too small to represent the impact of a Boeing 767 jetliner. (Fig. 15) More important, the plane, if it did strike the building, seems to have vaporized entirely, leaving no fuselage, engines, seats, or luggage. Some miscellaneous small debris was found far outside the building. The notion that the heat of the explosion consumed the plane entirely has no historical precedent, and in this context seems especially risible.
In news footage included in Loose Change and Painful Deceptions, we can see the interior floors of the Pentagon that directly abut the crash site; furniture, books, and paper products sit totally unscathed by what could only have been a raging inferno. There are no skid marks on the large lawn outside the building, although Flight 77 is said to have (Fig. 16) traveled virtually at ground level in its attack on the building, a nearly impossible feat, according to Avery. The plane descended suddenly from a high altitude, circled the Pentagon, and crossed a freeway system without striking vehicles or knocking over a webwork of lampposts. The plane was supposedly piloted by Hani Hanjour, who showed little or no flying ability at the U.S. flight schools where he put in appearances. Although some witnesses to the Pentagon crash said they saw a jet airliner, others reported a much smaller plane — Avery and Hufschmid argue that it was a military drone aircraft. In one of his famous offhand remarks following the attacks, Donald Rumsfeld uses the word missile in relation to the Pentagon attack.
(Fig. 17) (Fig. 18) Although the Pentagon has a complex missile defense system, it, like so much else, seems to have gone on vacation on 9/11. This is likewise true of video surveillance footage. Only one of the Pentagon’s video cameras seems to have worked that day — five frames of the explosion taken by this camera were released for publication. All other cameras, including those at nearby hotels and gas stations, had nothing to offer. In order to quell conspiracy mongering, in the spring of 2006 the Pentagon released a few more frames from the aforementioned single camera, showing what is supposed to be the crash of Flight 77. A silver-white object can be seen coming in from the right side of the frame, but the footage itself is too indistinct to permit identification of the craft, at least to my eyes. This footage seems to have drawn little or no interest, disappearing from the network news and daily press after a day. In his Sept. 25 Nation article, Alexander Cockburn says that his brother Andrew has seen photos “taken within thirty minutes of impact, clearly showing the outline of an entire plane.” (We may need to set Cockburn aside for a bit, since he is emerging as a professional curmudgeon — see his recent diatribes against climate change arguments in recent [no surprise] issues of The Nation.) There are indeed some photographs of the Pentagon’s damaged façade taken within moments of the crash. A few are so smoke-filled that the damage outline is indistinct, but (Fig. 19) ongoing research, including interviews with numerous witnesses, tends to support the idea that the building was most likely hit by a jetliner. Researcher Jim Hoffman has published extensive work on the Pentagon crash on his online site. Using engineering skills, Hoffman argues that the notion of a missile assault to the Pentagon is poppycock, that there is in fact evidence of crash debris in the building, but that the radical arc and rapid descent of Flight 77 suggests either a tremendously skilled pilot or a plane commanded by remote control. Still, one wonders why so few images of the actual assault are available considering the number of cameras at or near the building.
The work of Hoffman and others with scientific credentials is crucial, as more DVDs flood the market and set the terms of argument. As one listens to Avery’s assured, know-it-all youthful enthusiasm, his presentation, for all its multimedia acumen, raises as many questions as it answers. Most of the facts and figures he cites seem incontestable, but some areas are very much open to interpretation. And viewers may ask if he and others in the Truth Movement know whereof they speak as they get into chemistry and physics. With their freewheeling populist attitude toward disseminating knowledge in the age of new copyright roadblocks, some 9/11 videographers commit the student error of merely repeating (plagiarizing?) uncritically what others have already said.
( Fig. 20) The video 9/11: In Plane Site (could there be a more awful title?) emphasizes a detail of the WTC attacks. Assembled by Dave von Kleist, the host of something called The Power Hour, the video notes a flash that appears in front of the noses of both of the planes that hit the twin towers. Seated in a control room in front of monitors, the sweater-clad, slightly smarmy von Kleist, a kind of Mr. Rogers of the Movement, asks the viewer’s forbearance as he scrutinizes details of the hijacked airliners. According to von Kleist, the flashes are inconsistent with reflections or static electricity. Von Kleist also says that a long bulbous object appears on the underbellies of the planes that hit the (Fig. 21) north and south towers, and that the plane that hit the south tower is very dark, resembling neither an American Airlines nor a United Airlines jet. Witnesses cited in the video remark that the plane that hit the south tower appeared to have no windows. Von Kleist argues that these planes, like the one that hit the Pentagon, were military drone (or “robot”) aircraft. Military experts responding to the notion that the hijacked airliners were drones state that it would be unnecessary for the planes to have visible nodules to permit their control by remote computer. Jim Hoffman and other researchers have taken von Kleist to task for the non-science he uses to make his points. Hoffman’s research persuasively demonstrates that the “pods” von Kleist sees are merely protrusions of the craft’s undercarriage. Worse, the images in In Plane Site are so grainy and indistinct, it would be irresponsible even to venture a guess as to what they represent. Von Kleist’s use of a few witnesses who claim to have seen a black, windowless plane strike the WTC seems equally specious. Wouldn't the plotters take the time to make the aircraft at least look like a commercial airliner rather than make their plans so screamingly obvious?
(Fig. 22) The dynamics of the actual attacks are only one point of interest in the 9/11 videos. Barrie Zwicker’s The Great Conspiracy: The 9/11 News Special You Never Saw, is burdened by an annoying news magazine format that is mostly parodical, with Zwicker seated at a long desk with a monitor at his right elbow. Zwicker, a progressive who writes for the Ontario-based magazine Global Outlook, is an articulate analyst of the event's political and historical context, as well as some of the phenomena that led up to and followed the attacks. In contrast to the breathless, wide-eyed, or studiously serious delivery of some of the researcher/documentarians, Zwicker is sober and mature, with a small touch of sarcasm. One of his crucial concerns is the cover-up by the 9/11 Commission, whose very creation Bush opposed until his adamancy became too telling — he in fact opposed any inquiry into 9/11. The Commission wasn’t instituted until over a year and a half after the event, and then with Henry Kissinger (the tale suffers in the telling) as its director. Kissinger promptly stepped down after public uproar. Zwicker remarks that the two subsequent co-chairs of the Commission, former New Jersey Republican Governor Thomas Kean, and former congressman Lee Hamilton, had numerous conflicts of interests. Hamilton, a Democrat (the bi-partisan nature of the Commission was meant to ensure its independence, the familiar song of so-called blue-ribbon panels) is famous for his inability to assign blame in any investigation in which he held a key role, including the October Surprise and Iran-Contra inquiries.
(Fig. 23) The Commission’s staff director, Zwicker notes, was Philip Zelikow, a rightist ideologue associated with the notorious neoconservative think tank, the Project for The New American Century. Zelikow also served on the Bush-Cheney transition team. Zwicker is so right to smirk at the notion of this commission’s independence, particularly when Bush and Cheney appeared before it on the stipulation that they do so together, with no record of their testimony, guaranteeing its relegation to the dustbin of history. (Note: in their recent insider memoir of the investigation, Without Precedent, Kean and Hamilton are so much on the inside they let little get outside, including what Bush and Cheney had to say.)
Zwicker is incensed at the Commission’s assertions that the U.S. had no foreknowledge of 9/11, and his newsmagazine guests cite accounts that authorities not only had foreknowledge, but hindered efforts to stop the attacks. On June 3, 2002, Time published a famous (now largely forgotten) memo from former FBI officer Coleen Rowley, (Fig. 24) expressing anger over her superior’s deliberate thwarting of the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker” (Moussaoui, a manifestly incompetent man, was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison). The urgency and rage of Rowley’s language are deleted from the 9/11 Commission Report. Zwicker warns that certain official outrage might be a diversion, making us fixate on individuals who may be scapegoats in the 9/11 plots.
(Fig. 25) The Great Conspiracy also lambasts the 9/11 Commission by taking up the failure of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to intercept the hijacked planes. Contrary to the Commission’s assertion that government suffered a “failure of imagination” and that NORAD was designed only for Cold War purposes (meaning, it seems, that taxpayers have been flushing billions down the toilet since the collapse of the Soviet state), Zwicker and numerous 9/11 videos note that the Air Force routinely intercepts off-course airliners, 67 times in the year prior to 9/11 alone. Zwicker plays a famous ho-hum conversation between an FAA controller and the agency’s command center. Personnel seem drastically low on blood glucose, expressing near-total indifference as to whether or not jets should be scrambled as the 9/11 crisis unfolded. One can never underestimate incompetence, but, as Zwicker and David Griffin note, this particular pandemic incompetence seems to have been unique to 9/11.
Zwicker is very acute in his analysis of the Bush non-response to the attacks, preferring to stick with his photo-op at a Florida schoolhouse. Bush and colleagues (Fig. 26) seemed remarkably unconcerned about the events in New York. One would think that the Presidential security forces had to assume they might themselves have been targeted by the terrorists, yet Bush saw no reason to excuse himself from the schoolchildren and tend to more pressing matters. Michael Moore’s use of this sequence is one of the most shocking and dramatic moments of Fahrenheit 9/11. U.S. foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks is a huge substratum of research represented in Zwicker and the best of the 9/11 videos, especially the paper-trail-oriented Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime. Topic areas range from Condoleeza Rice’s obvious dissembling about “no one being able to imagine” the use of jetliners as weapons of mass destruction (although the Pentagon conducted defense drills precisely on this danger), to Project Able Danger, a Defense Intelligence Agency operation monitoring — and apparently protecting — al Qaeda members in the U.S., including so-called ringleader Mohamed Atta.
Zwicker is especially concerned with the topic of historical context, an interest he shares with Michael Ruppert’s video The Truth and Lies of 9/11, and Ralph Schoenman’s The Underlying Politics of 9/11, as well as Richard Sanders’s 9/11 and Historical War Pretext Incidents — the latter two taped lectures were recorded at the May, 2004 International Inquiry into 9/11 in Toronto. Zwicker remarks that if 9/11 wasn’t a staged event designed to raise war fever, it is an exception to the rule. Zwicker, Ruppert, Schoenman, and Sanders examine, with varying degrees of emphasis, the way the U.S. government has used contrived, provocative incidents since the Nueces Strip affair that gave the U.S. pretext for the Mexican War. Historical precedents such as the sinking of the battleship Maine as a pretext for the Spanish-American War, U.S. foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, and the fabricated Tonkin Gulf episode are all relevant “false flag” operations (crimes planned by one nation but blamed on other nations or groups) that Zwicker and the more historically focused 9/11 researchers discuss.
(Fig. 27) Among the more chilling pieces of information that came into the public domain as the Truth Movement was conceived is Operation Northwoods, a 1962 Pentagon project seems the model of current false flag operations — it is discussed in Zwicker and numerous 9/11 (Fig. 28) DVDs. Revealed by former ABC producer James Bamford in his book Body of Secrets: Inside the Ultrasecret National Security Agency, the post-Missile-Crisis Northwoods plan, approved and put at the ready by the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff but nixed by (Fig. 290) (Fig. 30) Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Kennedy, called for the hijacking and destruction of commercial airliners (in fact making use of substitute aircraft whose (Fig. 31) (Fig. 32) passengers would be intelligence functionaries), the random killing of U.S. citizens, and the blowing up of John Glenn’s NASA rocket, all to be ascribed to Castro’s Cuba with the intention of raising public furor and justifying a second attempt to invade Cuba—in fact, the the declassified Northwoods documents cite the usefulness of the sinking of the Maine to state interests.
Operation Northwoods, to the 9/11 Movement, doesn’t provide a precedent for official turn-of-the-head approval. But it stands as key evidence of how the state apparatus can conceive of a murderous operation stopped at the last minute only by the pragmatic common sense of top rulers, an element perhaps missing from the months leading to 9/11. Indeed, for those who think that a 9/11 conspiracy is too arcane and baroque, the Northwoods documents are instructive, including complex plans for the use of substitute aircraft, substitute passengers, and James Bond-ish cover stories. These documents are like cold water in the face of conspiracy debunkers who argue that such plots are beyond the thinking powers of state authority. That Operation Northwoods was stopped is something of a miracle; it was “leaked” almost a half-century later by a diligent researcher whose work received almost no attention from the mass media. Zwicker remarks that if 9/11 wasn’t a planned, provocative incident used to instigate war, it was an exception to the rule.
Michael Ruppert’s The Truth and Lies of 9/11 goes into NORAD non-action, ignoring entirely arguments about the WTC attack as controlled demolition. Ruppert’s (Fig. 33) video is a recording of his 2002 lecture at Portland State University, with a few rather random observations by Peter Dale Scott (who edited an edition of the Pentagon Papers) (Fig. 34) interspersed. Since it is a taped lecture, Ruppert’s is among the most static of the 9/11 films, his presentation lacking the fire of Schoenman’s Underlying Politics of 9/11. Ruppert, a former LAPD cop, follows the lead of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 by emphasizing the relationship of the Bush family to the House of Saud and the Bin Laden family, among the least controversial of all 9/11 assertions. Shown flipping transparencies of documents on an overhead projector while warning he will “rock your socks,” Ruppert seems overly impressed with his own style, causing one to pause a bit in evaluating him. For the most part his assertions are only moderately contentious; more controversy may come from his neo-Malthusian worldview and conservative survivalist politics. Ruppert argues that U.S. rulers realize we have reached “peak oil,” causing them to extend panicked authority over fossil fuel resources. (Fig. 34) The age of oil is winding down, but this reductive view ignores the oil industry's whatever-the-market-will-bear price-gouging and its capping wells to drive up anxiety and prices. Like most of the 9/11 researchers, Ruppert ignores some basic dynamics of capitalism. (Fig. 35), (Fig. 36) (Ruppert’s favorite target is actually Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, whose book The Grand Chessboard expresses concern over the world slipping from U.S. hegemony), but one could look to the Truman era (or Eisenhower, or Kennedy, or Johnson, or Nixon…) It is useful to note the plans of the Project for The New American Century for ruminations over the terrible threats posed to U.S. authority. (Fig. 37), (Fig. 38) The PNAC remarks there's a need for a “catalyzing and catastrophic event…like a new Pearl Harbor,” and so provides a portentous ideological statement insistently cited by the Movement. Setting catastrophe in motion may indeed be a way by which authorities foment (Fig. 39) inter-imperial rivalry, but that idea is familiar to anyone with a knowledge of U.S. expansionist ambitions since at least the early twentieth century.
The fuzzy-minded or flatly absurd politics of some of the 9/11 researchers present real challenges in Alex Jones’s 9/11: The Road to Tyranny. Jones, a popular Austin radio (Fig. 40) host with a twangy, rapid-fire, dripping-with-sarcasm delivery, is by far the most entertaining of the 9/11 documentarians if one can get past his rightist libertarianism, a daunting task. Jones is an on-camera, in-your-face presence, conducting man-on-the-street interviews with much more media savvy and personal charisma than his younger, less than debonair 9/11 researcher-colleagues. He may also be the poster boy for leftist cautions about conspiratorial thinking. Although Jones has a contempt for the Bush regime and shares with other 9/11 critics the view that the attacks constituted a staged incident, he sees the event as but one episode in the construction of the New World Order, a phrase used repeatedly by George Bush I at the height of post-Cold War triumphalism that well serves Jones’s anti-left views.
Jones’s thinking isn’t too far from Gary Allen’s infamous John Birch tract None Dare Call it Conspiracy, where banking interests share common cause with socialists in creating a master plan to enslave humanity. Jones is outspoken on a number of important human rights issues, but his real enemy is Big Government’s attack on Christian Civilization, and its seemingly ultimate project of forging a One World dystopia of drug-addled automatons. Jones’s enemies list is substantial, ranging from the real plotters behind the Oklahoma City bombing (about which he offers some interesting material culled from local media) to implanted microchips to the health-endangering sweetener Aspartame. Each one of Jones’s topics is worthy of close analysis, but each gets lost in his blizzard of tabloid-show images and yahoo tirade.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Jones and his large audience as people who, in Chomsky’s words, are concerned with everything except what’s important, representing not just the limits but the tomfoolery of conspiratorial thinking. Jones’s work is often confused and confusing — in this he may well represent the U.S. mind in the early twenty-first century. Although his anxieties are free-floating and grounded in little economic analysis, they are nevertheless authentic enough, speaking to a political and economic disempowerment that has made the population vulnerable to all sorts of ahistorical analysis. Whether Jones merely partakes of this problem or capitalizes on it is less relevant than our need to build political coalitions that include this understandably angry audience.
Alex Jones' questionable political analysis points to an old problem of conspiracy research already affecting the 9/11 Truth Movement. Like the assassination research movement of the last century, 9/11 Truth is splitting into not-so-cordial factions. The process may either help clear the air or damage the cause. Eric Hufschmid, whose Painful Deceptions is one of the foundational videos of the Movement, has a noxious website wherein he questions the Holocaust, refers to the general population as “sheeple” (dumb beasts being helped along by enlightened people like him), and the slave trade as a means by which African nations freed themselves of their “retards and idiots.” As researchers overturn or seriously challenge assertions about missiles hitting the Pentagon and black, pod-bearing airplanes striking the WTC, concern grows about the Movement being discredited by irresponsible claims or amoral political worldviews. (Fig. 41) The only radical analysis thus far of 9/11 as government operation is Ralph Schoenman’s The Underlying Politics of 9/11. Schoenman, host of the syndicated radio show Taking Aim, was secretary to Bertrand Russell in the 1960s, and executive director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. His fifty-year radical activism has included service on the Russell-sponsored tribunal on war crimes in Southeast Asia,study of the JFK, RFK, and King assassinations, and advocacy of prisoners’ rights. His articulate, stem-winding style is refreshing in the context of the amateur narrations and weak political focus of many of the 9/11 videos. Schoenman suggests we shouldn't “reinvent the wheel” when approaching 9/11. It is, to his thinking, not a strange bolt from the blue but business as usual for the U.S. ruling class as it pursues its aims.
So what of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? In general, the 9/11 videos argue that (Fig. 42) bin Laden is the archetypal bogeyman used with regularity to focus hatred on the Middle East and elevate public fear. Most videos note that no real evidence was adduced proving bin Laden actually perpetrated the crimes — his earliest cable on the subject professed innocence. The 9/11 Commission concluded that tracing the funding of the attacks was impossible and probably unimportant (!). Since the Bush government refused from the outset to view 9/11 as a criminal act, preferring warfare against states rather than analysis of the relevant data followed by prosecution, it may be decades before we get a clear picture of Al Qaeda's role. But this area isn’t neglected by the 9/11 videos.
Many of the videos note anomalies regarding the nineteen purported hijackers. The international media, including BBC online, reported at least several of the men, including (Fig. 43) accused ringleader Mohamed Atta, alive and well in various parts of the Middle East following 9/11. An Oct. 10, 2001 Boston Herald account has Atta raving it up in Florida bars prior to 9/11, drinking liquor, enjoying lap dances, using profanity, and otherwise drawing attention to himself, hardly the behavior of a devout Muslim involved in a monumental clandestine terror operation fueled by a strict religionist ideology. (Fig. 44) One video available on the web, Mohamed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus, also notes the apparent connection to the intelligence community of the Florida flight schools (Fig. 45) briefly patronized by Atta and friends. Stories about Atta and colleagues are collated by Paul Thompson, whose massive book The Terror Timeline may be the single most useful research tool on 9/11. He is featured in Zwicker’s The Great Conspiracy and 9/11: Press for Truth.
Thompson is the Internet researcher par excellence. He has culled hundreds of news stories about 9/11 from the mainstream media, showing, through the simple process of recovering and printing the accounts, that all is not well with the official narrative. The story of strip-joint loving fundamentalist Muslims is disturbing enough. Thompson notes (Fig. 46) a Miami Herald story that has Atta getting into a pointless scuffle over a parking slot at Logan Airport the morning of the hijackings. Police let him go when they discovered a pass giving him access to secured areas at Logan. Even more astounding is a Gannett News Service story covered by Thompson that quotes an Air Force source on Mohamed Atta’s education at the International Officer’s School at Maxwell Air Force Base. The role of Al Qaeda in 9/11 is murky, but perhaps not unfamiliar to those who remember accounts of lone nut Lee Harvey Oswald drawing attention to himself at used car dealerships and gun ranges, studying at the Defense Language Institute, or carrying a privileged military I.D. card at his arrest in Dallas. Such scenarios have recurred in state operations with some regularity as attempts to deflect attention from the nature of an operation by placing the purported perpetrator squarely, if clumsily, in the foreground.
Avery takes on the famous VHS tape found in Afghanistan after the U.S. attack, showing bin Laden relaxing with several other men, and virtually bragging about the (Fig. 47) attacks (depending on which translation you heard/read). Avery claims that the man in the blurry tape resembles bin Laden only superficially. The man has smaller features, a fuller face, wears a gold ring on his right hand (bin Laden doesn’t wear jewelry) and uses his right hand to write, although a CIA profile has him as left-handed. Neither Avery nor any other 9/11 videographer asks the crucial questions as to how and under what precise circumstance the tape was found, a singularly crucial piece of evidence in the blighted (Fig. 48) ruins of that bombed-out land. Alex Jones and Zwicker note, joining ranks with non-conspiratorialists of the left like Michael Parenti, bin Laden’s long term relationship with the CIA as a key leader of the mujahideen as the U.S. prepared, in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s words, an “Afghan trap” for the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. Bin Laden was crucial to the U.S.-funded war against the crumbling Soviet Union in the 80s war in Afghanistan.
An Al Qaeda plot and one involving the U.S. government aren’t mutually exclusive, although this scenario isn’t fully entertained by the Truth Movement videos. If one sees bin Laden less as a zealous Arab freedom fighter and more as an intelligence functionary and reactionary scion to a fabulously wealthy family, it is not beyond reason that his organization assisted its imperialist friendly rivals in a spectacular event that has furthered state power East and West, at least for the nations given the seal of approval by the U.S. The 9/11 videos tend not to think through such a scenario, opting more for a plot in which the U.S. is the guiding and mostly unassisted agent, or else merely posing unanswered questions about Al Qaeda's role. And few of the DVDs look at Al Qaeda as prime mover, with the U.S. waiting on the sidelines.
For those who don’t have the time or inclination to sort through all of the arguments of each 9/11 video, several discs have been released functioning as compilations of the most important points, including A Call to Reopen the Sept. 11 Investigation: Confronting the Evidence, a three-hour compendium assembled by businessman Jimmy Walter. It is reasonable to say that this disc is a one-stop-shopping introduction to the basic arguments of the Movement. Dustin Mugford’s September 11 Revisited opens with a stunning montage of as-it-happened media comments on the twin towers’ collapse — Dan Rather and Peter Jennings note the resemblance of the destruction to controlled demolition. Aftermath: Unanswered Questions From 9/11 is a perhaps too-slim overview, published by Disinformation, the popular imprint that issues Robert Greenwald’s films and Greg Palast’s important Bush Family Fortunes. Perhaps most impressive of all the compilation videos is 9/11 Mysteries, free on the web, whose unassuming title belies its highly methodical, detailed examination of the attacks and the physics of the WTC collapse. With its calm narration, detailed writing, period footage, and superb research and graphics, 9/11 Mysteries is essential for beginning students of the case, and may well become the most historically significant document refuting the official fiction. Michael Berger’s Improbable Collapse: the Demolition of Our Republic is more or less on equal footing with 9/11 Mysteries, with more dramatic use of score and tighter editing.
As this writing, 9/11 documentaries keep arriving. The most impressive work of the moment is Ray Nowosielski’s 9/11: Press for Truth, which is part tribute to the courage and indefatigable truthseeking of four 9/11 widows, the so-called Jersey Girls (terribly maligned by the repugnant Ann Coulter), and part introduction to the work of Paul Thompson. Although the two components aren’t very well sutured together, this video's quiet, thoughtful tone makes it palatable to a wide audience, offering an invitation to further research. Several new videos refine the scientific work of Steven Jones and Kevin Ryan. Richard Siegel’s remarkable 9/11 Eyewitness renders in almost (Fig. 49) eye-glazing detail the dynamics of the WTC collapse, making effective use of mathematical computations, physics formulae, and a digital stopwatch used as overlay on the image of the twin towers as they fall. This video is indeed startling: digital enhancement of news footage shows numerous small, fireworks-like explosions as the towers come down. This and other ongoing research make far less tenable the argument that the large jets of debris shooting out from the towers as the collapse happened were caused merely by air pressure in the upper floors.
The phenomenon of the Truth Movement sparks hope in a revival of sixties-style popular resistance, especially if one sees it coupled to the general discontent over the Bush doctrine and its disastrous foreign and domestic consequences. But looks are usually deceiving. Korey Rowe, Dylan Avery’s partner in the Loose Change project, has remarked that 9/11 is “our Kennedy assassination,” meaning, I assume, that September 11 is a watershed moment that defines a generation. Rowe’s comparison invites noting significant differences between these two events, their political implications, and involvements in their respective historical moments.
The Kennedy murder was internecine conflict within the power structure that had little relevance to antiwar activism of the Vietnam era even as it generated numerous books and articles. It became a locus of activism after the fact, as Watergate signaled to the youth movement a need to look critically at state crimes. 9/11, if state-sponsored criminality, is manifestly worse, since thousands were murdered as a preamble to U.S. foreign aggression. Although one doesn’t need to see 9/11 as state-instigated action to understand its awful use as such a rationale, proving it to be such obviously adds a dimension to state criminality that could have a critically important political function. Korey Rowe’s remark, especially considering his video's thin political analysis, looks like the anguished pursuit of existential meaning upon which liberalism has recently fixated and which is a substitute for the struggle for social and economic justice (the “politics of meaning” was in vogue during the Clinton years). The pursuit is understandable, since recent generations (designated “X” or “Y” or whatnot by the media) have been consigned to throwaway status by neoconservative capitalist civilization, as the educational system disintegrates, jobs are exported, and the young are burdened with an impossible debt while deprived of support systems.
But the research of state crimes solely as a pursuit of identity (if this is the intent) seems a foolish project. The study of the Kennedy assassination indeed shares with 9/11 research similar deficiencies. Conspiracy theorists then and now assume that the possession of special knowledge, even when this knowledge becomes widely accepted, offers itself a pathway toward human liberation. Of course, many students of political conspiracy, as some on the left observe, have little or no political commitment. Revelations about what happened to the Kennedys (or King, or Malcolm X, or the Black Panthers — one can fill in a name) had small galvanizing effect that worked toward mass mobilization. Research and public presentation about individual state crimes can have a political function only in the context of a highly charged moment, such as the discontent of the post-Vietnam years, but even here the positive political effect of conspiracy research was fleeting. Left-oriented students of the Kennedy and King assassinations hoped that an issue-oriented public would see the state murder of charismatic leaders as a flashpoint for public activism as Vietnam and Watergate faded from view. But these murders, as riveting as their stories may be, never fully took hold for the working- and middle classes as emblems of a greater discontent, in part because the left of the Sixties failed to connect with the working class in the first place.
This is not to debunk such study. The analysis of 9/11 will be especially important if melded with resistance to political-economic assumptions that are hardly unique to the Bush era. Even if this fails to happen, the study of the crime is entirely legitimate. We need open and candid public discourse at a time when it is threatened by government and private sector authority, and some knuckle-rapping liberals. The 9/11 Truth Movement, with its abundant information via videos, Internet, and books, is occurring at the same moment that numerous antiwar and social justice organizations respond to the miseries imposed by the Bush era, giving the Movement a complexion and context never enjoyed by the research movements of the past. Combining an understanding of state violence with a sense of its role in capitalist United States was the real purpose of left-leaning conspiracy research of the 60s and 70s, which hoped to place its work in the service of a structural understanding of the order of things. The 9/11 activists and documentarians, with their deft proficiency with the new media, have the potential to accomplish goals lost on previous generations. If they do, they will achieve an identity that will be meaningful indeed.
My thanks to Sidney Gottlieb for his help with the graphics for this article.
1. The best source on the House Select Committee on Assassinations is Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1993)
Videos mentioned in this article
Painful Deceptions: An Analysis of the September 11th Attack
911: In Plane Site
The Great Conspiracy: the 9/11 News Special You Never Saw
Virtual Entertainment, Toronto, Ontario
The Truth and Lies of 9-11
911: the Road to Tyranny
3001 S. Lamar #100, Austin, Texas 78704
A Call to Reopen the Sept. 11 Investigation: Confronting the Evidence
Mohamed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus
September 11 Revisited
9/11: Press for Truth
The Underlying Politics of 9/11
9/11 and Historical War Pretext Incidents
PBS Home Video
Aftermath: Unanswered Questions from 9/11
Improbable Collapse: The Demolition of Our Republic
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