Six myths about Sept. 11.

Six myths about Sept. 11.

Six myths about Sept. 11.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 10 2003 11:42 AM

What You Think You Know About Sept. 11 …

 … but don't.

Listen to a radio version of this piece on NPR's Day to Day.

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4. The misconception: The Sept. 11 plotters planned to use crop-dusters for a biological or chemical attack.


What's wrong with the story: On the surface, the case for crop-dusters is powerful. The federal government twice grounded crop-dusters after 9/11 because of suspicion they might be used for attacks. The original indictment of Moussaoui suggested that he and the 9/11 plotters were investigating crop-dusters. Workers at a crop-dusting company in Florida reported that Mohamed Atta and other Arab men repeatedly inquired about crop-dusters. A Department of Agriculture official named Johnelle Bryant claimed that Atta visited her in early 2000 and asked for a government loan to buy a plane that he would modify for crop-dusting.

But as Edward Jay Epstein has pointed out, the crop-dusting stories are squirrelly. A crop-dusting worker claimed Atta dropped by the weekend before 9/11, but Atta had already left Florida. Bryant pinpointed Atta's visit to late April or early-mid-May of 2000—but this was before Atta even arrived in the United States. When prosecutors revised the Moussaoui indictment in 2002, they also dropped all mention of crop-dusting. And in interviews with Al Jazeera's Yosri Fouda, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn't mention any interest in a crop-dusting attack. They indicated that the plan was always to fly airplanes into buildings.

Some al-Qaida operatives may have inquired about crop-dusting, and one may even have sought a loan from Johnelle Bryant. (Some terrorism analysts speculate that before al-Qaida decided to seize airliners, it planned to buy a small plane, fill it with explosives, and crash it.) The crop-dusting story can't be disproved, but no solid public evidence exists that the 9/11 plotters were interested in either crop-dusters or a biological or chemical attack.

5. The misconception: Terrorists or their supporters profited by speculating on airline stocks before 9/11.

What's wrong with the story: Terrorists may have profiteered, but the evidence is sketchy. As was widely reported after 9/11, the options market for United and American Airlines was unusually busy in the days before 9/11, with an extremely heavy volume of "put options"—bets that the airline shares would fall. By the end of September 2001, both the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission had launched investigations into the unusual trading. Since then, they've been silent. Two years later, neither the exchange nor the SEC will comment on its investigation. Neither has announced any conclusion. The SEC has not filed any complaint alleging illegal activity, nor has the Justice Department announced any investigation or prosecution.

This does not mean terrorist wagering didn't occur: It might well have. The absence of any complaint suggests the SEC found nothing illegal, but that's not definite. The SEC and the Chicago board seal the records of their investigations and won't offer any explanation—even if there is an innocent one—for the strange trading. So, unless the SEC decides to file a complaint—unlikely at this late stage—we may never know what they learned about terror trading. 

6. The misconception: No one could have predicted the Sept. 11 attacks. Since 9/11, President Bush and his team have repeatedly insisted that the attacks were inconceivable. David Corn chronicles these claims in his new book The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. In May 2002, for example, Condoleezza Rice said, "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." Ari Fleischer echoed her, "Never did we imagine what would take place on Sept. 11 where people use those airplanes as missiles and weapons."

What's wrong with the story: In fact, there were tons of warnings of exactly this kind of attack. The recent congressional report on the 9/11 intelligence failures lists a dozen pre-9/11 indications that terrorists were plotting a suicide hijacking. For example, in 1994 Algerians hijacked an Air France airliner with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower. (They were tricked by French officials into landing in Marseilles to refuel, where they were overpowered.) In 1995, police in the Philippines uncovered an al-Qaida plot to fly a plane into CIA headquarters. (One of the plotters: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.) A year later, al-Qaida had the idea of flying a plane from outside the United States and crashing it into the White House. Two years later, al-Qaida planned to fly a plane from outside the United States and crash it into the World Trade Center. And so on.

Intelligence officials, who are endlessly juggling all kinds of different threats, didn't take the suicide-plane schemes seriously because they believed there were other, more imminent dangers. But no one can say they weren't warned.