Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Shenon's 9/11 curveball

There are conspiracies, and then there are conspiracies. "Inside job" conspiracy to make 9/11 happen: Why that's been well-debunked. NORAD conspiracy to cover up military incompetence: now that's a conspiracy a journalist can sink his teeth into.

That's the impression I get after leafing through Philip Shenon's book, The Commission: the uncensored history of the 9/11 investigation (Hachette Book Group, 2008). Shenon is a veteran New York Times reporter whose beats have included the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the 9/11 commission.

The theme of the book is that the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, hindered the professional staff investigators -- including a former New Jersey attorney general -- in their attempts to get at the truth. But that reported obstructionism was done in order to run political interference for the White House and Pentagon, and not to help cover up evidence of an inside job, is what Shenon seems to be driving at.

Yet Shenon's reportorial acumen is open to challenge. Consider this passage:

"The conspiracy theories about 9/11 began long before the ashes had stopped smoldering. After an event as horrifying and -- to the public -- unexpected events of 9/11, the darkest theories about its cause did not seem beyond belief.

"But by the time the 9/11 commission opened its doors in 2003, many of the most outrageous, if well-circulated, of the theories -- that the attacks were an inside job by the Bush administration, that the Twin Towers were brought down by pre-planted explosives, that the Pentagon was hit by a missile and not a plane -- had been well debunked.

"The evidence was incontrovertible that al Qaeda was behind the Sept. 11 attacks; Osama bin Laden had been videotaped bragging to his colleagues about his role in the preparations. There was clear-cut documentation to show that bin Laden had dispatched 19 young Arab men to carry out the hijackings -- he had chosen these personally for the mission -- and that those men were aboard the four planes.

"Independent scientists and engineers had plausible explanations for the physical collapse of the Twin Towers and other buildings nearby."

It is quite surprising that a seasoned reporter of Shenon's stature would uncritically accept the credibility of a videotape passed to the Pentagon in time to give Bush a propaganda point that "debunked" 9/11 skepticism. The credibility of that video is rightly questioned. The speaker doesn't even look like other images of bin Laden.

Now the "clear-cut documentation" of which Shenon speaks was largely based on CIA interrogations of "9/11 mastermind" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (Even though it is unlikely that Shenon knew at the time of writing of his manuscript that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of Mohammed's interrogations, he would nevertheless have known that the 9/11 commission had inserted a disclaimer in its report saying that it hadn't been allowed to question Mohammed directly.)

A couple of engineers did indeed back the "no-explosives" scenario for the Twin Towers, but I don't recall any speaking up for the government about World Trade Center 7 in 2003. Anyway, FEMA's independent experts did not have a plausible explanation for the collapse of WTC7, noting that their best (non-explosives) scenario had only a "low probability" of occurrence. Importantly, Shenon only acknowledges experts who back the government. Other experts simply don't exist for Shenon.

By not even mentioning the NIST investigations, this Shenon passage nicely sidesteps all sorts of problems with the official line that he promotes. For example, the NIST debunks the previous pro-government collapse theories in an attempt to make its own theory hold up. That theory has been vigorously challenged by several experts. Shenon may be unaware that the NIST 9/11 reports leave out the kind of detail that scientists need in order to verify the government claims, such as a detailed timeline.

Maybe the reporter simply was unaware of the fact that the 9/11 commission did not even mention World Trade Center 7.

For a related article, see The worst of Hearst at

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