In the movie "Line of Fire," actor Clint Eastwood, playing a Secret Service agent who had been on John Kennedy’s security detail when that president was assassinated, sits in a bar over his scotch and laments how he has heard all the conspiracy theories. The Eastwood character is torn up, tortured by the thought that he could have done something, anything, to have saved President Kennedy in Dallas.
And there were so many conspiracies: it was the CIA, it was the Cubans, it was a secret cabal of Kennedy opponents; there was one gunman, there were many; the shot came from the Texas Book Depository, it came from the Grassy Knoll. Kennedy assassination conspiracies abound—just ask Oliver Stone. Memories of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have assumed a similar texture, perhaps because Americans feel there must have been a way to prevent them.
So many conspiracies, so little time: in the five short years since 9/11 the events of that day have already entered the realm of mythology. In Europe and the Arab world the conspiracy theories have ranged from attributing the attacks to "the Jews," more particularly the Israelis—at the extreme to the mythical Elders of Zion—to the Bush administration itself. In the United States, exponents of conspiracies have gathered in what has come to be called the 9/11 Truth Movement, which garnered much attention recently for the conference it held in Chicago this past June.
The movement explicitly claims to seek truth and expresses itself as skeptical of prevailing explanations, simply asking “questions” and specifically aiming at a “fair and balanced” view. With this point of departure the skeptics proceed to tear at every element of the 9/11 events, from whether the World Trade Center actually collapsed (or was destroyed by the detonation of embedded explosive charges) to whether one of the hijacked airplanes really hit the Pentagon, with many other elements of controversy in between.
The point here is not to belittle 9/11 conspiracy theories. Raising questions is perfectly legitimate, and some of those the 9/11 truth seekers posit are sufficiently troubling as to demand answers. At the same time, almost by definition with this administration, the official explanations are flawed, perhaps even outright deceptions. A steady stream of revelations has appeared that challenge the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the 9/11Commission’s work—from its failure to deal with the prior knowledge implied by the “Able Danger” military intelligence unit, to the recent declassification of new data on U.S. air defense performance on that tragic day.
At an earlier stage, when the House and Senate intelligence committees were conducting their own inquiry into 9/11, there was similar suppression of knowledge of CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief warning Bush of aerial events, and of the investigation’s treatment of U.S. links with Saudi Arabia. These were, and are, 9/11 truths whose emergence is important, and has occurred or will take place largely as a result of public pressure, not least that of the seekers.
My problems with the conspiracy theories are different. One is a question of focus, the other more political. In terms of focus, the 9/11 Truth Movement has largely steered clear of such outlandish attributions as the Elders of Zion, and they do aim properly at the Bush administration. But the theories largely postulate that the Bush White House either made 9/11 happen, or this president knew all about what impended and let 9/11 happen. Neither is likely in my view.
There is no doubt that the events of 9/11 flowed from an immense chain of actions in many places by a host of actors. Orchestrating all this activity implies a level of skill that just does not track with the Bush administration’s demonstrated incompetence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian matters, or on selling democracy in the Middle East, detention and torture, domestic wiretapping, actually finding Osama bin Laden and on so much else. What the Bushies were good at was at capitalizing on the 9/11 tragedy to push their domestic and foreign policy agendas.
At the same time, it is not necessary for there to have been a Bush 9/11 plot to explain the extreme deceitfulness of the administration afterwards. Obviously there was a ton of blame to avoid and a political vulnerability that President Bush wants to evade at all costs. And there is plentiful evidence of missed signals, security officers not “connecting the dots,” parts of the government not talking to each other and more, all of which adds to the impression of incompetence rather than of ability to carry out a conspiracy this immense. Moreover, the Bush administration itself further muddied the waters in its prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, going back and forth repeatedly in claims that this terrorist was or was not part of the 9/11 plot.
The other problem is political. There’s a job to be done in getting the Bush administration to behave in a legal, responsible fashion. All this effort devoted to finding the truth of 9/11 might contribute to that, except that the questions are too minute. Arguing the kinetic energy of a Boeing 767 hitting the Trade Center with a given fuel load, the structural integrity of the building itself, or the actual time of impact on Pennsylvania soil of United Airlines Flight 93 does not trace complicity into the Oval Office. Even finding that the Pentagon really was hit by a missile and not an airplane, or that Flight 93 was actually shot down, would not necessarily implicate the White House or prove the grand conspiracy theory. Many of the questions can only lead to more questions. A whole new level of evidence would be necessary to establish whether complicity exists.
Absent that, pursuing the questions may finally add up to footnotes as this president, as Richard Nixon used to say, keeps his “big enchilada.” The exercise ends up looking at the past, not the present or future. Like Clint Eastwood, Americans will have heard all the theories and be left sitting at the bar. And believe it or not, at the end of the day the events of 9/11 may be just a paragraph in the story of a presidency that crippled this great nation.
John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. His forthcoming book is Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Ivan R. Dee Publisher).
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