Nightmares of Reason

Sorting fact from fiction in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Salim Muwakkil

Has Rep. Cynthia McKinney been vindicated? On a Berkeley radio station in March, the Georgia Democrat called for a congressional investigation of the Bush administration, asking, “What did this administration know, and when did it know it?”

“What do they have do hide?” she asked KPFA’s Dennis Bernstein in that March 25 interview. “We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11.” The congresswoman was widely vilified in the national media for such statements. But in light of information that the White House had been repeatedly warned of terrorist threats before 9/11, McKinney’s questions have become among the most asked questions in the nation.

A May 15 report on CBS revealed that the president was told months before September 11 that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network might hijack American airplanes. That followed reports that an FBI agent in Phoenix had written a classified memo in July 2001 noting a “strong connection” between al-Qaeda and a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was probing. This came after accounts that an agent had suspected Zacarias Mossaoiui (who was arrested at a Minnesota flight school in August 2001) was planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center. Since May 15, further reports have emerged, both domestically and abroad, alleging the administration was well informed of many threats.


Back in March, McKinney also pointed out that people close to the Bush administration were poised to profit from America’s new war. She hinted strongly that the administration might be protecting the interests of the Carlyle Group, an investment firm where the elder George Bush is a board member. McKinney quoted a Los Angeles Times report that the Carlyle Group had earned $237 million selling shares in United Defense Industries after September 11. She also revealed for the first time that the “U.S. government is being sued … by survivors of the U.S. embassy bombings [in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998] because … it seems clear that the U.S. had received warnings, but did little to secure and protect the staff at our embassies.”

McKinney was giving voice to a view that has gained considerable currency in the foreign press, the underground media and marginal Internet sites—raising questions about the congruence of the war on terrorism with U.S. plans for oil pipelines in Central Asia, the well-documented commercial links between the bin Laden and Bush families, the spate of reports alleging that the administration altered foreign policy for purposes of petroleum. To much of Pacifica’s audience, McKinney’s comments undoubtedly seemed like a bit of conventional wisdom.

But Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post amplified McKinney’s radio conversation for a national audience in an April 12 story. Eilperin’s lead zeroed in on the essence of McKinney’s argument. “[McKinney] is calling for an investigation into whether President Bush and other government officials had advance notice of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 but did nothing to prevent them. She added that ‘persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America’s new war.’ ”

Politicians and pundits tore into McKinney with rhetoric so overheated, one might think she had committed treason. Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a fellow Democrat, called her statements “very dangerous and irresponsible.” Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida) said, “She has said some outrageous things, but this has gone too far.” National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg used the opportunity to trash McKinney as “dumber than rock salt and more repugnant than Yasser Arafat’s three-week-old underwear.” This crude level of discourse was maintained by syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, who wrote, “McKinney is a dangerous fool whose voice needs to be stifled.” Throwing in as many gratuitous insults as possible, Parker added that McKinney is “dragging down the national I.Q.”


Rep. Cynthia McKinney.
McKinney took some heat from the left as well. David Corn, The Nation’s Washington correspondent, chided her for “peddling unproven conspiracy theories.” In a March 1 column, Corn detailed the e-mail he has received alleging government involvement in 9/11. “I won’t argue that the U.S. government does not engage in brutal, murderous skullduggery from time to time,” he wrote. “But the notion that the U.S. government either detected the attacks but allowed them to occur, or, worse, conspired to kill thousands of Americans to launch a war for oil in Afghanistan is absurd.”

He takes special aim at the widely e-mailed theories of Michael Ruppert, a former Los Angles police officer who gained fame backing up reporter Gary Webb’s account of CIA involvement in the crack-cocaine epidemic. Ruppert publishes an anti-CIA Web site (, which pushes the notion that the government had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Corn argues that such conspiratorial tales “compete with reality for attention,” “make real transgressions seem tame in comparison,” and divert that attention from serious progressive struggle.

Corn certainly is not alone in lamenting that the left has become too attracted to conspiracies. Media critic Norman Solomon also has taken Ruppert to task. He complained of KPFA’s “promotion of Michael Ruppert on the air,” in a well-publicized letter to Pacifica management. He characterized Ruppert’s methods as the “ ‘selective vacuum cleaner approach,’ pulling in whatever supports his conclusions while excluding context and perspectives that undermine them.”

Ruppert does jump to some sweeping conclusions, but he also raises a number of questions that shouldn’t be dismissed. If assessed in conjunction with other sources, Ruppert’s site contains a wealth of useful information and reinforces the theory that the Bush administration and its oil-saturated cronies have used the war on terrorism as a pretext to gain access to and control of Central Asia’s fossil fuel reserves.

Ruppert too has been featured on KPFA and claims to work closely with McKinney. Although the five-term congresswoman has never confirmed such a relationship, she has credited him with providing her important information. McKinney doesn’t argue that Bush abetted mass murder for profit (and neither does Ruppert), but rather that his values were so distorted by commercial interests, he may have failed to exercise prudence proper to issues of national security.


Historically, conspiracist thinking has been more central to the narrative of the far right, says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates. Such conspiracism “assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence.”

In recent years, however, the left has become increasingly attracted to the narrative of conspiracy. The 9/11 attacks sparked such widespread conspiracist speculation that Political Research Associates began collecting examples to compile on its Web site ( By cataloging these theories and their pedigree, Berlet hopes to help progressives better assess their credibility. Obsessions with conspiracies divert resources and focus from the kind of efforts that can expose actual conspiracies through careful and rigorous research, he argues. Berlet urges progressives to be wary of explanations that blame world problems on demonized scapegoats. “Every major traumatic event in U.S. history generates a new round of speculation about conspiracies,” he says. “The attacks on 9/11 are no exception.”

All good conspiracy theories contain truthful elements. The problem, of course, is distinguishing fact from fancy. While conspiracists often reach implausible conclusions, their research sometimes uncovers facts that are indisputable.

Investigating McKinney’s claims has revealed information that seems to support her misgivings. In addition to the highly publicized revelations on the number of domestic and international warnings received by the Bush administration, there is also the ironic, tragic saga of John O’Neill, which is recounted in the French book Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth by intelligence analyst Jean-Charles Brisard and journalist Guillaume Dasquié, the editor of Intelligence Online. (The book is scheduled to be published in English in July).

O’Neill was the FBI’s top bin Laden hunter in charge of the investigations into the al-Qaeda connections to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, the bombing of the American troop barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the African embassy bombings in 1998, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Brisard and Dasquié claim O’Neill quit the agency in protest two weeks before September 11 because his investigation had been hindered by the Bush administration’s connections to the Taliban and by the interests of American oil companies. His next job was as head of security for the World Trade Center. O’Neill was killed on September 11 trying to rescue people trapped in the towers.

The book—which is competing for Paris shelf space with conspiracist texts that argue the Pentagon was never struck by a plane—goes on to allege that just five weeks before the September attacks, the Bush administration was bargaining with the Taliban over a Central Asian oil pipeline and the capture of bin Laden. The authors also see a link between those negotiations and Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy task force, with its conclusions that Central Asian oil has become critical to the U.S. economy. Their contention that the Bush administration is fixated on fossil fuel above all else is supported by many other sources. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s best seller, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, carefully chronicles how oil politics directed U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The nearby Caspian Sea Basin is reputed to contain the largest source of untapped fossil fuels on the planet.


McKinney’s comment about increased profit margins for friends of the Bush administration also has been backed up. A two-part series in the Hong Kong-based Asia Times in January noted that the United States is developing “a network of multiple Caspian pipelines,” and that people close to the Bush administration stand to benefit. The law firm Baker & Botts represents the pipeline consortium set to build the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that would link Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. The firm’s principle attorney is James Baker, former secretary of state and chief spokesman for the Bush campaign during the Florida vote controversy.

And none other than the disgraced Enron Corp.—once one of Bush’s biggest financial backers—conducted a feasibility study for the $2.5 billion Trans-Caspian pipeline being built under a joint venture between Turkmenistan, Bechtel and General Electric. “Enron, together with Amoco, Chevron, Mobil, Unocal and British Petroleum, were all spending billions of dollars to pump the reserves of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” the Asia Times reported, adding that Baker, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former presidential Chief of Staff John Sununu and Vice President Dick Cheney “have all closed major deals directly and indirectly on behalf of the oil companies.”

And current National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice served on Chevron’s board of directors for nearly 10 years before being scooped up by the Bush administration. Chevron (now Chevron Texaco) is the largest shareholder in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, the group that completed an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, Russia, and is planning more pipelines in the region.

It certainly can be argued that the economic benefits for close Bush associates are only indirectly attributable to the war on terrorism. But consider the argument of Uri Averney, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, noted peace activist and keen international observer. “If one looks at the map of the big American bases created for the war,” Averney wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv in February, “one is struck by the fact that they are completely identical to the route of the projected oil pipeline to the Indian Ocean.”

Deployments of U.S. troops do largely coincide with existing and projected pipeline routes. The United States already has troops in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Georgia and Afghanistan; Bush reportedly is negotiating to place U.S. forces in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The ham-handed activities of the Bush administration also make it more difficult to discount the conspiracy theories. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attack on the Bill of Rights and increasing use of government secrecy simply adds more fuel to the fires of suspicion. “There were adequate warnings,” McKinney insisted on KPFA. “And that’s what ought to be investigated. But instead of requesting that Congress investigate what went wrong and why, we had President Bush placing a call to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle asking him not to investigate.”

But now Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt both are calling for a thorough, public investigation into events surrounding the attack. In addition, Florida Democrat Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is complaining that the Justice Department and CIA are not fully cooperating with the congressional investigation into how the terrorists escaped detection. What’s more, the Senate governmental affairs committee has voted to issue subpoenas to end the Bush administration’s stonewalling on the request for records about its connection to Enron.

McKinney has issued a statement saying, in effect, I told you so. “I was derided by the White House, right-wing talk radio, and spokespersons for the military-industrial complex as a conspiracy theorist,” she says. “Even my patriotism was questioned because I dared to suggest that Congress should conduct a full and complete investigation into the most disastrous intelligence failure in American history.” But now, she gloats, “It becomes clear why the Bush administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings … it has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence.”

Although McKinney was thoroughly denounced by political and media elites, a poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 48 percent of those responding agreed with her call for a probe. That support surprised many but echoes what many other observers have noted: There is less public support for the Bush administration’s conduct in the war on terrorism than is widely assumed.

Despite continued disclosures of intelligence failures and the administration’s inability to “connect the dots,” the White House remains opposed to any kind of full-scale investigation. In an appearance before the faithful of the New York Conservative Party, the vice president played the patriotism card against his critics. “They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions … that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11,” Cheney said. “Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.”

But only the Bush administration can determine how long we will remain in this “time of war.” The war has been a pretext for many items in the wish list of Bush’s core constituents on the conservative and corporate right: limiting the protections of the Bill of Rights; making Central Asia safe for corporations seeking access to the region’s vast natural resources; extending American power and influence into the spheres of rivals China and Russia; and preparing the way for the destabilization of Iran and an invasion of Iraq.

The left may gain some tactical points for joining the criticism of the Bush administration’s intelligence failures. But there is some irony in a left critique that derides the Bush administration for not adopting even more draconian surveillance methods. Instead, the left should take McKinney’s suggestion and follow the money. When found, that money is likely to be drenched in oil and politically flammable.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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