The Magazine

The Truthers' New Friends

The Russian government warms up to 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By CATHY YOUNG
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As the post-Georgia chill in U.S.-Russian relations con-tinues, the Russian govern-ment has repeatedly declared its readiness to resume a friendly partnership if the United States will reciprocate and abandon its Cold War rhetoric. Yet, at the same time, Moscow has encouraged an orgy of anti-American hysteria in the loyalist Russian media. On September 12, the America-bashing reached a new low: a prime-time special on national television peddling the notion that the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job by American warmongers.

The special, aired in a program called Closed Screening on the government-controlled Channel One and viewed by up to 30 million people, was built around the documentary Zero made by Italian journalist and European Parliament member Giulietto Chiesa. Ignored in most of Europe and panned by the Italian press, Zero is a hodgepodge of familiar "truth about 9/11" claims (the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives inside the buildings, the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not a plane) accompanied by ominous music and insights from such "experts" as Nobel Prize-winning literary clown Dario Fo.

Chiesa himself, a Soviet-era Italian Communist party apparatchik and Moscow correspondent for the Communist daily L'Unità--who seems to have smoothly transferred his loyalty from the USSR to the corrupt state- capitalist Russia of today--was on hand for the studio discussion. He bitterly lamented his inability to find distributors in Western Europe and the United States; thank heaven Russia still allows a forum for free speech.

Since these are not quite Soviet days, there was at least a semblance of debate. Several panelists, including a building expert and (amusingly) a retired KGB analyst, rejected the conspiracy theory. Vladimir Sukhoi, a former Channel One correspondent who was in Washington, D.C., on the day of the attacks and in New York a few days later, spoke movingly of the horrors he witnessed and said that he could not "betray" those memories by lending credence to Chiesa's thesis. Sukhoi also remarked that he had personally seen debris from Flight 77 at the Pentagon, though Chiesa's coauthor, French 9/11-conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, earnestly assured him that he had not. Sukhoi listened with the patient, bemused expression of someone forced to endure the ravings of a lunatic.

But the lunatics, for the most part, were running the asylum. The discussion was heavily dominated by several pro-conspiracy panelists who dismissed the "official story" of "19 Arabs directed by Osama bin Laden in a cave" as self-evidently absurd. (The repeated gibes about "19 Arabs" prompted a sarcastic query from one of the dissenters, Middle East expert Irina Zvyagelskaya: Would 25 or 50 have been more believable?) Chiesa, who is fluent in Russian, argued that the bin Laden videotapes aired on TV "obviously" featured several different bin Laden impersonators.

The rabidly anti-American TV commentator Mikhail Leontiev matter of factly suggested that American leaders regard the mass murder of their own people as a perfectly acceptable tool for achieving foreign policy objectives and trotted out the far-right canard that Franklin Roosevelt "set up Pearl Harbor." Pundit Vitaly Tretyakov and Russian Islamic Committee chairman Geidar Jemal disagreed on whether the 9/11 attacks were engineered by a shadowy cabal of warmongers acting without the knowledge of the White House (Tretyakov) or by Bush himself (Jemal).

Several speakers bemoaned "the dearth of information" and "manipulation" in the media--the Western media, of course, not Russian television with its blacklists of opposition figures and its airing of a video doctored to suggest that a Fox News anchor tried to silence an Ossetian girl with pro-Russian views. Indeed, Western coverage of the Georgia war was predictably cited as an example of rampant bias and disinformation--the media repeating the lie of Russian aggression just as they had colluded in the 9/11 cover-up.

The host, Russian journalist and filmmaker Alexander Gordon, exuded pious concern and angst. But his bias was evident from the start when he somewhat caustically referred to guests skeptical of the Chiesa-Meyssan theory as "those completely satisfied by the official American version." The skeptics' statements were ignored or treated with thinly disguised mockery; in the last half-hour, their voices were almost completely drowned out. When Gordon asked the live studio audience how many people believed the "official version" of 9/11, not one hand went up.