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Faith No More

As American sentiment shifts, new questions arise and conspiracy theories flourish

By Mike Ward

FOR ABOUT 30 minutes after his chief of staff told him that America was under attack, President George W. Bush continued his visit to an elementary school classroom listening to a second-grader tell a story about a pet goat. He did a marvelous job of looking completely unsurprised.

Meanwhile, four hijacked jets were able to fly far off-course across several states without encountering any opposition from the most powerful air force in the world.

Less than a month later, on the pretext of pursuing terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration began what it called a "war" on the Taliban government of the impoverished and war-torn country of Afghanistan. But according to several media reports from abroad (including a Sept. 18, 2001, BBC News story titled "U.S. planned attack on Taleban," in which a high-ranking Pakistani diplomat said he was told of the invasion in July), an assault on Afghanistan had been planned well before Sept. 11 took place.

Soon after replacing the Taliban government, the administration began agitating for a similar, but even more destructive, bombardment of the oil-rich nation of Iraq. This, although Osama bin Laden was still at large, and no link between him and Saddam Hussein could be established.

For these reasons and hundreds of others, the 16 months following Sept. 11 have seen a staggering proliferation of "conspiracy theories."

Angry speculation--focused mainly on government dirty dealings, ulterior motives and potential complicity in the attacks--has risen to a clamor that easily rivals what followed the JFK assassination. Some of these suppositions are patent balderdash. But many others are coherent and well argued, and they cite disconcerting reports from the U.S. corporate media and respected overseas news desks to support their claims. Providing grist for the mill are such odd episodes as last year's partisan anthrax poisonings (using U.S. Army microbes) and the sniper attacks that recently plagued Washington, D.C.

Some will accept them as gospel; others will study them as symptoms of a traumatized culture; and still others will scoff at them as anti-American propaganda.

Following are the 10 most interesting--and in some cases, alarming--theories about Sept. 11, the "war on terror" and the future of the world.

1. Great Game in the Caspian Sea

Among the theories about the administration's real reasons for bombing and occupying Afghanistan, the one with the most traction argues that Afghanistan provides the best real estate for an oil and natural gas pipeline. Believers say that fossil fuels in the Caspian Sea, once part of the Soviet empire, are now up for grabs in a fierce contest between Russia and the West. To the winner will go control of much of the energy supply for East Asia.

Sources cited in support of this idea--which has gotten ink in England's Guardian newspaper and on the BBC, as well as offhand mention on U.S. Sunday talk shows--include former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who details it in his book The Grand Chessboard (buy it here at Amazon.com) and a 1998 Taliban-damning presentation to Congress from the oil company Unocal, where its vice president of international relations, John J. Maresca, laments that "the area's natural resources are landlocked, both geographically and politically" and pleads with elected representatives on the need for new pipelines to "service" vast potential markets throughout the world, particularly in the Asian Pacific region.

In 1998, Vice President Dick Cheney, at that time an oil company chief executive, remarked, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." Ted Rall, author of To Afghanistan and Back (and the cartoonist who drew Metro's cover this week), has just released a second book on the subject, titled Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan (buy it here at Amazon.com), where he details the evolution of oil and natural gas export pipelines through this nation.

But for many conspiracy theorists, possibly the most revealing evidence of all is that now that Afghanistan is "stabilized," the pipeline is actually being built ("Afghanistan plans gas pipeline," BBC News, May 13, 2002).

2. The Afghanistan/Enron Connection

Rumor has it that in the months before Enron's collapse, Bush, Cheney and the much-talked-about "energy task force" convened daily, high-priority meetings to try to engineer a bailout for Bush's most generous campaign contributor. At the peak of the Enron scandal and in the aftermath of the attack on Afghanistan, a fascinating document surfaced in conspiracy circles that told of a bank-breaking Enron venture: a power plant the firm had partly built in India.

Plagued with cost overruns and accusations of employee mistreatment that led to violent labor disputes, the power plant became a cash sinkhole that threatened to send Enron into insolvency, unless the plant could tap into a pipeline network to be spun off from the Caspian Sea venture and recover some of its losses by operating on natural gas.

A detailed and intriguing read on the subject is journalist Ron Callari's piece in the Albion Monitor, "The Enroy-Cheney-Taliban Connection," Feb. 28, 2002. This theory may explain why Enron and Vice President Cheney would sooner chug a quart of 10W-40 than surrender the minutes of those energy meetings.

3. The Magic Passport Theory

We can now add Mohamed Atta's reality-defying passport to the Arlen Specter Gallery of Improbable Projectiles. This incriminating and important item was thrown intact from a cataclysmic fireball and miraculously plucked from 1.6 million tons of debris in a matter of hours. The corporate media rarely mention the unlikelihood of this. Many in the alternative press, though, are unafraid to draw an obvious, albeit taboo, inference: that the Atta passport is planted evidence.

According to Washington, D.C., peace activist John Judge, other potential plants include the Arabic-language flight manuals left in one of the hijackers' cars (with note: The discussion of the flight manuals begins at around 13:30). These manuals could serve no useful purpose at such a late stage unless the hijackers planned to finish learning how to fly during a half-hour ride to the airport. But as deliberately placed articles, they are as if a signed diary called "My Plan to Kill the President" had been unearthed in Lee Harvey Oswald's flat.

Also high on the possible planted-evidence list is a spiritual manifesto for the Al Qaeda kamikaze pilots, which to journalist Robert Fisk sounds as if it had been written by a God-fearing Christian and not an Islamic fundamentalist.

4. Hijacker Oddities I

Little observed in the fine print of the FBI rap sheet on the Sept. 11 hijackers was a clumsily phrased disclaimer admitting that the bureau's document wasn't, ahem, necessarily a final draft (with note: "It should be noted that attempts to confirm the true identities of these individuals are still under way").

Ringleader Mohamed Atta's identity was a slam-dunk, of course, owing to the recovery of his passport. But bear in mind how quickly the FBI conjured its 19 enemies of the state while you ponder the strange case of Waleed Al Shehri.

In an article for the BBC, this Saudi Arabian national says that he turned up on the FBI list and believes that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated. Not to be outdone, the English Daily Telegraph also ran an article on the subject, claiming to have found no fewer than four of the supposed Sept. 11 attackers--alive, well and hopping mad. Pending long overdue clarification from John Ashcroft's vaunted bureau, one can hardly blame the conspiracy-minded for crying, "Patsy."

5. Hijacker Oddities II

Another theory about the hijackers' real identities takes as its departure an utterly bizarre and largely overlooked story on MSNBC.com that says that some of the hijackers may have trained at U.S. Army bases. Strange as it may seem, providing terrorists-slash-"freedom fighters" with lethal skills is a tradition in certain specialized arms of the American military and U.S. intelligence. The infamous School of the Americas, for example, helped to train the death squads that claimed so many innocent lives in Central America.

Even so, the idea that the government might aid Osama's minions is completely beyond the pale, right? Perhaps. But remember the CIA and the military's record-breaking aid program to the Afghan mujahedeen movement, as outlined, for example, in John Cooley's Unholy Wars (buy it here at Amazon.com). Questions about hijacker links to U.S. intelligence got more complicated when the spook watchdog magazine CovertAction Quarterly claimed that many of the hijackers got into the country using CIA "snitch" visas. (This article can be found in CovertAction Quarterly's Winter 2001 issue, pages 41-44; the BBC conducted an interview with the author, Michael Springmann). As with many issues involving the Agency, this promises to be shrouded in mystery for a long time.

6. Insider Trades

Right after the attacks, the news stations were obsessed with the story marked by the words "put option." The 9/11 insider stock trades surrounding United Airlines got endless airplay on the major networks before Osama bin Laden became fixed in the popular imagination. Still, even if Al Qaeda placed the 4,744 suspicious transactions, wouldn't the story still be useful, if only to further illuminate the terrorist network's money machine?

Apparently not, because the story didn't just fade away over time; it suddenly vanished. Once in a while, a TV news anchorperson would assure us there had been "nothing to" the rumors, while failing to explain, if this was true, where the story had come from or why it had gotten so much attention in the early hours after the attacks.

But conservative scandal tracker Tom Flocco didn't give up on the hinky stock trades. In a series of articles, he follows the money back to a A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, a former bigwig in the financial firm Deutsche Bank, who is now an executive director of the CIA. Some might question Flocco's credibility as an investigative reporter--although credibility in the news business appears to be a dead letter anyway, if CNN could accidentally fabricate the 5,000 trades to begin with. And that leads us to the next item ...

7. The New World Order Will Not Be Televised

Assuming you haven't stopped reading yet--either to start digging a bomb shelter in your backyard or to flip on Fox News for a much-needed dose of pro-war soma--you have to be wondering how these flabbergasting stories escaped the notice of America's intrepid newshounds. To do this, some conspiracy theorists look no further than the U.S. Congress and to what many found to be a truly terrifying document: the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

This legislation is relevant post-9/11 because it allowed the megamergers of media conglomerates to become ultra-monstermergers. As a result, today a handful of multinationals control most of what is said in the United States about military actions overseas and the reasons for them.

At least one of these companies--General Electric (which owns NBC)--has financial stakes in the weapons racket as well (and is listed as one of the partners in the pipeline-needy Dabhol power plant, near Bombay on India's coast, see Conspiracy Theory No. 2), but this blatant conflict of interest gets as much coverage as the Telecommunications Act originally got when it was on the floor of Congress: next to none. Some media observers and academics, like MIT's Noam Chomsky and Norman Solomon of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, have doggedly pointed out that the bloated media emperor has no clothes, but they stand little chance of appearing regularly on Face the Nation. (Click here for a full listing of who owns what in the media.)

Not many people noticed when the rules governing what gets said about war and who gets to say it were exposed in Harper's Magazine, which ran a Florida News Herald memo outlining some of the carefully crafted talking points journalists must observe in discussing U.S. bombing campaigns. Among them: Ignore or minimize innocent death. "If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties" caused by U.S. bombings, the Herald's copy desk decrees, "DO IT. ... Failure to follow any of these or other standing rules could put your job in jeopardy" Lesson? If you live in the United States and think you know what your government is doing to other countries and why, just because you watch cable or read a daily newspaper--think again.

8. Iran-Contra Redux

Near the end of 2002, a surprisingly lethargic debate was under way in the United States concerning the war on terror's erosion of Americans' civil liberties. The debate took a turn toward the paranormal when the corporate media briefly went agog over the Bush administration's citizen-stalking Information Awareness Office.

By the time it got mentioned in the Washington Post, though, the IAO was old news to flying-saucer buffs: Talk show host Art Bell's rival Jeff Rense had already run several articles scrutinizing the IAO's logo, which--with its all-seeing, Masonic pyramid-and-eyeball--seemed designed to agitate the growing ranks of the understandably paranoid.

It takes only a few clicks on the IAO's home page to learn that the agency is presided over by Iran-contra luminary John Poindexter, just one weapons-running Reagan-era alumnus to find an honored seat in Dubya's star chamber. Also plucked from political ignominy is Elliot Abrams, who has gone from pleading no-contest to charges of perjury before Congress to helping lead the Bush administration's Mideast policy.

These are only two of the administra-tion's many questionable appointments, but Iran-contra is a matter of special note to conspiracy trackers. Take the late Mae Brussell, a minor legend to some for her reflections on the JFK murder. She once provided scathing alternative assessments of Iran-contra for her underground radio show, World Watchers. Like Flocco, Brussell should be taken with some healthy skepticism. Even so, the rage behind her accusations--she links the Iran-contra figures with wholesale drug dealing, and the CIA with the Jonestown massacre--is a predictable result if questionable official policies are conducted absent anything resembling consent of the governed.

9. The Reichstag Fire and Operation Northwoods

Now things get really weird. To those who scoff at the idea that the government could have had foreknowledge of or complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, conspiracy researchers respond that attacks have been faked or manufactured plenty of times before, usually to maneuver the public into supporting a war they would otherwise oppose. The Nazi party, for instance, most likely set fire to the Reichstag building in order to pin the crime on the communists and to galvanize the people behind their police-state tactics. They also forged a fake battle to justify their invasion of Poland.

Unfortunately, similar incidents pop up in the United States' recent past, as well. Frequently mentioned examples include Pearl Harbor--which many, such as Day of Deceit author Robert Stinnett, believe was allowed to happen to prompt America's entry into World War II--and the weird Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Researchers discussing this issue often cite an interesting find: an internal Pentagon document from the early 1960s, which appears in James Bamford's book on military subterfuge, Body of Secrets (buy it here at Amazon.com), and puts the lie to the contention that the government would never manufacture incidents or attack its own people to lead the country to war.

The Operation Northwoods memo is the result of a brainstorming session on ways to help sell military action in Cuba by fabricating or committing acts of violence and blaming them on Fidel Castro. Among its suggestions: shoot down a plane full of college students, sink an American ship ("casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation") or rig astronaut John Glenn's rocket to explode. The Northwoods memo invites us to rethink what some in the government might be capable of not only in terms of Sept. 11 but also in terms of other tragedies that have resulted in political and strategic goals being attained

10. Things to Come

For many writers--like www.rense.com's Diane Harvey--the corruption of American empire is relevant, but only as a sidebar. The real problem stems from two incontrovertible facts: that reserves of oil and other nonrenewable resources will someday run out, and that on its current course, the Earth is soon to become overloaded with people. If these twin problems go unaddressed, our species faces a gloomy fate.

As the situation gets worse, governance in the traditional mode, based around at least the pretense of liberal democracy, will become impossible. Instead, naked power grabs will become the norm for wealthy elites capable of mounting them. "The people"'s job will be simply to provide money and labor for the war machines that make these imperial conquests possible; those who aspire to a role in their own governance beyond subsidizing imperial expansion will be brutally repressed.

Harvey and others feel that such a global transformation has already begun, and episodes like Sept. 11 and the U.S. government's bizarre obsession with oil-laden Iraq are among its harbingers. But you say, oil supplies look fine from where you sit. According to hard-on-the-eyes website www.dieoff.org, the problem won't manifest itself all at once, when the world's oil wells suddenly dry up. It is instead happening incrementally, because the rate of production has started to lag behind the world's increasing demand.

Among numerous cases in point, www.dieoff.org cites "The Coming Anarchy," an Atlantic Monthly article describing intolerable government repression in the long-neglected region of sub-Saharan Africa. Such will be the harvest of empire for our overextended world: warlordism, brutal dictatorships that verge on chaos--death, and in vast quantities.


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From the January 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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