For the Record

Truth is the first casualty of war.

As investigations go, few if any have been as exhaustive as the one conducted by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 commission. Between the time the panel was created on Nov. 27, 2002, when President Bush signed Public Law 107-306, and the release of its final report on July 22, 2004, 80 staff members reviewed more than two and a half million documents and interviewed more than 1,200 people in 10 countries. Additionally, the 10 commissioners heard from 160 witnesses during 19 days of public hearings.

The final report runs 567 pages, more than 150 of which are notes in exceedingly small type, lest readers have any questions about the material or the commissioners' sources. And few details seemed to escape the investigators' attention. For instance, a careful reader will discover from which pay phone at Boston's Logan International Airport hijacker Mohamed Atta spoke for three minutes to fellow hijacker Marwan al Shehhi.

Given the unprecedented care this independent panel devoted to the investigation, it surely is discouraging that so many people apparently disbelieve its findings, the primary and most obvious one being that the attack was perpetrated by the al Qaeda terrorist organization. The Internet is rife with conspiracy theories about the attacks-the usual conspirators being government officials or Israeli intelligence, of course. One of the more ambitious of these alternative histories appears in a video called "Loose Change," which reportedly has sold more than 100,000 copies, despite being available free on the Internet (among the "theories" explored in the film is that the feds brought down the World Trade Center towers with explosives, in part to retrieve a stash of gold bars buried beneath).

According to a national survey conducted by Scripps Howard and Ohio University in July, 36 percent of Americans believe it is very likely or somewhat likely that federal officials either directly aided the terrorists on Sept. 11 or took no action to thwart the attacks "because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East."

Leaving aside the question of how exactly federal officials would pull off such an elaborate ruse, what's so striking about this poll is that apparently more than one-third of Americans so thoroughly distrust their government that they believe it capable of complicity, or worse, an attack upon its own citizens.

What accounts for this distrust? The "9/11 Commission Report" provides a clue to this as well: Misleading and false information provided by some senior officials in the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration was a source of continued frustration for the commission, which publicly rebuked both agencies for stonewalling and ultimately had to subpoena some records.

Among the records that eventually proved the extent of misinformation initially provided by senior government officials were audiotapes of communications at North American Aerospace Defense Command's northeastern operations center on Sept. 11.

The tapes establish that the military spent part of the morning chasing a phantom plane and that nobody in the military even knew about United 93 until after it had crashed in Pennsylvania. No senior FAA officials thought to inform the Pentagon, despite tracking the wayward aircraft for more than half an hour.

"Those accounts had the effect of deflecting questions about the military's capacity to obtain timely and accurate information from its own sources. In addition, they overstated the FAA's ability to provide the military with timely and useful information that morning," the report concluded.

The Washington Post reported in August that by the summer of 2004 some commissioners were so suspicious of a cover-up that they considered referring the matter to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation. Ultimately, they sent the case to the inspectors general at Defense and Transportation. Those investigations had not been publicly released by mid-August.

Portions of the NORAD tapes now can be heard on Vanity Fair magazine's Web site (www.vanityfair.com), thanks to writer Michael Bronner, associate producer of the film United 93. Bronner received the tapes from the Pentagon in April, seven months after requesting them. In August, Vanity Fair published on its Web site Bronner's story "9/11 Live: The NORAD Tapes," a riveting and deeply human account of the military's response to the attacks.

Besides fueling conspiracy theories, another unfortunate effect of the inaccurate initial accounts provided by senior government and military officials has been to obscure the remarkable professionalism of the many men and women throughout FAA and the military who performed with exceptional skill and resourcefulness under unprecedented circumstances.

As Bronner recounts one general's reaction when confronted with the discrepancies between his original testimony and the events as revealed on the tapes: "The real story is actually better than the one we told."

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