Grappling with Conspiracy Chatter in the Wake of 9/11
September 20, 2021
“Through my tears I see opportunity.”
— George W. Bush, September 20, 2001
This quote should still elicit the same revulsion and dread as it did twenty years ago.
Before retiring from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004, after more than 30 years in air traffic control, including staff and supervisory positions from coast to coast, my final gig for the FAA was a Washington Operations Center watch supervisor position - fully certified in accident investigation – in Washington DC, the belly of the beast. Some higher-up somewhere must have concluded I had the street creds to navigate a new aviation security culture in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Day after day in a secure skiff on the 10th floor of FAA Headquarters, my responsibilities consisted of coordinating for our shop much of the attack’s official detritus: collecting and documenting data; audio and video conferences with Administration and military notables; timely responses to daily aircraft accidents and incidents; and the PTSD of peers, some wondering if there was anything else they could have possibly done on September 11th to stop the horror. More than two decades later many responders, now enveloped in the blowback of a much more dangerous world, are still wondering.
After a glut of investigations and 20 years of second-guessing we can at least set aside such pangs of self-doubt with investigative certainties. Unfortunately, Months before the first throat was slit or flight attendant Betty Ong’s furtive call in the rear cabin on American Airlines Flight 11, an irrevocable choice had already been made by our federal government to ignore the signs or warnings of impending attacks.
From the mid-1990s on there was a long list of notables with Al-Qaeda as prominent bad actor. The 1994 Al-Qaeda connected Algerian plot to crash Air France 8969 into the Eiffel Tower, the 1995 Philippine Bojinka plot of blowing up 12 airliners over the Pacific, or crashing a plane into CIA headquarters at Langley, all prelims to the now infamous CIA-prepared President’s Daily Brief (PDB) headlined “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” In fact, as early as March of 1998 the FAA was actively considering the suicide hijackings of commercial airliners, later settling on explosives smuggled aboard, but settling on explosives smuggled on air carriers as the more credible threat. Moreover, the mishandling of information, inadequate threat assessment, and lack of imagination by entrusted intelligence and policy communities was endemic until the day of the attacks. In one instance, FBI Minneapolis Chief Division Council Coleen Rowley was denied by FBI Headquarters a probable cause warrant to search the computer of a suspected terrorist with ties to Al-Qaeda, the alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, less than a month before 9/11.
The State Department had compiled a list of nearly 61,000 suspected terrorists; the FAA’s no-fly list contained 12 names. Incredibly, neither list was shared with either agency or the airlines, so no one was barred from boarding. In fact, according to a 9/11 Commission hearing testimony in January, 2004, a terrorist on either did not necessarily bar that individual from flying unless he or she was an aviation threat! At one point, an incredulous Commissioner John Lehman exclaimed, “Of course a young Arab should not be allowed on airplanes with four-inch blades, yet none of you applied common sense.”
Defense attorney Vincent Bugliosi once said, “All humans make mistakes. But there is no room or allowance in the fevered world of conspiracy theorists for mistakes, human errors, anomalies, or plain incompetence, though the latter, from the highest levels on down, is endemic to our society.”
Surprisingly, Bugliosi omitted “common sense” and worse yet, complacency.
International and domestic opinion polling assessing the authenticity of US government complicity for the attacks peaked during the Bush and Obama administrations but social media now drives the discussion. Gen Z hardly needs Zogby International to confirm existing biases. Zoomers and future generations might eventually employ I. F. Stone’s dictive that “All governments lie,” as a baseline for such confirmation, if they don’t already. And why shouldn’t they? Facts still matter and coverups, lies and misinformation with each new government misadventure are being unveiled at breakneck speed in independent media. Still, with corporate media unwilling to question or challenge authority, conspiracy theories spread like COVID variants with each anniversary.
According to Christopher Bader, a sociologist at Chapman University and lead author of the 2017 National Survey of Fears, “We found clear evidence that the United States is a strongly conspiratorial society.” The survey found solid minorities of Americans believe in not only 9/11 conspiracies, but government coverups of alien encounters, the JFK assassination, the true origin of AIDS and more. Not surprisingly, the 2020/2021 update, the Survey of American Fears, Wave 7, almost 80% of respondents cite “corrupt government corruption” as the top American fear.
Even so, the Bush cartel fucked up, from the day W was provided the infamous CIA Presidential Daily Brief in August until My Pet Goat on September 11 and beyond – more than ample time to prepare for and counter an attack. However, it did recognize a new Pearl Harbor when it saw one, exploiting the chaos and our perceived vulnerabilities before the dust had even settled at Ground Zero. The first salvo of the Global War on Terror was launched as if Bin Laden had drawn up the battle plans. Over 7,000 US dead servicemembers, $20 trillion, and nearly a million civilian casualties later our interventionist foreign policy remains intractable.
Do I believe the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United 93 were inside jobs? Not a chance. The US government can’t effectively coordinate the use of pandemic masks. I do believe in the impact force of a Boeing 767 loaded with 10,000 lbs. of jet fuel striking 500,000 lbs. of free-standing steel and concrete at more than 500 mph; and the smoking holes remaining from a Boeing 757’s near-vertical collision with the ground at 600 mph or horizontally impacting limestone and concrete at 530.
After a 35-year career in aviation, including two years at the epicenter of aviation security, where investigative data and geopolitical motivation were hardly hiding in plain sight, strategic sourcing of information and fact-based responses became fundamental components to job security. As a result, my skepticism meter was usually pegged, but it wouldn’t take a quick study or another 20 years to arrive at the very same fact-based 9/11 conclusions. The terrorist planning that went into pulling off the most devastating, the most consequential attack on American soil was first-rate, undoubtedly priming partisan outrage along with inevitable back-fire discourse for generations.
That said, as with most murder-suicides, the victims never had a chance.