TWO BIRDS, ONE STONE: Increasingly, I’d say, people visiting me at The Independent seem unhinged. Phil Marshall, by contrast, appeared completely normal. Perhaps that should have been the tip-off. Marshall, a professional airline pilot with an easy laugh and the beguiling drawl of a New Orleans native, is a man on a mission. Two, actually. The first involves the beginning of the NFL football season and his beloved New Orleans Saints. The second concerns the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the 11th anniversary of which we just observed with much silent solemnity and a shot of Novocaine to the brain.

Angry Poodle

Like many lifelong Saints fans, Marshall is outraged that Saints über-coach Sean Payton was suspended an entire season when it was revealed several of his defensive players were running an office pool that paid big bonuses to players for knocking opponents out of the game. Marshall didn’t just sit there; he’s been renting planes and buzzing football stadiums, flying a large banner reading, “Free Sean Payton.” Payton should have been fined for “Bounty-Gate,” Marshall argued, not suspended. Even if the bounties violated league rules, he added, the hits themselves were legal. Seven officials, he insisted, were on the field at all times. If the Saints were dirty, they would have caught it. The real deal, Marshall said, is that 1,500 former football players are now suing the NFL, alleging the league withheld information that the game of football is dangerous to the well-being of their brains. Certainly, it hasn’t helped the league to have retired football superstars ​— ​in despair over the sudden onset of their dementia ​— ​shoot themselves in the heart with instructions to have their brain tissue analyzed for collision-induced degeneration. As Marshall sees it, the league needs a fall guy to demonstrate they take the issue seriously. To that end, Marshall said, Payton is the dog being taken out behind the barn and summarily executed. Except of course, the NFL is doing it in plain view.

Where Marshall has grown hoarse from answering all the questions reporters have asked about “Free Sean Payton,” he can’t get a nibble on his recently released book, The Big Bamboozle, detailing what he thinks really happened with 9/11. Like Payton, Marshall contends, Osama bin Laden is a manufactured fall guy, a fire-breathing cave-dweller who was utterly incapable of orchestrating the ornate and technically challenging attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Instead, Marshall contends, it was agents of the Saudi government who financed, trained, and babysat the 19 hijackers who commandeered the four jets. And all this, he says, was engineered in connivance with a cabal led by former vice president Dick Cheney so that the United States would have a pretext to wage war on Iraq ​— ​Saudi Arabia’s regional rival ​— ​and assert itself as the world’s sole superpower. Sorry, I just can’t go there. I may be agnostic on the subject of God, but I’m an avowed atheist when it comes to conspiracy. What Marshall ascribes to malevolent intent, I tend to regard as wholesale criminal incompetence fueled by delusional arrogance. In either case, disturbing new revelations have just come to light buttressing both schools of thought.

Investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald ​— ​an editor with Vanity Fair ​— ​is releasing his new book detailing the extent to which the Bush Administration was repeatedly warned that an Al Qaeda attack within the United States was imminent in the months prior to 9/11. Sifting through recently declassified White House documents, Eichenwald discovered that the warnings did not start with the now-infamous August 6 smoking-gun memo, but actually began as early as May 1, 2001. So frustrated were members of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center with the Bush Administration’s refusal to act that as of July 9, they were joking about seeking transfers so they couldn’t be blamed when the attack occurred. The White House, Eichenwald writes, was convinced the real threat was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and didn’t take these warnings seriously.

While Marshall’s conspiracy talk makes me want to call the woo-woo police, it’s worth noting that former U.S. senator ​— ​and former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee ​— ​Bob Graham is calling on the government to release long-censored documents detailing the extent of Saudi governmental support ​— ​flight training and cash ​— ​for many of the 9/11 hijackers. Last year, Graham and former senator Bob Kerrey submitted sworn affidavits on behalf of 9/11 victims suing the Saudi government, stating his joint committee investigating 9/11 compiled 28 pages of documents establishing a record of Saudi support. Those documents, detailing connections between Saudi agents living in San Diego and some of the hijackers, have been barred from public release. But only in the past few weeks did Graham learn that 9/11 leader Mohamed Atta had been visiting a wealthy Saudi couple living in Sarasota, Florida. Although federal authorities knew the couple split the country suddenly and mysteriously ​— ​leaving their safe open, cars in the driveway, and refrigerator full ​— ​two weeks before the attack, Graham has complained he and his committee were never notified. Last I checked, Graham is not a nut. Nor is he the only high-ranking congressional figure who investigated 9/11 to charge he’d been stonewalled. Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton spearheaded the bipartisan 9/11 Commission investigation and have complained the Bush Administration and the CIA fought their requests for information every step of the way. They were set up for failure from the start, they charged, noting they were given only $3 million to ferret out the truth compared to the $40 million budgeted to investigate the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster.

Does any of this matter? The 9/11 attack killed 2,751 people; another 1,000 have since died from complications. The attack was used to justify two wars that combined have claimed another 6,500 American lives and left another 50,000 maimed or injured. And all this has cost the taxpayers about $4 trillion. So you tell me. With all these unanswered questions, maybe a moment of silence is the best we could muster. Likewise, maybe there’s good reason for the people visiting my office to seem unhinged. They ought to be.


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