This being the anniversary of 9/11, I thought it might be interesting to dig out this article I wrote on assignment for Rolling Stone in late May of 2002 that they decided to kill. I am hosting a debate this weekend on "9/11 conspiracy theory" for The RU Sirius Show. Next week, I'll post my reflections on that discussion.
We're in the very brain stem of 9/11 "Bush Knew" conspiracy theory. It's the day that the Bushies are confessing to ignored or mishandled intelligence warnings, but here at the From The Wilderness (FTW) office, they're not catching the breaking developments on CNN Headline News. They're busy checking to see if they're under microwave bombardment. Two days ago, a pair of FTW staffers went home sick with nausea, and the boss, Mike Ruppert, felt a tightening around his head "like a vice grip." "Andrea and John are feeling it again!" Michael Leon, a 39-year-old employee, says as he waves around a geiger counter. Ruppert "America's most popular 9/11 Bush conspiracy spokesman" holds his hands to the side of his head. "I think I'm feeling it too." But the geiger counter, which Leon claims showed extremely high gamma ray readings during the previous incident, now reads normal. The paradox is left unexplained and everyone turns back to his or her work.
The FTW office is a humble two room converted apartment in a slightly rundown section of an upscale Los Angeles suburb. Here Michael C. Ruppert, a tall, paunchy ex-cop whose sunny, open-faced demeanor belies a conspiratorial caste of mind, and a five person staff, runs the popular FTW website and newsletter, and sells videotapes of Ruppert's popular lectures. Video orders are flying out the door at a rate of about 250 per week. They claim over a million individual visitors to their website over the past eight months. Russ Kick, who edits a line of books for DisInformation, the chronicler of conspiracy subcultures, says, "Ruppert has become the most well-known of the researchers questioning the official version of 9/11." He is, without a doubt, the go-to guy for conspiracy theory in the post-9/11 world.
After going public with his claims that "the Bush Administration was in possession of sufficient advance intelligence to have prevented the attacks, had it wished to do so" almost immediately after 9/11, this ex-narcotics officer found himself speaking to auditoriums packed with enthusiastic hemp-wearing lefties, paying as much as $25 for the pleasure of having their darkest suspicions confirmed. When he spoke before an overflow crowd at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Ruppert held his audience in thrall for three-and-a-half hours. The nerdy ex-cop paced the stage -- fussily fixing his large black glasses, joking, cajoling, and working up a sweat that would have done James Brown proud. He wove together a convincing narrative about how narcotics money props up the financial markets, which are largely run by former CIA agents; he pointed to overwhelming evidence of insider trading just prior to 9/11 involving only companies hurt by the events. He supplied motivation for the alleged crime by reading damning quotes from a 1997 book by imperial strategist Zbigniew Brzezinsk. It was one hell of a show, and the audience responded with a long and enthusiastic standing ovation.
The FTW website provides an opportunity to examine his evidence more closely. It's a mishmash. Tantalizing clues are sabotaged by giant leaping conclusions. It's obvious that he's onto something. It's just not entirely clear what. About 75% of the material presented on FTW is solid information, culled from valid sources and presented in a straightforward manner. His magnum opus about the alleged 9/11 conspiracy frequently references the New York Times, as well as the Wall Street Journal, and the House International Relations Committee. Ruppert does plenty of what conspiracy theorists do best. He captures those inexplicable bits of information that appear momentarily in the mainstream media, only to escape further attention or investigation. For example: "August 2001 - Russian President Vladimir Putin orders Russian intelligence to warn the U.S. government -- in the strongest possible terms; of imminent attacks on airports and government buildings. [Source: MS-NBC, September 15.]." A collection of these data points are then iterated throughout the conspiracy underground where, like a bad LSD trip, they accumulate ever-more-sinister implications, up until the point where the very gates of hell appear to be opening up.
Of course, a facile glance at today's political reality, shadowed by intensifying global conflicts, nuclear brinksmanship, and terrorists in search of smallpox weapons, suggests those hellgates may, in fact, soon be swinging wide. And say this for Ruppert -- readers of FTW knew the extent of intelligence warnings about terrorist attacks leading up to 9/11 months before most readers of the mainstream press. The night of Ari Fleischer's assertion that "The president did not -- not -- receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers," Ruppert posted evidence that made the claim difficult to believe. "Western intelligence services, including the CIA, learned after arrests in the Philippines that Al Qaeda operatives had planned to crash commercial airliners into the Twin Towers... The plan was called 'Operation Bojinka.' Details of the plot were disclosed publicly in 1997 in the New York trial of Ramsi Youssef for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing." The day after Ruppert posted this, Operation Bojinka was all over the mainstream press.
There are dozens of other examples where Ruppert appears to be accurate and way ahead of the curve. But like Fox Mulder, Ruppert's fatal flaw is that he wants to believe. "The day the attack happened, I went on the air with Joyce Reilly... I was saying that the only way this could happen is if the government wanted it to happen. And I said clearly that I was going from my gut. And any good policeman or detective will tell you that gut hunches are essential to doing good work."
In his rush to present conclusive proof of conspiracy, he makes some very poor choices. Dubious rumors are elevated to fact. For example, the widely circulated piece that appeared in Le Figaro in November, 2001 claiming that Osama bin Laden had been in a hospital in Dubai where he was visited by a CIA agent is presented as prime evidence of collusion. But the rumor has been vigorously denied, and the rest of the French media has found the evidence lacking.
Perhaps Ruppert should be more cautious. But how many people want to buy a video of some guy claiming that he's gathered circumstantial evidence indicating the Bush administration might have intentionally let the attacks happen? Conspiracy fans want a compelling story line with a satisfying conclusion. And really, besides supplying hours of fun and excitement for people who love puzzles and mystery stories, fringe conspiracy investigators perform a valuable function. Long before the timid mainstream press dares to even raise questions, they scatter their shots wildly. They may miss the target as often as they hit it, but they also presented evidence that deserved closer scrutiny. As the sense that the Bushies are hiding something about the 9/11 intelligence failures becoming increasingly pervasive, Ruppert's divinatory research is, in some sense, already vindicated.
Ruppert's personal narrative of his transformation into a self-styled enemy of the state is built on an outlandish conspiracy theory that reads like a John Le Carre spy thriller. An enthusiastic, highly intelligent young LA cop who had a sterling reputation with the force, he was working narcotics in 1975 when he fell in love with a beautiful young femme fatale named Theodora Nordica D'Orsay (nicknamed Teddy). They lived together for sixteen months. Ruppert claims he discovered that Teddy was involved in intelligence work, trading guns for drugs in cooperation with organized crime. His Byzantine narrative puts Teddy in cahoots with Mafia don Carlos Marcello and the American niece of the Shah of Iran. He claims he was robbed of evidence, shot at, and spied on. After Teddy left him and moved to New Orleans, Ruppert visited her and witnessed still more sordid scenes and suspicious behaviors. At one point, Teddy and an army Sergeant, who claimed he was delivering her an important secret communique, got lit on speed and weed and mocked the astounded, upright police officer to his face.
Teddy frequently confessed her involvement in intelligence operations involving guns and drugs to Ruppert, according to his story. But in a 1981 LA Herald Examiner column that Ruppert posts on his website, Teddy told reporter Randall Sulllivan that she was just telling Ruppert what he wanted to hear, and that some of her friends "had kind of done a number on Michael." Whether an operative, or just an adventurous party girl playing a mean-spirited prank, Teddy left the sincere, unworldly LAPD officer dazed and heartbroken.
Obsessed, Ruppert spent nine months investigating Teddy and her alleged interactions with drugs, guns and the mob. He became convinced that her intelligence assignment was the suppression of revolution in Iran. Attempts to bring this complicated conspiracy theory to the attention of higher-ups in the LAPD were met with disinterest. When he persisted, they sent him in for a psychiatric examination.
Ruppert's face turns a shade of red when he's upset. And defending himself and his sanity against the depredations he feels he received at the hands of the LAPD in the late 1970s still seems to excite him -- even more than his current conspiracy claims. "The doctor found me sane. He said I had no major weaknesses! That's in the LA Examiner article. ['The spy who loved me': An officer's battle with obsession, Randall Sullivan, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Oct. 11, 1981]. Then in 1979, I saw a story by a reporter somewhere in the back of the Times that confirmed everything I was saying. Marcello, the CIA, guns-for-drugs, the New Orleans connection -- it was all there."
Disillusioned, Ruppert quit his beloved LAPD. But he couldn't let go of his obsession with Teddy and her subterranean activities. "I wrote hundreds of pages of letters to lawyers between 1978 and 1979. They made sure I couldn't get a job. I was broke. I was depressed... drinking heavily. I was laying down drunk in the grass outside of this bar when a bullet grazed the grass at the side of my head."
When Ruppert wound up in court on a trivial charge, "the guys that I used to work with came in and laughed at me in the courtroom." Over two decades later, the hurt is still palpable. Ruppert felt bamboozled. His idealism had been crushed by the system he had trusted deeply. His hurt feelings, and his suspicions drove him into the conspiracy underground. Throughout the eighties and nineties, he relentlessly pursued official corruption, focusing largely on links between drugs and the intelligence community. In 1996 he had his first brush with fame when he confronted then CIA Director John Deutch in a nationally televised public meeting about allegations that the agency had created the crack epidemic. "I started by trying to solve the mystery of my life. My life was taken away from me. Not only did a woman who I loved more than I can comprehend betray me when I refused to go along with the CIA on drug issues -- she just left me twisted -- but also my police department had betrayed me. And those were the only things that meant anything to me in my whole life. So I started the same place anyone would start... you try to fix your own life. And it was like pulling on that tiny little worm in the can and you keep pulling out more worms and it keeps getting bigger... I never expected it to lead to this."
Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Ruppert is alleging that FTW has been under siege. He calls Mike Leon into his private office for confirmation. Leon, the longhaired resident computer expert, tells me that besides the microwave bombardment, there have been hack attacks and two burglaries. "One odd thing was they cleaned the locker. It was dusty, with cobwebs and all. Not a speck of dirt was left."
Subtract the water-cooler paranoia, and the prevailing vibe at FTW is quite normal. John Padilla, who attends to packaging and shipping, looks forward to a private showing of the new Star Wars. Andrea Shephard, who handles Mike's scheduling, rushes in to check on his availability for a cruise liner where he'll only have to give one lecture, lasting forty-five minutes. Ruppert lights up, looking forward to his first vacation in years.
Physical and digital attacks don't get Ruppert down. But a different kind of attack is driving him up a wall -- critics. They are the bane of all crusaders, and Mike has recently been hit hard from his left. In early March, Nation columnist David Corn singled out Ruppert in a general critique of conspiracy theories. About a week later, well-respected left media critic Norman Solomon chimed in, writing that “Ruppert excels at a selective vacuum-cleaner approach -- sucking in whatever supports his conclusions while excluding context and information that would undermine them... And Solomon didn't stop there. On March 7, he sent a letter to KPFA, one of the progressive Pacifica stations where Mike always received a friendly hearing. Solomon suggested that KPFA shouldn't offer "Ruppert's material as pledge premiums, nor [should he] be given de facto infomercial airtime to do his thing without having to face a real challenge."
It's Ruppert's embrace of the indelibly weird story of Delmart "Mike" Vreeland, a US citizen and career criminal who was jailed in Toronto, Canada on credit card fraud and other charges [he has since been released on bail awaiting extradition] that really stuck in both Corn and Solomon's craw. Vreeland, who claims he worked for US Naval Intelligence, says he discovered specific warnings about upcoming terror attacks in a sealed pouch that he was supposed to pass on to Canadian and Russian intelligence agents while in Toronto. According to Vreeland, the hand over was "compromised," so he opened the pouch, allowing it to spill its secrets. After his arrest, he tried to bring these documents to the attention of US and Canadian authorities.
Ignored, and hoping to prove his point later, Vreeland wrote a note on a piece of paper, sealed it, and got Canadian prison authorities to keep it. The handwritten jotting, presented on the FTW website, contains various words and sentence fragments. Some are illegible, at least in the web version. There are few clearly readable words, but you can read "world trade center," "white house," "Pentagon," "Bin Laden," and "let one happen stop the rest!" Other words include "water supplies," "Royal Bank Toronto," "Vladivostok/Cray," "Coo Agreement 96-97" and "2007 2009." The words airplane, hijack, September, and 2001 do not appear on the piece of paper.
The note is a Rorschach test. For Ruppert, it supplements Vreeland's other assertions that he tried to warn of an impending attack. For Norman Solomon, "To call it a 'warning note' about the events of Sept. 11 is preposterous."
Ruppert is a bit unhappy about all the focus on the Vreeland narrative. "These guys only want to talk about Vreeland!" he sputters. "They don't want to talk about all the intelligence warnings! They don't want to talk about the insider trading! Paaaah!" He calms down a bit. "I've done eight pieces on Vreeland. I can't let the guy take over my life."
On the other hand, Ruppert can't let this bit of evidence go. If the note is, indeed, authentic, it's the Rosetta stone, the smoking gun. At the very least, it's an article of faith. At best it's a piece of incontrovertible evidence, and in the gray zone between the two is where Ruppert seems to thrive.
Delmart Vreeland, meanwhile, was even more righteously pissed at Solomon's analysis than Ruppert. Angry email letters were sent. He challenged Solomon to a debate and the invitation was accepted.
In fact, tonight's the night. Iron Mike Vreeland is battling Stormin' Norman Solomon in a live broadcast on KPFA in Berkeley, from 7 - 8 PM. At around 6:45, Ruppert punches in the URL for the appropriate website. "Do you ever have any problems with streaming audio?" I ask.
As the show is about to start, the KPFA broadcast comes on, but then it cuts out. Ruppert stares at the screen with a barely contained fury. He takes a deep breath and utters a prayer for serenity. We sit and listen to whatever we can of the show, hearing small bursts followed by long interruptions. We hear Solomon say "an Alice in Wonderland kind of situation" and it cuts right out again. Then we hear the host welcoming Vreeland, who comes out swinging, calling Soloman "the most ignorant individual I've ever heard on the radio." Then the sound cuts out yet again.
Too soon, the hour is up. We've heard very little of the debate, but Ruppert's mood brightens as he starts fielding calls of victory congratulations. "I missed most of it," he tells a supporter over the phone. Moment later he tells the same person, "I advised him to tell the truth. That's what he did."