All of us remember what happened on this day in 2001. Or at least, most of us do. My 12-year-old daughter, who has no memory of what we’ve come to call 9/11, has been asked by her junior high school to wear red, white, and blue today. Though her school is teaching her to “remember” this day in a prescribed, patriotic way, in fact one third of Americans remember 9/11 in a very different way. They blame their own government for what happened that day.
Immediately after 9/11, some veteran conspiracy theorists began spinning familiar stories about the terror attacks. The Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke argued that agents of Israel had either carried out the attacks or “at the very least they had prior knowledge”; the John Birch Society blamed communists, the “global power elite,” and the forces of the New World Order.
These early theories came from the fringe, and stayed on the fringe, for most of 2001 and 2002. But then something caused broad segments of the American public to consider them. And that something, in short, was the revelation of Bush administration lies about the war in Iraq.
First, there was former ambassador Joseph Wilson, explaining in the New York Times what he didn’t find in Africa. The Bush administration, he charged, had “twisted” the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Then there was former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who, in his book, sworn testimony, and media appearances, portrayed an administration that willfully ignored its own intelligence experts. “On the issues that they cared about,” he wrote, “they already knew the answers, it was received wisdom.”
In the two years following Clarke’s testimony, other insiders came forward to charge that Bush administration officials, and especially the vice president, had “cherry-picked” intelligence to support their predetermined course for war. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s top officer for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, went public with his argument that the administration had “misused” intelligence “to justify a decision already made.” More forcefully, Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said that his former boss had been used by a “cabal” led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Then there were the Downing Street Memos, which revealed that the head of the British secret service told Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002 that Bush was set on war and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
In other words, administration officials intimidated and manipulated the intelligence community into supporting its deceptive case for war. This was a real conspiracy: a conspiracy to perpetrate a fraud on the American public by lying about the intelligence for war.
So, the 9/11 skeptics wondered, what else did they lie about? Could the Bush administration have planned the attacks itself? The Internet helped the alternative 9/11 theories to mutate and spread rapidly. My students began emailing me links to sites that “proved” a U.S. government conspiracy by citing real historical episodes: the Maine, the Lusitania, and, most often, Operation Northwoods, a crackpot scheme by the U.S. joint chiefs of staff at the height of the Cold War to fake attacks on Americans in order to provoke a war with Cuba. Soon, even The View, a network TV talk show aimed at women, became an unlikely venue for propagating alternative 9/11 theories. The premise of these theories was always the same: if we can prove that the government lied or conspired in one case, who’s to say they’re not responsible for other crimes and deceptions? “I have one thing to say,” said Rosie O’Donnell, after suggesting a possible government conspiracy involving British sailors in Iranian waters. “Gulf of Tonkin. Google it!”
The first national poll on alternative 9/11 conspiracy theories, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service in the summer of 2006, found that 36 percent of Americans believed that Bush administration officials either helped the terrorists or consciously took no action to stop them. Sixteen percent embraced the most extreme theory: that explosives, not airliners, brought down the towers. Moreover, a majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine believe these theories. For them, recent U.S. history is full of historical precedents for their beliefs – precedents they can learn about instantly, with the click of a mouse, and then alert their friends. Operation Northwoods, dude. Google it.