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Conspiracy theories abound in 911 probe { December 29 2003 }

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Conspiracy theories abound in 9/11 probe
Panel weighs all evidence in sifting for truth

Monday, December 29, 2003


WASHINGTON -- One theory contends that the Bush administration was warned about the 9/11 attacks but did nothing to stop them. Another says an American missile fired by the U.S. military struck the Pentagon, not a hijacked jetliner. Yet another hypothesis says the Israelis orchestrated the attacks to force the United States into a war against the Arabs.

More than two years after terrorists hijacked four airliners and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, conspiracy theories abound about what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

A 9/11 widow recently filed a lawsuit accusing President Bush of allowing the attacks to gather support for the war on terrorism. Conspiracy books have become best-sellers in Europe. And earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean recounted in a radio interview a "most interesting theory" that Bush ignored warnings from Saudi Arabia about the attacks. Questioned afterward, he backed away from the theory, saying: "I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that."

"What breeds these theories is that two years out, we have no authoritative account of how it happened and why it happened," said 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser of Middletown, a member of the Family Steering Committee, a group of survivors monitoring the national commission examining the Sept. 11 attacks.

The commission is charged with providing that authoritative account. And as it heads toward a May deadline, the bipartisan panel is evaluating, and in some cases investigating, some of the many theories as it unravels the mysteries surrounding that tragic day.

"All you can do is try to take every question that has been raised and see it is answered in the final report to the best of your ability," said Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor and chairman of the commission.

"We have heard some theories that are a little unusual and some that have a possibility of being true. Some don't hold water and some require further investigation," Kean said.

Like the Warren Commission that investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Kean said the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States probably always will have doubters, no matter how exhaustive its research.

"I realize that on a topic this important, we will not satisfy everybody," Kean said.

Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University political science professor and author of the book, "Culture of Conspiracy," said conspiracy theories are attractive because they "help people to resolve or make sense of ambiguous situations.

"Particularly with traumatic historical events, there is always going to be some residue of uncertainty that cannot be eliminated. It doesn't matter if you talk about Lincoln's assassination or Sept. 11. There will always be a gnawing feeling that something has been left unexplained, even if all the available evidence provides a perfectly good explanation," Barkun said.

Breitweiser, whose husband Ronald died in the World Trade Center attack, said she still has many questions.

"I don't know why my husband was told to stay at his desk," she said. "I don't know why fighter jets were not scrambled on time. I don't know why the national security adviser said she had no idea planes could be used as weapons when the historical record is replete with planes possibly being used as weapons. It boggles the mind."

Breitweiser and the steering committee say concerns about stonewalling and a cover-up have been fueled by the government's "excessive secrecy," Bush's initial opposition to the commission, his delay in turning over White House intelligence briefings and the naming of Philip Zelikow, a friend of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, as executive director of the 9/11 panel.

With many questions unanswered, a number of books, articles and postings on the Internet have offered conspiracy theories -- many with intricately woven plots filled with mind-numbing but unsubstantiated details.

There are the widely denounced anti-Semitic theories, for example, that claim Israeli involvement in the attacks despite the compelling evidence Islamic radical Osama bin Laden and his alQaeda terrorist network masterminded and carried out the attacks. In fact, Bin Laden has claimed credit for the attacks.

In July, New Jersey abolished the post of state poet laureate after Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet and playwright, read a poem that included a stanza based on the discredited theory that Israeli intelligence agents told its citizens and American Jews to avoid the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed? Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?" Baraka asked in his poem.

A former German cabinet minister, Andreas von Bulow, has written a best-selling book in Germany suggesting that the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services blew up the World Trade Center from the inside, then crashed two jetliners into the building by remote control to cover up their actions. He argues the attacks were mounted to justify the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Michael Meacher, a former British environmental minister, published an article suggesting American air defenses might have deliberately stood down on Sept. 11 so the United States could use the attack as a pretext to gain control of the world's oil supplies and expand American power.

Author and polemicist Gore Vidal has written widely about Sept. 11 and its aftermath. In one British newspaper, he wrote that the U.S. was warned repeatedly in advance of the attacks that there would be "unfriendly visits to our skies some time in September 2001... But the government neither informed nor protected us despite Mayday warnings from Presidents Putin (of Russia) and Mubarak (of Egypt), and even from elements of our own FBI."

French author and left-wing activist Therry Meyssan has written a best-selling book in France claiming that an American missile, not a hijacked airliner, struck the Pentagon. He argued the attack was staged by the U.S. military to promote its agenda. His theory has been promoted on numerous Web sites showing photographs of the Pentagon with no apparent evidence of a crashed airliner.

John Judge, a self-styled investigator and one of the founders of 9/11 CitizensWatch, another group monitoring the commission, said Meyssan's theory is "beyond the pale." But he said there are many unanswered questions, including why the air defense system did not react after it discovered that four jetliners were hijacked, and why no one has been called to account.

"Were people in the military and intelligence network getting signals and decided to let it come?" he asked. "It looks like a sophisticated covert operation including a cover story. It's really not broken down yet."

Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and author of the book, "Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture," said conspiracy claims have long been "part of American history."

While some are fostered by paranoia, he said, many are stoked by "those who distrust government and are skeptical of power."

Fenster said that if significant information is kept secret because of national security concerns and questions remain unanswered, the more troubled people will be about the 9/11 commission's findings, and the more conspiracy theories will grow.

"There will no way to persuade the hard core," said Fenster.

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