WASHINGTON — The hearings last week on the Sept. 11 attacks produced a stream of revelations about the terrorist strikes and the government's failure to prevent them. But in addition to revealing details the public had not heard, the commission debunked others retold so many times they were widely assumed to be true.
Intelligence intercepts that foretold of the attacks with warnings such as "tomorrow is zero hour." The peculiar request of a Minnesota flight student who didn't want to learn how to take off or land. The hijackers' use of box cutters as weapons. And the planeloads of Saudis that were allowed to slip out of the country unchecked.
These are persistent pieces of Sept. 11 lore, serving as fodder for conspiracy theories and spreading with the help of everything from anonymous Internet postings to mentions in the mainstream media.
But in testimony and a series of interim reports, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has concluded that these claims and others that have cropped up over the last two years fall somewhere between minor embellishments and urban myth.
Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, said the panel didn't consider it part of its charter to run down every rumor related to the Sept. 11 attacks, but that the investigative staff had made a point of addressing some of the most common erroneous claims.
"I won't say it's part of our mission, but part of what we're trying to do is tell the definitive account of 9/11," Felzenberg said. "As you go along, you discover things in the public discourse that staff research has indicated may have been incomplete or in some cases incorrect. When we see one of the more glaring omissions or misstatements, we've taken the opportunity to correct it."
In some cases the commission has challenged assertions by high-level officials. In its first report, issued in January, the commission produced evidence that contradicted statements by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the hijackers had entered the country "easily and lawfully," doing nothing to arouse suspicion of authorities.
Since then, the panel has corrected or cast doubt on an array of other claims, some of which were of unclear origin.
In a report issued last week, for example, the commission devoted almost a full page to addressing allegations that Saudi nationals including relatives of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were allowed to leave the country on chartered jets in the immediate aftermath of the attack, while all other flights were still grounded.
In fact, six chartered flights carrying 142 Saudis did leave the country in the days after the attacks, the report said, and one plane had 26 passengers, "most of them relatives" of Bin Laden.
But the commission cleared the government of any wrongdoing, saying that all of the passengers were screened by the FBI and other agencies, and that none of the planes left before commercial airspace was reopened. The commission did not address reports in Vanity Fair magazine and other publications that Saudis were able to arrange flights within the United States before the ban was lifted so that they could gather at major airports for their overseas departure.
The panel did say that it had checked all the names on the flight manifests against current government watch lists, and that it had found no matches. "Nobody of interest to the FBI with regard to the 9/11 investigation was allowed to leave," the report said.
The commission also devoted a portion of its latest report to dissecting the case of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was detained a month before the attacks in Minnesota after he tried to enroll in an area flight school.
The report disclosed a number of new details on the case, making it clear that it was a botched opportunity to detect the Sept. 11 plot. Moussaoui probably was not intended to be one of the hijackers, but he had financial ties to some of them, and British intelligence knew that he had been to Al Qaeda training camps.
Moussaoui did have a peculiar request for his flight school instructors, but it was not the one that is most frequently attributed to him. "Contrary to popular belief, Moussaoui did not say he was not interested in learning how to take off or land," the report said. "Instead, he stood out because, with little knowledge of flying, he wanted to learn how to take off and land a Boeing 747."
The commission has taken on a number of other apparently erroneous accounts.
It's true that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications on Sept. 10 in which suspected Al Qaeda operatives said "tomorrow is zero hour" and referred to the beginning of "the match," another report said. However, the commission said it had received new information that suggested these were not references to the attacks in New York and Arlington, Va.. but to a military offensive in Afghanistan.