THE DEBUNKING OF MICHAEL RUPPERT
Since 9.11 a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theorizing has arisen not only in the US, where it has naturally found a fertile ground, but around the world. This article by David Corn is one of the most comprehensive efforts, so far, to examine the possible substance that such claims may have. —Eds.
On March 25, during a Pacifica radio interview, Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, said, “We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11…. What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?” McKinney was not merely asking if there had been an intelligence failure. She was suggesting–though not asserting–that the US government had foreknowledge of the specific attacks and either did not do enough to prevent them or, much worse, permitted them to occur for some foul reason. Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat from her state, called her comments “loony.” House minority leader Dick Gephardt noted that he disagreed with her. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quipped, “The congresswoman must be running for the Hall of Fame of the Grassy Knoll Society.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called her a “nut.” Two months later, after it was revealed that George W. Bush had received an intelligence briefing a month before September 11 in which he informed told Osama bin Laden was interested in both hijacking airplanes and striking directly at the United States, McKinney claimed vindication. But that new piece of information did not support the explosive notion she had unfurled earlier–that the Bush Administration and/or other unnamed parties had been in a position to warn New Yorkers and had elected not to do so.
With her radio interview, McKinney became something of a spokesperson for people who question the official story of September 11. As the Constitution’s editorial page blasted her, its website ran an unscientific poll and found that 46 percent said, “I think officials knew it was coming.” Out there–beyond newspaper conference rooms and Congressional offices–alternative scenarios and conspiracy theories have been zapping across the Internet for months. George W. Bush did it. The Mossad did it. The CIA did it. Or they purposely did not thwart the assault–either to have an excuse for war, to increase the military budget or to replace the Taliban with a government sympathetic to the West and the oil industry. The theories claim that secret agendas either caused the attacks or drove the post-9/11 response, and these dark accounts have found an audience of passionate devotees.
I learned this after I wrote a colu mn dismissing various 9/11 conspiracy theories. I expressed doubt that the Bush Administration would kill or allow the murder of thousands of American citizens to achieve a political or economic aim. (How could Karl Rove spin that, if a leak ever occurred?) Having covered the national security community for years, I didn’t believe any government agency could execute a plot requiring the coordination of the FBI, the CIA, the INS, the FAA, the NTSB, the Pentagon and others. And–no small matter–there was no direct evidence that anything of such a diabolical nature had transpired.
Hundreds of angry e-mails poured in. Some accused me of being a sophisticated CIA disinformation agent. Others claimed I was hopelessly naive. (Could I be both?) Much of it concerned two men, Michael Ruppert and Delmart “Mike” Vreeland. Ruppert, a former Los Angeles cop, runs a website that has cornered a large piece of the alternative-9/11 market. An American who was jailed in Canada, Vreeland claims to be a US naval intelligence officer who tried to warn the authorities before the attacks. Ruppert cites Vreeland to back up his allegation that the CIA had “foreknowledge” of the 9/11 attacks and that there is a strong case for “criminal complicity on the part of the U.S. government in their execution.” My article discounted their claims. But, I discovered, the two men had a loyal–and vocal–following. They were being booked on Pacifica stations. Ruppert was selling a video and giving speeches around the world. (In February, he filled a theater in Sacramento.) I decided to take a second–and deeper–look at the pair and key pieces of the 9/11 conspiracy movement.
The Ex-Cop Who Connects the Dot
By his own account, Ruppert has long been a purveyor of amazing tales. In 1981 he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner a bizarre story about himself: While a cop in the 1970s, he fell in love with a mysterious woman who, he came to believe, was working with the mob and US intelligence. Only after she left him, Ruppert said, did he figure out that his girlfriend had been a CIA officer coordinating a deal in which organized crime thugs were transporting weapons to Kurdish counterrevolutionaries in Iran in exchange for heroin. In an interview with the newspaper, the woman denied Ruppert’s account and questioned his mental stability. Whatever the truth of his encounter with this woman, the relationship apparently extracted a toll on Ruppert. In 1978 he resigned from the force, claiming that the department had not protected him when his life was threatened. According to records posted on Ruppert’s site, his commanding officer called his service “for the most part, outstanding.” But the CO also said Ruppert was hampered by an “over-concern with organized crime activity and a feeling that his life was endangered by individuals connected to organized crime. This problem resulted in Officer Ruppert voluntarily committing himself to psychiatric care last year…. any attempts to rejoin the Department by Officer Ruppert should be approved only after a thorough psychiatric examination.”
In 1996 Ruppert showed up at a community meeting in Los Angeles concerning charges that the CIA had been in league with crack cocaine dealers in the United States. There Ruppert claimed the agency had tried to recruit him in the 1970s to “protect CIA drug operations” in South Central Los Angeles–an allegation that was missing from the guns-and-drugs story published in 1981. In 1998 he launched his From the Wilderness alternative newsletter, which examines what he considers to be the hidden currents of international economics and national security untouched by other media. On March 31 of last year, for instance, he published a report on an economic conference in Moscow where the opening speaker was a fellow who works for Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy-theorist/political cult leader. “I share a near universal respect of the LaRouche organization’s detailed and precise research,” Ruppert wrote. “I have not, however, always agreed with [its] conclusions.” Ruppert claims that twenty members of Congress subscribe to his newsletter.
Ruppert is not a reporter. He mostly assembles facts–or purported facts–from various news sources and then makes connections. The proof is not in any one piece–say, a White House memo detailing an arms-for-hostages trade. The proof is in the line drawn between the dots. His masterwork is a timeline of fifty-one events (at last count) that, he believes, demonstrate that the CIA knew of the attacks in advance and that the US government probably had a hand in them. Ruppert titled his timeline “Oh Lucy!–You Gotta Lotta ‘Splaining To Do.”
In the timeline he notes that transnational oil companies invested billions of dollars to gain access to the oil reserves of Central America and that they expressed interest in a trans-Afghanistan pipeline between 1991 and 1998. He lists trips made to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and 2000 by former President George Bush on behalf of the Carlyle Group investment firm. On September 7, 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed an order restructuring the state’s response to acts of terrorism. There’s a German online news agency report from September 14 claiming that an Iranian man had called US law enforcement to warn of the attack earlier that summer. The list cries out, “Don’t you see?” Oil companies wanted a stable and pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. Warnings were not heeded. Daddy Bush had dealings in Saudi Arabia. Brother Jeb was getting ready for a terrible event. It can only mean one thing: The US government designed the attacks or let them happen so it could go to war on behalf of oil interests.
Space prevents a complete dissection of all Ruppert’s dots. But in several instances, he misrepresents his source material. Item number 8 says that in February 2001, UPI reported that the National Security Agency had “broken bin Laden’s encrypted communications.” That would suggest the US government could have picked up word of the coming assault. But the actual story noted not that the US government had gained the capacity to eavesdrop on bin Laden at will but that it had “gone into foreign bank accounts [of bin Laden’s organization] and deleted or transferred funds, and jammed or blocked the group’s cell or satellite phones.” Item number 9, based on a Los Angeles Times story, says the Bush Administration gave $43 million in aid to the Taliban in May 2001, “purportedly” to assist farmers starving since the destruction of their opium crop. Purportedly? Was the administration paying off the Taliban for something else? That is what Ruppert is hinting. The newspaper, though, reported that all US funds “are channeled through the United Nations and international agencies,” not handed to the Taliban. Unless Ruppert can show that was not the case, this dot has no particular significance. What if Washington funded international programs assisting Afghan farmers? With his timeline, Ruppert implies far more than he proves. It is a document for those already predisposed to believe that world events are determined by secret, mind-boggling conspiracies of the powerful, by people too influential and wily to be caught but who leave a trail that can be decoded by a few brave outsiders who know where and how to look.
The “Spy” Who Tried To Warn Us?
Ruppert can claim one truly original find: Delmart “Mike” Vreeland. He is the flesh on the bones of Ruppert’s the-dots-show-all timeline. On December 6, 2000, Vreeland, then 34, was arrested in Canada and charged with fraud, forgery, threatening death or bodily harm, and obstructing a peace officer. At the time, he was wanted on multiple warrants in the United States–for forgery, counterfeiting, larceny, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, narcotics, reckless endangerment, arson, and grand theft. Months earlier, the Detroit News, citing law enforcement authorities, had reported that Vreeland was an experienced identity thief. While Vreeland was in jail in Toronto, law enforcement officials in Michigan began extradition proceedings.
On October 7, 2001, Vreeland, who was fighting extradition, submitted an exhibit in a Canadian court that he says shows he knew 9/11 was coming. And, Ruppert argues, this is proof that US intelligence was aware of the coming attacks. The document is a page of handwritten notes. There is a list that includes the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the White House. Below that a sentence reads, “Let one happen–stop the rest.” Elsewhere is a hard-to -decipher collection of phrases and names. Vreeland claims he wrote this in mid-August 2001, while in prison, and had it placed in a locked storage box by prison guards. He says the note was opened on September 14 in front of prison officials. Immediately, his lawyers were summoned to the prison, according to one of them, Rocco Galati, and the jail officials dispatched the note to Ottawa.
Vreeland’s believers, including Ruppert, refer to this note as a “warning letter.” It is no such thing and, though tantalizing, holds no specific information related to the 9/11 assaults. There is no date mentioned, no obvious reference to a set of perpetrators. In a telephone interview with me, Vreeland said this document was not written as an alert. He claimed that throughout the summer of 2001, he was composing a thirty-seven-page memo to Adm. Vernon Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, and that this page contains the notes he kept during this process. What of the memo to Clark? Vreeland won’t share it, maintaining that he wrote in such a manner that only its intended recipient would truly understand what it said. Who can confirm the note was indeed what he had placed in storage prior to September 11? Is it possible some sort of switch was pulled? Vreeland maintains that during court proceedings, five officials of the Canadian jail affirmed that he had passed this document to the guards prior to September 11. When I asked for their names, Vreeland said the judge had sealed those records. Kevin Wilson, a Canadian federal prosecutor handling the extradition case, and Galati, Vreeland’s lawyer, say no seal has been ordered.
The note is one small piece of Vreeland’s very big Alias-like story. He claims he was a US naval intelligence officer sent to Russia in September 2000 on a sensitive mission: to obtain design documents related to a Russian weapon system that could defeat a US missile defense system. He swiped copies of the documents and altered the originals so the Russian system wouldn’t work. As one court decision states, “According to [Vreeland], he was sent to Russia to authenticate these documents because he had originally conceived of the theory behind this [anti-Star Wars] technology, when working for the US Navy in 1986.” While in Moscow, he also snagged other top-secret documents that, he claims, foretold the September 11 attacks. And now the US government, the Russian secret police, organized crime and corrupt law enforcement officials are after him. As one Canadian judge noted, “No summary of the complex allegations of multiple concurrent conspiracies…can do justice to [Vreeland’s] own description.”
Ruppert and Vreeland assert that Canadian court records back up Vreeland. But court decisions in his case have questioned his credibility. In one, Judge Archie Campbell observed, “There is not even a threshold showing of any air of reality to the vast conspiracy alleged by the applicant.” Judge John Macdonald wrote, “I find that the Applicant is an imaginative and manipulative person who has little regard for the truth…. the testimony that he developed the theory for anti-Star Wars technology in 1986, based on high school courses, personal interest and perhaps a law clerk’s course and a ‘Bachelor of Political Science’ degree is simply incredible.” Nor did he he believe Vreeland was a spy or that he had smuggled documents out of Russia. Macdonald, though, did state that the US records submitted in court regarding Vreeland’s criminal record were “terse, incomplete and confusing,” and he noted that the sloppiness of the filing might suggest the Michigan criminal charges were “trumped up.” But he was not convinced of that, explaining “I see no reasonable basis in the evidence for inferring that the Michigan charges are ‘trumped up.'”
It’s not surprising those records might be a mess. After I first wrote about Vreeland, I received an e-mail from Terry Weems, who identified himself as Vreeland’s half-brother. He claimed Vreeland was a longtime con man who had preyed on his own family. Weems sent copies of police reports his wife had filed in Alabama accusing Vreeland of falsely using her name to buy office supplies and cell phones in August 2000. Weems provided me a list of law enforcement officers who were pursuing Vreeland in several states. I began calling these people and examining state and county records. There was much to check.
According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Vreeland was in and out of prison several times from 1988 to 1999, having been convicted of assorted crimes, including breaking and entering, receiving stolen property, forgery and writing bad checks. In 1997 he was arrested in Virginia for conspiring to bribe a police officer and intimidating a witness, court records say. He failed to show up in court there. In Florida he was arrested in 1998 on two felony counts of grand theft. In one instance he had purchased a yacht with a check written on a nonexistent account. He was sentenced to three years of probation. The Florida Department of Corrections currently lists him as an absconder. In 1998 he was pursued by the Sheffield, Alabama, police force for stealing about $20,000 in music equipment. Charges were eventually dismissed after some of the property was recovered and Vreeland agreed to pay restitution. In the course of his investigation, Sheffield Detective Greg Ray pulled Vreeland’s criminal file; it was twenty pages long. “He had to really try to be a criminal to get such a history,” Ray says. A 1999 report filed by a Michigan probation agent said of Vreeland, “The defendant has 9 known felony convictions and 5 more felony charges are now pending in various Courts. However, the full extent of his criminal record may never be known because he has more than a dozen identified Aliases and arrests or police contacts in 5 different states.”
Michigan state police records (sent to me by Weems, Vreeland’s half-brother) show that in 1997, while Vreeland was in jail after being arrested on a bad-check charge, he wrote a letter to the St. Clair Shores Police Department warning that his brother-in-law was going to burn down his own restaurant. The letter was dated five days prior to a fire that occurred at the restaurant, but it was postmarked three days after the fire. “Do you see a pattern here?” Weems asks.
Judge Campbell called Vreeland a “man who appears on this evidentiary record to be nothing more than a petty fraudsman with a vivid imagination.” But Ruppert dismisses Vreeland’s past, noting he has “a very confusing criminal arrest record–some of it very contradictory and apparently fabricated.” When I interviewed Vreeland, he said, “I have never legally been convicted of anything in the United States of America.” And, he added, he has never been in prison.
There are two odd bounces in this case. Vreeland claims that in Moscow he worked with a Canadian Embassy employee named Marc Bastien. Unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed by Bastien. He was found dead in Moscow on December, 12, 2000–while Vreeland was in jail in Toronto. At the time of his death, Canadian authorities announced Bastien died of natural causes, but Vreeland later claimed Bastien had been murdered. Then, this past January, the Quebec coroner said Bastein died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and clopazine, an antidepressant, and he noted that Bastien may have been poisoned–or may have been offered the medication to fight a hangover. Had Vreeland really known something about this death, or had he made a good guess about a fellow whose death was covered in the Canadian media? And during a courtroom proceeding, at Vreeland’s insistence, the judge allowed his counsel to place a call to the Pentagon. The operator who answered confirmed that a Lieutenant D. Vreeland was listed in the phone directory. Afterward, Canadian prosecutors claimed that information from the US government indicated that a person purporting to be Lieutenant D. Vreeland had earlier sent an e-mail to a telephone operator at the Pentagon, saying he would temporarily be occupying a Pentagon office and requesting that this be reflected in the listings. Could a fellow in a Toronto jail have scammed the Pentagon telephone system?
In March the Canadian criminal charges against Vreeland were dropped, and he was allowed to post bail. Explaining why charges were removed, Paul McDermott, a provincial prosecutor, says his office considered the pending extradition matter the priority. Vreeland’s extradition hearing is scheduled for September.
To believe Vreeland’s scribbles mean anything, one must believe his claim to be a veteran intelligence operative sent to Moscow on an improbable top-secret, high-tech mission (change design documents to neutralize an entire technology) during which he stumbled upon documents (which he has not revealed) showing that 9/11 was going to happen. To believe that, one must believe he is a victim of a massive disinformation campaign, involving his family, law enforcement officers and defense lawyers across the country, two state corrections departments, county clerk offices in ten or so counties, the Canadian justice system and various parts of the US government. And one must believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of detailed court, county, prison and state records have been forged. It is easier to believe that a well-versed con man got lucky with the Bastien death/murder, was able to arrange a stunt with the Pentagon switchboard and either wrote a sketchy note before September 11 that could be interpreted afterward as relevant or penned the note following the disaster and convinced prison guards he had written it previously. Michigan detective John Meiers, who’s been chasing Vreeland for two years, says, “The bottom line: Delmart Vreeland is a con man. He’s conned everyone he comes into contact with. That’s why he’s wanted…. He keeps going back into court for hearings because he doesn’t want to come back here. He knows he’s going to prison, and he’s fighting. In the interim, he’s coming up with a variety of stories.”
The Rest of It
The Vreeland case–despite the attention it has drawn–is not the centerpiece of all 9/11 conspiracy theories. There is much more: A CIA officer supposedly met with bin Laden in July 2001 in Dubai. Before September 11, parties unknown engaged in a frenzy of short-selling involving the stock of American Airlines, United Airlines and dozens of other companies affected by the attacks. The Pentagon was not actually hit by an airliner. Flight 93–the fourth plane–did not crash in Pennsylvania; it was shot down. The Bush Administration, in talks with the Taliban, warned that war was coming. And that’s not a complete run-down.
Some of the lingering questions or peculiar facts warrant more attention than others. There was a boost in short-selling. But does that suggest the US government ignored a clear warning? Or might the more obvious explanation be true–that people close to Osama bin Laden were tipped off and took advantage of that inside information? Ronald Blekicki, who publishes Microcap Analyst, an online investment publication, says most of the short-selling occurred overseas–and escaped notice in the United States. If that type of trading had happened in the US markets, he explains, it would have stirred rumors about the companies involved. “Everyone on the exchanges would have known about it,” he explains. “My best guess is that the people who profited were reasonably wealthy individuals in the inner circle of bin Laden and the Taliban.” What is curious, though, is that news of the investigations into the short-selling has taken a quick-fade. Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Chicago Board Options Exchange will say whether they are still investigating trading practices prior to September 11. And there has been no word from Congress or the Bush Administration on this topic. Suspicious minds, no doubt, can view the public absence of government interest as evidence of something amiss. In this instance, the lack of a credible official investigation creates much space for the disciples of conspiracy theories.
No airliner at the Pentagon? You can find websites devoted to that thesis. Another site, called www.flight93crash.com, offers a sober look at the anomalies that have led people to wonder if that last plane, the one in Pennsylvania, was blasted out of the sky.
The alleged CIA-bin Laden meeting in Dubai has attracted intense notice in alternative-9/11 circles. The story first appeared In Le Figaro, a French newspaper, on October 31, 2001, in an article by freelancer Alexandra Richard. Citing an unnamed “partner of the administration of the American Hospital in Dubai,” she maintained that bin Laden was treated at the hospital for ten days. Her story also asserted that “the local CIA agent…was seen taking the main elevator of the hospital to go to bin Laden’s hospital room” and “bragged to a few friends about having visited bin Laden,” but she provided no source for these details. The hospital categorically denies bin Laden was there. Even if a meeting occurred, that would not necessarily indicate the CIA was aware of bin Laden’s plot. Such news, though, would be a huge embarrassment and prompt many awkward questions. But the meeting’s existence–unattached to a single identifiable source–can only be regarded as iffy.
Two French authors, Jean-Charles Brisard, a former intelligence employee, and Guillaume Dasquie, a journalist, have written a book, Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth, in which they maintain that the 9/11 attacks were the “outcome” of “private and risky discussions” between the United States and the Taliban “concerning geostrategic oil interests.” As they see it, Washington, driven by fealty to Big Oil, threatened the Taliban with military action and replacement, as it was pursuing Osama bin Laden and seeking a regime in Afghanistan that would cooperate with oil firms. In response to Washington’s heavy-handed tactics, the two suggest, bin Laden and the Taliban decided to strike first. This double theory–it’s-all-about-oil and Washington provoked the attack–has resonated on anti-Bush websites. To prove their case, the French men attach sinister motives to a United Nations initiative to settle the political and military strife in Afghanistan. Citing a UN report, they depict this effort as “negotiations” between the Taliban and the United States, in which the Americans aimed to replace the Taliban with the former King. Yet a fair reading of the UN report shows that the endeavor–conducted by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan–was a multilateral attempt to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan that involved discussions with the various sides in that country. It was not geared toward reinstalling ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah.
Brisard and Dasquie’s most dramatic charge is that former Pakistani foreign minister Niaz Naik, who attended one of a series of international conferences held by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, says that at the July 2001 meeting a “US official” threatened the Taliban, “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” (This portion of the book is similar to an earlier article in the British Guardian, in which Naik additionally noted that the Pakistani government relayed Naik’s impression of this US threat to the Taliban.) The Taliban, though, were not present at the session, which was held in Berlin, and the three American representatives there were former US officials. One of the reps, Tom Simons, a past US Ambassador to Pakistan who spent thirty-five years in the foreign service, recalls no such threat but acknowledges that the Americans did note that if Washington determined bin Laden was behind the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, the Afghans obviously could expect the Bush Administration to strike bin Laden. That would hardly have been a remark to cause bin Laden to arrange quickly a pre-emptive assault. Simons–who says he was not interviewed by the French authors–believes Naik misheard the Americans on this point. Whether Naik did or not, the French authors, at best, suggest a line of inquiry rather than come close to validating their contention. (Brisard and Dasquie also argue–without offering an abundance of evidence–that the United States, by design, did not vigorously pursue bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network because doing so clashed with other diplomatic priorities, most notably, cozying up to the oil autocrats of Saudi Arabia.)
Official accounts ought not to be absorbed without scrutiny. Clandestine agendas and unacknowledged geostrategic factors–such as oil–may well shape George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. And there are questions that have gone unaswered. For example, on September 12, 2001, a brief story in Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Moscow had warned Washington of the 9/11 attacks weeks earlier. Was such a warning actually transmitted? If so, who issued the warning and who received it? But questions are not equivalent to proof. As of now, there is not confirmable evidence to argue that the conventional take on September 11–bin Laden surprise-attacked America as part of a jihad, and a caught-off-guard United States struck back–is actually a cover story.
Without conspiracy theories, there is much to wonder about September 11. The CIA and the FBI had indications, if not specific clues, that something was coming and did not piece them together. Government agencies tasked to protect the United States failed. US air defenses performed extraordinarily poorly–even though there had been signs for at least five years that Al Qaeda was considering a 9/11-type scheme. Afterward, neither the Bush Administration nor Congress rushed to investigate. In fact, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle maintains that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both told him in January they opposed any Congressional investigation of 9/11. (The White House denies this.) Congress finally greenlighted an inquiry, but the investigation bogged down as the Congressional investigators complained that the CIA and the Justice Department were impeding their efforts.
One problem with conspiracy theorizing is that it can distract from the true and (sometimes mundane) misdeeds and mistakes of government. But when the government is reluctant to probe its own errors, it opens the door wider for those who would turn anomalies into theories or spin curious fact–or speculation–into outlandish explanation. Not that all who do so need much encouragement. September 11 was so traumatic, so large, that there will always be people who look to color it–or exploit it–by adding more drama and intrigue, who seek to discern hidden meanings, who desire to make more sense of the awful act. And there will be people who want to believe them.
DAVID CORN is the Washington, DC, editor of The Nation magazine and a well-known investigative correspondent.