by Joel Warner
October 21 – 28, 2004
Tim Gale became a believer one day last January. He was prowling the Internet when he came across a video of one of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001. It was likely a video Gale had seen before, but this footage was in slow motion. As Gale watched the tower’s 110 floors begin to crumble, he noticed something unusual.
Right before the tower dropped into a cloud of debris, the windows on the upper levels of the towers blew outwards, one floor at a time, like clockwork. That wasn’t caused by the plane slamming into the tower or the ensuing fire, Gale told himself.
There were bombs in the World Trade Center.
“It blew my head off,” says Gale. “I started searching like crazy.”
What Gale found, in countless websites, books and films, was a vast network of information questioning the official story of what happened on Sept. 11. The 42-year-old Boulder resident was inundated with decades-old memos, foreign newspaper clippings, engineering studies and national-defense policies. And he discovered the collapse of the World Trade Center was just the beginningñhe believes he’s witnessing the collapse of the American society.
“I was being confronted with the raw fact that the U.S. government was complicit in the mass murder of its own citizens for geopolitical purposes,” says Gale. “It’s too much to bear in the confines of your mind.”
Gale began spending six to eight hours a day cross-checking evidence he found online or in publications. He wrote a 40-page paper, just to organize and process all the information. He began spouting words like “shadow government,” “false flag” and “black ops.” Then he met up with other people in the Denver-Boulder area who were asking the same questions he was, and they decided to form the Colorado chapter of the 9/11 Visibility Project. Now they’re hosting film screenings and discussions, spreading the word that there’s a whole lot more to 9/11 than we’ve been led to believe.
Gale and his local compatriots are not alone. Across the nation and the world, a growing number of people are joining what’s called the 9/11 Truth Movement. These people say there’s enough evidence or enough holes in the official recordñto suggest that government officials allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to occur, if not had a hand in them. While the movement has attracted the support of several notable figures, it also faces the risk of being associated with fringe theories of the Twilight Zone variety and has received the cold shoulder from most of the progressive press and the peace movement. Plus, there’s the fact that some say the 9/11 Truth Movement has no basis in reality whatsoever.
Gale doesn’t necessarily mind being labeled a conspiracy theorist.
“To have a conspiracy all you need is a couple facts that don’t match up,” he says, adding that in the case of 9/11, there’s more than enough questionable facts. “Until you’ve read three or four books about it, don’t tell me I’m quirky, because you have no grasp. You go into this stuff, and it’s a freaking journey.”
The new Pearl Harbor
At 8:21 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, 20 minutes after it leaves Logan Airport in Boston, Mass., stewardesses on American Airlines Flight 11 use airphones to report their plane has been hijacked. It’s expected that officials on the ground will jump into action. They don’t.
Once a hijacking is confirmed, it’s standard protocol for the aerospace officials to quickly get military escort aircraft into the air to follow the plane. In the previous year, fighter jets had been scrambled 67 times to escort planes that had moved off course or lost radio contact, a process that usually takes 10-20 minutes. But on Sept. 11, protocol does not go as planned.
Two fighter jets are eventually scrambled to intercept Flight 11ñbut by this point, nearly half an hour has passed. At the very moment the jets take off from a Massachusetts base, Flight 11 strikes the North Tower 200 miles away.
By this point United Airlines Flight 175, which also departed from Logan, has moved off course. With the fighter jets in the air over Massachusetts, they should be able to intercept Flight 175. They don’t. At 9:03 a.m., Flight 175 hits the South Tower. The fighter jets are still 70 miles away.
Similar irregularities are occurring to the south. At 8:56 American Airlines Flight 77 disappears off radar. Twenty minutes later United Airlines Flight 93 is presumed hijacked. But fighter jets don’t take off until 9:30. The jets don’t make it to Flight 77 before it hits the Pentagon, nor do they reach Flight 93, which crashes in the Pennsylvania countryside.
This series of events is the clearest example for Janice Matthews that the U.S. government is hiding the truth about 9/11.
“It was automatic procedure to send out fighter jets after planes that go off course. It’s been standard operating procedure basically forever. And only our government or our military can interrupt standard operating procedures. Al Qaeda does not have the power to intervene in our military procedures. So that’s the clearest example of how they allowed it to happen,” says Matthews.
Mathews is the co-founder the 9/11 Visibility Project. Matthews and several other concerned citizens started the organization last fall to advocate for a complete and unobstructed investigation into 9/11. The group now has chapters in 40 citiesñincluding the Boulder chapterñand five other countries, not to mention a website, www.septembereleventh.org, which receives millions of visitors.
The 9/11 Visibility Project isn’t the first group to question what happened on Sept. 11, but it’s the first to try to fuse voices of dissent worldwide into a viable movement.
“There was research going on all over the world, but nobody was actually doing any activism,” says Matthews. “So our goal was to become an activism-oriented group, start getting the information out to people and start doing everything we could to push for a real investigation as a way of supporting the 9/11 victims’ families.”
Matthews and her compatriots believe they’ve collected a wealth of documentation proving that U.S. government officials were at least complicit in the terrorist attacks.
For one thing, members of the 9/11 Truth Movement say the U.S. government had extensive intelligence suggesting how and when terrorist were planning on striking the United States. They note that Pentagon officials had discussed the possibility of plane attacks since the 1980s. In the months leading up to Sept. 11, U.S. officials received repeated warnings from other countries and internal sources that al Qaeda was planning to attack the country in the foreseeable future. And then there was the now-famous Aug. 2001 report titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
As for additional evidence that key U.S. players knew beforehand about the attack, members of the 9/11 Truth Movement note that there was an unusually large amount of “put” options purchased by unknown investors on United Airlines, American Airlines and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in the days before Sept. 11. This type of investment only pays off if stock prices for the companies unexpectedly dropñas they did when these companies were impacted by 9/11.
Aside from spotty air defense, there are other things about the events on Sept. 11 that don’t sit well with some peopleñmost significantly, the collapse of the World Trade Center.
“The fact that the towers were detonated versus falling down that’s pretty well accepted by most everyone [in the 9/11 Truth Movement],” says Matthews. “Independent investigators have proven through physics and fire studies, etc., that the buildings could not have fallen the way that they were.”
Matthews and others point to a 2002 editorial in Fire Engineering magazine that states, “The structural damage from the planes and the explosive ignition of jet fuel in themselves were not enough to bring down the towers.”
9/11 Truth Movement members say there are a variety of other issues that need to be addressed about Sept. 11. There are reports that a CIA agent met with Osama bin Laden in summer of 2001, that the United States was associated with payoffs to al Qaeda members, and that President Bush blocked investigations into connections between the bin Laden family and the White House.
And then there’s Vigilant Guardian. This was one of several air-defense mass-casualty exercises occurring the morning of Sept. 11, say 9/11 Truth Movement members, possibly involving simulated hijackings and false blips on radar screens. Some wonder if these exercises were scheduled on purpose to confuse ground-control officers.
Matthews says that most people in the movement believe the government allowed 9/11 to happen, rather than caused it. While even the idea of the U.S. government condoning the killing of 3,000 American citizens may be hard to swallow, Matthews says it’s far from impossible.
For one thing, say 9/11 Truth Movement members, the Bush administration was looking for a reason to invade Afghanistan to build an oil pipeline through the region. The terrorist attacks provided them with the perfect opportunity.
9/11 Truth Movement members also point to a disturbing report titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” by the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank involving the likes of Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The report predicts the ascension of global U.S. military dominance. The report states, “Öthe process of [this] transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing eventñlike a new Pearl HarborÖ”
Some say the Sept. 11 attack was the neocons’ ready-made Pearl Harbor. After all, they say, it wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government has condoned or sponsored an attack on its citizens to generate public support for war. They point to historical events like the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, the sinking of the Lusitania, the attack on the U.S.S. Maddox and the attack on Pearl Harbor as circumstances that appear to be orchestrated by the government for hawkish purposes.
The 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories are gaining popularity. The 9/11 Visibility Project counts among its supporters the former National Defense Minister of Canada Paul Hellyer, Jim Hightower, Howard Zinn, the National Green Party and family of 9/11 victims. The movement has held public forums in San Francisco and Toronto, and members have presented their findings to United Nations delegates. The Denver County Democratic Assembly passed a resolution calling for a new 9/11 investigation after they heard some of the theories. And according to a Zogby International poll this summer, half of New Yorkers believe U.S. leaders had foreknowledge of 9/11.
“It’s not just crazy longhairs going after this,” says Gale. “There’s a cadre of really intelligent people who believe this is happening.”
The questions started soon after 9/11. Why did American Airlines Flight 77 disappear off radar screens over Ohio on Sept. 11, only to reappear over Washington 40 minutes later? How did the cumbersome Boeing 757 execute exceedingly complicated maneuvers to perfectly hit the Pentagon, especially when it was piloted by a hijacker who allegedly did terribly in flight school? And why did commuters near the Pentagon say they heard the shrill sound of a fighter jet overhead, not the noise of a commercial airliner? And why do some early photos of the attack site show little damage or debris other than a single 15-foot hole in the Pentagonñeven though the plane had a 125-foot wingspan?
These concerns have led some to suggest that the Pentagon wasn’t hit by Flight 77, but instead by a fighter plane or missile. It’s the subject of a video called 9/11: Pentagon Strike, that’s been making its way around the Internet. It is one of a handful of controversial theories that some in the 9/11 Truth Movement say could give their movement a bad name.
Another contentious hypothesis is that the planes that hit the World Trade Center weren’t typical passenger planes. Some interpret the video evidence to suggest these planes were camouflaged jets that fired missiles into the towers before crashing into them. But if the airliners didn’t crash into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, what happened to the passengers?
“That’s the part of the 9/11 thing that’s really speculative,” says Gale. “People are going through gymnastics trying to figure out that.”
Some have gone so far to say that all the missing passengers were loaded onto United Airways Flight 93, which was then shot down over Pennsylvania. Another theory is that the passengers have become secret wards of the government.
Some 9/11 Truth Movement members try to steer clear of these sort of theories, or go out of their way to debunk them.
“I think it all should be investigated, but some of this is pretty hard to present to people right away,” says Fran Shure, a member of the Colorado chapter of the 9/11 Visibility Project. “We have to be careful about what we present to the public. And I think as long as we have hard facts, documented facts, we can feel safe presenting it to the public.”
These fringe theories may be one of the reasons the 9/11 Truth Movement has been hard-pressed to obtain significant U.S. media coverage, even from progressive news outlets. Matthews says the national liberal radio program Democracy Now has yet to report on their concerns, despite numerous requests from 9/11 Truth Movement members. The peace movement has also been slow to jump on the 9/11 skeptic bandwagon.
“I think the people in the peace movement are afraid of being labeled conspiracy theorists, fringe elements, nuts, crazies,” says Carolyn Bninski, member of the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. While Bninski says she believes the 9/11 Truth Movement brings up valid questions, she is quick to note that’s her personal opinion, not that of the Peace Center.
Some 9/11 Truth Movement members say the media blackout on their activities is caused by the corporate control of the media, or maybe even by shadowy CIA control of left-wing pundits. But Shure, who’s a psychotherapist, thinks otherwise.
“I think any time information comes to us that is outside of our world view, outside of our cultural understanding, it’s extremely frightening to let this come in,” she says. “This is a thought that is very difficult to let into our psyche. The implications of it, the implications that our government would be complicit in such a horrible attack, are huge.”
As the construction manager for the World Trade Center, University of Colorado civil engineering professor Hyman Brown gets a call every three weeks or so from someone who has a new theory about 9/11. Some of these theories are hard for Brown to dispute, he says, but debunking the central World Trade Center theories embraced by 9/11 Truth Movement is easy.
“It is correct that the towers did not collapse because of the airliners hitting it. But we do know how it collapsed and it has nothing to do with conspiracy,” says Brown. “What caused the building to collapse is the airplane fuel and the fire-suppression system that we now have, which basically blocks off five-floor blocks, so the fire can’t go up and the fire can’t go down. You now have a fire confined to a five-floor area, burning at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The steel in that five-floor area melts. All the tonnage above the five-floor area comes straight down when the steel melts. That broke all the connections, and that caused the building to collapse.”
Just-released preliminary findings from a National Institute of Standards and Technology study of the World Trade Center collapse support Brown’s theory.
Brown isn’t the only one who doubts the claims of the 9/11 Truth Movement members. Some say these theories of a 9/11 conspiracy are just thatñunfounded conspiracy theories.
“Basically they are inflating a mystery out of nothing. I find a lot of this doesn’t even get off the ground, as far as an argument. It’s kind of frustrating and shameless that you have people out there that are promoting this stuff,” says Kevin Christopher, public relations director for SciCop, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Just like 9/11 Truth Movement members are posting their intricate theories online, skeptic organizations like SciCop are posting detailed deconstructions of these hypotheses. But some say the most damning refute of the 9/11 Truth Movement comes from the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, which released its public report in July 2004.
“We believe the record is laid out authoritatively in the 9/11 Commission report,” says Mike Hurley, a former senior council and team leader on the 9/11 Commission and now senior director for the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which was formed in the wake of the commission to educate the public on terrorism. “I think we conducted the broadest and deepest investigation of our government perhaps in the history of the United States.”
The 9/11 Commission’s report concluded that the government “failed across the board” to prepare for the terrorist threat, says Hurley, but the investigation found no evidence of government involvement in the attacks.
“We didn’t answer everything, in terms of our investigation. We answered what we believe are the most important questions. But there are so many things out there, and I mean I hate to say it, but you almost don’t want to dignify them with answers because there are just so many bizarre theories and things like that,” says Hurley. “Certainly it’s rather easy to weave these sinister theories by picking up an odd thread here and there, but when we track these things down, we would find there was no substance to them.”
According to Hurley, many of the circumstances on Sept. 11 that 9/11 Truth Movement members link to government complicity are actually examples of mistakes. For example, fighter jets weren’t purposely obstructed from tracking the hijacked airliners, says Hurley. Instead, thanks to miscommunication between different government agencies and the pilots, the fighter jets were delayed or had trouble locating the hijacked planes.
Many members of the 9/11 Truth Movement aren’t buying the 9/11 Commission’s story. They say leading members of the commission maintain disturbingly close ties to the Bush administration (Phillip Zelikow, executive director of the commission, co-authored a book with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice), and that a true independent citizens’ investigation into 9/11 needs to take place.
“[The commission report?s] given us more to report on,” says Shure. “Most people think that it is such a wonderful report, but when they find out about how there?s other information that hasn?t been investigated at all, the 9/11 Commission at least has the appearance of being nothing more than a white wash or a cover-up.”
Quest for meaning
U.S. District Judge John Tunheim knows a thing or two about conspiracy theories. After all, he chaired the Assassination Record Review Board in the 1990s, which was charged with releasing classified information on the John F. Kennedy assassination?a job that put Tunheim right in the middle of the mother of all conspiracy theories.
Tunheim and his colleagues spent five years delving into the myriad JFK theories, releasing six million documents. Still, Tunheim is sure die-hard conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, no matter how exhaustive the investigation.
“People want to believe that events happen for a profound reason, and that?s why it?s difficult for a lot of people who have interest in the assassination to believe that a troubled nut like Lee Oswald could have done it by himself. It just seems implausible to them that an event that rocked the country in such a major way and had a profound impact on world events could have been brought about by a 23-year-old nut,” says Tunheim. “They want to believe that it happened for a more profound reason, and the CIA orchestrating the assassination would be a far more profound reason in the view of a lot of people.”
According to Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, this type of obsession with conspiracy is part of the American way of life, from elaborate notions involving Masons, bankers and Communists to Hillary Clinton claiming there?s a right-wing plot to take down her husband.
“The point is that there?s a long American tradition of populism. Of fear and loathing of centralized positions of power. And oftentimes utilizing a populist argument will lend itself to implications of conspiracy. That is, the government is working to take my property. Or is conspiring to achieve a certain goal,” says Fenster. “Not all populist arguments are conspiracy theories, but all conspiracy theories are at their core populist.”
Fenster says that a large segment of the American public probably believes in some form of a conspiracy theory. While he?s not sure if conspiracy theories are becoming more common today, he does feel that the Internet has led to the rapid proliferation of new theories. According to the BBC, an estimated 36,000 Princess Diana conspiracy theory websites were created after her death.
“The technology of the Internet is such that one can quickly and easily and virtually costlessly type something up and put it on a website or put it on an electronic bulletin board and spread the idea really quickly,” says Fenster. “Whereas 10 years ago it would require you to either meet face to face with people or put it in print and circulate that physically.”
The Sept. 11 attacks? dramatic unfolding, extensive live coverage and global ramifications would seem to be the perfect recipe for widespread conspiracy theories. But both Fenster and Tunheim doubt the extent of the 9/11 conspiracy theories will reach the level of the JFK conspiracies. They say the spottiness of the original JFK assassination investigation, and general Cold War-fueled secrecies and skepticism, led to the public questioning the official record. On the other hand, they say, the 9/11 Commission?s thorough, open and user-friendly investigation (some say the commission?s report, which reads like a Robert Ludlum novel, is more exciting than the conspiracy theories) is less likely to encourage skepticism.
“It?ll be interesting to see what happens in the near term, as to whether more and more people believe in a 9/11 conspiracy theory,” says Fenster. “My guess would be that if additional [terrorist] events occur, and especially if Bush gets re-elected, then there would be more significant numbers believing in this, just like I think how the percentage of people who believed in conspiracy theories went up with each additional assassination in the ?60s.”
Some say conspiracy theories corrode historical events and encourage greater cynicism and alienation from society. But Fenster believes that, as long as they?re kept within healthy bounds, conspiracy theories can be good for the country.
“If one assumes that the American populist tradition is a good tradition, and I?ll say that it is, then the populist aspect of conspiracy is also a good thing,” he says. “It helps us to recognize that it?s a perfectly acceptable thing to question what our leaders tell us.”
Matthews at the 9/11 Visibility Project agrees. She says most of the people in the 9/11 Truth Movement don?t claim to know what actually happened on Sept. 11; they just believe there are enough disturbing questions remaining about the event to warrant a much more thorough investigation of America?s new day of infamy.
“Nineteen people, none of whom were airliner pilots, with boxcuters got into our airplanes, shut down our military system and bombed some of the most heavily protected airspace in the world,” says Matthews. “That?s a conspiracy theory.”
For more information on local 9/11 Visibility Project activities, contact Tim Gale at email@example.com or Fran Shure at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See original story in the Boulder Weekly archives here.