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  Kean: Sept. 11 Conspiracy Theories Unlikely to Disappear After Panel's Report

c.2003 Newhouse News Service


WASHINGTON -- One theory has it that the Bush administration was warned about the Sept. 11 attacks but did nothing to stop them. Another says a missile fired by the U.S. military, not a hijacked jetliner, struck the Pentagon. Yet another: The Israelis orchestrated the attacks to force the United States into a war against the Arabs.

More than two years after terrorists hijacked four airliners and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, conspiracy theories abound about what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

A Sept. 11 widow recently filed a lawsuit accusing President Bush of allowing the attacks to gather support for a war on terrorism. Conspiracy books have become best sellers in Europe. Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was criticized for mentioning "the most interesting theory" he had heard about -- that Bush ignored warnings from Saudi Arabia about the attacks. He later dismissed the allegation, saying: "I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that."

"What breeds these theories is that two years out, we have no authoritative account of how it happened and why it happened," said Sept. 11 widow Kristen Breitweiser of Middletown, N.J., a member of the Family Steering Committee, a group of survivors and relatives monitoring the national commission examining the Sept. 11 attacks.

The commission is charged with providing that authoritative account. As it approaches a May deadline, the bipartisan panel is evaluating, and in some cases investigating, some of the conspiracy theories.

"All you can do is try to take every question that has been raised and see it is answered in the final report to the best of your ability," said Thomas Kean, chairman of the commission and former governor of New Jersey.

"We have heard some theories that are a little unusual and some that have a possibility of being true; some don't hold water and some require further investigation," Kean said.

As with the Warren Commission that investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Kean said, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States probably always will have doubters, no matter how exhaustive its research.

"I realize that on a topic this important, we will not satisfy everybody," Kean said.

Breitweiser, whose husband Ronald died at the World Trade Center, said she still has many questions.

"I don't know why my husband was told to stay at his desk," she said. "I don't know why fighter jets were not scrambled on time. I don't know why the national security adviser said she had no idea planes could be used as weapons when the historical record is replete with planes possibly being used as weapons. It boggles the mind."

Breitweiser said the steering committee fears stonewalling and a coverup because of the government's "excessive secrecy," Bush's initial opposition to the commission, his delay in turning over White House intelligence briefings and the naming of Philip Zelikow, a friend of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, as executive director of the Sept. 11 panel.

A number of books, articles and Internet postings have pushed conspiracy theories -- many with intricately woven plots filled with mind-numbing but unsubstantiated details.

There are the widely denounced theories claiming Israeli involvement in the attacks, despite the compelling evidence that Islamic radical Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network masterminded and carried out the plot. Bin Laden has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A former German cabinet minister, Andreas von Bulow, has written a best-selling book in Germany suggesting that the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services blew up the World Trade Center from the inside, then crashed two jetliners into the buildings by remote control to cover up their actions. He argues the attacks were mounted to justify the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Author and polemicist Gore Vidal has written widely about Sept. 11 and its aftermath. In one British newspaper, he wrote that the United States was warned repeatedly in advance of the attacks that there would be "unfriendly visits to our skies some time in September 2001. ... But the government neither informed nor protected us despite Mayday warnings from Presidents Putin (of Russia) and Mubarak (of Egypt), and even from elements of our own FBI."

French author and left-wing activist Therry Meyssan has written a best-selling book in France claiming that a U.S. missile struck the Pentagon.

John Judge, a self-styled investigator and one of the founders of 9-11 CitizensWatch, another group monitoring the Kean commission, said Meyssan's theory is "beyond the pale." But he said there still are many unanswered questions, including why the air defense system did not react after it discovered that four jetliners were hijacked, and why no one has been called to account.

"Were people in the military and intelligence network getting signals and decided to let it come?" he asked. "It looks like a sophisticated covert operation including a cover story. It's really not broken down yet."

Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and author of "Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture," said conspiracy theories have long been "part of American history."

Many are stoked by "those who distrust government and are skeptical of power," Fenster said.

If significant information is kept secret because of national security concerns and questions remain unanswered, he said, people will be all the more doubtful about the Sept. 11 commission's findings, and the conspiracy theories will grow.

"There will be no way to persuade the hard core," Fenster said.

Dec. 30, 2003

(Robert Cohen can be contacted at