The 9/11 Conspiracists: Vindicated After All These Years?

We’re homing in on the tenth anniversary of the destruction  of the Wall Street Trade Towers  and the attack on the Pentagon.  One in seven Americans and one in four among  those aged 16-24, (so a recent poll commissioned by the BBC tells us)  believe that there was a vast conspiracy in which the U.S. government was involved.  But across those ten years have the charges that it was an “inside job” –– a favored phrase of the self-styled “truthers”  — received any serious buttress?

The answer is no.

Did the Trade Towers fall because they were badly built as a consequence of corruption, incompetence, regulatory evasions by the Port Authority, and because they were struck by huge planes loaded with jet fuel. No, shout the conspiracists, they “pancaked” because Dick Cheney’s agents–scores of them–methodically planted demolition charges in the preceding days inserting the explosives in the relevant floors of three vast buildings, (moving day after day among the unsuspecting office workers), then on 9/11 activating the detonators. It was a conspiracy of thousands, all of whom–party to mass murder–have held their tongues ever since.

What has been the goal of the 9/11 conspiracists? They ask questions, yes, but they never answer them. They never put forward an overall scenario of the alleged conspiracy. They say that’s not up to them. So who is it up to? Whom do they expect to answer their questions? When answers are put forward, they are dismissed as fabrications or they simply rebound with another question.  Like most cultic persuasions they excitedly invoke important converts to their faith and the “1500 architects and engineers in the USA” who say the NIST official report is not thorough and needs another investigation. It’s a tiny proportion of the overall members of their profession. At least  80 per cent of faculty economists in the US believe stoutly in long-discredited theories that have blighted the lives of millions around the world for decades. Their numbers don’t equate with intelligence, let along conclusive analysis.

The 9/11 conspiracists seize on coincidences and force them into sequences they deem to be logical and significant. Their treatment of eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence is whimsical. Apparent anomalies that seem to nourish their theories are brandished excitedly; testimony that undermines their theories–like witnesses of a large plane hitting the Pentagon — is dismissed.

Many conspiracists say it wasn’t a plane but a missile. (Other conspiracists denounce the “no plane” Pentagon as wacko.) Eye-witnesses of a large plane hitting the Pentagon — are contemptuously brushed aside.

There are some photos of the impact of the “object” — i.e. the Boeing 757, flight 77 — that seem to show the sort of hole a missile might make. Ergo, 757 didn’t hit the Pentagon. It WAS a missile. It wasn’t smoke in some photographs obscuring a larger rupture in the fortified Pentagon wall.
On this last matter, Chuck Spinney, now retired after years of brilliant government service exposing the Pentagon’s budgetary outrages, tells me that “there ARE pictures taken of the 757 plane hitting Pentagon — they were taken by the surveillance cameras at Pentagon’s heliport, which was right next to impact point. I have seen them both — stills and moving pictures. I just missed seeing it personally, but the driver of the van I just got out of in South Parking saw it so closely that he could see the terrified faces of passengers in windows. I knew two people who were on the plane. One was ID’d by dental remains found in the Pentagon.”

In fact hundreds of people saw the plane — people who know the difference between a plane and a cruise missile. The wreckage of the plane was hauled out from the site. Why does the obvious have to be proved? Would those who were wounded or who lost friends and colleagues that day assist in the cover up of a missile strike? Why risk using a missile, when you had a plane in the air and ­- to take one bizarre construct of the conspiracists — had successfully crashed (by remote control!) two into much more difficult targets–the Trade Towers?

This doesn’t faze the conspiracists. They’re immune to any reality check. Spinney “worked for the government.” They switched the dental records. The Boeing 757 was flown to Nebraska for a rendez-vous with President Bush, who shot the passengers, burned the bodies on the tarmac and gave Spinney’s friend’s teeth to Dick Cheney to drop through a hole in his trousers amid the debris in the Pentagon.

Of course there are conspiracies. The allegations that Saddam Hussein had WMD amounted to just such a one. I think there is strong evidence that FDR did have knowledge that a Japanese naval force in the north Pacific was going to launch an attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s quite possible Roosevelt thought it would be a relatively mild assault and thought it would be the final green light to get the US into the war.

It’s entirely plausible to assume that the FBI, US military intelligence, and the CIA, — as has just been rather convincingly  claimed again in the latter instance — had penetrated the Al Qaeda team planning the 9/11 attacks; intelligence reports piled up in various Washington bureaucracies pointing to the impending onslaught and even the manner in which it might be carried out.
The history of intelligence operations is profuse with example of successful intelligence collection, but also fatal slowness to act on the intelligence, along with eagerness not to compromise the security and future usefulness of the informant, who has to prove his own credentials by even pressing for prompt action by the plotters. Sometime an undercover agent will actually propose an action, either to deflect efforts away from some graver threat, or to put the plotters in a position where they can be caught red-handed.

There is not the slightest need to postulate pre-placed explosive charges to explain why the towers collapsed at near free fall speeds. As Pierre Sprey, a former plane and weapons designer who knows a great deal about explosions, told me:

“1. Any demolitions expert concocting a plan to hit a tall building with an airplane and then use pre-placed explosives to UNDETECTABLY ensure the collapse of the building would never place the explosives 20, 30 and 60 floors below the impact point. Obviously, he would put the explosives on one or more floors as close as possible to the planned impact level.

“2. It is inconceivable that our demolitions expert would time his surreptitious explosions to occur HOURS after the aircraft impact. He couldn’t possibly be absolutely certain that the impact fires would even last an hour. Quite the opposite: to mask the booster explosions, he’d time them to follow right on the heels of the impact.

“3. To ensure collapse of a major building requires very sizable demolition charges, charges that are large enough to do a lot more than emit the “puffs of smoke” cited as evidence for the explosives hypothesis. I’ve seen both live and filmed explosive building demolitions. Each explosion is accompanied by a very visible shower of heavy rubble and a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Just that fact alone makes the explosives hypothesis untenable; no demolitions expert in the world would be willing to promise his client that he could bring down a tall building with explosions guaranteed to be indistinguishable from the effects of an aircraft impact.”

Herman Soifer, a retired structural engineer, summarized the collapse of Buildings 1 and 2 succinctly, in a letter to me, remarking that since he had followed the plans and engineering of the Towers during construction he was able to explain the collapses to his wife a few hours after the buildings went down.

“The towers were basically tubes, essentially hollow. Tubes can be very efficient structures, strong and economical. The Trade Center tubes effectively resisted vertical loads, wind loads and vibrations and could probably have done very well against earthquakes. However, the relatively thin skin of the hollow tube must be braced at intervals to prevent local buckling of the skin under various possible loads, otherwise the tube itself can go out of shape and lose its strength.

“For their interior bracing, the thin-walled tubes of the Trade Center towers depended primarily on the interior floors being tied to the outer wall shells. These floor beam structures were basically open web joists, adequate for the floor loads normally to be expected. These joist ends rested on steel angle clips attached to the outer walls.

“As the floors at the level of airplane impact caught fire, the open web joists, which could not be expected to resist such fires, softened under the heat, sagged and pulled away from their attachments to the walls. Their weight and the loads they were carrying, caused them to drop onto the next lower floor, which was then carrying double loads also becoming exposed to the heat. Then that floor collapsed, and so it went. But as the floors dropped, they no longer served as bracing for the thin-walled main tubes.

This loss of bracing permitted the walls to buckle outward in successive sections and thus the house of cards effect.”

High grade steel can bend disastrously under extreme heat. The types of steel used in the WTC Towers (plain carbon, and vanadium) lose steel lose half their strength when heated to about 570 C , and even more as temperatures rise, as they did in WTC 1 and 2, to 1100 C.

The conspiracists’ last card is the collapse of WTC building number 7 some hours after the morning attacks. But here again, as with the other two buildings, the explanations offered by the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are more than adequate. Collapse was caused by the rupturing of the building’s metal framework due to the thermal expansion of its floor beams, which were heated by uncontrolled fires because the water main that supplied the building’s fire suppression system had been cut by the collapse of WTC 1.

The NIST team said that the smallest blast event capable of crippling the critical column would have produced a ‘sound level of 130 to 140 decibels at a distance of half a mile,’ yet no noise this loud was reported by witnesses or recorded on videos. Sound at 130 to 140 decibels is about as loud as humans can tolerate, beyond this power one is really encountering a blast wave, a jump in pressure that delivers sensible force. Examples of loud sounds and their effects include: a jet engine at 100 meters (110-140 dB), hearing damage due to short term exposure, for example front row at a rock concert (120 dB), threshold of pain (130 dB), a rifle being fired at 1 meter (140 dB).

As discussed in Wayne Barrett and Dan Collin’s excellent book Grand Illusion, about Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, helicopter pilots radioed warnings nine minutes before the final collapse that the South Tower might well go down and, repeatedly, as much as 25 minutes before the North Tower’s fall.

What Barrett and Collins brilliantly showed are the actual corrupt conspiracies on Giuliani’s watch: the favoritism to Motorola which saddled the firemen with radios that didn’t work; the ability of the Port Authority to skimp on fire protection, the mayor’s catastrophic failure in the years before 9/11/2001 to organize an effective unified emergency command that would have meant that cops and firemen could have communicated; that many firemen wouldn’t have unnecessarily entered the Towers; that people in the Towers wouldn’t have been told by 911 emergency operators to stay in place; and that firemen could have heard the helicopter warnings and the final Mayday messages that prompted most of the NYPD men to flee the Towers.

That’s the real political world, in which Giuliani and others have never been held accountable. The conspiracists disdained the real world because they wanted to promote Bush, Cheney and the Neo-Cons to an elevated status as the Arch Demons of American history, instead of being just one more team running the American empire, a team of more than usual stupidity and incompetence (characteristics I personally favor in imperial leaders). Actually, what Bush and Cheney never demonstrated was the slightest degree of competence to pull anything like this off. They couldn’t even manufacture weapons of mass destruction after US troops had invaded Iraq, and when any box labeled “WMD” would have been happily photographed by the embedded U.S. press as conclusive testimony. Arch-demon Cheney and his retinue of neo-cons couldn’t even contrive a provocation sufficient to justify his aim of waging war on Iran or giving Israel the green light to do so.  Each day he gnashed his teeth as Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff foiled his machinations.

At least what Obama may have done is remind the left – at least those not forever besotted — that Bush and Cheney are not that much different from the politicians and overlords of U.S. foreign policy who preceded them or followed them.

9/11 conspiracism, perhaps at last somewhat on the wane, penetrated deep into the American left. It has also been widespread on the libertarian and populist right, but that is scarcely surprising, since the American populist right instinctively mistrusts government to a far greater degree than the left, and matches conspiracies to its demon of preference, whether the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Black Helicopters or the Jews and now Muslims.

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

One trips over a fundamental idiocy of the 9/11 conspiracists in the first paragraph of the opening page of the book by one of their high priests, David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor. “In many respects,” Griffin writes, “the strongest evidence provided by critics of the official account involves the events of 9/11 itself In light of standard procedures for dealing with hijacked airplanes not one of these planes should have reached its target, let alone all three of them.”

The operative word here is “should”. A central characteristic of the conspiracists is that they have a devout, albeit preposterous belief in American efficiency. Many of them start with the racist premise–frequently voiced in as many words in their writings — that “Arabs in caves” weren’t capable of the mission. They believe that military systems should work they way Pentagon press flacks and aerospace salesmen say they should work. They believe that at 8.14 am, when AA flight 11 switched off its radio and transponder, an FAA flight controller should have called the National Military Command center and NORAD. They believe, citing reverently (this is high priest Griffin, who has written no less than ten books on 9/11) “the US Air Force’s own website,” that an F-15 could have intercepted AA flight 11 “by 8.24, and certainly no later than 8.30.”

They appear to have read no military history, which is too bad because if they did they’d know that minutely planned operations–let alone by-the-book responses to an unprecedented emergency — screw up with monotonous regularity, by reason of stupidity, cowardice, venality and all the other failings, not excepting sudden changes in the weather.

History is generous with such examples. According to the minutely prepared plans of the Strategic Air Command, an impending Soviet attack would have prompted the missile siloes in North Dakota to open, and the ICBMs to arc towards Moscow and kindred targets. The four test launches actually attempted all failed, whereupon the SAC gave up testing. Was it badly designed equipment, human incompetence, defense contractor venality or conspiracy?

Did the April 24, 1980 effort to rescue the hostages in the US embassy in Teheran fail because a sandstorm disabled three of the eight helicopters, or because the helicopters were poorly made, or because of agents of William Casey and the Republican National Committee poured sugar into their gas tanks in yet another conspiracy?

Have the US military’s varying attempts to explain why F-15s didn’t intercept and shoot down the hijacked planes stemmed from absolutely predictable attempts to cover up the usual screw-ups, or because of conspiracy? Is Mr Cohen in his little store at the end of the block hiking his prices because he wants to make a buck, or because his rent just went up or because the Jews want to take over the world? Bebel said anti-Semitism is the socialism of the fools.

The conspiracy virus is an old strand. The Russians couldn’t possibly build an A bomb without Commie traitors in the U.S.. The Russians are too dumb. Hitler couldn’t have been defeated by the Red Army marching across Eastern Europe and half Germany. Traitors let it happen. JFK couldn’t have been shot by Oswald — it had to be the CIA. RFK couldn’t have been shot by Sirhan–it had to be the CIA. There are no end to examples seeking to prove that Russians, Arabs, Viet Cong, Japanese, etc etc couldn’t possibly match the brilliance and cunning of secret cabals of white Christians.

Michael Neumann, a philosopher, and CounterPunch contributor, at the University of Trent, in Ontario, remarked in a note to me:

“I think the problem of conspiracy nuttery has got worse, and is part of a general trend. There really were serious questions about the Kennedy assassination, an unusual number of them, and it wasn’t too crazy to come to the wrong conclusion. There wasn’t a single serious question about 9-11. The main engine of the 9-11 conspiracy cult is nothing political; it’s the death of any conception of evidence.

“This probably comes from the decline of Western power. Deep down, almost everyone, across the political spectrum, is locked in a bigotry which can only attribute that decline to some irrational or supernatural power. The result is the ascendency of magic over common sense, let alone reason.”

Yet some have discovered a silver lining in the 9/11 conspiracism. A politically sophisticated leftist in Washington, DC, wrote to me, agreeing with my ridiculing of the “inside job” scenarios, but adding, “To me the most interesting thing (in the US) is how many people are willing to believe that Bush either masterminded it [the 9/11 attacks] or knew in advance and let it happen. If that number or anything close to that is true, that’s a huge base of people that are more than deeply cynical about their elected officials. That would be the real news story that the media is missing, and it’s a big one.”

“I’m not sure I see the silver lining about cynicism re government,” I answered. “People used to say the same thing about the JFK conspiracy buffs and disbelief in the Warren Commission. Actually, it seems to demobilize people from useful political activity. If the alleged perpetrators are so efficiently devilish in their plots, all resistance is futile. 9/11 conspiracism stemmed from despair and political infantilism. There’s no worthwhile energy to transfer from such kookery. It’s like saying some lunatic shouting to himself on a street corner has the capacity to be a great orator.

Anyone who ever looked at the JFK assassination will know that there are endless anomalies and loose ends. Eyewitness testimony is conflicting, forensic evidence possibly misconstrued, mishandled or just missing. But in my view, the Warren Commission, as confirmed in almost all essentials by the House Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, had it right and Oswald fired the fatal shots from the Schoolbook Depository. The evidentiary chain for his guilt is persuasive, and the cumulative scenarios of the conspiracists entirely unconvincing. But of course–as the years roll by, and even though no death bed confession has ever buttressed those vast, CIA-related scenarios — the conspiracists keep on toiling away, their obsessions as unflagging as ever.

Richard Aldrich’s book on British intelligence, The Hidden Hand (2002), describes how a report for the Pentagon on declassification recommended that “interesting declassified material” such as information about the JFK assassination “could be released and even posted on the Internet, as a ‘diversion,’” and used to “reduce the unrestrained public appetite for ‘secrets’ by providing good faith distraction material”. Aldrich adds, “If investigative journalists and contemporary historians were absorbed with the vexatious, but rather tired, debates over the grassy knoll, they would not be busy probing into areas where they were unwelcome.”

The conspiracists have combined to produce a huge distraction, just as Danny Sheehan did with his Complaint, that mesmerized and distracted much of the Nicaraguan Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, and which finally collapsed in a Florida courtroom almost as quickly as the Towers.

There are plenty of real conspiracies in America. Why make up fake ones?

(This essay is drawn from my contribution to CounterPunch’s CounterPunch Special Report: Debunking the Myths of 9/11, where Manuel Garcia Jr, physicist and engineer, presented his three reports, undertaken for CounterPunch and where  JoAnn Wypijewski wrote her essay “Conversations at Ground Zero” after a day spent with people at the site.)

Our New Newsletter

I love it when Doug Lummis sends us something. He’s got a truly original mind and alert intellectual antennae. Twenty years in Tokyo and Okinawa gives him an extra depth of perspective. Now he’s sent us a truly wonderful piece on war guilt and two Americans who spent lives earning expiation: Howard Zinn and Allen Nelson. Zinn we all know. But Allen Nelson?

“Allen Nelson was raised in the black ghettoes of Brooklyn; he joined the Marines in large part to get some decent clothes and three meals a day. If there was ever anyone who had the right to say, ‘Look, I had no choice,’ he was one.  But for him, that evasion didn’t work.  In the end he decided that, though the choice he faced in combat was a terrible one, with terrible consequences on either side, it was still a choice, and he was responsible for what he chose to do.

“I was happy that I could get those words out of my mouth. . . . When you’re in combat . . . you’re making these choices on your own.  And no one can make you do what you don’t want to do, regardless if they kill you, put you in prison.  You do what you want to do.  That realization was so painful for me: that I was killing people . . . . not because America was making me do it, not because I was a Marine, not because I was in combat, not because it was a war, not because he was shooting at me – I wanted to do it.  But that was the freeing point for me.

“After some two decades of medication and counseling, his doctor posed the forbidden question:  ‘Allen, I want you to tell me why you killed people.’

“I broke down and started crying, weeping, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Because I wanted to kill them.’  It was like a key went into my brain and unlocked something – I felt free from that point.”

Also in this terrific new edition, “The cop just shot my dog!” Patrick Higgins on why you’re right to worry that the police might blow your best friend away. PLUS Coutts and Stuckler  on the English  riots and the economics of anger.

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Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.