Two Views of 9/11

Whose conspiracy theory to believe: the official one, involving Ahmed Ressam, or those of possible crackpots?

Ahmed Ressam, sometimes resident of the SeaTac Federal Detention Center, is fast becoming America's favorite terrorist. The would-be millennium bomber's insider revelations of Islamic terrorists have enlightened investigators, and his testimony as a government informant has led to the arrest of other plotters. Author Bob Woodward says the intelligence provided by the talkative Algerian convinced the Central Intelligence Agency to instantly double its estimate of the number of Al Qaeda terrorists active in the world. Author and former anti-terror czar Richard Clarke says Ressam's 1999 capture in Port Angeles, Clallam County, sent America to battle stations, at least temporarily, preventing other acts of terror. Ressam also was prominent in the dispute over the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief read by George Bush, in which Ressam and other sources linked Osama bin Laden to looming plots in the U.S., including airplane hijackings. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in 9/11 testimony in April, said the hijacking reference was to a supposed plot to rescue "Ressam" from prison. That revelation caused a stir at the time in Seattle media. A rereading of the memo, however, indicates she was mistaken and meant to say "Rahman," referring to the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for plotting to bomb New York landmarks in 1994.

Now comes the capper: Ressam, the terrorist foot soldier turned antiterrorist crusader, could have prevented 9/11 almost by himself. In its report, the 9/11 Commission says he likely would have made the terror connection the FBI failed to make between the planned 9/11 attacks and Zacarias Moussaoui. The now- accused 9/11 plotter was then training in a Boeing 747 simulator in Minneapolis and had already drawn the FBI's interest when flight-school staffers revealed that Moussaoui had talked about using a 747 as a weapon. Field agents urgently contacted FBI headquarters in D.C., explaining they were "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center," an agent said. Headquarters refused permission to seek a search warrant for Moussaoui's home computer, which later proved to have valuable information pertaining to the attack, according to The Washington Post. A memorable memo by frustrated Minneapolis agent Coleen Rowley called it a case of "sabotage" by FBI headquarters; she couldn't understand the irrational refusal to follow normal procedures.

The 9/11 Commission Report adds this furthermore: If the Minneapolis office had been allowed to do its job and the FBI had, in the routine course of events, run a photo of Moussaoui past Ressam at his Seattle-area detention cell, Ressam would have identified Moussaoui, a French nationalist, as a terrorist linked to a cell in Germany. The snowballing thus would have begun. The FBI might have arrested Moussaoui, publicity might have caused the terrorists to abort their plot, and Sept. 11 might not be a day of infamy. In fact, following the attacks, Ressam, who was convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and, subsequently, was promised a sentencing deal if he turned informant, indeed picked Moussaoui out of a group of mug shots and recalled seeing him at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. British intelligence officials had also provided key details to the U.S. linking Moussaoui, now awaiting trial in Virginia, to terrorism. "Either the British information," concludes the 9/11 Commission, "or the Ressam identification would have broken the logjam" and foiled the hijackings.

Yet, rather than becoming the terrorist who saved America from attack, Ressam has, to some, become another example of why the attack was allowed to take place—that 9/11 was not an intelligence failure but had been expected, although on a much smaller scale, and was permitted to unfold as an excuse to launch us into war in Southwest Asia. This is the rationale of conspiracy theorists, some of it waaaay off the wall. As outlined in The New Pearl Harbor, it includes the theory that a missile, not a Boeing 757, hit the Pentagon, and that the only way the World Trade Center buildings could have collapsed as they did is if they had been wired with explosives. Still, legitimate questions remain unresolved. How did that oft-forgotten third, 47-story, steel-frame WTC building two blocks away simply burn to the ground? Why weren't military jets from nearby bases sent to intercept the hijacked planes—was a stand-down ordered? Then there are Bush's conflicting statements, mental lapses, and that haunting blank stare when he was told of the second plane attack (he said he saw the first plane attack on live TV, though it wasn't televised live). From what we now know, he was aware of a looming terrorist assault in the U.S., and he and his fellow neocons had long believed one way to protect and develop American oil interests abroad was to control oil fields militarily—perhaps requiring an excuse for an invasion. At that grade school in Florida Sept. 11, 2001, was that the dazed look of a man who had lazily expected something on the scale of a car bombing as his ruse for a war but instead learned that lower New York City had imploded?

This has got to be crazy talk. Presidents and generals do not trick their countries into war. OK, so Roosevelt knew the Japanese might attack us—maybe he even provoked them—but he most certainly didn't dismiss the indicators and intelligence that they were targeting Pearl Harbor, launching us into World War II, right? Sure, the Joint Chiefs proposed pretexts to get the U.S. into a war with Cuba, including blowing up a U.S. ship in Guantánamo Bay and blaming Castro, but Kennedy rejected the idea (albeit, in a supposedly saner moment, he decided to secretly invade Cuba with a CIA-led force of exiles, leading to the Bay of Pigs debacle). Yes, maybe LBJ later admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which allowed him to seek expansion of the Vietnam War, might never have taken place. True, Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war further while lying about the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia. And, all right, Bush II, when told by CIA director George Tenet that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was "a slam dunk," chose to trust rather than verify. He sent troops to battle instead of responsibly passing along the supposedly precise information to U.N. inspectors still in Iraq.

But we all know our leaders don't mislead us into war.

In the case of 9/11, the most important question is whether the government is, once again, failing to do a complete post-event examination—the hangover effect typified by the Warren Commission and other panels that have left holes big enough for a Jim Garrison to swagger through. The 9/11 Commission and congressional probes have helped discount some Sept. 11 conspiracy theories simply by providing explanations from those involved and the reminder that, despite warning signs, none of us conceived how complacent and vulnerable a superpower we were. But even with the compelling and weighty 9/11 report, there remains doubt about what the government knows and when it knew it. Worse, the dangling ends boost the case for conspiracy crackpots. Not that The New Pearl Harbor author David Ray Griffin is necessarily one of them. His book is steady handed, a sort of mini-encyclopedia of theories of other authors. At times, he puts too much faith in both the message and the messengers he cites without proving their claims. He works harder to make the conspiracy case than he does to break it. Still, he's willing to be convinced otherwise and rightly challenges readers to do their own homework—readers such as David Ward, a Seattle-area editor and doubter of the official 9/11 story. Griffin offers "a much different story from the official version once the dots are connected," says Ward, who tells me a number of Seattleites have Web sites questioning the government's explanations, and a bustling Seattle chapter of meets bi-weekly at a Ravenna pizzeria. Ward and others say they want to know how 90,000 tons of WTC concrete was turned to fine powder by gravity—they suspect a controlled demolition. He is not persuaded that naïveté and a breakdown by the Federal Bureau of Incompetence were the leading causes of 9/11. "I started working on 9/11 because I saw how our country was rapidly changing because of it, and even an

old progressive like me was shocked by what I learned," Ward says. The truth is out there, he's sure. What it comes down to is, between author Griffin and the government, whose conspiracy theory is closest to the truth?

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