By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
The split-second image of the hijacked airplane slamming into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, filled computer screens around the nation yesterday as the Defense Department for the first time officially released two videos of the terrorist attack.
Unlike the powerful images of the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York -- played again and again on television -- the specter of American Airlines Flight 77 is fleeting.
In one of the videos, shot from a security camera near the Pentagon parking lot, a police car can be seen passing by; then the plane shoots across the screen from the right, a silver speck low to the ground. Far more clear are the orange fireball and thick, black smoke that rises from the damaged structure immediately afterward. Even those images are not completely new.
A portion of the videos was leaked to television networks and repeatedly aired several years ago, and both were played at the recent death penalty trial of al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
Yet yesterday's official unveiling aroused such interest that the videos crashed the Web site of Judicial Watch, the Washington-based public interest group that obtained them from the Pentagon, and slowed the Pentagon's own site, officials said.
Experts on national security and some relatives of Pentagon victims said they welcomed the videos' release and that the images could help remind the public both of the terror of that day and the risk of another attack.
"I think this came out at the right time,'' said Abraham Scott, whose wife, Janice Marie Scott, died at the Pentagon. "The Moussaoui trial brought to the surface the tremendous tragedy that occurred on the morning of Sept. 11, and I think the American public is becoming complacent about what terrorists can do to us.''
Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said the videos are "an important reminder for the American people of the continuing need to keep our guard up.''
The Los Angeles-bound American Airlines plane, which took off from Washington Dulles International Airport, crashed into the Pentagon and killed 184 people shortly after two other hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center. A fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers fought to retake it from the hijackers.
Judicial Watch first sought the videos of the Pentagon strike in a request under the Freedom of Information Act in December 2004 and then in a lawsuit filed this year. The Defense Department initially refused to release the tapes at the request of the Justice Department because they were being used in the government's case against Moussaoui.
The videos were shown at Moussaoui's trial on a day in which prosecutors focused on the horror of the Pentagon attack.
After Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison this month, the government decided the videos could be released, said Cheryl Irwin, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "This is the result of a Freedom of Information request from Judicial Watch,'' she said.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said the group sought the videos to rebut conspiracy theories, which have circulated widely on the Internet, that the Pentagon was hit by a missile or a small plane.
"We sought to put these conspiracy theories to rest, and one of the reasons they were getting traction was because people knew this video was not being released,'' Fitton said. "My view is that justice is not done when you have conspiracy theories that these victims were murdered by our government and were never on a plane. Let's get the historical record complete.''
David Yancey, whose wife, Vickey, died on Flight 77, said the videos did not show enough detail to end the talk of a conspiracy. "I don't hold those viewpoints, but I really don't see how these tapes are going to put anything to rest,'' he said. "In my view, it was my late wife's plane that hit the Pentagon.''