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Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Internet

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page B01

Working from his home office in a small town in England, Darren Williams spent four weeks this summer making a short but startling video that raises novel questions about the 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

The video, "9/11: Pentagon Strike," suggests that it was not American Airlines Flight 77 that slammed into the Pentagon, but a missile or a small plane.

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With rock music as a backdrop, the video offers flashes of photographs taken shortly after impact, interspersed with witness accounts. The pictures seem incompatible with damage caused by a jumbo jet, and no one mentions seeing one. Red arrows point to unbroken windows in the burning building. Firefighters stand outside a perfectly round hole in a Pentagon wall where the Boeing 757 punched through; it is less than 20 feet in diameter.

Propelled by word of mouth, Internet search engines and e-mail, the video has been downloaded by millions of people around the world.

American history is rife with conspiracy theories. Extremists have fed rumors of secret plots by Masons, bankers, Catholics and Communists. But now urban legends have become cyberlegends, and suspicions speed their way globally not over months and weeks but within days and hours on the Web.

"The dissemination is almost immediate," said Doug Thomas, a University of Southern California communications professor who teaches classes on technology and subgroups. "It's not just one Web site saying, 'Hey, look at this.' It's 10,000 people sending e-mails to 10 friends, and then they send it on."

The Pentagon video could be a case study. Williams created a Web site for the video, www.pentagonstrike.co.uk. Then he e-mailed a copy to Laura Knight-Jadczyk, an American author living in France whose books include one on alien abduction. Williams, 31, a systems analyst, belongs to an online group hosted by Knight-Jadczyk that blends discussions of science, politics and the paranormal.

On Aug. 23, Knight-Jadczyk posted a link to the video on the group's Web site, www.Cassiopaea.org. Within 36 hours, Williams's site collapsed under the crush of tens of thousands of visitors. But there were others to fill the void.

In Texas, a former casino worker who downloaded the video began drawing almost 700,000 visitors a day to his libertarian site. In Louisiana, a young Navy specialist put the video on his personal Web page, usually visited by a few friends and relatives; suddenly, the site was inundated by more than 20,000 hits. In Alberta, traffic to a cabdriver's site shot up more than sixfold after he supplied a link to the video.

Across thousands of sites, demand for the video was so great that some webmasters solicited donations to pay for the extra bandwidth.

"Pentagon Strike" is just the latest and flashiest example of a growing number of Web sites, books and videos contending that something other than a commercial airliner hit the Pentagon.

Most make their case through the selective use of photographs and eyewitness accounts reported during the confusion of the first hours after the attack. They say they don't know what really happened to American Airlines Flight 77 and don't offer other explanations. The doubters say they are just asking questions that have not been answered satisfactorily.

The ready and growing audience for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been particularly galling to those who worked on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the bipartisan panel known as the 9/11 commission.

"We discussed the theories," said Philip D. Zelikow, the commission's executive director. "When we wrote the report, we were also careful not to answer all the theories. It's like playing Whack-A-Mole. You're never going to whack them all. They satisfy a deep need in the people who create them. What we tried to do instead was to affirmatively tell what was true and tell it adding a lot of critical details that we knew would help dispel concerns."


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