RESPONSE TO CHIP BERLET’S REVIEW OF THE NEW PEARL HARBOR
David Ray Griffin
May 1, 2004
PREFATORY NOTE: On April 21, 2004, Mr. Berlet alerted me to the existence of his review in advance, giving me a non-public link to the review as it was slated to appear on the website of Political Research Associates. In response, I wrote a rather lengthy critique of his review, pointing out what I took to be various types of errors. Although I wrote this response in the form of a personal letter to him, I indicated that it laid out at least most of the points that I would make in a formal response if he decided to go ahead with the plan to make his review public. Through e-mail discussion, we agreed that he would be allowed to correct two logical errors I had pointed out, but that otherwise he would publish his review as originally written. What follows is a my letter, turned into a formal response, adjusted to account for his revisions, and slightly modified in a few other places. I wish to commend Mr. Berlet and Political Research Associates for agreeing to post my response.
Chip Berlet’s critical review of The New Pearl Harbor (NPH) contains many charges. My response, which deals with most of those charges, is organized into three sections. The first involves a misinterpretation of my stance.
I. MISINTERPRETATION OF MY STANCE
The overall concern of the website of the Political Research Associates appears to be “conspiracism,” which is defined as “[t]he tendency to explain all major world events as primarily the product of a secret conspiracy.” The fact that Berlet’s review of NPH appears on this website seems to imply that he believes me to be guilty of this tendency. If that is indeed his charge, I would think that he would need a larger sample (I refer here to his criticism of what he calls “the fallacy of the unrepresentative sample”). For example, if Berlet himself believed that supporters of Ronald Reagan conspired with the Iranians not to release the American hostages until after the presidential election in 1980, this would not provide very strong evidence that he had a tendency to explain “all major world events as primarily the product of a secret conspiracy.”
However, leaving that problem aside, let me move to what seems to be a major misunderstanding of my perspective. Berlet seems to believe that a conspiratorial perspective is necessarily opposed to a “structural, systemic, or institutional analysis.” Indeed, he says that I provide “a centrist or right-wing populist explanation that if deconstructed suggests that an otherwise acceptable political and economic system has been distorted by a conspiracy of secret elites.” Besides the fact that this characterization of my position would make my friends and students hoot, Berlet perhaps missed note 25 of the Introduction to NPH, in which I directly confront the worry that conspiracy theories are diversionary. In pointing out that this worry often involves valid concerns, I said:
Then, after suggesting some reasons why we should “avoid a too strong dichotomy between structural and conspiratorial analysis,” I added another reason:
Berlet cannot justly assume, therefore, that if I suspect the attacks of 9/11 were able to succeed only because of official conspiracy, I reject structural analyses of our national and global problems.
The introductory statement of the Political Research Associates says that they are concerned to “build a social movement for real social justice, economic fairness, equality, peace, and democracy.” We are at one on this. I have, in fact, been working since 1992 on an argument for global democracy, which, I claim, is the best and probably the only way to overcome a wide range of global problems, including human rights violations, global apartheid, ecocide (whether through nuclear weapons, global warming, or some combination of causes), and, more generally, the war-imperialism-terrorism system. I first started thinking in this way after hearing Richard Falk’s structural analysis of the present world order. My entire argument is based on a structural analyses. In my discussion of war, imperialism, and terrorism, I draw heavily on the analyses of Noam Chomsky and others who emphasize that our problems are primarily structural and institutional, so that a mere change of personnel will solve little. Berlet could, of course, disagree with my contention that global democracy is the best or even a possible solution. But we are one in our concern for economic fairness, equality, peace, and democracy.
Beyond the fact that Berlet’s critique was perhaps based on a misapprehension of my beliefs and values, there are other problems in it. I will illustrate some of these in terms of Berlet’s analysis of the part of my book to which he devotes the most attention, my chapter on the Pentagon strike.
II. BERLET’S ANALYSIS OF THE CHAPTER ON THE PENTAGON ATTACK
There are numerous problems with Berlet’s analysis of this chapter. I will discuss sixteen.
1. Having claimed that Thierry Meyssan’s “assertions have been thoroughly demolished by an armada of writers across the political spectrum” and that I failed to discuss what Berlet calls “the voluminous evidence that contradicts Meyssan,” he refers to the Urban Legends website, Snopes.com--this being the only support he provides for his sweeping claims. However, besides the question of whether this website in fact provides what Berlet says, his statement could easily give the impression that I made no reference to this website. But I referred to it in the text on page 37 and in notes 30, 31, and 54 for Chapter 2.
2. Berlet claims that a logical fallacy in my argument, following Meyssan, that “whatever hit the Pentagon was not American Airlines flight 77.” In approaching this argument, he says that it contains two sub-arguments, the first of which is: “If it was a commercial jet that hit the Pentagon, it was not American Airlines flight 77.” But I have no independent argument against that idea that it was AA 77. The argument goes the other way: There is evidence that it was not a Boeing 757, therefore that it was not AA 77. My alleged second sub-argument is: “If it was not a commercial jet that hit the Pentagon, it was a guided missile.” That is also wrong. The argument is simply that the evidence, while not consistent with the aircraft’s being a commercial jet, is consistent with its being a missile or a small military plane. (I am, incidentally, preparing a 2nd edition of NPH. One change will be to make clearer that, although I quote Meyssan’s missile theory, I do not necessarily endorse it, partly because there is evidence that lends support to the other alternative he suggests--that it was a small military plane.)
3. Berlet seems to think that I claimed that all the eyewitnesses who said that they saw an American Airlines plane were all military personnel. But my statement about military personnel related only to Meyssan’s point that the initial identification of the aircraft that hit the Pentagon with Flight 77, which occurred on the afternoon of 9/11, seemed to be based entirely on statements by military personnel. When I later discuss eyewitnesses who reported seeing an American airplane, I make no suggestion that they were all military personnel. Indeed, it is clear that at least most of them were not.
4. In reference to my summary statement of Meyssan’s first argument (“that all the information originally connecting Flight 77 with the aircraft that struck the Pentagon evidently came from dubious sources”), Berlet registers this complaint: “The first premise has not been demonstrated as true--much less plausible.” In the first place, however, this “first argument” is not the first premise of a logical syllogism, as the term “premise” implies, but simply the first of Meyssan’s many specific points in his cumulative argument. Second, readers cannot judge from Berlet’s discussion whether Meyssan had made the claim plausible or not, because Berlet fails to inform them of Meyssan’s arguments for considering the sources dubious (which I summarized at NPH 27-28).
5. One of those arguments is that there are reasons to suspect that Ted Olson may not have been telling the truth when he reported receiving a telephone call from his wife, Barbara Olson, from Flight 77. Berlet, by contrast, simply assumes that he was telling the truth. Berlet says, as if this were not the point in dispute, that Olson “spoke with his wife.” If Berlet were to construct a logical argument for his conclusion, it would presumably go something like this:
Would Berlet really want to defend the soundness of this argument--especially in the same context in which he has complained that I failed to show the plausibility of one of my premises?
6. Berlet also devotes attention to the questions raised concerning Barbara Olson if the official account of Flight 77 is rejected. After raising various rhetorical questions, he says that “Griffin admits that there are problems with the idea that Ted Olson--who spoke with his wife Barbara Olson while she was a passenger on the ill-fated hijacked flight--was part of a conspiracy in which she would disappear.” But the word “admits” makes it seem as if this were a reluctant concession on my part. But I myself had raised a great many rhetorical questions in relation to the conspiracy theory about “what really happened” that seems to be implicit in the accounts of the revisionist critics of the official account. Near the end of this series of questions, I asked:
I also pointed out that Meyssan also said that he had no answer to the question about what happened to the passengers on Flight 77 (NPH 137). Berlet has, accordingly, not pointed out any difficulties for a revisionist conspiracy theory that are not already raised in my book.
7. In much of his attempted rebuttal, Berlet simply ignores the fact that the issue is not whether there was an airplane in the area with American Airlines markings on it, but whether we should accept the official account’s identification of the aircraft that hit the Pentagon with a Boeing 757 and, indeed, with Flight 77 as such. Berlet, failing to make that distinction, launches into a long discussion of the fact, which is not in dispute, that a number of people reported seeing an American Airlines plane. He seems to assume that, since it would not be plausible to reject all this testimony, it shows that the Pentagon was indeed hit by Flight 77. But none of the eyewitnesses could have credibly claimed to have seen Flight 77, as if this number were written on the fuselage.
8. Part of Berlet’s argument is that I reject the testimony of people who reported seeing a commercial airliner. He says:
I, however, devoted an entire section (NPH 36-39) to various ways that critics of the official account have dealt with the fact that many people reported seeing an American Airlines plane going toward the Pentagon. I then, in explaining Meyssan’s approach, mentioned that he pointed out that “there were also several reports of eyewitnesses who said that the aircraft looked and/or sounded like a missile or a military plane.” I also said that Meyssan showed that “the eyewitnesses supportive of the official theory are at least partly balanced off by eyewitnesses supportive of the missile theory” (emphasis added). How could anyone regard this as my implying that there were more witnesses reporting seeing a missile or small military plane, especially given the fact that I later reported Gerhard Holmgren’s analysis of stories about 29 people who were said to have reported seeing a commercial airliner? (Here Berlet may have been partly misled my his misinterpretation of the statement about military personnel, which he mentions several times.)
9. Berlet seeks to show the unreliability of Holmgren’s analysis, at the end of which Holmgren concluded that “there is no eyewitness evidence to support the theory that F77 hit the Pentagon, unless my search has missed something very significant”--a rather nondogmatic statement, I thought. Berlet sought to illustrate Holmgren’s unreliability by pointing out that, although Holmgren was unable to find an AP reporter named Dave Winslow, Berlet easily found him. But although this fact may show that Berlet is better at locating people, it does little if anything to undermine Holmgren’s conclusion.
In the first of Winslow’s statement quoted by Berlet, Winslow reportedly said: “I saw the tail of a large airliner. . . . It plowed right into the Pentagon.” But as Holmgren shows, many statements that at first glance seem to report seeing an airliner hit the Pentagon do not actually do so. What Winslow says he saw was “the tail of a large airliner.” His statement that “[i]t [the airliner] plowed right into the Pentagon” might, like many other similar statements examined by Holmgren, have turned out under questioning to be an inference rather than the report of a direct observation. That possibility is, in fact, supported by the second statement quoted by Berlet, in which Winslow reportedly said:
Although Berlet calls Winslow an example of one of “hundreds of eyewitnesses to the commercial jet hitting the Pentagon,” he appears instead to be an example of one of Holmgren’s main categories: people who have been said to have claimed that they saw a big plane hit the Pentagon but whose statements, when examined, do not actually make this claim. As I put it,
All that Winslow’s second statement as quoted says is that he saw the tail of a jumbo airliner go by him, then he heard a boom, and then he saw a fireball. Winslow’s testimony can, therefore, accord perfectly well with Dick Eastman’s two-aircraft hypothesis, which Holmgren, as I reported, has accepted.
10. In seeking to show that there are statements from witnesses who saw Flight 77, or at least a Boeing 757, hit the Pentagon, Berlet quotes the following statement, which had been reported as the testimony of an eyewitness:
Is it not clear, however, that this statement belongs in Holmgren’s category of quoted statements that are simply not credible? First, as Berlet himself acknowledges, this statement mixes observation with interpretation, referring to the plane as “Flight 77” and the “hijacked jet.” Indeed, to be fastidious, it is even interpretation to conclude that, just because an airplane had American Airlines markings on it, it was an American Airlines plane.
Second, and more important, can Berlet really believe that if a 100-plus-ton airliner going several hundred mph--it was said to have “streaked toward its target”--hit the wall of the west wing of the Pentagon, the wall would have “barely budged”? The wall had, to be sure, recently been reinforced. But could Berlet find any physics professor who would say that the reinforced wall was so strong that it could stop a giant airliner cold? (The Twin Towers had steel beams around their perimeter and yet the airplanes ripped right though them.) Furthermore, if the wall “barely budged,” then most of the airplane would have been visible in front of the wall in the various photographs that were taken shortly after the attack, which I mentioned. But there is no such plane visible. The quoted statement said, to be sure, that the plane exploded “into a massive fireball.” But unless Berlet has a reputable physics book that says a hydrocarbon fire can cause steel and aluminum to vaporize--and without scorching the earth to boot--he has done nothing to undermine Holmgren’s conclusion.
11. Berlet suggests that I ignore or discount all the reports by eyewitnesses of having seen an American Airlines plane. But I do not. Rather, after having referred to many types of physical evidence suggesting that the aircraft that hit the Pentagon could not have been Flight 77--because it could not have been a Boeing 757--I respond to the claims of defenders of the official theory who seem to think that the eyewitness testimony trumps all this physical evidence. I point out that critics of the official account have employed four approaches to dealing with this evidence. The final of these four is Dick Eastman’s two-aircraft hypothesis, which, I point out, “allows an even less skeptical [than Holmgren’s] approach to testimony that seems to support the official theory,” so that “at least most of the testimony of most of the witnesses can be accepted as accurate.”
12. According to Berlet, I claim “that no one saw pieces of an airplane after the impact.” He then says that this claim “is refuted by several eyewitnesses who described seeing pieces of the plane.” Berlet adds that “there is even a photograph of a piece of wreckage that appears to be from an aircraft lying on the grass outside the Pentagon.”
However, I never made the sweeping claim that “no one saw pieces of an airplane.” What I said is that evidently no one reported seeing pieces that provided evidence that the Pentagon was hit by a Boeing 757. Berlet, furthermore, does not cite any witnesses who reported seeing things that were clearly or even probably from a Boeing 757. The “piece of wreckage that appears to be from an aircraft” to which he refers is the flimsy little piece of metal in the photograph by Mark Faram. But Meyssan, besides saying that this piece of metal “does not correspond with any piece of a Boeing 757-200 painted in the colors of American Airlines,” added that it “has not moreover been inventoried by the Department of Defense as coming from flight 77.” Berlet responds to the first of these claims by citing people who argue otherwise. But even if one accepted this counter-claim, how impressive would this be? Can anyone really believe that only one or two tiny pieces of a giant airliner, made of aluminum and steel, would have been left after such a crash? Is Berlet not grasping at straws? Furthermore, Berlet simply ignores Meyssan’s second point--that the Pentagon report itself did not claim that this piece in Faram’s photograph came from Flight 77. Does Berlet want to claim that it did, even though the Pentagon did not? Or does Berlet have evidence that, contrary to Meyssan’s claim, the Pentagon really did claim that that piece was from Flight 77?
13. Berlet says that I falsely assume “that the entire jet aircraft maintained its structural integrity lengthwise as it plowed through the Pentagon, leaving its wings outside on the lawn.” He then says:
One problem here is that Berlet elsewhere complains about writers who make statements about matters about which they are not experts. Berlet has not explained his own credentials for making this confident assertion about what happened to the airplane.
More serious is the problem of how Berlet could reconcile this statement, about the plane plowing through the Pentagon, with the claim of his eyewitness that the wall of the Pentagon was so strong that it “held up like a champ” so that it “barely budged.”
But the most serious problem is that the main reason for saying that if the Pentagon had been hit by a Boeing 757, its wings would have been visible in the pictures. This reason is that there are pictures that were taken before the facade of the west wing collapsed. As I pointed out (NPH 29), these photos, besides showing that the entrance hole was no larger than 18 feet in diameter, also show “no damage above the hole or on either side of it.” The wings of a Boeing 757, of course, have huge steel engines on them. And with its tail the plane is about 40 feet tall. So the pictures of the facade provide extremely strong evidence that no Boeing 757 entered the Pentagon. And yet Berlet, without mentioning these photographs, claims that what went through three rings of the Pentagon was not simply the nose of the Boeing but “the rest of the aircraft fuselage and metal skin, along with the wings and jet engines, and the tail.” How can Berlet make this claim in the face of photographic evidence to the contrary?
14. To generalize this point: Berlet’s charge that I had ignored eyewitness testimony shows that he believes that we should not ignore evidence that counts against our own theories. But Berlet fails to mention most of the evidence that I cited against the Boeing theory. Although I gave eight kinds of physical evidence against this theory, Berlet focuses on only two of these--Meyssan’s claim about the fire and his claim about nose of a Boeing and the C-ring. These are indeed probably the two claims by Meyssan upon which it is easiest to cast doubt. I would add, however, that even here Berlet’s argument is problematic. His main contention against Meyssan’s argument about the kind of explosion that occurred in the Pentagon, for example, seems to be that “Meyssan has no qualifications whatsoever to analyze explosions from a forensic perspective.” But Berlet does not inform us of his own qualifications to provide an alternative analysis. In any case, if Berlet is to deal seriously with a cumulative argument--which is what Meyssan provides--he needs to take on its strongest parts, not simply its weakest.
This is a most important point. In the Introduction to the book, I explained the difference between a deductive argument, which is “only as strong as its weakest link,” and a cumulative argument, which cannot be refuted by simply refuting one or two of its steps. In note 43, I added:
It is hard for me to resist the conclusion that Berlet has resorted to this tactic, even if only unconsciously. In any case, by virtue of ignoring most of the arguments for the conclusion that the Pentagon was not struck by Flight 77, Berlet has done nothing to refute this conclusion.
15. One of the claims in my book that Berlet seeks to undermine was stated thus:
To rebut this claim, Berlet says: “The Pentagon is an immense, solid, reinforced structure with a mass that makes a 100 ton airplane relatively small by comparison.”
We are agreed that the Pentagon is very big. As I pointed out (NPH 40), one of the problems with the official theory is why terrorists would have gone out of their way to hit the facade of the west wing when they could have simply flown the plane into the roof, which covers 29 acres (and in particular the roof of the east wing, where they might have killed Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and some of the top brass). But how is the size of the Pentagon relevant? Berlet’s argument would need a second premise to connect his first premise--the Pentagon is much bigger than a 757--to his conclusion--which is that a 757 would not cause much destruction to the particular section of the Pentagon that it hit. I for one cannot imagine what that premise would be.
16. Berlet appeals to the claim that the airplane hit the ground before it hit the Pentagon, therefore losing much of its power. But Berlet simply ignores the fact that I provided evidence against this claim, pointing out that the photographs show a lawn free from any sign of having been scraped by an airliner. “Whatever struck the Pentagon made a clean hit from the air and went completely inside” (NPH 29). He still, therefore, has done nothing to undermine the conclusion that, if the Pentagon had been hit by a Boeing 757, the photographs would have shown far greater damage, immediately after the impact, than they do show.
III. OTHER PROBLEMS
Having dealt at length with Berlet’s treatment of the Pentagon strike, I will conclude this response by pointing out a few other problems in his review.
1. Berlet says, at the outset of his review, that I make the following claim: “The U.S. government caused or deliberately allowed the attacks of 09/11/01 to take place.”
One problem here is his calling this “a claim.” In the place that he does this, he takes the statement out of context. The statement, which occurred in the interview with Nick Welsh, came in response to the question of how I accounted for the fact that the American media have “been asleep at the switch.” My answer, which Berlet quoted elsewhere in his review, was: “It is very difficult for Americans to face the possibility that their own government may have caused or deliberately allowed such a heinous event." By taking it out of context, Berlet turned my statement--about Americans finding it difficult to face a possibility--into a direct charge of complicity.
In any case, Berlet then charges that my statement is guilty of the fallacy of the false dilemma--giving only two options when there are really three. Berlet says:
In my book, however, which is supposed to be the subject of the review, I point out that there are not only three but at least eight possible levels of complicity--in addition to the official theory, according to the attacks resulted from failures of various sorts (NPH xxi-xxii).
2. Berlet agrees that it would have been nice if there had been some jet fighters ready for scramble orders at Andrews, but, he says:
The logical argument implicit here would seem to run something like this:
Now we have a logically valid argument. But would Berlet really want to commit himself to its soundness by endorsing the second premise?
Furthermore, can Berlet really believe that on some days, the defense of the nation’s capital is left to the relatively distant airbase at Langley, so that there would be no pilots at Andrews, ten miles from Washington, ready to respond to scramble orders? I certainly cannot believe this.
3. Berlet attempts to bolster his point by saying that “[t]here is no evidence that has been produced so far that demonstrates that there were jets ready to scramble at Andrews.” But Berlet later includes under the various logical fallacies what he calls the Argument From Ignorance, namely, “because something is not known to be true, it is assumed to be false.” Is not Berlet here arguing that because there is no evidence demonstrating that the jets were ready to scramble, this claim can be assumed to be false?
4. Berlet rejects my suggestion that it would be “inexplicable” if it took F-15s six minutes to take off after scramble orders were given. In attempting to explain why this would be perfectly explicable, Berlet describes several steps the pilots would have to go through--this evidently being another area in which he is qualified to refute the authorities on whom I relied. But in explaining why it could easily take six minutes just to take off, Berlet ignores the fact that I had quoted the US Air Force’s own website, according to which an F-15 routinely “goes from ‘scramble order’ to 29,000 feet in only 2.5 minutes” (NPH 4).
5. Berlet points out the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, in which one argues: “If A, then B; B; therefore A.” Berlet then says that I commit this fallacy because I argue, he claims, thus: “If a heat-seeking missile hit United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, it would have knocked off the jet engine. A jet engine from the aircraft was found miles from the main crash wreckage, therefore this is evidence that a heat-seeking missile hit United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania.”
However, aside from the detail that I did not say that an engine “was found miles [away],” I did not argue thus. Again, as in several other cases, the argument that I give--in this case Paul Thompson’s argument--is a cumulative argument, with many parts. After giving the most important parts of Thompson’s evidence for the belief that Flight 93 was shot down, I say:
It is quite a distortion for Berlet to write as if I used the engine report as the only evidence and as a deductive proof. It was clearly presented as a report that further undergirded the most important parts of the cumulative argument.
6. Berlet charges that I commit this same fallacious reasoning in the discussion of Bush’s behavior in the Sarasota classroom. He summarizes my argument thus:
But insofar as there was a formal argument implicit in my discussion, Berlet has mis-characterized it. It would instead run thus:
The form of the argument, in other words, is not if A, then B; B; therefore A. Rather, it is if A, then B; not B; therefore not A. And this form is perfectly valid.
7. Berlet finds a fallacy--the fallacy of leaping to a conclusion based on the Post Hoc fallacy--in the following exchange: Nick Welsh said: “Let’s say there has been this complicity. To what end?” I replied: “There were several benefits that could have been anticipated from 9/11,” after which I mentioned the ability to pass the PATRIOT Act and to get wars against Afghanistan and Iraq authorized. Berlet charges that I am assuming that the fact that these events followed from 9/11 provides proof, or at least evidence, that the Bush administration caused or allowed 9/11. But I was simply responding to Welsh’s hypothetical question (“Let’s say...”). And surely Berlet would not dispute the fact that it is common in criminal investigations to ask about possible motives. Juries will find it difficult to believe that Jones murdered his wife if the prosecution cannot suggest a plausible motive. The existence of a motive is not proof. But it is generally considered a necessary--albeit not a sufficient--condition for suspecting complicity.
In sum, although Berlet asserts that The New Pearl Harbor is marred by serious flaws of various sorts, I cannot see that he has supported this assertion. I cannot see, therefore, that he has shown that Richard Falk, Rosemary Ruether, and Howard Zinn should be embarrassed by having lent their names to the book.
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