Dylan Avery has a theory that he says casts doubts on Mark Bingham's actions on Sept. 11, 2001. According to Avery, the San Francisco public relations executive never called his mom on a cell phone from the cabin of Flight 93, and never told her that "some of us here are going to try to do something." Instead, says Avery, someone using a voice synthesizer -- possibly a government official -- called Alice Hoglan on the morning that Flight 93 -- and Bingham -- became part of Sept. 11 lore.
"The cell phone calls were fake -- no ifs, ands or buts," Avery says in "Loose Change," a film he wrote and directed that's one of the most-watched movies on the Internet, with 10 million viewers in the past year. "Until the government can prove beyond a shadow of doubt that al Qaeda was behind Sept. 11, the American people have every reason to believe otherwise."
Avery is one of perhaps millions of Americans who believe the U.S. government -- or rogue elements within it -- either orchestrated the attacks or tacitly supported them for nefarious reasons.
As the five-year anniversary of the attacks approaches, the clamor of Avery and other conspiracy theorists has gotten stronger -- and more widely accepted. According to a poll by Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service, 36 percent of Americans believe that government officials "either assisted in the 9/ 11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East." Twelve percent of Americans believe a cruise missile fired by the U.S. military -- not an American Airlines jet hijacked by Arab terrorists -- slammed into the Pentagon. Sixteen percent of Americans, the survey indicates, believe that "secret explosives" -- not two planes and the resulting damage -- brought down the World Trade Center towers.
Conspiracy fans are viewed by most people as gullible, opportunistic, disgruntled or simply suspicious. It's widely believed that conspiracy theorists emanate from the margins of society, that they're a combination of paranoid, powerless, undereducated and desperate (at least desperate to assign blame). But Avery and other prominent Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists claim to represent society's mainstream, which is skeptical of the Bush administration's rationale for the Iraq war and Washington's version of what really happened that day.
Some of them reject the term "conspiracy theorist," instead calling themselves "truth activists" -- people who want to expose hidden facts that the major media ignore or downplay because of their corporate ties. While many conspiracy theorists are politically liberal, they also include people on the right, including members of the John Birch Society, who imply that the Sept. 11 attacks were part of a continuing plan by U.S. elites to create a "New World Order" and impose greater control over Americans.
Some conspiracy theories are fantastical (CIA agents orchestrated the attacks; Israel planned them.) -- the epitome of preposterous beliefs that start with a conclusion and work backward to find evidence. Each new month brings a deluge of crackpot theories, but a growing number of people say there are too many improbabilities -- too many illogical holes -- in the government's version of what happened.
Robert Bowman, who directed the "Star Wars" defense program under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, reached his own conclusion after questioning (among other things) why the American military hadn't intercepted the hijacked planes before they hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, why the FBI had ignored repeated pre-Sept. 11 warnings that Zacarias Moussaoui wanted to fly a plane into the World Trade Center, why the Pentagon didn't release surveillance tapes of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the military complex, and how, within hours after the attack, the government could so quickly produce the names and photos of the 19 hijackers.
A former U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel with a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, Bowman says Vice President Dick Cheney and other top government officials may have had advance knowledge of the attacks. Bowman theorizes that Cheney and other officials stood to benefit financially (in Cheney's case, through Halliburton). Labeling these officials "neo-cons," Bowman says they had a long-standing desire to control Iraq's oil and to use the country as a strategic hub for controlling the entire Middle East. The Sept. 11 commission, he says, neglected to investigate these possible connections, leaving a huge gap in the official account.
"It's hard to believe that somebody at some (government) level wasn't complicit in this thing," Bowman said in a phone interview from his home in Florida. Bowman, who publicly turned against the "Star Wars" system because he believed the Reagan administration secretly considered it a first-strike option and not merely a defensive weapon, says, "How could someone in the FBI turn down requests 70 times from somebody (FBI agent Harry Samit) who said he thought Moussaoui was going to fly a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center? ... I'm calling for a (new) independent investigation that will clear up everything. If the investigation shows that there were people in the United States who were involved in some way, that's the story of the century, and the American people need to know it."
Like many on the left and the right, Bowman points to pre-Sept. 11 documents he says foreshadowed the attacks, including a paper published in 2000 by the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank whose members have included Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The paper, titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses," talked about the fact that a "catastrophic and catalyzing event -- a new Pearl Harbor," would strengthen the American military because lawmakers would, given the urgency, green-light funds to continue the military's dominance over U.S. adversaries. For conspiracy theorists, the Project for a New American Century document is a smoking gun. Its reference to Pearl Harbor is both scary and damning, they say, because some historians believe President Franklin Roosevelt knew that an attack on U.S. soil was imminent but let it happen to rally American public opinion behind going to war.
If that isn't enough evidence to convince you that Sept. 11 was an inside job, conspiracy theorists say, there's more. What about the fact that NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) quickly intercepted golfer Payne Stewart's wayward Learjet in 1999 but didn't intercept the hijacked planes that crashed in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa.? What about the fact that witnesses at the World Trade Center reported hearing multiple explosions before the buildings' collapse, indicating to some that the towers were brought down by planted explosives? What about the fact that Building 7 of the World Trade Center -- the 47-floor structure housing offices of the CIA, the Secret Service and the Department of Defense -- collapsed even though it wasn't hit by planes?
Rebuttals have emerged to explain some of the biggest question marks. Last month, Popular Mechanics magazine published a full-length book, "Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts," which refuted 20 claims widely held by conspiracy theorists. For example, the belief that a missile hit the Pentagon was based partly on the visible damage to the building: at the point of impact, a relatively small portion of the wall was knocked over -- it wasn't the horizontal damage to be expected from a large-winged Boeing 757.
Popular Mechanics, which interviewed more than 300 sources for its book, quotes witnesses who said at least one wing of Flight 77 smashed into an on-ground generator before the plane struck the Pentagon. An engineering expert says the plane's outer wings likely sheared off before impact. "A jet doesn't punch a cartoonlike outline into a concrete building upon impact," the book says, citing an engineering professor.
What about a witness who supposedly told CNN that he saw a missile hit the Pentagon? Popular Mechanics interviews the witness, Mike Walter, who says his original words ("I looked out my window and saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. ... I mean, it was like a cruise missile with wings") were truncated and distorted by conspiracy theorists. One of those theorists was French author Thierry Meyssan, whose 2002 best-seller, "The Horrifying Fraud," claimed the U.S. military instigated Sept. 11 as part of its plan to start new wars around the world.
In his film "Loose Change," Avery says Bingham and other passengers on Flight 93 could not have called from the doomed jetliner because cell phones rarely work at high altitudes. He cites a research paper by A.K. Dewdney, an emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Western Ontario. But in "Debunking 9/11 Myths," Popular Mechanics interviews experts who explain why Bingham's cell phone would have worked that day (the plane's low altitude helped, as did the fact it flew over rural areas, which often have cell-phone towers with powerful signal capacities).
Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists have attacked "Debunking 9/11 Myths," saying that Popular Mechanics is a front for the CIA. They that one of its researchers, Benjanim Chertoff, is related to Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, which they say is an indication of the magazine's co-mingling with a government that was behind the attacks. (The magazine says the two Chertoffs might be distant cousins, but that they've never spoken.)
Conspiracy theorists might even look at this article as part of the conspiracy, because Hearst Corp., which owns Popular Mechanics, also publishes The Chronicle.
What sets "Loose Change" apart from other Sept. 11 works is that it's visually appealing, slickly edited (with hip music) and free to watch on the internet video site YouTube. It has an anti-authoritarian edge (Avery is 22 years old) that might appeal to someone who admires Michael Moore or Jon Stewart. The film has inspired a critical response, "Screw Loose Change," which repackages Avery's film with rebuttals interspersed.
Conspiracy theorists often cite "facts" that really are facts, but whether they really add up to anything is another question.
In his new book, "The Terror Conspiracy: Deception, 9/11, and the Loss of Liberty," author Jim Marrs points out that former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted that the United States began funding Afghan rebels in July 1979. Why is this important? Because, for many years, the official American version was that funding started after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Brzezinski now says the United States hoped the 1979 funding would draw in the Soviets and lead to a wider war, contributing to the demise of the Soviet Union. If the U.S. government would lie in 1979, why wouldn't it lie again in 2001? In 1979, says Marrs, it was about gaining access to oil and gas in Central Asia. Twenty-two years later, he says, it was about Iraq's oil.
Agreeing with Marrs is Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization that believes the U.S. government "permitted 9/11 to occur." Among the group's members are Paul W. Rea, a humanities lecturer at St. Mary's College in Moraga; Tracy Belvins, a research scientist in bioengineering at Rice University; Kevin Barrett, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose Sept. 11 views caused national controversy in July and prompted some lawmakers to insist he shouldn't be teaching at the university; and Stephen LeRoy, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara who has been a visiting economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
"Conspiracists (come) from all parts of the population, they (come) from all racial and religious groups," says Bob Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of "Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America." "The fact that people who have advanced degrees believe in conspiracy theories does not surprise me because it's not an issue of whether you're smart or dumb. In fact, when you look at conspiracy theories, what distinguishes them is how rigorously logical they seem to be, that they are so intensely structured and that there's a belief that every single fact is important and connects to another fact. There's a rigor to (their) logic."
"But," says Goldberg, "there's (an inflexibility to) the logic that denies things you can't deny -- whether it's accidents, whether it's bureaucratic process, whether it's miscalculations, whether it's simply mistakes. In these theories, there are no mistakes, no accidents, no bureaucracy -- everything is crystal clear."
"Debunking 9/11 Myths" makes the case that mistakes, miscommunication and bureaucratic bungling contributed to the U.S. government's lack of immediate response to the Sept. 11 hijackings. Barrett and other conspiracy theorists will have none of it. They say the U.S. government's version of the events is itself a conspiracy theory -- a collection of assumptions bolstered by evidence, but nevertheless assumptions that are open to debate.
"After studying this fairly intensively over the past 2 1/2 years," says Barrett in a phone interview, "I'm convinced that 9/11 was orchestrated by top U.S. officials and presumably perpetrated by members of what could be called the American allied intelligence community."
Goldberg says conspiracy theorists -- especially those fearful and distrustful of a powerful, centralized government -- have existed in the United States since its founding. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Goldberg says, created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists of every political and religious persuasion.
Five years afterward, the storm isn't abating.
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.