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Originally published Saturday, September 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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The 9/11 conspiracy plots thicken

They are politically diverse and include academics, ex-officials and Web surfers. All share a belief that the Bush administration played a role in the 9/11 attacks. Their numbers seem to speak to Americans' innate distrust of their government.

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — He felt no shiver of doubt in those first terrible hours.

He watched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and assumed al-Qaida had wreaked terrible vengeance. He listened to anchors and military experts and assumed the facts of Sept. 11, 2001, were as stated on the screen.

It was a year before David Ray Griffin, an eminent liberal theologian and philosopher, began his stroll down the path of disbelief. He wondered why Bush listened to a child's story while the nation was attacked and how Osama bin Laden, America's Public Enemy No. 1, escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora.

He wondered why 110-story towers crashed and military jets failed to intercept even one airliner. He read the 9/11 Commission report with a swell of anger. Contradictions were ignored and no military or civilian official was reprimanded, much less cashiered.

"To me, the report read as a cartoon," Griffin said. "It's a much greater stretch to accept the official conspiracy story than to consider the alternatives."

Such as?

"There was massive complicity in this attack by U.S. government operatives."

If that feels like a skip off the cliff of established reality, more Americans are in free fall than you might guess. There are few more startling measures of American distrust of leaders than the extent of belief that the Bush administration had a hand in the attacks of Sept. 11 to spark an invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

36 percent suspicious

A recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 Americans found that 36 percent suspect the U.S. government promoted the attacks or intentionally sat on its hands. Sixteen percent believe explosives brought down the towers. Twelve percent believe a cruise missile hit the Pentagon.

Distrust percolates more strongly near Ground Zero. A Zogby International poll of New York City residents two years ago found 49.3 percent believed the government "consciously failed to act."

Establishment assessments of the believers tend toward the psychotherapeutic. Many academics, politicians and thinkers left, right and center say the conspiracy theories are a case of one plus one equals five. It's a piling up of improbabilities.

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Thomas Eager, a professor of materials science at MIT, has studied the collapse of the twin towers. "At first, I thought it was amazing that the buildings would come down in their own footprints," Eager says. "Then I realized that it wasn't that amazing — it's the only way a building that weighs a million tons and is 95 percent air can come down."

But the chatter out there is loud enough for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to post a Web "fact sheet" poking holes in the conspiracy theories and defending its report on the towers.

Motley crew

The loose agglomeration known as the "9/11 Truth Movement" has stopped looking for truth from the government. A cacophonous and free-range a bunch of conspiracists, they produce hip-hop inflected documentaries and scholarly conferences. The Web is their mother lode. Every citizen is a researcher.

Did you see that the CIA met with bin Laden in a hospital room in Dubai? Check out this Pakistani site; there are really weird doings in Baluchistan ...

Peter Knight, senior lecturer in American studies at the University of Manchester and editor of the 2002 book "Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America," called the movement "a strange beast, an amalgam of elements. You've got the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war crowd — you know, if they lied about the war, maybe they lied about 9/11. Another part is people merely interested in the anomalies, with no preconceived political agenda.

"Then you have the more traditional right-wing conspiracy part of the continuum that believes a vast cabal has taken over the United States, the mega-conspiracy of the right's new world order. To them, all of these things are connected. Each group inserts 9/11 into its pre-existing conspiracy model."

The academic wing is led by Griffin, who founded the Center for a Postmodern World at Claremont University; James Fetzer, a tenured philosopher at the University of Minnesota; and Daniel Orr, retired chairman of the economics department at the University of Illinois.

Professor suspended

The movement's de facto minister of engineering is Steven Jones, a tenured physics professor at Brigham Young University who has studied vectors and velocities and tested explosives and concluded that the collapse of the twin towers is best explained as controlled demolition, sped by a thousand pounds of high-grade thermite.

Jones has been placed on paid leave while the Mormon-church-owned school investigates his claims, it was announced Friday.

The physicist published his views two weeks ago in the book "9/11 and American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out."

Former Reagan aide Barbara Honegger is a senior military-affairs journalist at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. She's convinced, based on her freelance research, that a bomb went off about six minutes before an airplane hit the Pentagon — or didn't hit it, as some believe the case may be.

Then there's Morgan O. Reynolds, appointed by George W. Bush as chief economist at the Labor Department. He left in 2002 and doesn't think much of his former boss.

"Who did it? Elements of our government and M-16 and the Mossad. The government's case is a laugh-out-loud proposition. They used patsies and lies and subterfuge and there's no way that Bush and Cheney could have invaded Iraq without the help of 9/11," Reynolds asserts.

They are cantankerous and sometimes distrust each other — who knows where the double agents lurk? But unreasonable questions resonate with the reasonable. Colleen Kelly's brother, a salesman, had breakfast at the Windows on the World restaurant on Sept. 11. After he died she founded September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows to oppose the Iraq war. She lives in the Bronx and gives a gingerly embrace to the conspiracy crowd.

"Sometimes I listen to them and I think that's sooooo outlandish and bizarre," she says. "But that day had such disastrous geopolitical consequences. If David Ray Griffin asks uncomfortable questions and points out painful discrepancies, good for him."

Griffin's book, "The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11," sold more than 100,000 copies and became a movement founding stone. Last year he traveled through New England, giving speeches. One evening in West Hartford, Conn., 400 mostly middle-aged and upper-middle-class doctors and lawyers, teachers and social workers sat waiting.

Griffin took the podium and laid down his ideas with calm and cool. He concluded:

"It is already possible to know beyond a reasonable doubt one very important thing: The destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job, orchestrated by domestic terrorists. The welfare of our republic and perhaps even the survival of our civilization depend on getting the truth about 9/11 exposed."

The audience rose and applauded for more than a minute.

No patience

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-based left-leaning think tank, is no fan of the 9/11 Commission. He believes a serious investigation should have led to indictments and the firing of incompetent generals and civilian officials.

But he has no patience with the conspiracy theorists.

"They don't do their homework; it's a kind of charlatanism," says Berlet. "They say there's no debris on the lawn in front of the Pentagon, but they base their analysis on a photo on the Internet. That's like analyzing an impressionist painting by looking at a postcard.

"I love 'The X-Files' but I don't base my research on it. My vision of hell is having to review these [conspiracy] books over and over again."

In the days after Sept. 11, experts claimed temperatures reached 2,000 degrees on the upper floors. Others claimed steel melted. Nope. What happened, says Eager, the MIT materials-science professor, is that jet fuel sloshed around and beams got rubbery.

"It's not too much to think that you could have some regions at 900 degrees and others at 1,200 degrees, and that will distort the beams."

The truth movement doesn't really care for Eager. A Web site casts a fisheye of suspicion at the professor and his colleagues. "Did the MIT have prior knowledge?" notes one chat room. "This is for sure another speculative topic ... "

Professsor Jones' suspension was reported Friday by The Associated Press. Peter Knight was quoted by McClatchy Newspapers.

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