The term "conspiracy theory," with the image it invokes of a cabal of black-hearted men who convene on a regular basis to consolidate their power, reduces alternate history to a cartoon. By using it to discredit, however, journalists only reveal how inadequate their inability to untangle webs the powerful weave makes them feel.
One who's undaunted by the degree of difficulty is Sander Hicks, who endeavors to shed new light on events leading up to 9/11 mostly through meetings with, if not remarkable men, remarkable maniacs. In fact, his book, The Big Wedding, named after Al Qaeda code for 9/11, could just as easily be called "My Adventures Covering the Terror Beat."
The first portrait in his rogues' gallery is Randy Glass, an informant for an ATF/FBI terrorist sting. Pre-9/11, he dined out in Manhattan with a Pakistani arms dealer, who, gesturing toward the World Trade Center, exclaimed, "Those towers are coming down."
A State Department official told Glass they were aware of bin Laden's plans. But to keep Pakistani President Musharraf and his nuclear arsenal in their corner, they were banking on his guarantee that he could stop the attack. After all, as Hicks maintains, where Al Qaeda ends, Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) begins.
Then Hicks introduces us to the legendary Delmart Vreeland. While imprisoned in Canada in 2001, this near-schizoid former agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence prophesized 9/11, of which he allegedly learned while on a mission to Moscow. To some, Hicks's encounter with the dodgy Vreeland might undermine the credibility he's working hard to establish. But credit is due him for daring to assert that intelligence work attracts the erratic. Discounting their testimony only plays into intelligence agency's hands.
Hicks ranges beyond the rogues' gallery to the psycho ward, where, by all rights, Mohammed Atta should have been, instead of hanging out in Florida. Journalist Daniel Hopsicker followed Atta's trail for his book, Welcome to Terrorland, and Hicks follow in his footsteps.
Atta, however, got more than he bargained for when he tried on a spirited American girl for size. Amanda Keller denigrated the size of his penis, thus prompting Internet speculation on whether or not that was the tipping point of all tipping points, driving Atta to his apocalyptic aerobatics.
Having dealt with rogues and psychos, Hicks moves up in class--or maybe just parallel--to government officials. After 9/11, Congress established the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and appointed Kenneth Feinberg its special master. One of the few who opted out of the fund was 9/11 widow Ellen Mariani, who, instead, sued the entire administration.
For a story on her, Hicks conducted an interview with Feinberg that turned ugly. Perhaps, he thinks, there might be some truth to Mariani's claim that Feinberg's role was "to ensure all 9/11 families joined the fund to prevent any questions of....negligence on the part of [the] administration."
His appetite for big game whetted, Hicks also goes after Richard Ben-Veniste, chairman of the 9/11 Commission. In a flagrant example of what-was-he-thinking, Ben-Veniste agreed to be interviewed by Hicks on INN World Report on Free Speech TV. Ultimately, he wound up dismissing Hicks as a "whackjob."
After then taking on Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, he dissects the 9/11 Commission report. First he skewers each member of the panel, and then he details how the Commission either gave short shrift to 9/11's central questions or outright lied. For instance, the mujahadeens in Afghanistan "received little or no assistance from the United States."
Regarding one of the central questions of 9/11--how the terrorists knew to strike on the morning that NORAD, NEADS, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preoccupied with three different air defense drills--the Commission mentions only one of these exercises as an afterthought. "The 9/11 Commission Report," Hicks concludes, "has topped the Warren Report...as the greatest cover-up of all time."
As The Big Wedding nears its conclusion, Hicks shares his feelings about the 9/11 Truth Movement. Its tendency to become bogged down on issues like what struck the Pentagon, he posits, explains how "the term 'conspiracy theories' came to be shorthand for 'discredited whacko' in the invisible guidebook of mainstream media."
Meanwhile, he maintains, the idea that "terrorists with box cutters were able to defeat a $400 billion-a-year war machine" is as "kooky" a theory as any. Ending on a hopeful note, however, he calls for a whistle-blowers' conference.
In The Big Wedding, Sander Hicks has not only told some rollicking tales, but gone a long way to sorting out 9/11 alternate history. If more clear-eyed reporters like him pitched in, independent investigations into 9/11 would no longer be tarred with the conspiracy theory brush.
Sander Hicks, an investigative journalist and independent publisher who started Soft Skull Press and Vox Pop/DKMC, has done reporting on 9/11 for the Long Island Press, INN World Report Television, and Guerrilla News Network. On the website of his coffeehouse/bookstore/media company (a venture shared with his wife, Holley Anderson), a bio says he is "the only reporter who can proudly claim he was verbally abused by a member of the 9/11 Commission."
This story was published on October 7, 2005.