How Ideologues on the Left and Right Theorise Vacuously to Support Baseless Supposition


How Ideologues on the Left and Right Theorise Vacuously to Support Baseless Supposition
– A Reply to ZNet’s ‘Conspiracy Theory?’ Section
by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed



Acceptance of the official narrative of what happened on September 11, 2001 has become widespread, not merely on the right, but also on the left. In this paper, I take issue with the writings of several commentators who attempt to forcefully argue firstly that acceptance of the official narrative is justified, and secondly that certain kinds of inquiry into anomalies and inconsistencies in that narrative are illegitimate and unnecessary. The main bulk of this writing is available online at a new section at the well-known progressive website ZNet, and is somewhat representative of the mainstream approach to 9/11. [1]

In reviewing the work of these commentators on 9/11, I analyse in detail the failure of the U.S. intelligence community in preventing the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks; the casual repression and/or misrepresentation of facts related to 9/11; the failure of U.S. defence measures on 9/11; the historic and institutional basis for skepticism about the official narrative; and some salient facts which illustrate the need for proper research into the linkages between U.S. government, military, intelligence, and corporate policy, and the ease with which the September 11 terrorist attacks went ahead.

I. Automatic Dismissal of a Legitimate Line of Inquiry

Numerous respected commentators on both the left and right of the political spectrum have ardently criticised widespread speculation that the Bush administration had advanced warning of the September 11 th terrorist attacks, sufficient to prevent them from occurring. When Democrat Party U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney called for a full investigation into the events surrounding September 11–and particularly into the warnings received by the U.S. intelligence community suggesting that the administration may have known more than it is letting on–she was publicly derided. “We deserve to know what went wrong on September 11 and why”, stated McKinney.

“After all, we hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?

“… Sadly, the United States government is being sued today by survivors of the Embassy bombings because, from court reports, it appears clear that the U.S. had received prior warnings, but did little to secure and protect the staff at our embassies. Did the same thing happen to us again?”


Cynthia McKinney’s comments here echoed her earlier statements in a Pacifica radio interview: “We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11… What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?” [3]

In response, on the right,

Bush spokesman Scott McLellan declared: “The American people know the facts, and they dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views.” [4] Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, is quoted: “All I can tell you is the congresswoman must be running for the hall of fame of the Grassy Knoll Society.” [5] Nationally syndicated right-wing U.S. columnist Kathleen Parker joined the escalating chorus of condemnation:

“She’s black, which means people give her a pass lest they be perceived racist… None of which is to suggest that Cynthia McKinney is a terrorist, or a terrorist sympathizer, or even a socialist rabble-rouser who despises her own country. On the other hand, using McKinney’s own talent for inferential dot-connecting, she just might be.” [6]

And on and on. The right-wing chorus of automatic denunciation appears to be based on the implicit assumption that the Bush administration is entirely guilt-free of any sort of role in implementing policies that may have facilitated the September 11 attacks, knowingly or unknowingly (McKinney specifies neither). Unfortunately, leading commentators on the left-end of the political spectrum appear to have joined in the obligatory chorus of derision. They are supported in this by the mainstream assumption that the reason the U.S. intelligence community failed to prevent the attacks is simply because of bureaucratic incompetence.

II. The “Incompetence Theory” of the 9/11 Intelligence Failure That assumption has been adopted even by the private U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor, which produces independent intelligence on worldwide affairs. On September 16 th 2002, Stratfor commented:

“We have no doubt that, after the databases have been searched, it will be found that U.S. intelligence had plenty of information in some highly secure computer. The newspapers will trumpet, ‘CIA knew identity of attackers.’ That will be only technically true. Buried in the huge mounds of information perhaps once having passed across an overworked analyst’s desk, some bit of information might have made its circuit of the agencies. But saying that U.S. intelligence actually ‘knew’ about the attackers’ plots would be overstating it. Owning a book and knowing what’s in it are two vastly different things.”


On 20 th May, commenting on the outbreak of controversy in Washington DC over “what Bush knew and when”, Stratfor elaborated on this perspective in some detail, arguing that the colossal 9/11 intelligence failure was a consequence of the structural fragmentation of the U.S. intelligence community:

“The Central Intelligence Agency, as the name suggests, was founded to centralize the intelligence function of the United States. It was a good idea then and it is a good idea now. Unfortunately, it is an idea that has never been truly implemented and from which, over time, the government has moved intractably away. A centralized intelligence capability is essential if the United States is to have a single, integrated, coherent picture of what is happening in the world. A bureaucratically fragmented intelligence community will generate a fragmented picture of the world. That is currently what we have.”


While it is clear that a generally “fragmented picture of the world” is a likely consequence of a “bureaucratically fragmented intelligence community”, in itself this does not demonstrate that the capabilities of that community in developing specific intelligence on various aspects of the world is completely dysfunctional. Rather it suggests that the U.S. intelligence community will find it hard to develop an integrated, coherent understanding of world affairs and their interrelationships.

What is likely to be developed instead, are somewhat uncorrelated and/or disconnected pockets of intelligence on various aspects of world affairs. This, however, obviously does not entail in itself that the intelligence produced will be inaccurate with respect to those aspects. On the contrary, it simply indicates that while the U.S. intelligence community is capable of developing accurate intelligence on specific disparate aspects of world affairs, due to the structural fragmentation among the various agencies that constitute the intelligence community, a coherent overall intelligence picture of the world based on comprehension of the complex influences and interconnections between these disparate aspects will be extremely hard to form. Indeed, Stratfor itself grasps this implication:

“It is unclear whether any of these agencies completely understand their own internal vision, let alone that they are able to transmit a comprehensive picture to the CIA (which is supposed to integrate all this into a coherent world view and serve it up to the president and other senior officials for action).”

Clearly, the problem here does not necessarily relate to the task of focusing and gathering intelligence on a particular threat to U.S. national security–rather it relates to the integration of disparate intelligence into “a coherent worldview”. Structural stumbling blocks thus principally affect the coordination of the U.S. intelligence community in this respect. Attempting to account for a U.S. intelligence failure with respect to the specific issue of developing intelligence on a particular aspect of world affairs – such as a particular threat to U.S. national security–on the basis of such structural stumbling blocks, is therefore theoretically unwarranted.

In other words, while it is certainly possible that such structural stumbling blocks may have had some sort of role in any such intelligence failure, to suppose that they wholly account for the failure without an in-depth factual analysis of the failure itself (based on inspecting the collection and analysis of the related data) is nothing but gratuitous speculation. Indeed, given that such structural fragmentation principally affects the integration of intelligence into a “coherent worldview” (“a single, integrated, coherent picture of what is happening in the world”) it is highly unlikely that this fragmentation alone would be sufficient to result in a wholesale intelligence failure on any isolated specific aspect of world affairs, i.e. a specific threat to U.S. national security.

Stratfor, however, makes the mistake of extending the scope of the implications of the structural fragmentation of the U.S. intelligence community to the community’s failure to act with respect to the terrorist attacks of September 11 th –which of course was a specific threat to U.S. national security. Yet clearly this is unfounded based on Stratfor’s own assessment. Stratfor does go on to provide a useful examination of the specific ways in which the relative fragmentation of the U.S. intelligence community can, and has, affected the integration of analysis of information, thus preventing the development of a coherent intelligence product on world affairs.

“… [T]he U.S. intelligence system is overwhelmingly geared toward the collection, rather than the analysis, of information. The result is inevitable: a huge amount of information is gathered, but it is never turned into intelligence… The collection capacity of the United States, both technical and human, is vast. But it is deliberately and institutionally compartmentalized in such a way that prevents a coherent perspective from emerging.”


Without, however, factually assessing the information on the September 11 terrorist attacks collected and analysed by the U.S. intelligence community, it is impossible to know whether this problem of emphasising collection over and above analysis, was the principal reason for the intelligence failure. It is further unlikely that the institutional compartmentalisation of the U.S. intelligence community contributed to its failure to develop a coherent perspective on the specific threat to U.S. national security of Al-Qaeda, because that compartmentalisation primarily affects the development of “a coherent worldview”–not a specific aspect thereof. It is the connection and coordination of intelligence on different aspects of world affairs into an integrated whole that is institutionally problematic as a consequence of the intelligence community’s compartmentalisation. Intelligence on specific issues is not implicated here.

It is, therefore, both theoretically and empirically incorrect for Stratfor to claim that: “Given this incredible tangle of capabilities, jurisdictions and competencies, it is a marvel that a finished intelligence product is ever delivered to decision makers.” This extreme conclusion is contradicted by the fact that the U.S. intelligence community has a demonstrable record of success. U.S. military intelligence expert Richard K. Betts, Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, observes in Foreign Affairs : “Paradoxically, the news is worse than the angriest critics think, because the intelligence community has worked much better than they assume…

“Contrary to the image left by the destruction of September 11, U.S. intelligence and associated services have generally done very well at protecting the country. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, great successes in thwarting previous terrorist attacks are too easily forgotten – successes such as the foiling of plots to bomb New York City’s Lincoln and Holland tunnels in 1993, to bring down 11 American airliners in Asia in 1995, to mount attacks around the millennium on the West Coast and in Jordan, and to strike U.S. forces in the Middle East in the summer of 2001.”


A particularly pertinent Yale University study by U.S. intelligence expert Loch K. Johnson–former Assistant to Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia–examines how, and how well, intelligence efforts have guarded and advanced perceived U.S. interests. Analysing in detail a series of intelligence successes and failures, Johnson refutes common charges of ineptitude that have followed embarrassments such as the Aldrich Ames case. He argues convincingly that the successes of the CIA and the intelligence community far outweigh such setbacks. Most crucially, he discusses how even the failures are often laid at the wrong door: good intelligence has often been ignored by the upper political echelons of the Washington bureaucracy.


In this context, to prematurely presume in the absence of facts that an intelligence failure on a specific national security threat is because of incompetence induced by the institutional compartmentalisation of the intelligence community, is unwarranted. On the contrary, as documented by Johnson, most often such failures are not related to the quality of the intelligence product itself, but rather because the political bureaucracy does not act on accurate intelligence received. Stratfor, at least, admits that: “We remain certain that if we searched all of the databases and memos we would find that the U.S. government had collected much of the information that would have been necessary to prevent Sept. 11. It was there.” Yet the organisation then makes a logical leap in assuming, without having actually examined the data itself and what was done with it, that this information “wasn’t collated, integrated, or analyzed and therefore could not be disseminated.” But in light of the above analysis, there is simply no good reason at all to assume that this is the case, particularly when we understand that the institutional compartmentalisation of the intelligence community only makes it unlikely that the CIA will be capable of developing “a single, integrated, coherent picture of what is happening in the world”, rather than any coherent specific threat assessment. Indeed, this position is supported by the fact that there has been a string of U.S. intelligence successes in the last decade, in comparison to which there have been relatively few–though of course tragic – failures. III. David Corn and the Magic All-Explanatory “Incompetence Theory” Cruder renditions of the “incompetence theory” of the surprising lack of action on the part of U.S. intelligence in relation to September 11 have come from partisans of the left. These renditions are articulated in a much less sophisticated, and even more badly argued, manner than the position of groups such as Stratfor.

Washington Editor of The Nation , David Corn, for example, argues that: “… anyone with the most basic understanding of how government functions (or, does not function) realizes that the various bureaucracies of Washington – particularly those of the national security ‘community’ – do not work well together.” [12] Corn fails entirely, however, to specify exactly in what respect(s) this is the case. Unlike Stratfor, he does not clarify the nature of particular structural discontinuities between different bureaucratic and intelligence agencies and in what way they have problems integrating. As a consequence, his blanket statement about the national security community “not working well together” fails to actually communicate anything significant at all. Because the assertion is devoid of even a minimal attempt at factual specification of what this implies, it is effectively vacuous. But as we have seen above, while it is undoubtedly obvious that the intelligence community suffers from institutional compartmentalisation, this does not mean that the community is completely incompetent and dysfunctional. Rather, as Stratfor admits, it impairs the functioning of the community in the preparation of integrated intelligence to develop “a coherent worldview.” Corn’s attempt to apply the specific problems that these agencies have working together due to institutional compartmentalisation in an extended and general manner is without any foundation.

Indeed, Corn’s extreme portrayal is contradicted by a report in the Washington Post in May 2001 which observed that the two specialised U.S. intelligence agencies the FBI and the CIA have “in recent years” developed a very close “working relationship”. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has been “credited with greatly improving the FBI’s ability to counter terrorist threats”, as well as “for altering the FBI’s working relationship with the CIA, which long had been strained.” As noted by CIA Director George J. Tenet: “Director Freeh’s vision, leadership and commitment have been directly responsible for the unprecedented strategic partnership between the FBI and the CIA”, a partnership that in the past few years has borne fruit in a verifiable record of frequent intelligence successes, outweighing failures. Tenet commented for instance that: “Very significant successes in the counterterrorism and counterintelligence areas… are evidence of the remarkable cooperation that has existed between our two agencies in recent years.” [13]

That assessment put forth by the Post and by Tenet is corroborated by the following conveniently ignored fact, demonstrating that federal agencies have been working together very well indeed on the issue of counter-terrorism: A body of experts known as the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) exists, which was effectively chaired by White House Counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. The CSG constitutes a connecting point for “all federal agencies”, whose members are “drawn mainly from the C.I.A., the National Security Council, and the upper tiers of the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the State Department,” and who meet “every week in the White House Situation Room.” The CSG assesses “all reliable intelligence” related to counterterrorism received by these agencies and departments. The CSG was meeting almost every week in the period prior to the September 11 attacks, working incessantly on the specific threat of the impending Al-Qaeda plot. [14]

Nevertheless, Corn continues: “If there truly had been intelligence reports predicting the 9/11 attacks, these reports would have circulated through intelligence and policy-making circles before the folks at the top decided to smother them for geopolitical gain. That would make for a unwieldy conspiracy of silence.” [15] There is an elementary contradiction between this and Corn’s previous assertion. Here, Corn assumes that there could never have been any intelligence reports predicting the September 11 attacks, because if there had been, certainly “these reports would have circulated through intelligence and policy-making circles”. In other words, the reports would circulate around the intelligence community on the way to reaching the higher political echelons. That, of course, would require that at least in some significant respect, the agencies of the intelligence community are capable of coordinating and analysing information. Yet in his previous assertion, Corn assumes in a vague manner that the agencies of the “national security ‘community’” simply do “not work well together”. But these two generalised stances are mutually inconsistent.

The main problem here is that Corn keeps his commentary within the realm of theory, without actually assessing in a meaningful manner the available data on warnings of the 9/11 attacks received by the U.S. intelligence community. [16] And as we have shown above, the “incompetence theory” of the 9/11 intelligence failure is devoid of substantial factual basis.

IV. Michael Albert Knows What Bush Knew

This style of “analysis” of the 9/11 intelligence failure has been adopted by other writers on the left. U.S. political commentator Michael Albert of ZNet, for example, states bluntly that: “Supposing we had the means to answer the question about Bush’s foreknowledge of 9/11, it would at most reveal that U.S. intelligence services lack competence.” [17]

Albert does not supply any evidence for why this is the case. Instead, having acknowledged the existence of a question “about Bush’s foreknowledge of 9/11”, he supplies a vague and ready-made answer that “at most”, the U.S. intelligence community “lacks competence.” But clearly Albert has no meaningful grasp of the structural discontinuities between various agencies in the U.S. intelligence community and what specific problems they create–instead he assumes the existence of a blanket wholesale “incompetence”, and decides without any factual basis that this is the only plausible explanation of why the U.S. government failed to foil the September 11 attack. For instance, he also flies in the face of the fact noted above, that on the specific issue of counter-terrorism U.S. intelligence agencies were very closely coordinating their operations and information, on a regular basis, in the months leading up to 9/11.

In other words, Albert gives the impression that he already has the answer to the question, and thus since the answer “at most” will be “incompetence”, then there is no need to pursue further inquiry. Unfortunately however, it appears that Albert arrives at this conclusion without any factual analysis or inquiry at all: “Of course these agencies lack competence. Moreover, what good does demonstrating the incompetence of U.S. intelligence agencies do peace and justice? Should bolstering surveillance budget allotments be a new progressive program plank?” Having decided from the outset that U.S. intelligence agencies “lack competence”–although like Corn, Albert fails to provide any specific factual insight into what exactly is implied by this blanket description–Albert assumes that this undefined “incompetence” undoubtedly explains the Bush administration’s failure to prevent the September 11 attacks. The way in which this undefined theory of “incompetence” magically explains all and every anomaly in the official mainstream 9/11 narrative is disconcerting.

But as discussed above, a proper understanding of the specific implications of the U.S. intelligence community’s institutional compartmentalisation does not lead one to the undefined blanket conclusion that the community suffers from a general “incompetence”, but rather that this compartmentalisation has very precise connotations for the integration of intelligence information into “a coherent worldview”. In other words, as already discussed, on both a theoretical level based on analysis of the structure of the intelligence community as well as on an empirical level based in part on comparative analysis of the record of U.S. intelligence successes and failures, the conclusion that the Bush administration’s failure to prevent the September 11 attacks was simply due to “incompetence” is premature.


Given that most intelligence failures appear to have resulted not from the inaccuracy of the intelligence product, but rather from good intelligence being ignored by the higher political echelon, there is no justification to simply assume that an “incompetence theory” of the U.S. failure to foil the 9/11 plot provides a sufficient explanation of that failure. [18] Albert’s underlying assumption of “incompetence” is thus baseless. Ultimately, we have to investigate the facts surrounding 9/11 before making a judgment on 9/11–otherwise our judgment is will be devoid of any substantial and relevant factual basis.

Albert’s essential argument for why “the left” should stop asking “what Bush knew and when” is circular, and thus self-defeating. He assumes from the outset that the intelligence community failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks simply because of some vague and undefined “incompetence”. He then argues that since that it is the case, anybody calling for more understanding of “what Bush knew and when” is falling into the right-wing agenda of saying that since U.S. intelligence is incompetent, more U.S. dollars should be thrown at the CIA. He then argues that “the left” should not become party to a programme to mindlessly increase the U.S. intelligence and defense budget which will then be used for more wars and acts of terror worldwide.

But Albert’s entire argument rests on the assumption that he already knows (somehow) the generalities of “what Bush knew and when”–i.e. that he knows that Bush did not know. In other words, Albert begins his argument by assuming that he already knows that Bush failed to foil the attacks due to intelligence “incompetence”, and that since this is the case, there is no need to ask “what Bush knew and when”. This boils down to an elementary contradiction: We do not need to ask the question “what Bush knew and when” because we already know the answer, even though in fact we do not know the answer at all as evidenced by Albert’s total failure to prove his “incompetence” assumption. As such, Albert’s attempt to convince “the left” that they should not even bother asking the question “what Bush knew and when” is based on baldly (and falsely) assuming that he knows the fundamental essence of the answer, and that since the answer is “incompetence”, it is not worth pursuing. This, of course, is incoherent.

V. Misconstruing the Anthrax Case

Ironically, the only piece of “evidence” offered by Albert to support his thesis of the overarching “incompetence” of the U.S. intelligence community is that: “… these are the U.S. same [sic] intelligence agencies that can’t find the perpetrator of the recent anthrax attacks, even though the anthrax came from Fort Detrick, Maryland, and even though, given the skills required, the number of possible culprits is a handful.” Unfortunately, this particularly factoid is of Albert’s own construction. Anybody who has been following the anthrax case would be aware of credible evidence that U.S. intelligence does, in fact, know pretty much who the perpetrator of the attacks is, but has been prevented from arresting the individual under high-level government pressure.

This information comes from a leading U.S. expert on biological warfare, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Program for the Federation of American Scientists, and a Research Professor of Environmental Science at the State University of New York. Rosenberg, who according to BBC correspondent Susan Watts has high-level government connections, states that the FBI had already identified the perpetrator of the Winter 2001 anthrax attacks, but was “dragging its feet” in making an arrest and pressing charges, for fear that secret government activities would be exposed. The Trenton Times reported that according to Rosenberg, “the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a strong hunch about who mailed the deadly letters. But the FBI might be ‘dragging its feet’ in pressing charges because the suspect is a former government scientist familiar with ‘secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed’.” [19]

The charge was made in a February 18 th address at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Citing sources she described as “government insiders” with whom she has been in contact, she testified that the FBI had known since last October the identity of the person who mailed lethal quantities of anthrax in letters to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator Patrick Leahy, and several media outlets. Her sources further informed her that although the individual in question had been interrogated several times, he had not been arrested. “We know that the FBI is looking at this person, and it’s likely that he participated in the past in secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed,” Rosenberg said.

“And this raises the question of whether the FBI may be dragging its feet somewhat and may not be so anxious to bring to public light the person who did this.

“I know that there are insiders, working for the government, who know this person and who are worried that it could happen that some kind of quiet deal is made so that he just disappears from view.

“I hope that doesn’t happen, and that is my motivation to continue to follow this and to try to encourage press coverage and pressure on the FBI to follow up and publicly prosecute the perpetrator.”


In light of Rosenberg’s revelations, other experts concur. Steven Block of Stanford University, for example – an expert on biological warfare – told the Dallas Morning News that: “It’s possible, as has been suggested, that they may be standing back because the person that’s involved with it may have secret information that the United States government would not like to have divulged.”


U.S. investigative journalist and former National Security Agency official Wayne Madsen, who has also testified in hearings before U.S. Congress as an expert on U.S. covert foreign policies, has written a particularly insightful and comprehensive analysis of the available data on the anthrax attacks for Counterpunch , described as “America’s best political newsletter” by Out of Bounds Magazine . Madsen’s conclusions are worth noting:

“… the FBI has never been keen to identify the perpetrator because that perpetrator may, in fact, be the U.S. Government itself. Evidence is mounting that the source of the anthrax was a top secret U.S. Army laboratory in Maryland and that the perpetrators involve high-level officials in the U.S. military and intelligence infrastructure… Forget unfounded conspiracy theories. The evidence is overwhelming that the FBI has consistently shied away from pursuing the anthrax investigation [under government pressure].”


It should be noted that in this case, again, the evidence suggests that the failure of U.S. intelligence lies not with the accuracy of the intelligence product, but with the refusal of the higher political echelon to act upon it. This is not the place to undertake a detailed analysis of the anthrax issue, but it suffices to conclude that Albert clearly has no basic grasp of this subject. Nevertheless, he comments on it in support of his argument. Unfortunately, this is representative of Albert’s entire approach to 9/11. He appears to have no understanding, nor any interest in evaluating the actual data around 9/11 and related issues such as anthrax, but still feels ready to comment on them anyway. The simple problem that this creates is that ultimately, Albert’s commentary on 9/11 ceases to retain credibility.

VI. The Institutional Pattern of Provocation for War

Given that a proper analysis of the structure, capabilities, recent coordination and record of success of the U.S. intelligence community provides little–if any – support for the “incompetence theory” of a counterterrorist intelligence failure, it is likely that the 9/11 intelligence failure was a consequence of the higher political bureaucracy refraining from acting on intelligence. In this context, it is perfectly legitimate to investigate the 9/11 intelligence failure with due consideration given to both the admittedly unlikely “incompetence theory”, as well as what might be termed “the political inaction” theory, of which the “foreknowledge hypothesis” is one variation.

Either way, the likelihood of political inaction being behind the administration’s failure to foil the Al-Qaeda plot, in itself implicates the existence of a web of strategic and economic influences acting upon the political establishment, which resulted in such political inaction. And given that this is a far more tenable and probable possibility than mere “incompetence”, then it is essential to investigate the matter more thoroughly – including specifically an evaluation of the information (and what was done with it) about the 9/11 attacks available to the U.S. intelligence community.

It seems that the fundamental problem here is that the 9/11 intelligence failure is not seriously investigated, nor understood at all in any meaningful manner by Corn, Albert, and other similar commentators both on the left and right. Yet despite having no meaningful understanding of this failure, these commentators are happy to articulate their opinions on the matter anyway, by putting forth a variety of circular, inconsistent and/or effectively vacuous conclusions and statements about the very same failure. Those very vague conclusions are then taken as good reason to avoid investigating the 9/11 intelligence failure from certain angles, such as for instance the distinct possibility that the political bureaucracy did not act on good intelligence received. Ultimately then, pure speculation as a result of lack of understanding of the 9/11 intelligence failure, is used to justify that very lack of understanding.


But there are, in fact, very pertinent reasons not to blindly accept the official “incompetence theory” adopted by so many in the mainstream, tolerated barely by elements of the right-wing to save face, and uncritically parroted by naïve commentators on the left. In a reply to Michael Albert’s ZNet commentary, Canadian social philosopher Professor John McMurtry at the University of Guelph refers to these reasons in detail:

“Shocking attacks on symbols of American power as a pretext for aggressive war is, in fact, an old and familiar pattern of the American corporate state. Even the sacrifice of thousands of ordinary Americans is not new, although so many people have never died so very fast… The basic point is that the U.S. ‘secret government’ (Bill Moyers’ phrase) has a very long record of contriving attacks on its symbols of power as a pretext for the declaration of wars, with an attendant corporate media frenzy focussing all public attention on the Enemy to justify the next transnational mass murder. This pattern is as old as the U.S. corporate state – from the sinking of the battleship Maine to start the Spanish-American War in 1898, through the fabricated attack on the U.S. battleship Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 along with the fabricated attack by Egypt on the client-state Israel in 1967, to a reiteration of the same general pattern in setting up the War Against Iraq from 1991 on – a war that has murdered by bombing and embargo intent an average of 5000 Iraqui children every month since. This executive branch war is still in motion. It started and it continues by the same overall pattern as 9-11. In the case of Iraq, the war was precipitated by the green light given by the U.S. Ambassador, April Glaspie, who said that the U.S. was ‘neutral’ regarding the climaxing dispute over oilfields between Iraq and Kuwait just before Saddam ordered troops into Kuwait. ‘Saddam fell into the trap’ were the insider words of Jordan’s foreign minister after the event.

“Throughout there is one constant to this long record of hoodwinking the American public into bankrolling ever rising military expenditures and periodic wars for corporate treasure. This decision structure ruled before and through 9-11, and has escalated after it – to fabricate or construct shocking attacks on U.S. symbols of power to provide the pretext and the public rage to launch wars of aggression against convenient and weaker enemies by which very major and many-levelled gains are achieved for the U.S. corporate-military complex .

“… Consider this earlier Republican version of 9-11. ‘Operation Northlands’ was a unanimous Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to ‘contrive’ the occurrence of an atrocity against U.S. citizens by Castro’s Cuba to justify a full-out U.S. invasion. Its scenarios included planting bombs and shooting down a U.S. passenger plane. There are many variations on this structure of geostrategic thinking. I analyse this regulating pattern in my new book, Value Wars , from Pluto Press.”


Here, the essential implications of McMurtry’s point is the following: The possibility that the Bush administration had ample warning of the September 11 attacks but deliberately refused to act in order to generate a pretext for the consolidation of the U.S. corporate-military complex should not be discounted, in light of the well-documented historical record, which illustrates that such a policy is nothing new. On the contrary, McMurtry rightly notes that it is rather systematic. Given that the same essential decision-making structure responsible for that history continues to exist today, it is hardly reasonable to dismiss the need to discern whether the latest terrorist atrocity against the U.S. was not merely another element of the same underlying pattern. But that is exactly what Albert does, by refusing to even seriously consider whether that is the case–instead he only assumes the opposite without substantial basis.


U.S. political scientist Professor Steven R. Shalom of William Paterson University in New Jersey, co-writing with Michael Albert, extends the same vacuous style of analysis in a lengthy ‘ZNet Instructional’ on conspiracy theories. [25] Their paper begins with a detailed discussion comparing what they consider to be the fundamental elements of “conspiracy theory” with those of “institutional theory”. Their main concern appears to be to demonstrate that any consideration of whether the Bush administration played a deliberate role in facilitating the September 11 terrorist attacks amounts to indulging in “conspiracy theory”, which most of the time represents “a departure from rational analysis”, which is thus, most of the time, a priori incorrect–and thus not worth serious consideration:

“Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by looking for groups acting secretly, either outside usual institutional norms in a rogue fashion, or, at the very least to manipulate public impressions, to cast guilt on other parties, and so on. Conspiracy theorists focus on conspirators’ methods, motives, and effects. Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators’ joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely drop from view.

“… An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other institutional dynamics that promote or compel important events and, most important, have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists of course notice individual actions, but don’t elevate them to prime causes. The point of an institutional explanation is to move beyond proximate personal factors to more basic institutional factors. The aim is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning about particular culpable actors. If the particular people hadn’t been there to do the events, most likely someone else would have.

“To the institutional theorist, the behavior of rogue elements is far less important than the ways in which the defining political, social, and economic forms lead to particular behaviors. An institutional theory of the U.S. missile attacks on Sudan or the Iran-Contra affair focuses on how and why these activities arose due to the basic institutions of U.S. society, not on the personal quirks of a womanizing Clinton or a loose-cannon Ollie North.”

While Shalom and Albert acknowledge that there are “of course, complicating borderline cases”, they fail to grasp the point articulated by McMurtry, that so-called conspiratorial behaviour is very often a direct consequence of a wider framework of institutional dynamics. Historically, political, social and economic forms in the United States have frequently led to such behaviour. By citing several well-known examples from the historical record, McMurtry highlights the fact that U.S. military intelligence “has a very long record of contriving attacks on its symbols of power as a pretext for the declaration of wars, with an attendant corporate media frenzy focussing all public attention on the Enemy to justify the next transnational mass murder. This pattern is as old as the U.S. corporate state.” [26] The existence of such a systematic historical pattern is evidence of a deeply-entrenched web of institutionalised decision-making structures at the helm of the U.S. military intelligence community. This institutional dynamic is what produces the pattern of manufacturing provocations for war, often by permitting or pushing forward attacks on symbols of American power. It is thus perfectly reasonable and legitimate to ask whether the September 11 terrorist attacks were also a late product of the same institutional dynamic.

Shalom and Albert, however, take issue with the citation of ‘Operation Northwoods’ as an example of this institutional dynamic:

“Conspiracy theorists have pointed to the Operation Northwoods document as proving that U.S. leaders were capable of 9-11. The document is a recently released top secret 1962 memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposing the staging of attacks on U.S. targets that would appear to be coming from Cuba, as a way to justify a U.S. attack on the island.”

Whether or not Northwoods is taken as an example of this institutional dynamic, previous instances of contriving attacks on U.S. symbols of power as a pretext for the declaration of wars are systematic enough to demonstrate that this is a method employed by U.S. decision-making structures when elite military, political, strategic and economic considerations converge on making such a method appear favourable, in terms of meeting elite institutional interests. Nevertheless, Shalom and Albert argue that Northwoods is not a relevant example here:

“But… the Joint Chiefs didn’t call for killing U.S. citizens. They did propose sinking a boatload of Cuban refugees (though we don’t know whether the Joint Chiefs would have arranged for a U.S. vessel to fortuitously be on hand to pick up the refugees in the water), but with regard to the shoot down of a plane filled with U.S. college students, the plan was to switch an actual planeload of students with an ‘unmanned’ drone that would be shot down, supposedly by Cuba. Elsewhere, Operation Northwoods proposes blowing up a U.S. ship in Guantánamo Bay in a ‘Remember the Maine’ replay, but explicitly refers to a ‘non-existent crew’. The document also suggests attacks on Cuban refugees in the United States ‘even to the extent of wounding.’ So if this document is supposed to show us what U.S. officials are morally capable of, it seems to suggest that they are capable of lying, deceit, conspiring to wage a war of aggression – but not killing U.S. citizens. Moreover, as far as we can tell, the plan proposed by the Joint Chiefs was rejected by the U.S. civilian leadership.”

Unfortunately, from the outset Shalom and Albert mistake the primary value of an analysis of the Operations Northwoods document to be that the U.S. decision-making structure is capable of arranging the killing of its own citizens. One does not need Northwoods to know, however, that the U.S. decision-making structure views U.S. citizens as expendable. The willingness of the government to send ever larger numbers of young soldiers to their death in the Vietnam War is a single obvious illustration of that expendability. Other examples are numerous, such as how the U.S. government has many times knowingly subjected its citizenry to a dangerous–and potentially lethal – test of biological weapons . [27] The primary value of analysing the plan hatched by the Joint Chiefs outlined in the Northwoods document is in providing proof of the U.S. military intelligence infrastructure’s willingness to resort to the long-standing method of, in McMurtry’s words, fabricating or constructing “shocking attacks on U.S. symbols of power to provide the pretext and the public rage to launch wars of aggression against convenient and weaker enemies by which very major and many-levelled gains are achieved for the U.S. corporate-military complex.”

As George Washington University’s National Security Archive records, Operation Northwoods “describes U.S. plans to covertly engineer various pretexts that would justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba… ————————- Full Monty here.
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