Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Occam's Razor and No Phone Calls, Either

An obvious reason to question the scenario laid out in Loose Change is that it contradicts the accounts of people who made calls from the hijacked airplanes. But our clever fiction writer has an easy answer. It was impossible for cell phones in 2001 to contact the ground from an airplane. The calls were actually faked by voice duplication technology.

Not only is there considerable evidence that such cell phone calls were possible, many of the calls were made from Airfones (phone provided by the airline, attached to seats), not cell phones. If Airfones can't contact the ground from in flight, what is the point in having them? Then there is the question of whether voice duplication technolgy is capable of faking extended narratives or active conversations.

But even without getting into a technical discussion, Occam can see obvious flaws in the claim that the calls were faked. Where would the conspirators get recordings of the callers voices? How would they know the telephone numbers of their family members? How would they know the personal details some of the callers discussed? Avery does not even address any of these questions in Loose Change. A.K. Dewdney, the apparent inventor of the no-calls theory, does address the question - and makes himself look ridiculous with his answer:


The operatives first gathered personal data on regulars of the flight through a combination of data mining and human engineering. Then they leveraged that information by repeatedly taking the flight and engaging flight regulars in conversation to get personal details and record voice samples for study and practice. On the big day, the operatives worked in a single "war room" with a big screen to keep them on the same page.

Occam could go to town on this one! And even if the conspirators did somehow get voice recordings and personal information on flight "regulars" (presumably meaning flight attendants and passengers who routinely commuted on the same flight), what about passengers who were not "regulars"? I know of no evidence whether any of the passengers who made calls were regular commuters on any particular flight. And at least two not only were not regulars, but had made last-minute changes in plans. Barbara Olson had originally been booked on a flight the day before but delayed by one day so she would be with her husband on his birthday. Conspiracy theorists may distrust Barbara Olson, but surely they have no suspicion of Lauren Grandcolas. Grandcolas was originally scheduled to fly later the same day and moved her flight up at the last minute. (She was also not a regular commuter, but was going home from her grandmother's funeral). Some telephone calls also included personal details the conspirators were unlikely to uncover either by datamining or by casual conversation. Passenger Linda Gronlund gave the location of her will and the combination to the safe!

Avery latches onto a handful of mistakes and oddities to discredit the calls. But many people make mistakes or say strange things, particularly when under extreme stress. In fact, the timing and content of the calls matches very well with external evidence about the hijackings.

On American 11 (the first flight to hit the WTC), flight attendant Betty Ong called an American Airlines office in North Carolina five minutes after the flight stopped responding to air traffic commands. She reported stabbing and said that the attackers were in the cockpit and they could not contact the cockpit. She had not personally seen the attack and was unclear on some of the details, which is consistent with her working in the rear of the plane. She reported the plane was flying erratically about the time it made a sharp turn. She lost contact about two minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower. Flight attendant Amy Sweeney called American Airlines in Boston a few minutes later and gave seat numbers of the hijackers, which permitted the airline to identify them. She also reported that the passengers in coach did not realize the plane had been hijacked and thought there was a medical emergency in first class. This is consistent with accounts by the air traffic controller that the hijackers kept broadcast announcements intended for passengers over the air traffic control channel instead. In the last two minutes before impact, Sweeney reported they were in rapid descent, flying much too low, and she saw water and buildings. Then the call cut off.

On United 175 (the second plane to hit the WTC), flight attendant Robert Fangman called United Airlines in San Francisco and passenger Peter Hanson called his father in Connecticut, both five minutes after the plane first began acting strangely. Both gave essentially the same account that a flight attendant had been stabbed and the hijackers were flying the plane. Calls from both Hanson and passenger Brian Sweeney broke off just before the second plane struck the South tower. Indeed recipients of both calls turned on their television sets when the calls broke off and saw the plane hit the tower.

Communications with American 77 (the flight that hit the Pentagon) were sketchier. Flight attendant Renee May called her mother in Las Vegas at 9:12, about 18 minutes after the flight deviated from its course. Barbara Olson called her husband the Solicitor General somewhat later, although it is not clear when. No calls were in progress when the plane hit the Pentagon. Perhaps the much-heralded 330 degree turn the plane took before its final dive threw the passengers too much off-balance to make any last-minute calls.

As for United 93, the basic facts are too well-known to need repeating. Numerous called to unrelated people in different places reported that the passengers were planning to retake the plane. The two final calls from the flight both appear to have been placed at 9:58 and to have cut off when the plane crashed. Several calls had sound of men planning the counter-attack or reciting the 23rd Psalm in the background. There is some uncertainty when the first call after the hijacking was made. Air traffic controllers heard the takeover of the cockpit at 9:28 a.m. Passenger Tom Burnett's wife is adament that she received four calls from him, the first at 9:27. Accounts from the Zacarias Moussaoui trial lists only three calls, the first at 9:30. The Pittsburg Post-Gazett, almost certainly erroneously, gives the time as 9:20.

If any call from Tom Burnett reported a hijacking at 9:20, eight minutes before the takeover, that would be a serious anomaly. His wife's report that the call was at 9:27 could mean that Burnett, a first class passenger, saw the disturbance as the hijackers broke into the cockpit before the air traffic controllers overheard the takeover within the cockpit. And a first call at 9:30 presents no problems at all. No other timing anomalies are even suggested. On three of the four flights, calls began within a few minutes of the takeover and broke off just before impact. Calls from each plane report essentially the same events (although there were some differences in MO between the planes). Flight 11 accounts of what the plane was doing match what the radar indicated. Two calls from Flight 175 cut off so soon before impact that the recipients turned on their TV's and immediately was the South Tower being hit. Calls from Flight 93 not only agreed that the passengers were planning to resist, but reported the revolt beginning at about the same time. The final two call ended with the plane crashing. And all these calls were received in completely different places, by people who had never heard of each other.

Perhaps the conspirators not only had information on the people whose calls they were faking, but were also tracing the planes (excuse me, decoys) on radar to match their narrative to what the blip was doing. But it seems almost incomprehensible that they could coordinate so many calls without making a single mistake. A much simpler explanation is that the calls began with the hijacking and ended with the crash, matched each other and the radar blip and were perfectly coordinated because they were real calls, describing real events.

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