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United 93 was one of the first major films on the 9/11 attacks, and was praised for its in-depth research and docudrama realism.  However, underneath the engrossing cinéma vérité style is a story of the US air defences that morning based almost entirely on the 9/11 Commission.  This week we examine United 93 in the context of (1) the Pentagon’s ever-changing version of events about their failure to intercept or prevent the 9/11 attacks (2) producer Michael Bronner’s attempts to debunk suspicions and conspiracy theories about the attacks and (3) the DOD’s involvement in the production of the film.


9/11 was the most photographed event of all time but it took several years before Hollywood put its own unique spin on things. 2006 saw the release of two films – Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which avoids all questions and controversies and tells a heart-warming flag-saluting true story about New York firefighters who get trapped in the rubble – and Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which avoids all questions and controversies and tells a heart-warming flag-saluting untrue story about the fourth plane, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I say untrue because though we don’t know what happened to United 93, there are elements to the overall story told in the film that are fundamentally untrue. United 93 does not just portray the flight itself, the hijacking by bandana-wearing Arab terrorists and the fightback by the passengers leading to the plane crashing into the ground, but much more. It portrays the offices of the FAA and NORAD as they flap around trying to make sense of what’s happening and how to respond. It is these elements of the story, not the tale of what happened on board flight 93 itself, that is our focus today.

A very brief summary of 9/11

Just so we’re all on the same page here, because the September 11th attacks were some time ago and I am not as fresh on the topic as I once was so I am sure some of you are not either: 9/11 was the largest terrorist attack in history, killing nearly 3000 people of dozens of different nationalities in simultaneous assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.

Hijacked planes were crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., the South tower at 9:03, the Pentagon at 9:38 and flight 93 crashed at 10:03. The South tower came crashing to the ground in a billion pieces at 9:59 and the North tower followed at 10:28. In a little under two hours – the length of a blockbuster movie – the political landscape in the US and thus across the world suffered a major quake and emerged looking quite different.

Flight 93 has been the subject of a lot of speculation. Starting on the day itself, as reports came in that a fourth plane had crashed, commentators suggested that someone had made the terrible decision to shoot it down. I remember hearing this suggestion on the day and in the days after, and the odd comment about why the earlier planes were not intercepted by the US military. Then the subject, like building 7 and so many other aspects of 9/11, was dropped by the mainstream news and for the most part never returned to again.

Like quite a lot of people, I continued to wonder about this but it wasn’t until a few years later that I found myself using google video to watch dozens of documentaries and presentations about all different aspects of 9/11. For a while there I got deeply into the topic, sometimes believing all kinds of wild and crazy stuff before reconsidering and changing my mind. These days I’m extremely sceptical of what is left of the 9/11 movement, because it’s devolved into a typically insular Western crap that blames either Israel or Saudi Arabia. The fixation on the 28 pages that I’m sure you’ve all heard of is just ludicrous. Those 28 pages won’t answer any of the important questions, their release (if it ever happens) will be nothing more than a ritual to put the topic to bed after one last round of controversy.

As I learned with the 7/7 London bombings, if you want to understand anything about these events then focusing on the day itself will just get you bogged down in conflicting and contradictory media reports. Any serious investigation looks at what came before and after. That said, the one dimension to the events of the day of 9/11 itself that I do think has proven productive and meaningful is this question of the air defences.

This is as important as the so-called ‘intelligence failures’ because these are the institutions charged with preventing this sort of thing, whoever is responsible. Whether it is overseas terrorists, rival states or internal threats they claim that responsibility for themselves so regardless of who we peg as the ultimate culprits behind 9/11 the same question applies.

After all, we are told that the US has the greatest air force on the planet, the most advanced technology, the best spy satellites, the best radar, the fastest planes, the best pilots. So why were they unable to stop any of the four planes? You might be forgiving and say the first one or two could have just been ordinary hijackings as far as they knew at the time and so they maybe didn’t have time to respond. But after the South tower was hit it was another 35 minutes before a plane struck the Pentagon. And the Pentagon is some of the most protected airspace in the world, so how was this possible?

United 93‘s answer

The answer offered by United 93 is simple confusion. The FAA, the civilian administration responsible for US airspace, and NORAD, the military responsible for protecting US airspace, are portrayed in a state of calm but clear confusion. It wasn’t panic or incompetence or irresponsibility, they were simply caught unawares and did not understand what they were dealing with. Which conveniently exonerates everyone involved, just like every official investigation into 9/11 has done.

This is not surprising, because the film-makers used the 9/11 Commission Report as a principal source and produced United 93 with the close co-operation of the DOD. However, director Paul Greengrass’s attitude towards ‘9/11 conspiracy theories’ is more complex than the film might have you believe. In a 2006 Guardian article written by BBC film reviewer Mark Kermode, he writes that he had recently been sent a copy of Loose Change, the genre-defining 9/11 truth documentary.

The film argued that the World Trade Centre was blown up from inside, that the Pentagon was struck by a cruise missile and that United Airlines Flight 93, in which terrorists were officially reported to have been overpowered by passengers, did not crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but landed safely in Ohio.

This all sounded like baloney to me. But just to be sure, I contacted respected British film-maker Paul Greengrass, who’s putting the finishing touches on his thoroughly researched, fact-based docudrama, United 93. Greengrass’s film made headlines last week when trailers were reportedly pulled from New York cinemas. But controversy surrounding the movie was first sparked by conspiracy theorists who insist that flight 93 was actually shot down by the US air force and who dismiss the ‘official version’ of events as a lie. ‘9/11 has replaced the Kennedy assassination as the epicentre of this great upsurge of conspiracy theories,’ concedes Greengrass, ‘and flight 93 is right at the heart of it. Do I believe those conspiracies? No. The stuff about the plane being shot down is simply not true. But you have to ask why a document as exhaustive and accountable as the 9/11 Commission report has failed to dispel these myths.’

The fact that Kermode approached a film-maker to ‘be sure’ about this speaks volumes for his limited intellectual faculties. Kermode is an excellent film reviewer and I used to listen to his show with Simon Mayo regularly, but when it comes to this stuff he is out of his depth.

The 9/11 Commission

However, Greengrass asks an important question – why did the 9/11 Commission report fail to dispel even the idea that flight 93 was shot down, which is perhaps the mildest of all 9/11 alternative theories? One of the reasons is that the 9/11 Commission was one of the worst investigations in human history. Even the co-chairs of the report, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, wrote in their book Without Precedent that the Commission was ‘set up to fail’. That is their phrase, and they were in a position to know.

The best critical account of the 9/11 Commission and its problems is Philip Shenon’s The Commission. Shenon has a pretty ordinary, orthodox view of 9/11 but his book is outstanding and at times extremely disturbing. The best critique of the Commission’s report is in David Ray Griffin’s various books, most prominently The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions. If you want to know more about all that without getting into crazy nonsense and random accusations then those two books are a great place to start.

If you don’t like reading or don’t have the time or money, I can also recommend the various presentations Griffin has given over the years. He is essentially retired now, he’s quite advanced in years but videos of his lectures are still widely available. As an academic philosopher he is no expert in military history or terrorism but he does know how to recognise the differences between claims and arguments and assess their internal contradictions and so on. This is the approach he takes to 9/11 and he has consistently argued that it was an ‘inside job’ for over a decade at this point.

Getting back to the question of the air defences on the morning of 9/11, Griffin points out that we’ve been told three completely contradictory stories. In the days after 9/11 the military said that they hadn’t sent up any fighters to intercept the hijacked planes until after the Pentagon was struck. Once a few journalists started asking questions about this, a week after 9/11 NORAD issued a timeline of events completely contradicting the first version. They said that they had scrambled fighters at 8:52 and at 9:30, so both sets went up before the Pentagon was hit.

This remained the official version for three years until the 9/11 Commission was formed. This time the Pentagon brought a whole new timeline and version of events that essentially blamed the whole thing on the FAA not telling them about the hijacked planes. The military claimed that they were not told about the second plane until it hit the South tower, and were not told about United 93 until after it had crashed. Though for some reason Cheney was told about it just before it crashed. They also claimed that neither of the two sets of jets that were scrambled were sent to intercept any of the planes. For more on this we’re going to look at a section from a presentation by David Ray Griffin called 9/11 The Myth and the Reality:

(Clip approx 34:25 – 42:30)

If you would like to know more about the ridiculous story that the Pentagon told the 9/11 Commission, including how they were so confused that they were trying to intercept a plane that didn’t exist then I do recommend Griffin’s ‘Flights of Fancy’ lecture and his books. However, one point that needs to be made is that the 9/11 Commission knew that the military were lying to them. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

According to Kean and Hamilton’s book Without Precedent they were so convinced of the military’s deceit that they considered referring the issue to the Department of Justice, that this was criminal deceit. In the end they didn’t make any such referral for the obvious reason that if you want to get on in politics then you don’t fuck with the Pentagon. But the fact that they took the Pentagon’s fictional third version of events and published it in their report, knowing or at least believing it wasn’t true, shows that the report is a joke.

United 93

One of the producers and the lead researcher on United 93 was Michael Bronner, a man who has only 5 producer credits, three of which are United 93, Green Zone and Captain Phillips. Alongside producing the film he also wrote an extensive article for Vanity Fair on the NORAD tapes – recordings of communications between different branches and sectors of the US air defences from the day of 9/11. This is the first time that the full tapes had been made available to anyone outside of the government and Bronner used them to try to debunk conspiracy theories, especially the notions that flight 93 had been shot down or that the military were covering up anything.

The article notes:

Last September, as part of my research for the film United 93, on which I was an associate producer, I requested copies from the Pentagon. I was played snippets, but told my chances of hearing the full recordings were nonexistent. So it was a surprise, to say the least, when a military public-affairs officer e-mailed me, a full seven months later, saying she’d been cleared, finally, to provide them.

How very convenient. So Bronner set about producing a lengthy article reconstructing a timeline of events based on the tapes. As soon as it came out, David Ray Griffin set about producing a lengthy rebuttal, which you can read online and which then became the basis for one of the chapters in his book Debunking 9/11 Debunking. Griffin points out that the new version based on the NORAD tapes contradicts the previous timeline provided by NORAD a week after 9/11.

The tapes-based version also contradicts testimony to the 9/11 Commission from Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of NORAD’s Continental Region, and from his close colleague Colonel Alan Scott. Both of them testified that NEADS – the North Eastern Air Defense Sector of NORAD – was tracking United 93 and were in a position to shoot it down. The tapes completely contradict this, and consequently so did the 9/11 Commission and Bronner’s article for Vanity Fair. The new version does say that Cheney gave an order to shoot down flight 93, but that he gave it minutes after the plane had crashed.

The Pentagon’s Entertainment Liaison Offices and United 93

If you watch the film, none of this is apparent. Instead we get a fast-paced, emotionally taut thriller that appears in many ways to be very realistic. However, Pentagon documents show how this was a very unusual production that was assisted closely by technical advisors arranged by the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office.

An entry in the DOD database on assistance to the film says:

Approved a very modest amount of assistance, primarily in the form of actual Air Force air defense officers and enlisted personnel (several who had been on duty in the Rome, NY, Air Defense Center on 9/11) on the set for a week or so in London where the North American air defense sector had been skillfully recreated. Earlier plans to re-enact air defense fighters scrambling had been approved but the filmmakers decided these weren’t necessary. This picture is unique in having no actual script, only a treatment, as the director wanted to create a cinéma vérité style with “real people” and actors improvising on the set. This led to some awkwardness the first day of filming, but gradually things worked out, as the actors basically started memorizing their lines that worked technically and dramatically.

So there was no script, no formal attempt to reconstruct what had happened other than copying the loose narrative provided by the 9/11 Commission. As such, the DOD never vetted or reviewed the script, only the treatment, and their officers were present for the entirety of the semi-improvised recreation of those working in the Air Defense Centers that morning. We can only assume that they had a considerable influence on the depiction of the military within the film, as they were a constant source of information throughout the filming of these scenes.

Reports from the Air Force’s Entertainment Liaison Office show that it was Michael Bronner who first approached the DOD. He sent them the treatment in October 2005, and before even reviewing it they provided Bronner with radar data on flight 93. Within a week Phil Strub had reviewed the treatment and was pushing for discussions on official support for the movie, and the reports note how a UK casting company was finding extras from RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, two US air bases in the UK.

Unlike more recent releases, the documents do not redact the names of the project officers who worked on the film, or Strub’s name. They hosted a teleconference between various sections of the US military including NEADS and the National Guard bases that scrambled aircraft, and no one had any ‘showstoppers’ so approval was granted. Most tellingly the reports say:

All organizations appear to agree on importance of accuracy of military depiction and ensuring the director shows military within some context. Concern that viewers might misinterpret actions by controllers as “mistakes” when training, normal procedures, and “fog of war” might explain their actions.

This ‘concern’ has huge implications, given the lies that the Pentagon has told about the air defences on 9/11. In particular the notion of ‘fog of war’, given the ludicrous version of events that has the Air Force chasing a plane that didn’t exist while claiming no one told them about the planes that did exist. If you believe that then you really will believe anything.

The liaison office reports go on to describe the technical advisers from NEADS and the two project officers going to Pinewood studios for filming. While there they ran into Martin Campbell, the director of Casino Royale which was filming at Pinewood at the same time. One entry says:

During the visit we discussed our services and what the Air Force can bring to this major feature film. Mr. Campbell was receptive and we’re hoping to highlight a weapons system or Air Force mission in the next Bond film.

It doesn’t appear anything came of this discussion but it’s an interesting coincidence. On United 93 in the end they didn’t film any jets being scrambled from bases and just used stock footage provided by the DOD for those sequences. They also conducted interviews for a DVD extra, but the DVD version I have does not include this. Bronner continued to interview military officers even weeks after all the scenes of military personnel had been completed, I am not sure why but it may be connected to the Vanity Fair article.  Another entry says:

Viewed “rough cut” on 22 March at Universal Studios. Overall positive AF depiction, primarily of Northeast Air Defense Sector ops floor and Combat Air Patrol over Capitol building in moving closing of the movie.

This is particularly ironic, since when I watched the film that closing shot with the planes over the Capitol building just made me think ‘where the fuck have you been?’ (and I know others had the same reaction).  When the trailer started showing in cinemas the Air Force noted:

The first major film on 9/11 has been in the news this week after some who viewed the trailer in theaters complained that it was “too soon” for a 9/11 movie. Developed draft RTQ talking points for why AF and DoD supported the film.

When the film came out the reports say:

The first major film on 9/11 had a good opening week, drawing $11.5 million over the weekend and is the #2 movie in the nation. More importantly, it is getting good critical reviews.

What happened to United 93?

Ultimately, this is a well made film that could not have been made, at least not in this unusual semi-improvised way, without the assistance of the Pentagon. As such it is no surprise that they tell a version of events that is entirely in keeping with the official story, that it was all confusion and that the military have nothing to hide. The fact that one of the lead researcher who had never made a film before went on to write an article trying and failing to debunk any notion of a 9/11 military cover-up suggests this was in some way Pentagon-sanctioned propaganda.

Of course, none of this answers any of the questions about United Airlines flight 93. From everything I’ve read I think the military were tracking it and were in a position to shoot it down, and may even have shot it down. We know for certain that they’re lying about this, and that the producers of United 93 were either taken in or knowingly went along with those lies. As such, this film can be considered a witting or unwitting part of the cover-up.

We should also note that Greengrass went on to do a very similar thing with Captain Phillips and that the producers of Zero Dark Thirty ripped off their cinematic style from United 93. Argo is a little different because it is more of a period piece, but there again you have this emotionally quite neutral spectacle that seems real. As should now be abundantly clear, the story told in United 93 is anything but real.