Loose Marbles III

Loose Marbles III May 20, 2006

Shanksville / Flight 93

The last of the four planes hijacked on 9/11 was Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers apparently attempted to storm the cockpit and regain control of the plane. Here it is somewhat difficult to tell what the filmmakers’ hypothesis is, other than their certainty that Flight 93 did not crash in Pennsylvania as reported.

The film extensively cites a video clip from 9/11 where a reporter from a local Fox affiliate at the Shanksville crash site said that there was no smoke, fire or large pieces, and “nothing you could distinguish” as part of a plane. The local coroner, Wally Miller, is quoted as saying, “It looked like someone took a scrap truck, dug a 10-foot ditch and dumped trash into it… there were no bodies there.” The film’s narrator claims that “an entire plane, along with its passengers, disappeared on impact”.

In contrast to these selectively chosen reports, witnesses on the scene in Shanksville saw large, recognizable pieces of Flight 93, and there are photographs of airplane debris and passengers’ personal effects recovered from the crash site (source, photos). The black box was also found (source). So were human remains (source), although not intact bodies, as might have been expected owing to the violence of the crash. If the filmmakers think this evidence is not what should be expected, it is up to them to argue that, not merely to present sinister-sounding out-of-context quotes and leave them hanging in the air.

“At 11:43 on September 11, WCPO, a local TV station in Cincinnati, Ohio, reported that two planes landed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport due to a bomb threat. United Airlines identified one of the planes as Flight 93.”

This is the claim upon which most of this section rests, and it is incredible what an elaborate structure the filmmakers build up out of such flimsy evidence. This entire detailed assertion is based on one single AP news report that was acknowledged to be mistaken and withdrawn the same morning (source) – hardly an improbable event, given the chaos and confusion that reigned at the time. It was Delta Flight 1989, not United 93, that landed in Ohio. The filmmakers go on to list the original and the corrected report side by side as if they referred to two separate planes, not one and the same event. The amount of actual evidence they present to shore up this truly bizarre claim is nil.

This is a tactic that was also used in the previous part. As before, most of the film’s conspiracy allegations are supported by news reports from the morning of September 11 – the exact time period when confusion was most rampant and mistakes and errors were most likely. From this chaos of erroneous and confused reports, the filmmakers have selectively extracted a few unrelated pieces and woven them together into a vast and sinister web of conspiracy. Essentially, they are attempting to find signal in noise.

“We can assume that the passengers from Delta 1989 are safe somewhere. The question remains, what happened to the 200 or so passengers from Flight 93?”

A very good question, which, again, the film never attempts to answer. Taking the conspiracy mindset, it is safe to assume that these people, if their plane did not crash in Shanksville, would have to be killed in cold blood by government agents to prevent them from appearing alive at a later time and ruining the entire conspiracy. But why would a conspiracy so ruthless not just actually put them on a plane and actually crash that plane? What would be the point of… doing whatever it was they did in Shanksville? (Something happened there. Do the conspiracy-mongers seriously believe that the conspirators literally dug a ditch at the site and dumped in a pile of scrap metal, while at the same time going to enormous effort and secrecy to dispose of the real plane some other way? For truth’s sake, why?) As with Part I, the claims put forth in this section of the film are examples of the unexplained sinister assertion on a truly grand scale.

Other Issues

The film challenges the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that the black boxes from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were not found, although the passport of one of the hijackers, Satan al-Suqami, was found on the streets of Manhattan. “So, four different black boxes, made from the most resilient materials known to man, were destroyed. Yet a passport, made from… paper, managed to survive? Who writes this stuff?”

A moment’s thought would reveal why this is not surprising. The black boxes on these two planes, being heavy and massive, were carried straight into the heart of the crash and the subsequent utter collapse of the towers. On the other hand, a flimsy paper passport could easily have been blown clear by the initial explosion and fluttered safely down to the streets. (Of course, if no personal effects of the hijackers were found, the filmmakers would no doubt be crowing about that fact as surefire proof of a cover-up. One cannot win against conspiracy logic.) Other fragile items such as seat cushions were likewise thrown clear of the collapse (photos).

“FBI Director Robert Mueller said that Flight 77’s… [cockpit] voice recorder contained nothing useful.”

What would count as “useful” in this context? There is not a shadow of reasonable doubt that Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. It is unclear what other information the cockpit voice data recorder would provide that would be of help. (Again, one cannot win against conspiracy logic. If the FBI had said that the cockpit voice recorder contained detailed transcripts of the hijackers discussing their suicide mission, would the filmmakers not just sarcastically ask, “Who writes this stuff?”)

The film acknowledges that Flight 93’s cockpit voice recorder was recovered from the crash site, while declining to speculate on how this affects their hypothesis that the plane did not crash but rather landed safely in Ohio. “For some reason, the last three minutes of the tape was unaccounted for.”

Again, the unexplained sinister assertion is brought into play. If LC is correct, this record has to be a fake, so what would be the point of manufacturing a fake and leaving out the last three minutes? (Again we see how conspiracy logic is unfalsifiable. When evidence favoring the standard explanation is found, as with the passport, that supports the conspiracy theory; when evidence is not found, as with the cockpit recorder, that supports the conspiracy theory as well.)

“It’s an interesting postscript that Flight 93 was spotted on April 10, 2003 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport by David Friedman, a United Airlines employee… The tail number, N591UA, was spotted on Flight 1111, a United Airlines 757.”

It is unclear why we should not consider this report a simple mistake, or the reuse of a number – unless we are to believe that the conspiracy decided to reuse the plane it tried to pass off as destroyed (evidently, this is a very budget-conscious conspiracy), and then neglected to repaint the tail number.

“According to the FAA, both N591UA and N612UA, Flights 93 and 175, are still valid, but Flights 11 and 77 are listed as destroyed.”

Are we really supposed to see sinister significance in a bureaucratic error? Or are the filmmakers now claiming that Flight 175 did not crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center, as they previously acknowledged, and that the massive conspiracy behind this whole affair gave the game away by neglecting to alter the public records in this most trivial and obvious of ways?

We next move to the cell-phone calls made from the hijacked planes. The film asserts that these calls are “extremely peculiar”, most consisting of only a few sentences, as if passengers on a plane hijacked by terrorists would have time for a lengthy chat.

Flight attendant Betty Ong placed a call from Flight 11. The film asserts that Betty Ong’s call seemed unusually calm, considering the circumstances. “Does Ms. Ong sound like a woman on a hijacked plane…? Why is nobody in the background screaming?”

As one can plainly see from listening to the transcript the film presents, the likely reason for Ong’s calm is that she did not know what had happened yet. She states that a person had been stabbed, that first-class passengers were having trouble breathing possibly because of Mace or some chemical agent, and that the pilots were not responding and they could not get the cockpit door open. She does not seem to have witnessed these events, and she does not say that the plane had been hijacked.

Another flight attendant, Madeline Sweeney, claimed in a phone call that there were four hijackers, whereas the FBI says there were five. She says the hijackers were in rows 9 and 10, while the FAA says they were all in row 8.

Is it so unusual that in the panic and confusion of the moment, a person on the plane might have gotten some details wrong? Or did the conspirators neglect to get their facts straight before placing fake phone calls?

Near the end of Sweeney’s call, she cries, “I see water and buildings. Oh my God! Oh my God!” The film says, “Madeline was a flight attendant out of Boston for 12 years. I think she would have recognized Manhattan.”

There is nothing about this call that indicates Sweeney did not recognize Manhattan. Rather, she cried out because she realized what the hijackers were about to do. And again, why is this something a conspiracy-affiliated imitator would say?

“A man claiming to be Mark Bingham called his mother, Alice… The caller says, ‘Mom, this is Mark Bingham.’ When was the last time you called your mother and used your full name? …And then, ‘You believe me, don’t you, Mom?'”

People often do misspeak and say strange things in times of extreme stress, and of course passengers on the plane would want to convince their loved ones that their account of the hijacking was real and not a hoax or a prank. Why is this more likely under a conspiracy explanation? Why would an agent of the conspiracy imitating Mr. Bingham not just say, “Mom, it’s me, your son Mark”?

“To date, none of these calls, except Betty Ong’s call to American Airlines, has been released to the public.”

Perhaps the government and the 9/11 families decided that the doomed passengers’ final, highly private calls to their loved ones should not be released for mass public consumption. Why does this matter to the conspiracists, anyway, since they are already convinced that the calls we do know about were faked? (See below.)

The film discusses a conspiracy-theorist experiment called “Project Achilles” which allegedly found that cell-phone calls from a plane in the air are extremely unlikely to succeed. “At 8000 feet… [there was] a 0.1% success rate. For 32,000 feet – cruising altitude for a commercial airliner – he calculated a 0.006 success rate”.

For something as unlikely as the filmmakers portray it, cell-phone use on commercial airlines happens with surprising frequency (source). And this is not to mention the fact that the hijacked planes had their own built-in Airfone systems specifically designed to allow passengers to call parties on the ground. We know for a fact that many of the successful 9/11 calls were made through Airfones; the film never so much as mentions the existence of this technology in this context.

“So how is it possible to fake a person’s voice?” The film discusses “voice-morphing” technology developed by the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico that allegedly would have made this possible.

Strictly speaking, one cannot disprove this hypothesis, any more than one can disprove the hypothesis that what crashed into the Twin Towers were not planes but missiles disguised by advanced holographic technology. However, circumstantial evidence makes it highly unlikely. A great number of passengers on the hijacked planes had switched flights at the last minute, which would have made it extraordinarily difficult if not impossible for a conspiracy to do the intensive last-minute research required not just to gather enough voice data to imitate the person, but to find out enough personal detail about them to fool their friends and family. For example, one passenger told her sister the combination of her safe (source).

“On September 23, the BBC reported that Waleed al-Shehri was alive and well in Casablanca, Morocco. They also tracked down Abdul Aziz al-Omari… So how many hijackers turned up alive? At least nine of them.”

What we have here is a simple case of mistaken identity. There are about one billion Muslims in the world, and no surprise, some of them share names. Why we should be shocked by this is unclear, unless we are to believe in a conspiracy so incompetent it tried to frame living, easily tracked-down Muslims for this crime.

“On September 20 and 27, [FBI Director] Mueller admitted on CNN that there is no legal proof to prove the identities of the hijackers.”

And I have no doubt that this was an accurate summation of the FBI’s knowledge – a week or two after the attacks. However, given the amount of time that has since elapsed, there has been plenty of time to confirm these conclusions, and by November 2001, the FBI pronounced itself satisfied (source). It is dishonest to present this initial quote as if it accurately represented the state of affairs months or years later.

The film next presents a famous video in which Osama bin Laden claims credit for the 9/11 attacks. The filmmakers claim that this video is a fake, and that the person depicted is not really Bin Laden.

“According to the FBI’s website, Osama is left-handed, yet in this video, he’s writing a note with his right hand.”

This is one of the very few genuinely interesting claims made by this film, but there are other ways to explain it besides the extraordinary claim that the video is a fake. As the 9/11 Myths website points out, there is another video of Bin Laden from 2002 that shows him distinctly favoring his right side. It is plausible that he was injured at some point, and is now favoring his right side because his left is handicapped.

“Not to mention he’s wearing a gold ring, which is forbidden by Islamic law.”

This is like saying that Jesus commanded Christians to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:22), and therefore videos claimed to be of prominent Christians, such as Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts, that show them living in opulence must be fakes. In fact, many other photos of Bin Laden, including some presented elsewhere in this same film, also show him wearing a ring, and many Islamic authorities have been known to wear jewelry (see this brief rebuttal video).

Cui Bono?

Finally, the film moves on to the question of who staged 9/11 and why. The filmmakers do not seem entirely clear on this themselves, as they present assertions about how several different parties might have benefited from the attacks.

“First we have Larry Silverstein, the man who purchased the World Trade Center in July 2001. After September 11, Silverstein demanded $7.2 billion from his insurers, claiming that each plane counted as a separate act of terrorism… the courts only reward[ed] him with $2.2 billion.”

Yes, and? That is the purpose of insurance: to compensate the property owner for disasters. If I buy fire insurance and my home burns to the ground, following which I attempt to collect the insurance I paid for, does that constitute evidence that I deliberately set my house on fire?

A damaging fact which the filmmakers fail to mention is that Silverstein originally only wanted to purchase $1.5 billion in insurance on the WTC. He only raised that amount to $3.5 billion after his lenders required it to protect their investment (source). If he had known in advance that the Twin Towers were going to collapse, why would he have sought to have them underinsured?

“Next we have the put options that were placed on United Airlines, American Airlines, and Boeing. [NB: Put options are in essence a bet that a stock’s price will fall. An unusually large number of them were placed on airline stocks prior to September 11.] According to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than $2.5 million has remained unclaimed.”

This assertion is even more bizarre than the last. Apparently, LC claims that September 11 was a grand conspiracy to steal the total sum of – wait for it – two million dollars!

For any organization capable of faking an attack on the scale of 9/11, $2.5 million would be, so to speak, loose change. To assert that this conspiracy would have been carried out to steal such a pittance, probably spending at least a hundred times as much in the process, crosses the bounds of the absurd into the laughable. And having gone to all that effort, why would the conspirators not even collect that sum? This conspiracy claim reminds me of the scene from the movie Austin Powers where the villainous Dr. Evil, recently awoken from decades of cryogenic sleep and unaware of the amount of inflation that has occurred in the interim, threatens to wreak havoc upon the world’s leaders unless they pay him the exorbitant sum of “one million dollars!” (9/11 Myths has more on the put options.)

“Reuters reported that Convar, a German computer company, is responsible for helping companies… restore their data from over 400 hard drives that were recovered from the World Trade Center’s rubble. Convar recovered information from 32 different computers that suggested that insider trading took place on 9/11.”

I have little doubt that insider trading happens on the stock market every day. However, the filmmakers have not shown that this has any conceivable connection to their conspiracy hypothesis.

“Rumor has it that over $160 billion in gold was stored in the World Trade Center.” The film later refines this figure to $167 billion.

Now we’re finally getting somewhere. The theft of such an enormous sum might indeed justify a conspiracy on the staggeringly large scale of 9/11. It will now be instructive to do some basic math in order to see whether this figure is actually plausible.

In 2001, gold was about $300 per troy ounce (source; see here for more detailed charts). At this price, $160 billion in gold would require 160,000,000,000/300 = 556,666,666 troy ounces, or in other words, approximately 19,085 tons (see math). Needless to say, this is not an amount that can be carried off in one or two flatbed trucks. It would require a convoy of hundreds of heavily loaded vehicles over a period of several days, which would be easily noticed and would render moot any question of subsequently hiding the theft by destroying the Twin Towers. And why would that destruction be expected to hide this loss, anyway? 19,000 tons of gold would not just disappear, not even in the rubble of the entire World Trade Center.

But it gets better than that. Gold has a density of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter. 556,666,666 troy ounces is equivalent to about 1.73 x 1010 grams (see math). At 19.3 grams to the cubic centimeter, that weight of gold would occupy approximately 897 million cc. At 1 million cc to the cubic meter, we are looking about 897 cubic meters of solid gold that was allegedly stored in the WTC.

By comparison, the total amount of gold ever mined by the human species is estimated at 410 cubic meters (source). Loose Change asks us to believe that the World Trade Center, at the time of 9/11, stored an amount of gold that is more than twice the amount the human race has mined throughout its entire history.

Perhaps conspiracists should not use “rumors” as the basis for their future conspiracy hypotheses. Indeed, the claim that the WTC contained so much gold is probably the least-documented assertion in the entire film. The filmmakers never present any evidence whatsoever for it, other than anonymous “rumors”. I would be interested to know where they obtained this figure, if indeed it was not just pulled out of thin air. What banks and holding companies reported such a staggeringly large loss?

“After September 11, President Bush had and continues to have permission to do and say whatever he wants, all under the pretext of 9/11: the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, Afghanistan, Iraq.”

This is one point where I agree with the creators of Loose Change. George W. Bush did indeed seize on 9/11 as an excuse for the sweeping rollbacks of constitutional rights and dictatorial assertions of unchecked, limitless presidential power that have been presented to the public since then. But we need not assume that he staged 9/11 in order to benefit from it.

To name just one counterargument, there is a serious problem with the claim that the Bush administration staged 9/11 for political benefit. Out of the 19 hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, one was from Egypt, one from Lebanon, and two from the United Arab Emirates. None were from Iraq; none were from Afghanistan. This is a severe difficulty for any claims that 9/11 was concocted as an excuse for war. Assuming the evidence of the hijackers’ identities was planted as a casus belli, why would the people behind it not concoct hijackers who actually came from the countries that they wanted to attack? Why would they instead embarrass themselves by concocting hijackers from countries that are close allies of the U.S.?

Amusingly, there now seem to be rifts developing within the 9/11-conspiracy-theory community. Various conspiracy groups are now accusing each other of being part of the conspiracy, of being government agents deliberately planting disinformation so as to cast doubt on the entire conspiracy movement. Here are two such conspiracy sites: [1, 2], one of which directly refers to Loose Change and the other of which refers to several claims made by LC. These sites use many of the same arguments made in this post series, although they seem unwilling to similarly apply rational thinking to the entire conspiracy hypothesis.

There is another question, one never touched on by LC, that applies to 9/11 conspiracy buffs of all varieties, as well as to most conspiracy theorists in general. Namely, if what you say is true, why are you still alive? Are we really to suppose that a conspiracy with the resources and the will to mastermind the most spectacularly devastating terrorist attack ever conducted on American soil would have the slightest compunction about killing three amateur filmmakers, or at least blackmailing them into silence? The mere fact that the conspiracy-mongers have been able to promote their claims in peace very strongly suggests that those claims are false.

Some may wonder why I have spent so much time and effort debunking these claims. My answer is that 9/11 conspiracy theories anger me for a very real reason. September 11 was the most horrifying and evil attack ever waged against the United States of America, and instead of focusing our efforts on tracking down the perpetrators and bringing them to justice – something, I note, that the Bush administration has lost interest in doing – the conspiracists would have us waste our time chasing shadows. In a very real sense, the makers of this movie are dishonoring the dead of 9/11 by standing in the way of the quest to capture and punish those who are truly responsible. I as much as anyone desire to see George W. Bush and his cronies held to account for their failure to protect our nation from the terrorist threat, but they have done enough evil without us inventing fictitious crimes to pin on them.

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