A Popular, but Debunked, Conspiracy Theory

The 9-11 Independent Commission Family Steering Committee (FSC) is a nonprofit group comprised of survivors of the victims of September 11. They were the major influence that persuaded the government to create the 9-11 Commission. Yet, one has to wonder how informed this group is when they spout an absurd conspiracy theory.

The website of the FSC lists a section titled “Unanswered Questions.” It is a list of information that they want the commission to obtain. One of the unanswered questions, number 19, is, “Who approved the flight of the bin Laden family out of the United States when all commercial flights were grounded, when there was time for only minimal questioning by the FBI, and especially, when two of those same individuals had links to WAMY, a charity suspected of funding terrorism? Why were bin Laden family members granted that special privilege–a privilege not available to American families whose loved ones were killed on 9/11?”

This is a specious question. The fact is this never happened. The FSC is merely repeating a debunked conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, The FSC is revitalizing this theory. 9-11 Commissioner, Tim Roemer, asked a version of this question during the hearings. This is frightening that such an influential person is so ignorant of the facts.

What is even more frightening is that Roemer repeated this absurd allegation after he knew the truth. According to Commission Chairman Tom Kean, he had heard this allegation and was disturbed by it. However, Kean said on C-SPAN??¢â???¬â???¢s “Washington Journal,” that the commission investigated this and learned that “nobody flew until the airspace was cleared” and “every citizen was checked by the FBI.”

The allegation that the Bush administration approved a clandestine flight of bin Laden relatives and Saudi Arabians, in the days following September 11 even though all travel was banned, originated soon after September 11. It is patently false. Of course, that has not prevented the conspiracy theorists — and even worse — supposedly responsible, intelligent, informed people from propagating this myth today.

Here are several recent examples of the proliferation of this myth by people who we depend on to tell us the truth and develop solutions.

A March 30, 2004, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article proclaimed, “A government document obtained by a Washington, D.C., watchdog group reveals that 160 people from Saudi Arabia were allowed to fly home immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” (Please note the Tribune-Review is the newspaper of the dreaded liberal pariah Richard Mellon Scaife).

The March 25, 2004, website of Democracy Now — a program featured by National Public Radio (NPR) — states, “In the most extensive comments by a public official to date, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke describes the events surrounding the evacuation of dozens of Saudis days after 9/11 when all commercial and private flights were grounded??¢â???¬ ¦In September last year, Clarke revealed that top White House officials approved the evacuation of 140 influential Saudis, including relatives of Osama Bin Laden, days after the Sept. 11 attacks at a time when all commercial and private flights were grounded.”

As previously mentioned, 9-11 Commissioner Tim Roemer asked Richard Clarke during his testimony at the hearing, “You made a decision after 9/11 to, I think — and I’d like to ask you more about this — to allow a plane of Saudis to fly out of the country. And when most other planes were grounded, this plane flew from the United States back to Saudi Arabia.” Mysteriously Clarke did not correct Roemer’s error.

Paul Krugman’s March 16, 2004, New York Times column reported, “Just days after the attack, at a time when private air travel was banned, the administration gave special clearance to flights that gathered up Saudi nationals, including a number of members of the bin Laden family, who were in the U.S. at the time. These Saudis were then allowed to leave the country, after at best cursory interviews with the F.B.I.”

A September 2003 Vanity Fair article, by Craig Unger, said there was a private charter flight on September 13 taking a Saudi from Tampa, Florida to Lexington, Kentucky, when all private flights were banned.

During an interview by CNN’s Paula Zahn, Unger said, “??¢â???¬ ¦ FBI counterintelligence agents were not allowed to fly during this period, yet the Saudis were…the first flight I was able to document was on September 13. At 10:57 a.m. on that day, the FAA put out a notice saying all private planes could not fly. And yet a Learjet took off from Tampa just a couple hours later and landed in Lexington, Kentucky. I spoke to two people who were on that plane.”

This was not true. According to the 9-13-01 edition of the Detroit News,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said commercial and private planes would be allowed to fly effective 11 a.m. EDT Thursday.” Other papers reported the same thing. In fact, limited flights resumed the afternoon of the 12th. William Shumann spokesman for the FAA told me that commercial airline and charter flights resumed 11am September 13. There is a difference between commercial aviation (i.e. airlines or charters such as the Saudi flight) and private or non-commercial ( i.e. an individually owned aircraft) according to Shumann.

Was Unger lying or ignorant?

The people proliferating this absurd, debunked theory are not insignificant — the families of 9-11 victims, one of the 9-11 Commissioners who is a former Democratic Congressman, and the former counterterrorism chief for the Clinton and Bush administrations. The media publicizing this theory are just as noteworthy, National Public Radio, an important New York Times columnist, an esteemed author and Vanity Fair journalist, and the allegedly conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

It is unconscionable that people — who are supposed to be investigating flaws in our government’s counterterrorism efforts to prevent terrorism — are more concerned about partisan politics or accept bizarre conspiracy theories without examining the facts.

Unfortunately, some seem to be more interested in eliminating George Bush than Osama bin Laden. The only way to solve this problem is to vote for people who will place the people before their party and principle before their politics, and to stop patronizing media more concerned with ideology than journalism.