- The Saudi government paid off al-Qaida in exchange for
immunity from terror attacks. Saudi princes knew in advance about the Sept.
11 attacks. Most of the Saudi officials who assisted al-Qaida all died
mysteriously soon thereafter. The revelations
in Gerald Posner's new book Why America Slept are an astonishing reminder
of just how much we still don't know about Sept. 11 and its planning.
- But there is also plenty that we think we know but don't.
I'm not talking about shoddy conspiracy theories (that Jews were warned
not to show up for work at the World Trade Center, for example) believed
by the ignorant and the paranoid, but widespread misconceptions held by
everyday Americans. Here are six of the most common:
- 1. The misconception: Zacarias Moussaoui was the "20th
hijacker." In the first months after the attacks, federal officials÷including
Vice President Cheney÷hinted that Moussaoui, who was taken into
federal custody before Sept. 11, might have been the missing man on the
Flight 93 hijacking team. Moussaoui's indictment in Dec. 2001 also linked
him to the Sept. 11 plot, trying to show parallels between Moussaoui and
the Sept. 11 terrorists÷flight training, joining a gym, mysterious
funding from overseas, connection to ringleader Ramzi Binalshibh, etc.
- What's wrong with the story: There is no actual evidence
that Moussaoui was supposed to be on Flight 93 or the other planes. Moussaoui
had no contact with any of the Sept. 11 hijackers and took his flight training
long after they did. According to Yosri Fouda and Nick Fielding's Masterminds
of Terror, Binalshibh has said that while he contemplated Moussaoui as
an understudy for 9/11, he was never part of the plot. Binalshibh said
he was glad that he kept Moussaoui, who was not really trusted by al-Qaida,
away from the other hijackers. (Incidentally, it is Binalshibh who was
a failed hijacker: He couldn't get a U.S. visa.) This does not excuse Moussaoui,
a truly bad guy who was apparently preparing for some act of airplane terrorism.
- (Bonus Moussaoui misconception: that he only wanted to
learn how to steer jumbo jets, not take off or land. In fact, as this Slate
<http://slate.msn.com/id/2066080/>Explainer notes, the opposite is
true: Moussaoui only wanted to learn takeoffs and landings.)
- 2. The misconception: We know how the hijackers seized
the planes. Within days of Sept. 11, Americans believed they knew how the
planes were grabbed: Terrorists had taken control by stabbing pilots, passengers,
and flight attendants with box cutters and knives.
- What's wrong with the story: It's incomplete and misleading.
We don't really know what happened on the planes. The cockpit voice recorder
survived neither New York crash and was damaged beyond salvage in the Pentagon
crash. The Flight 93 voice recorder doesn't start until several minutes
after the hijackers took the plane. What little we know about tactics and
weapons comes from phones calls made by passengers and flight attendants.
As Edward Jay
Epstein has pointed out, the evidence is incredibly paltry. No one
on United Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center, reported
anything about weapons or tactics. One flight attendant on American Flight
11, which also crashed into the World Trade Center, said she was disabled
by a chemical spray, while another flight attendant said a passenger was
stabbed or shot. On the Pentagon plane, American Flight 77, Barbara Olson
reported hijackers carrying knives and box cutters but did not describe
how they took the cockpit. And on United Flight 93, passengers reported
knives but also a hijacker threatening to explode a bomb. The box cutter-knives
story isn't demonstrably false, but it serves to divert attention from
the other weapons and to mask the fact that we don't have any idea how
the hijackings happened.
- 3. The misconception: Iraq was involved in the Sept.
11 attacks. According to an August Washington
Post poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Iraq played a role.
- What's wrong with the story: For starters, the two captured
planners of the 9/11 attacks, Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have
both reportedly denied Iraqi involvement during interrogations. Next, those
who argue for Iraq's guilt rely on dubious claims. The first is an on-again,
off-again Czech assertion that Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in
Prague. But American intelligence agencies now believe the meeting did
not occur. (This Slate dialogue
debated the Atta meeting and other Iraqi links to terrorism.) Several conservative
analysts÷notably Laurie Mylroie and former CIA Director James Woolsey÷have
pushed the idea that the first World Trade Center bombing was an Iraqi
intelligence operation, and thus Sept. 11 might have been too. They believe
that Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the first bombing, was acting for the
Iraqis, and since Yousef's uncle is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Iraq should
be suspect again. But no one has managed to show that Iraq sponsored Ramzi
Yousef or the 9/11 terrorists.
- Perhaps the most compelling evidence against Iraqi involvement
is that the Bush administration hasn't made a case for it. The president
is desperate to link Iraq to al-Qaida. But so far, his team hasn't managed
to find anything tangible that connects the Hussein regime to Osama Bin
Laden (much less to 9/11). The administration wants the nefarious alliance
so much that if it had any evidence, it surely would have leaked it. This
does not prove, however, that Iraq and al-Qaida never cooperated. The polls,
in fact, may reflect a kind of commonsense logic: Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida
share a pathological hatred of the United States, so it's entirely possible
that they collaborated, even if we don't know how.
- 4. The misconception: The Sept. 11 plotters planned to
use crop-dusters for a biological or chemical attack.
- What's wrong with the story: On the surface, the case
for crop-dusters is powerful. The federal government twice grounded crop-dusters
after 9/11 because of suspicion they might be used for attacks. The original
indictment of Moussaoui suggested that he and the 9/11 plotters were investigating
crop-dusters. Workers at a crop-dusting company in Florida reported that
Mohamed Atta and other Arab men repeatedly inquired about crop-dusters.
A Department of Agriculture official named Johnelle Bryant claimed that
Atta visited her in early 2000 and asked for a government loan to buy a
plane that he would modify for crop-dusting.
- But as Edward Jay Epstein has pointed out, the crop-dusting
stories are squirrelly. A crop-dusting worker claimed Atta dropped by the
weekend before 9/11, but Atta had already left Florida. Bryant pinpointed
Atta's visit to late April or early-mid-May of 2000÷but this was
before Atta even arrived in the United States. When prosecutors revised
the Moussaoui indictment in 2002, they also dropped all mention of crop-dusting.
And in interviews with Al Jazeera's Yosri Fouda, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed didn't mention any interest in a crop-dusting attack. They
indicated that the plan was always to fly airplanes into buildings.
- Some al-Qaida operatives may have inquired about crop-dusting,
and one may even have sought a loan from Johnelle Bryant. (Some terrorism
analysts speculate that before al-Qaida decided to seize airliners, it
planned to buy a small plane, fill it with explosives, and crash it.) The
crop-dusting story can't be disproved, but no solid public evidence exists
that the 9/11 plotters were interested in either crop-dusters or a biological
or chemical attack.
- 5. The misconception: Terrorists or their supporters
profited by speculating on airline stocks before 9/11.
- What's wrong with the story: Terrorists may have profiteered,
but the evidence is sketchy. As was widely reported after 9/11, the options
market for United and American Airlines was unusually busy in the days
before 9/11, with an extremely heavy volume of "put options"÷bets
that the airline shares would fall. By the end of September 2001, both
the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission
had launched investigations into the unusual trading. Since then, they've
been silent. Two years later, neither the exchange nor the SEC will comment
on its investigation. Neither has announced any conclusion. The SEC has
not filed any complaint alleging illegal activity, nor has the Justice
Department announced any investigation or prosecution.
- This does not mean terrorist wagering didn't occur: It
might well have. The absence of any complaint suggests the SEC found nothing
illegal, but that's not definite. The SEC and the Chicago board seal the
records of their investigations and won't offer any explanation÷even
if there is an innocent one÷for the strange trading. So, unless
the SEC decides to file a complaint÷unlikely at this late stage÷we
may never know what they learned about terror trading.
- 6. The misconception: No one could have predicted the
Sept. 11 attacks. Since 9/11, President Bush and his team have repeatedly
insisted that the attacks were inconceivable. David Corn chronicles these
claims in his new book The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics
of Deception. In May 2002, for example, Condoleezza Rice said, "I
don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an
airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." Ari Fleischer echoed
her, "Never did we imagine what would take place on Sept. 11 where
people use those airplanes as missiles and weapons."
- What's wrong with the story: In fact, there were tons
of warnings of exactly this kind of attack. The recent congressional report on the
9/11 intelligence failures lists a dozen pre-9/11 indications that terrorists
were plotting a suicide hijacking. For example, in 1994 Algerians hijacked
an Air France airliner with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel
Tower. (They were tricked by French officials into landing in Marseilles
to refuel, where they were overpowered.) In 1995, police in the Philippines
uncovered an al-Qaida plot to fly a plane into CIA headquarters. (One of
the plotters: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.) A year later, al-Qaida had the idea
of flying a plane from outside the United States and crashing it into the
White House. Two years later, al-Qaida planned to fly a plane from outside
the United States and crash it into the World Trade Center. And so on.
- Intelligence officials, who are endlessly juggling all
kinds of different threats, didn't take the suicide-plane schemes seriously
because they believed there were other, more imminent dangers. But no one
can say they weren't warned.
- Dear David
- I would like to add another fact regarding Condoleezza
Rice's repeated assertion, "I don't think anyone could have predicted
that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade
Center" and the Administration's vigorous support of this statement.
- Your list of specific warnings is impressive, they were
credible, and they gave plenty on time for defensive action.
- However, I've been amazed that in the past two years
I have never heard anyone make reference to a 1996 international best-seller
by Tom Clancy: Debt of Honor. This first of a two-part novel presents a
plot against the United States by group of rogue Japanese politicians,
businessmen, military officers - and, most importantly, an airline pilot.
Clancy has this character arrange to ferry a 747 from New York to Europe,
but instead of crossing the Atlantic he turns south and flies to Washington.
He banks in over the Mall and flies in the main entrance of the Capital
Building while the President is delivering the State of the Union Message.
The pages have some of Clancy's most compelling descriptions as the burning
jet fuel pumps through the hallways like a pipeline, the structure of the
Capital blows apart and collapses, and the men and women who comprise the
top echelon of the U.S. government are killed. It is a breathtaking read
and I highly recommend it. Because of this book, many of my friends and
I were shocked, but not surprised, by the WTC disaster.
- Tom Clancy is hardly a wallflower, but he has sure been
quiet about this piece of prescience. We can hardly blame him, but the
template for the WTC action was read by millions around the world in many