Sifting Through the Rubble: The 9/11 Controversies

Friends are advised to minister to those in need but also to seek to know the facts and the causes of social and economic ills and to work for the removal of those ills.
—Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in a faculty meeting at my university. One of my colleagues came in late. She was upset and blurted out that two airplanes had just crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The meeting quickly disbanded, and most of us went and stood glued to the TV down in the janitor’s room. There we saw the gut-wrenching footage of the hijacked jets hitting the towers. We then watched the unprecedented collapse of those two giant towers, which were built to withstand plane crashes, and, later in the day, we saw the complete collapse of Building 7, which had not even been hit by a plane. We also saw the results of the deadly air attack on the Pentagon and heard reports of another hijacked plane crashing in Pennsylvania. Soon, we faced the hardest news of all—the death toll, still uncertain, was likely in the thousands.

Six years later to the day, my colleagues and I paused for a moment of silence during our faculty meeting to remember the many victims of 9/11 as well as the police and firefighters who were the first responders. In that precious moment, we honored the many people who died, saved lives, were injured, became sick from the WTC dust, or lost loved ones in this national tragedy. While sitting in that silence, I also wondered, as I had for the last few months, if it could be true that U.S. government incompetence—or, even worse, active complicity by key players in the Bush administration—could have contributed to the success of these terrible attacks against the United States.

Personally, I have long avoided looking into the various theories that seek to explain the events of that painful day. While I know these events were the traumatic shock to our body politic that helped the Bush administration win public and Congressional support for its policy agenda of permanent war and occupation in the Mideast, I simply have not wanted to look carefully at the internal logic, evidence, and plausibility of the various theories put forward to explain how the 9/11 attacks succeeded. I certainly did not want to be perceived as, or become, some kind of a "conspiracy nut." It seemed easier to just accept, without any research or critical reflection, the 9/11 Commission’s basic theory on the subject and move on to peace activism against the U.S. war of aggression against Iraq—a country that did not have weapons of mass destruction or take any part in the 9/11 attacks.

I wonder now if my own lack of being valiant for the truth, if my being so hesitant "to seek to know the facts," is something I share with other Friends. Has the Religious Society of Friends been too timid to question the conduct of our government in this particular matter? Have many of us been too afraid of being ridiculed and losing our credibility with neighbors, friends, families, and colleagues? Indeed, have more and more people in the general public become more open-minded than most Friends are on this issue?

What Do Public Opinion Polls Reveal?

A ccording to a national 2004 Zogby Associates public opinion poll, 42 percent of the U.S. public was worried that the Bush administration—and even the 9/11 Commission—had covered up or distorted evidence that might suggest that the success of the September 11 attack was facilitated in part by U.S. government negligence, incompetence, or perhaps even complicity. In September 2007, just three years later, Zogby Associates conducted another national poll and it indicated that 52 percent of people in the U.S. now found The 9/11 Commission Report an inadequate explanation of why the attacks succeeded. It also noted that most of these same people favored the formation of a new investigation that would be completely independent of the Bush administration.

The numbers were even more striking when Zogby Associates conducted an opinion poll of the residents of New York State back in 2006. This study indicated that 62 percent of New Yorkers support a new, independent investigation into the events of September 11. This poll also found that nearly half of New York City residents and 42 percent of New York State citizens believe that some elements of the U.S. government were likely guilty of complicity in facilitating the success of these attacks on U.S. soil. The motive for such treasonous acts was, presumably, to create a traumatic pretext for pushing pre-existing but unpopular neoconservative policy goals— including desires to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, massively increase the military budget, dramatically expand U.S. Presidential power, and increasingly stifle political dissent and civil liberties long guaranteed by the Constitution. What happened on September 11, 2001—and why—is clearly not a settled question for many people in the U.S. Should it be for Friends?

What Are the Contending 9/11 Theories?

A ny search of the web will detail many different theories about what happened on September 11, 2001. What follows is a quick overview of the key features of the major theories that I have seen in contention in my own recent investigation.

First, there is the initial conspiracy theory put forward by key leaders of the Bush administration immediately after the attacks. This theory claims that 19 al-Qaida operatives, with likely support from the Taliban and/or Iraq, engaged in a well-planned, surprise attack on the U.S.—an attack of a kind that had not even been imagined by anyone in our government. This theory goes on to claim that this al-Qaida plot left no warning signs of an attack on the United States in the years and months before September 11. It also claims that these surprise attacks could not possibly have been stopped by U.S. intelligence agencies or the military. Finally, this theory goes on to claim that the later U.S. military attacks against Afghanistan and Iraq, which have now killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, were only contemplated after September 11 as a legitimate defensive response to eliminate the threat of al-Qaida and its most likely state sponsors.

Second, there is the more detailed and nuanced official conspiracy theory put forward by the 9/11 Commission, which was reluctantly appointed by President Bush after intense public pressure from several of the families of the 9/11 victims. In the Commission’s final published report, it laid out its theory that at least 19 al-Qaida operatives had engaged in a plot that had in fact been envisioned by many U.S. government counter-terrorism experts over the years and had left behind some significant warnings, which were just never put together into a big picture by our government’s intelligence agencies. The Commission’s theory also asserts that the main reason the attacks of 9/11 were not thwarted by our government was because of poor bureaucratic design and procedures on the part of various government agencies. It differs from the Bush administration’s initial theory on all these points. Yet, just like the Bush administration’s earlier conspiracy theory, the 9/11 Commission steadfastly steered away from making any claims—or even looking for evidence—of serious negligence, incompetence, or complicity on the part of key players in the U.S. government. As noted in the preface of The 9/11 Commission Report, "Our aim has not been to assign individual blame."

There is also a third, more critical theory, which has been put forward by people like former national antiterrorist "czar" Richard Clarke, who has argued that it was not just bad luck and poor bureaucratic design that allowed the al-Qaida attacks to succeed, but near-criminal negligence and incompetence on the part of Bush and several key Bush administration officials, including leaders in the U.S. intelligence agencies. This theory also blames negligence and incompetence for the complete collapse of the country’s air defense system, which on 9/11 did not follow the well-known and frequently practiced standard procedures for intercepting hijacked airplanes in U.S. airspace.

Many in this group also argue that the Bush administration cynically exploited the attacks that their own government’s incompetence helped facilitate—as a means for garnering public support for their neoconservative policy goals, including the long-desired invasion and occupation of Iraq. To support this part of the theory, these theorists note that key leaders within the Bush administration had already argued in a 2000 strategy paper, written for the Project for a New American Century, that the soon-to-be Bush administration’s agenda for attaining "worldwide command and control" could not be moved forward in the near term "absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor," some event that would scare people in the United States into accepting the administration’s agenda for "full-spectrum dominance." This is said to explain why so many Bush administration leaders were quoted by the news media within the first few days after the attacks talking among themselves about the 9/11 attacks as a "great opportunity" to push through the administration’s agenda on Iraq and other issues.

Finally, there is also a range of much more critical "complicity theories" put forward by people whose review of the available evidence suggests to them the strong possibility, and for some a firm conclusion, that the fundamental problem causing the inability of the U.S. government to stop these attacks is that key officials in the Bush administration had some level of advance knowledge of the attacks and were actively complicit in facilitating the success of the attacks as a pretext for achieving their pre-existing policy goals. Here the talk is of 9/11 as an "inside job."

Christian theologian David Ray Griffin is one such theorist, and in one of his books he lists several increasingly dire levels of possible U.S. government complicity ranging from (1) the theory that key government officials knowingly interfered with normal counter-terrorism efforts in order to let the attacks happen, (2) the theory that some key government operatives actually increased the destruction and psychological impact of the attacks on the U.S. population by causing the collapse of the Twin Towers through a pre-planned controlled demolition using explosives, and (3) the even more extreme complicity theory that al-Qaida either was not involved in the attacks at all or were patsies in a scheme initiated, planned, and carried out as a covert operation by key figures in the Bush administration as a pretext for their drive toward war, empire, and greater control of the world’s oil supplies.

How Should Friends Respond to These Theories?

My guess is that any survey of Friends would reveal that some of us hold to every one of these contending theories. My query to Friends, though, is how much thoughtful research and reflection have we all done—individually or together—to come to an informed, credible, and plausible conclusion about which theory best fits the available information? Should not Friends "seek to know the facts" and explore the strengths and weaknesses of each and every one of these 9/11 theories—and do so with Friends’ traditional attention to truthfulness, fact-seeking, even-handedness, and integrity?

George Bush’s answer to this question is an insistent no. As Bush warned the world in his address to the United Nations soon after 9/11, no one should engage in, or even tolerate, any consideration of "outrageous conspiracy theories about the attacks of 11 September." By "outrageous," Bush means any theory that dares to step outside the range of his administration’s initial conspiracy theory on the one hand or the slightly more nuanced conspiracy theory put forward by the 9/11 Commission on the other. Yet, I have to ask, is anyone who looks outside of this approved range of explanations intrinsically crazy, un-American, or, as Bush puts it, "with the terrorists"? Should we be intimidated by these charges that are aimed at keeping us from thinking for ourselves?

For myself, the importance of taking a serious look at the full range of 9/11 theories became clear after a student of mine handed me a copy of a declassified government document written and endorsed by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962. My student said, "Read this and then let me know if you still believe that it is unthinkable that a U.S. administration might plan to engage in ‘false flag’ terrorism against its own people." What I read was chilling. There is clearly at least one well-documented case in which officials in the higher circles of the U.S. government planned terrorist attacks against their own citizens as a pretext for war. To verify this fact for yourself, go online to the National Archives of declassified government documents sponsored by George Washington University. There you can download a full copy of the 1962 Joint Chiefs of Staff’s "Operation Northwoods" plan for creating "a pretext for military intervention in Cuba."

General Lyman Lemnitzer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, sent the plan under his signature to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President John Kennedy for final approval. Thankfully, both McNamara and Kennedy rejected the "Operation Northwoods" proposal, a plan where the highest-ranking military leaders in the United States called for a covert "deception plan" where the U.S. military would create incidents that could be blamed on an enemy as a pretext for a war against this enemy. The specific incidents listed in this plan include the U.S. government engaging in such covert operations as blowing up U.S. military bases, sinking U.S. warships, hijacking or shooting down military and civilian airplanes, and conducting a "terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities, and even in Washington."

The mere existence of the "Operation Northwoods" plan does not in any way resolve the important question of whether key players in the Bush administration engaged in a similar plan on September 11, 2001. Still, it does suggest that there is nothing at all "outrageous" in seriously investigating the possibility of administration complicity in the success, or even the planning, of the 9/11 attacks—which, unfortunately, is something the 9/11 Commission absolutely refused to do.

All of us can do this for ourselves, however. There is a wide variety of books, articles, reports, and documentaries that explore these issues and try to make the case for a particular point of view or come to a conclusion about which theory most plausibly fits the available evidence. The single best and most objective source that I have found is the Complete 9/11 Timeline website, an ongoing project of The Center for Cooperative Research. What is helpful about this website is that its researchers have created thousands of short subject posts based on news stories that relate to the 9/11 terror attacks from national and international mainstream media and government sources. This ever-growing list of 9/11 posts is also categorized, searchable, and, most importantly, each one includes live links to the actual articles, Web pages, reports, and video clips that are referred to in the post summaries. With a click of a computer’s mouse you can immediately go to original sources of information and see them for yourself!

The fundamental question, then, is whether we will find the courage to do so. Perhaps one of the tests of our faithfulness to the truth today will be whether or not Friends slavishly accept the Bush administration’s explanations for 9/11 at face value, or engage instead in fearless research and reflection on all the 9/11 theories, including those that Bush warns us against exploring. Will not seeking the truth help set us free?

Even though I am not yet personally convinced by all the 9/11 evidence and arguments put forward by complicity theorists like theologian David Ray Griffin, I am moved by Griffin’s call in Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11 for our religious congregations to take the lead in creating a liberated space in our communities where both our members and our fellow citizens are encouraged to look more deeply at the 9/11 controversies, explore different perspectives and lines of argument, and come to a more informed consensus in light of these searching dialogues and discussions. As David Ray Griffin notes, if we come to "believe that our political and military leaders are acting on the basis of policies that are diametrically opposed to divine purposes, it is incumbent upon us to say so." And, as he so rightly adds, "This is especially the case if we live in a rich and powerful country, the policies of which affect the welfare of other peoples, even other species."

Will you and your meeting join me in this search for truth?

Resources for Exploring the Full Spectrum of 9/11 Theories

The Terror Timeline: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11—and America’s Response by Paul Thompson and the Center for Cooperative Research (New York: Regan Books, 2004).
The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11, by David Ray Griffin (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2004).
The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation, and the Anatomy of Terrorism by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2005).
The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Authorized Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions by David Ray Griffin (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2005).
Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror by Richard Clarke (New York: Free Press, 2004).
Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action by David Ray Griffin (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, with Benjamin Rhodes (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006).
Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, An In-Depth Investigation by Popular Mechanics edited by David Dunbar and Brad Reagan (New York: Hearst Books, 2006).
Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory by David Ray Griffin (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2007).

Steve Chase

Steve Chase is a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting and director of the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing program of Antioch University New England.