By Chip Berlet
The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 quickly drew a range of responses from the U.S. political right, and became the subject of widespread conspiracist speculation. There has been a generic type of anti-government conspiracy theory, and those that incorporate anti-Semitic allegations as well. Political Research Associates began collecting examples of this phenomenon shortly after the attacks. Other media have carried stories as well. Some of these theories are from the political right, others claim to be from the left, others represent a fusion of left and right viewpoints.
A common generic conspiracy theory suggested that the failure of the U.S. government to scramble jet interceptor aircraft in time to shoot down the hijacked planes was somehow evidence that the government was aware of the attack and did nothing to stop it; or that the government itself staged the attack to justify aggressive militarism and domestic repression. One theory claimed that the planes were controlled by remote devices. Another claimed that all the buildings were actually destroyed by bombs hidden inside the structures, and one variation asserted that no plane hit the Pentagon at all.
9/11 Conspiracism and the Left
Questions about government failures to prevent 9/11 gained renewed attention when the major corporate media reported that Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) gave a March 25 interview on radio station KPFA in Berkeley, CA where she suggested, according to AP, that "Bush administration officials may have ignored advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks and their political allies have profited from the war on terrorism."
McKinney, a five-term House member from Atlanta, is a progressive African-American woman with a history of speaking out for social and economic justice. The central theme of McKinney's argument, which her office reiterated later, was that there needed to be a thorough investigation of the events of 9/11. This was not the first time McKinney has asked tough questions about 9/11. In fact, in a press release dated September 21, 2001, McKinney asked for an investigation into why the government did not take seriously warnings about an impending attack.
Certainly McKinney's call for vigorous investigation of how the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks went undetected by US intelligence is more than justified. The possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. by networks linked to militant Islamic fundamentalists had been discussed in both general and specific terms in anti-terrorism materials published prior to 9/11. The government had access to these warnings and appears to have had other private warnings as well. The safeguards failed. This deserves investigation and penalties. Neither seem forthcoming.
Increased spending on military hardware, covert action, and the devices and services to implement increased government surveillance of domestic dissidents authorized after 9/11 has undoubtedly been a financial bonanza to many businesses run by allies of the Bush administration. None of this is good news.
What is at issue with the more speculative allegations is the question of prior knowledge, and the logical fallacy that the sequence of events implies some causation. The government failing to heed warnings, or Bush allies reaping windfall profits after 9/11, does not prove that there was a conscious plan for the government to ignore warnings of terrorism or, as some have claimed, to actually stage the attacks as part of a U.S. government covert operation. Why have such conspiracist claims circulated so widely?
McKinney's comments on KPFA were extended in an essay posted on the Internet: "Thoughts on our War Against Terrorism." In this essay McKinney's speculation about government wrongdoing unfortunately extends beyond the available evidence. It is important, however, to place McKinney's comments in context. She was speaking to a progressive audience on a radio station where there is an ongoing vigorous debate about allegations of government conspiracy relating to 911. Her call for an investigation played a moderating role in this debate.
There are concrete reasons why people of color, especially Black people, as well as progressives in general, would want a serious investigation into allegations of conspiracies involving government officials. There is a history of government repression in the U.S. involving conspiracies that is well known to people of color and the left. A few better-known examples include:
The Tuskegee incident where Black men were not informed they were not being treated for venereal disease as part of an experiment.
The FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operations in the late 1960s and early 1970s where several deaths of Black activists are directly attributable to conspiracies involving FBI agents. Specific projects were launched to discredit, disrupt, and destroy the New Left, the antiwar movement, the organizing of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and several Black nationalist groups.
The Iran-Contra scandal which exposed an elaborate conspiracy involving public and private groups conducting covert operations to sidestep Congressional mandates concerning U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.
Bill Weinberg, editor of the online WW3 Report, sums up the attitude of many on the left about all governments when he writes:
"It is the position of WW3 REPORT that after the 1898 explosion of the battleship Maine, the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the 1939 bogus Polish "invasion" of Germany, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, it is irresponsible not to consider the possibility that elements of the CIA and/or Bush administration had a hand in the events of Sept. 11."
But Weinberg warns about going too far down this path:
"However, it is equally irresponsible to accept this as a foregone conclusion, and twist every fact to fit it. WW3 REPORT remains committed to the idea that there is no higher principle to serve than the truth, and that serving this principle requires unflinching courage, unrestrained inquiry and unsleeping rigor." [read more by Weinberg]
The Right has selectively highlighted government abuses to which it objects, and, aided by a constant drumbeat of Hollywood films depicting these abuses with dramatic flare intended to increase ticket sales, has helped create an environment in which any conspiracy seems plausible. According to Robert Alan Goldberg, in his book Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in America:
"Media merchandisers legitimize conspiracy thinking and give it broad appeal. Their images remain in the public mind, forever shaping new experiences into consistent patterns. Government authorities also support the conspiracist case by echoing the fear of subversion or offering proof of collusion by abusing power or betraying the people's trust.
"In essence, conspiracism is an American tradition." [p. 260]
Increased government secrecy since 9/11 has fed further suspicion and increased conspiracism, suggesting that an open and thorough Congressional investigation would be an antidote to burgeoning conspiracism.
The suggestion of government foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks has been accelerated by claims made by Michael C. Ruppert, a former police officer who runs an anti-CIA website: From the Wilderness (copvcia.com). Ruppert has been featured on KPFA, the same Pacifica station on which McKinney made her comments. Ruppert claims to work closely with McKinney, and her remarks echoed the claims of Ruppert whose theories have gained considerable attention since 9/11.
Nation columnist David Corn criticized Ruppert in a March 1, 2002 essay on Alternet, "When 9/11 Conspiracy Theories Go Bad." According to Corn:
"I won't argue that the U.S. government does not engage in brutal, murderous skulduggery from time to time. But the notion that the U.S. government either detected the attacks but allowed them to occur, or, worse, conspired to kill thousands of Americans to launch a war-for-oil in Afghanistan is absurd."
Corn singled out Ruppert as a major source of this allegation.
Bill Weinberg, David Corn, and columnist Norman Solomon all have written sharp criticisms of Ruppert. Solomon sent a letter to KPFA questioning the decision to give Ruppert so much airtime. When Ruppert complained this was censorship, Solomon wrote a follow-up response. All of these criticisms along with responses by Ruppert and his allies have now circulated publicly on the Internet. Ruppert is very aggressive in defending his views. Criticisms of Ruppert's conspiracism that I made several months ago prompted a threat of a lawsuit by Ruppert (See earlier Berlet statement).
I oppose censorship, but editorial judgment by radio station editors is not censorship. The issue is whether or not Ruppert's claims are worth airing. That is an editorial judgment. Along with Weinberg, Corn, and Solomon, I think Ruppert steps over the line into conspiracist allegations that fall short of journalistic standards of evidence and proof. Airing the views of personable conspiracists has been a problem before on various Pacifica radio stations. The case of Craig Hulet during the Gulf War is an example, as is the more recent example of Jim Marrs. All of these figures make assertions that do not stand up to close scrutiny.
It's not censorship for there be some basic standards for airing material.Otherwise, anyone who criticizes the government should be aired on Pacifica stations. Does that make sense?
Michael C. Ruppert is a tougher call. He calls himself a "truth seeker," rejecting the idea that his theories are rooted in right-wing lore, and seeks open alliance with the left. Ruppert, however, makes sweeping claims that cannot be verified at a time when there is some much verifiable wrongdoing by the government and corporations that the outcome, no matter how unintentional, is that Ruppert's allegations serve to distract from serious progressive opposition to the status quo and sometimes even discredit it.
Norman Solomon warned KPFA about the dangers of conspiracism:
"...such programming, when it is "successful," encourages people to fixate on the specter of a diabolical few plotters rather than on the profoundly harmful realities of ongoing structural, institutional, systemic factors. When logic becomes secondary to flashy claims, and when assertions unsupported by evidence become touted as hard-edged fact, any temporary "sizzle" hardly compensates for the longer-term damage done to the station's standards. A key question remains: Aren't the well-documented crimes of the U.S. government and huge corporations enough to merit our ongoing outrage, focused attention and activism?"
Another group of conspiracy theories that flourished after 9/11 involved various forms of antisemitism. In most of these theories there were false assumption conflating Jewish religion and ethnicity, Israel, Zionism, and the current Israeli government. Sometimes the assertion was that Jews controlled U.S. foreign policy, while in other cases there were outright claims that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad had staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
One widespread rumor claimed that 4,000 Jews had been warned to not report to work at the World Trade Center, and argued that this was proof that Israel was behind the attacks.
Many of the pages that carried antisemitic conspiracism concerning 9/11 have now vanished. Here are some of the pages that examined the anti-Semitic rumors.
Criticisms and Questions about 9/11 Conspiracism
When 9/11 Conspiracy Theories Go Bad David Corn, AlterNet, March 1, 2002
The September 11 X-Files David Corn, Capital Games column, The Nation, May 30, 2002
Norman Solomon: Letter to KPFA
Norman Solomon: Follow-up Response
Bill Weinberg (World War 3 Report) on post-9/11 Conspiracism
Nightmares of Reason Sorting fact from fiction in 9/11 conspiracy theories by Salim Muwakkil
Conspiracies Or Institutions: 9-11 and Beyond by Stephen R. Shalom & Michael Albert, Z Magazine Online, June 2, 2002
Paranoia Paradise By Chris Horrie, BBC News Online
No War for Oil! Is the United States really after Afghanistan's resources? Not a chance. By Ken Silverstein, The American Prospect, 7.22.02
The Sucker Punch Series