Loose Marbles I: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

It seems to be part of human nature that any event of great scale or significance will inevitably engender conspiracy theories. The Kennedy assassination and the moon landing are two recent events that have spawned some of the most durable and complex examples, but there are many more, swirling around nearly every major world event and ranging from the nearly plausible to the outright ridiculous. (An example of the latter category would be the assertion that Hurricane Katrina was caused by secret weather-control technology.)

But no recent world event has been more iconic or more horrifying than the September 11, 2001 attack on America. As such, it is no surprise that the events of 9/11 have given rise to a slew of conspiracy theories alleging that the attacks were not, as they appeared, the handiwork of radical Islamists working for the terror group al-Qaeda, but rather a plot orchestrated by the U.S. government. This charge is leveled most prominently by a variety of conspiracy documentaries circulating on the Internet, one of which is titled Loose Change. Created by the filmmakers Dylan Avery, Korey Rowe and Jason Bermas, LC alleges that the 9/11 attacks occurred primarily as a cover-up for a plan to steal billions of dollars in gold (hence the title), and secondarily as an excuse to enact elements of a neoconservative political agenda.

Before going any further, I should stress that I fully support efforts to roll back the regressive laws and stop the bellicose and disastrous foreign policy which were both defended by the Bush administration by endless appeals to 9/11. However, I also believe that we on the left should be, as the saying goes, in the reality-based community. Our opposition to these programs should be based on the facts, not on paranoid fantasies, and in this respect LC and other 9/11 conspiracy theories must be met on their own terms and debunked. This documentary in particular was characterized by corruptions of logic, appeals to missing or dubious evidence, wild speculation blended with selectively presented fact, and other hallmarks of the irrationality that pervades most conspiratorial thinking. It will be the purpose of this post series to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt by analyzing its claims and showing that they do not hold up.

I will not be arguing against hypotheses that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the attacks and deliberately failed to prevent them. Although I believe this idea is also false, it is not the purpose of this series to address it. Rather, I will focus on debunking the idea that the Bush administration, or any other government or entity, carried out a plan whose purpose was to make Americans believe that we had been attacked by Islamic terrorists when we had not been. As I will argue, the conventional explanation for 9/11 – that the attacks were planned and carried out by members of al-Qaeda, smuggling weapons on board four commercial airliners to hijack them and use them as kamikaze missiles – is the only reasonable explanation for the events of that terrible day.

We begin with the section of LC concerning Flight 77 and the attack on the Pentagon. Claims from the documentary will be presented, along with the time indexes of the film at which they are made. (For purposes of comparison, the documentary itself can be viewed at Google Video).

The Pentagon and Flight 77

The documentary begins with historical material intended to establish that 9/11-like ideas were being discussed secretly by the government for decades before 2001. For example, we have this:

“August, 1997. The cover of FEMA’s Emergency Response to Terrorism [manual] depicts the World Trade Center in crosshairs.”

There is one rather obvious reason for this that the filmmakers overlook: by this point, the World Trade Center had already been the target of a terrorist attack, the 1993 truck bombing, for which Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and four other conspirators were tried and convicted. Terrorist plotter Ramzi Yousef allegedly claimed that his group would try again to destroy the Twin Towers (source). It was only rational for the government to suspect the towers might be targets of a further terrorist attack, given this evidence. Or are we to believe that that attack was part of the conspiracy as well?

The scope of any plausible 9/11 conspiracy would be enormous, spanning hundreds or thousands of people: the government officials who actually conceived of the attack, the military personnel who set it up and carried it out, the pathologists who faked autopsy and genetic data, the intelligence agencies that would have concocted false evidence of al-Qaeda involvement, the disaster-response teams on the scene immediately after the attacks, the airline employees and air-traffic controllers who would have to have cooperated, and more. Are we now to double this scope by postulating a conspiracy that spans two presidential administrations from different political parties?

“October 24, 2000. The Pentagon conducts the first of two training exercises called MASCAL, which simulate a Boeing 757 crashing into the building. Charles Burlingame, an ex-Navy F-4 pilot who worked in the Pentagon, participates in this exercise before retiring to take a job at American Airlines, where, less than a year later, his Boeing 757 allegedly crashes into the building.”

This would indeed be a sinister-seeming coincidence, if true, although the filmmakers never quite explain how such a fact would fit into their conspiracy theory. (Are we to believe that a military veteran with 25 years of distinguished service would agree to participate in an attack against his own country?) However, there appears to be evidence that it is untrue: although Burlingame did work at the Pentagon, he left well before 2000 and thus could not have participated in these exercises as the film claims. See this article from the 9/11 Myths website.

“Newsweek reports that a number of top Pentagon brass canceled their flight plans for [September 11].”

Again, this is a sinister-sounding fact whose relevance is not explained. In fact, it is hard to see how this fits into the conspiracy theory. If, as the filmmakers believe, September 11 was planned in advance, then why would any top Pentagon officials cancel their travel plans? They would have known they were in no danger.

LC now moves on to the attack on the Pentagon. The hypothesis put forward by the filmmakers, as well as numerous other conspiracy sites, is that on September 11 the Pentagon was struck not by a hijacked airliner, but by a cruise missile.

The filmmakers quote an October 12, 2001 Parade interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in which Rumsfeld says, “Here we’re talking about plastic knives, and using an American Airlines flight filled with our citizens, and the missile to damage this building…”

I am not sure what the point is of citing this simple slip of the tongue, unless the filmmakers mean to imply that one of the chief plotters of the most extensive, diabolical and secret conspiracies in the history of the human race accidentally gave the whole thing away in a quote to Parade magazine.

“Hani Hanjour [one of the hijackers of Flight 77] allegedly executes a 330-degree turn at 530 miles per hour, descending 7000 feet in two and a half minutes to crash… into the ground floor of the Pentagon.” The documentary cites a pilot named Russ Wittenberg who claims that a Boeing 757 “could not possibly have flown at those speeds… without going into a high speed stall… The airplane won’t go that fast when you start pulling those high G maneuvers”.

The maneuvers described are well within the capabilities of a Boeing 757, which is rated for much higher G-forces than such a turn would produce (see here; be aware that this site claims the plane was remotely controlled, a conspiracy hypothesis to which I do not subscribe).

The film quotes Danielle O’Brien, an air traffic controller on duty on 9/11, who says of Flight 77, “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought… that it was a military plane.”

Although other factual errors in the film can be explained as simple mistakes or oversights, this is the first one that cannot be. This is an example of the flatly dishonest tactic called “quote-mining”, often employed by creationists, in which a person’s words are made to seem to be saying something other than they are by removing relevant context. As the full quote shows, the air traffic controllers thought Flight 77 was a military plane not because it displayed any unusual speed or maneuverability, but because it was flying in a fashion that would have been highly dangerous for any commercial airliner. Obviously, the hijackers were not concerned about the safety of the passengers.

The film discusses the damage to light poles near the Pentagon, which were ripped out of the ground by collisions with Flight 77’s wings as the hijacked plane made its final approach. “Flight 77 managed to tear five light poles completely out of the ground without damaging either the wings or the light poles themselves.”

At first glance, this might seem like an anomaly. But as previously mentioned, the filmmakers’ proposed explanation is that the Pentagon was damaged by a cruise missile. The Tomahawk cruise missile, which they mention specifically, has a wingspan that is all of eight feet. How could such a missile possibly have knocked down the light poles? This is a question the filmmakers ignore.

This is yet another example of the conspiracy tactic which I call “the unexplained sinister assertion”: some apparently anomalous piece of evidence which the filmmakers state in deeply sinister tones, implying that it is an insurmountable problem for the ordinary explanation. But then they never explain how their conspiracy hypothesis accounts for it any better. In fact, in some cases (such as this one), the ordinary explanation accounts for it much better than the conspiracy hypothesis.

Why assume, in any case, that this impact did not damage the plane’s wings? They might well have been disintegrating already by the time the plane impacted the building. Significant amounts of debris were found on the Pentagon’s lawn (photos). Additionally, the claim that the knocked-down light poles were undamaged is false. In reality, they were severely bent and even sheared off at the top by the force of the impact. See photos here and here.

“Why is there absolutely no trace of Flight 77? … The official explanation is that the intense heat from the jet fuel vaporized the entire plane.”

I would very much like to know who proposed this “official explanation”, because it is plainly ludicrous. I suspect it is a straw man of the filmmakers’ invention. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested that Flight 77 was entirely vaporized by the heat of the explosion; rather, Flight 77 disintegrated because it was crashed at 350 mph into a nine-foot-thick wall of reinforced concrete and steel. (The filmmakers’ comparisons to other plane crashes which left significantly more debris are irrelevant, since the cases they cite concern planes that crashed into the ground, a considerably softer medium.) Such a catastrophic impact would not be expected to leave large pieces of the plane intact. However, that fact notwithstanding, a significant amount of recognizable debris was found – including body parts and even bodies of passengers still strapped into their seats (source, and additional photos; see also here). Additionally, Flight 77’s black box and cockpit voice recorder were both also found (source).

Among the debris found at the Pentagon was a piece of a single turbojet engine, approximately 3 feet in diameter, which some have claimed was part of the plane’s auxiliary power unit (APU). The film quotes spokespeople from Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, the two companies that manufacture 757 engines, both of which claimed it was not a part from their company’s engines.

The claim about this component being part of an APU is apparently untrue, and seems to be a red herring cited by the filmmakers. In reality, experts who have studied the photos have concluded that it was probably part of a compressor or turbine disk from the Rolls-Royce RB211-535 turbofan engine, which American Airlines 757s are equipped with (source).

The Rolls-Royce spokesperson may simply have been mistaken; alternatively, this may be another instance of deliberate quote-mining by the filmmakers. The quote they briefly show says that the spokesperson claimed this was not a part of a Rolls-Royce AE 3007H engine, a different model than that of a 757. The AE 3007H engine is installed on, among other things, the unmanned Global Hawk surveillance craft. Some conspiracy theories, although not LC, claim a Global Hawk struck the Pentagon. This claim therefore refutes, not supports, conspiracy ideas. Confusingly, LC also implies that the part may have come from a U.S. A-3 Skywarrior fighter plane, which would contradict the film’s own explanation if it were true. Consistency does not seem to be a great concern of the filmmakers.

“…Employees at the Pentagon were seen carrying away a large box, shrouded in a blue tarp. Why the mystery?”

The filmmakers have debunked their own claim here, as acknowledged in this post from LC‘s official forum.

“Why is the damage to the Pentagon completely inconsistent with a Boeing 757? …The only damage to the outer wall is a single hole, no more than 16 feet in diameter.” The film claims that a 155-foot-long 757 should have caused more damage, and asks why there is no visible hole from where the wings and engines slammed into the building.

To begin with, the real world is not a Warner Brothers cartoon. A plane crashed at high speed into a solid object will not leave a hole that is an exact silhouette of itself. This is especially true if, as eyewitness reports indicate, the plane crashed and skidded along the ground before striking the Pentagon; in such case, its wings would already have been disintegrating before impacting the building. Nevertheless, there is extensive damage to the Pentagon consistent with the impact of a jumbo jet. See here for a large picture (warning: 2.3 MB image), and here for a gallery of somewhat smaller photos. Clearly, although the plane’s wings did not punch cartoon-like holes into the Pentagon, they did inflict extensive damage to its facade. (As multiple sites have pointed out, airplane wings are designed to be as light as possible, and would have shredded upon impact with the building’s heavily reinforced load-bearing columns.) See here and here for detailed analyses.

The film asks (00:17:55) what happened to the plane’s massive, six-ton main engines, and the answer is that they did indeed punch into the Pentagon. An Army report on the cleanup two weeks after 9/11 (source) says: “On the inside wall of the second ring of the Pentagon, a nearly circular hole, about 12-feet wide, allows light to pour into the building from an internal service alley. An aircraft engine punched the hole out on its last flight after being broken loose from its moorings on the plane.”

“…Why did people keep reporting a second explosion at the Pentagon [after the plane had crashed]?” [The film plays several clips of live news reports from 9/11 citing reports of secondary explosions.]

This is another example of the unexplained sinister assertion. Why would we expect secondary explosions from the impact of a cruise missile but not from the crash of a jumbo jet?

“Surveillance cameras from a gas station, Sheraton hotel, and the Virginia Department of Transportation captured the entire thing. [The film shows vantage points from these places overlooking the Pentagon.] However, the FBI was there within minutes to confiscate the tapes… If the government wishes to prove once and for all that Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, all they would have to do is release one of those tapes.”

I too would encourage the public release of these tapes, assuming these claims are accurate. However, when evidence does exist contradicting the preferred conspiracy hypothesis – recordings of phone calls made by passengers on the hijacked planes, which will be discussed later – the filmmakers simply appeal, without a shred of embarrassment, to secret government technology that can allegedly be used to imitate people’s voices. If these tapes were produced, what would prevent the conspiracists from claiming they too were forgeries?

“…Why do satellite photos taken four days before 9/11 show a white marking on the front lawn [shows satellite photo of an ‘H’-shaped mark on the ground outside the building], marking almost the exact trajectory of whatever hit the Pentagon four days later?”

This is yet another example of the unexplained sinister assertion. Why would a cruise missile need a white mark on the ground to guide it to its target?

In fact, the entire Pentagon conspiracy hypothesis is an example of the unexplained sinister assertion on a grand scale. Assuming that the U.S. government wanted to stage an attack on the Pentagon and went to all the trouble of making a commercial jumbo jet and all its passengers disappear to make it seem as if it had been used as the weapon, why would they not just actually crash the plane into the Pentagon? What on earth would be the point of using a cruise missile instead? This is a massive logical gap which this movie never even attempts to answer.

Many conspiracy theories suffer from this defect, which I call the fallacy of unnecessary complexity. Given the sinister nature of the average conspiracy theory, why would the plotters choose a scheme involving a byzantine, sometimes Rube Goldbergian, amount of superfluous complication – vastly increasing both the risk of failure and the risk of discovery – when a much simpler plan would have achieved their goals just as well? To name one example, if the assassination of President Kennedy was a conspiracy, why would the conspirators adopt the insanely risky scheme of shooting him in broad daylight with thousands of people watching, when they could have poisoned him in some surreptitious manner and attributed his death to a stroke or heart attack?

There is one more problem for 9/11 conspiracy theorists – a big one. Unlike the crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the impact on the Pentagon took place in a heavily populated area. As the film itself notes (00:13:25), “[Flight 77’s] final approach took it directly across Interstate 395.” Given this fact, one would expect there to be a great number of people who witnessed the crash, and indeed this is the case. The problem for the conspiracists is that these people, virtually without exception, reported seeing a Boeing 757 – and not a cruise missile – hit the Pentagon. (Read testimonies of eyewitnesses here, here, here and here.)

LC veers away from this devastating evidence, creating an illusion of equivalence by stating only that “some” people saw a commercial airliner while others saw “a small, 8-to-20-passenger commuter plane” (00:24:25). However, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of witnesses saw a jumbo jet crash into the Pentagon; the scattered accounts of a smaller plane can easily be explained as mistakes, considering the brief time people had to witness such a shocking event. By contrast, no one has reported seeing a missile. Even the filmmakers’ star witness, a woman named April Gallop who was injured in the attack and claims she was pressured by mysterious government agents while in the hospital (00:24:55), never claims to have seen a missile. The filmmakers imply that this wild story is sufficient justification to reject the eyewitness accounts. Even if it is true, which seems doubtful, are we to believe that these sinister men in black tracked down every single witness to the impact – all the hundreds of people who were in the Pentagon, in buildings that overlooked the Pentagon, or driving down the road by the Pentagon – before any had a chance to talk to the media, and successfully coerced or blackmailed every single one into lying about what they had seen? This shows clearly what a ludicrously vast scope a putative 9/11 conspiracy would have to have to be successful.

Any scientific theory worth its salt is supported by not just one, but multiple lines of evidence all independently converging on the same conclusion. That is exactly the case here. We have a commercial plane, American Airlines Flight 77, missing along with all of its passengers (and what exactly do conspiracists suppose happened to those people?); we have numerous eyewitness reports of a jumbo jet striking the Pentagon; we have debris consistent with the crash of a Boeing 757, including the black box and cockpit data recorder; we have evidence of phone calls made by passengers on the hijacked flight, including Barbara Olson, the wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson (source); and last but not least, we have forensic data identifying all 64 people aboard the plane through DNA and dental records. (See here for a flight manifest.) There is only one conclusion to be drawn from the weight of this combined evidence, and that is that the hijacked Flight 77, and not a missile, crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. Assertions to the contrary are without grounding in logic or common sense.

Next: Part II of this series will examine conspiracy claims surrounding the airplane impacts with and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11.

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