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Barbara Olson’s Alleged Call from AA 77:

A Correction About Onboard Phones

By David Ray Griffin 

05/07/07 "ICH" -- - In my recently released book, Debunking 9/11 Debunking,[1] I claimed that Boeing 757s made for American Airlines did not have seat-back phones or any other onboard telephones.

This claim, if true, would be very important, because one could use it, as I did, to argue that the alleged telephone call from Barbara Olson to her husband, US Solicitor General Ted Olson, could not have occurred. It might be thought, to be sure, that the call could have been made from her cell phone. Ted Olson did, in fact, make this claim at times. As I reported, however, the evidence indicates that cell phone calls from high-flying airliners would not have been possible in 2001, given the cell phone technology of the time. In any case, Ted Olson, after going back and forth between these two claims, finally settled on the claim that the calls were made on a seat-back phone. If Flight 77, being an AA Boeing 757, had no onboard phones, we would have to conclude that Olson’s claim could not be true. I myself drew that conclusion (while saying that this would leave open the question of whether Olson invented the story or was himself a victim, like the relatives of other passengers, of faked phone calls).  

My Error

I based my conclusion on conversations that Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan had with American Airlines in 2004 while they were co-authoring book. In this book, 9/11 Revealed, they said: “A call by us to American Airlines’ London Office produced a definitive statement from Laeti Hyver that [AA’s] 757s do not have Airfones. This was confirmed by an email from AA in the US.”[2]

Although this email correspondence was not printed in their book, or in Morgan’s later Flight 93 Revealed, in which it is also reported,[3] they allowed me to print it in Debunking 9/11 Debunking. In reply to their letter asking whether “757s [are] fitted with phones that passengers can use,” an AA spokesman wrote: “American Airlines 757s do not have onboard phones for passenger use.” To check on the possibility that Barbara Olson might have borrowed a phone intended for crew use, they asked, “[A]re there any onboard phones at all on AA 757s, i.e., that could be used either by passengers or cabin crew?” The response was: “AA 757s do not have any onboard phones, either for passenger or crew use. Crew have other means of communication available.”[4]

The conclusion that Barbara Olson could not have made a call using an onboard phone seemed further confirmed by a page on the AA website that says, “Worldwide satellite communications are available on American Airlines' Boeing 777 and Boeing 767,” with no mention of AA’s Boeing 757.

My mistake, like that of Henshall and Rowland before me, was to assume that the AA spokesperson and this website were talking about AA 757s as they had always been, not simply about 757s at the time of the query, in 2004.

But the latter was evidently the meaning. Elias Davidsson, an Icelandic member of the 9/11 truth movement, sent me a news report from February 6, 2002, which said: “American Airlines will discontinue its AT&T in-flight phone service by March 31, a spokesman for the airline said Wednesday.”[5] Davidsson also pointed to a 1998 photograph of the inside of an AA 757 showing that it did have seat-back phones.[6]  

Reasons for Still Doubting the Olson Calls

Does this evidence, that Flight 77 did have seat-back phones, mean that we must infer that Barbara Olson’s alleged call to Ted Olson really occurred? Of course not. All the reasons that had previously been given for doubting it still hold.

One problem with the story about this call is that Barbara Olson was the only person on the plane who allegedly used a seat-back phone to call someone. There were, in fact, only two people altogether from this flight who allegedly made any calls, the other one being flight attendant Renee May, who supposedly used a cell phone to call her parents. Moreover, Barbara Olson reported, according to her husband, that all the passengers and crew members had been herded to the back of the plane. Yet we are supposed to believe that none of the other people, seeing Barbara Olson make two phone calls, grabbed one of the other seat-back phones to make their own calls. We are also supposed to believe that no one else, while seeing Renee May use her cell phone, decided to use their own cell phones to call someone. This scenario is extremely implausible.

Another problem with Ted Olson’s story is that he has repeatedly changed his claim about the means his wife used to make the calls. Three days after 9/11, Olson suggested on one TV show that the call was made on a seat-back phone. Then, on another show that same day, he suggested that his wife had used her cell phone. Six months later, he returned to his first story, saying: “She wasn't using her cellphone, she was using the phone in the passengers' seats. . . . [S]he was calling collect.”[7] One would think that the details of this call---his final conversation with his wife before she died---would have been burned so indelibly into his memory that he would not have said different things at different times.

There is, however, an even more serious problem, which was stated in an essay by Rowland Morgan in 2004: “Ted Olson could give his adherents closure, and shut his critics up,” Morgan pointed out, “by simply producing the Department of Justice’s telephone accounts, showing a couple of hefty reverse-charges entries charged from Flight 77’s Airfone number at around about 9:20 AM on 11th September, 2001.”[8]

This passage, incidentally, evidently played a role in another error I made, this one entirely my own doing. My text contains this statement: “He [Ted Olson] later produced Department of Justice telephone accounts purportedly showing that there were two reverse-charge calls from Flight 77’s Airfone number about 9:20 a.m. on September 11, 2001.”[9] When I came across this statement as I was re-reading my account, I was puzzled by the fact that it had no reference. Why had I not given the source for such an important claim? In looking for this source, I discovered the just-quoted statement from Morgan’s essay. I am completely baffled about how this error occurred. Perhaps during my note-taking process, I somehow transformed Morgan’s hypothetical scenario into an actual fact. (This transformation could not, of course, be explained as either deliberate distortion or wishful reading on my part, because the DOJ records, if they had actually been produced, would have significantly strengthened the case for the truth of Ted Olson’s claim about the calls.) But whatever the explanation, this error, like the more important one discussed earlier, will be corrected in the second printing of Debunking 9/11 Debunking.

My error, however, serves to highlight the problem, which is: If Barbara Olson’s calls were made to the DOJ (Department of Justice), as Ted Olson claims, why has neither he nor anyone else produced records showing the occurrence of those calls? The conclusion that no such records exist is reinforced, Morgan and Henshall have pointed out,[10] by the fact that, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, the FBI’s report on the issue, “American Airlines Airphone [sic] Usage,” makes no mention of DOJ records. It merely refers to four “connected calls to unknown numbers.” The 9/11 Commission commented: “The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of [these four calls] represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office.”[11] However, if the DOJ had received any of these calls, the FBI, which is part of the DOJ, could have easily produced the records. The fact that it did not strongly suggests that these calls were not received.

Having mentioned three problems with Ted Olson’s story, I will conclude with a fourth. According to CNN, which first reported his statements, Olson said that his wife had reported that “all passengers and flight personnel, including the pilots, were herded to the back of the plane” by hijackers armed with “knives and cardboard cutters.”[12] The pilot, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, was a big, athletic man, of whom his brother said: "I don't know what happened in that cockpit, but I'm sure that they would have had to incapacitate him or kill him because he would have done anything to prevent the kind of tragedy that befell that airplane."[13] According to the Olson story, however, they did not kill him but took him, along with his co-pilot and the rest of the flight personnel, as well as all the passengers, to the back of the plane. Is it plausible that these 60-some people, led by Chic Burlingame, would not have easily overpowered three or four rather small hijackers[14]---Hani Hanjour and perhaps one other hijacker would have been in the cockpit---armed with knives and box-cutters? If this does not qualify as an absurd conspiracy theory, what would?

For all these reasons, the evidence that AA 77 did have seat-back phones does little to reinstate the credibility of the claim that Ted Olson actually received calls from his wife on that flight.[15]  

Conclusion

In this brief essay, I have tried to exemplify what I have always said people should do when they find that they have made errors, especially about issues of great importance: Correct them quickly, forthrightly, and publicly. I assume that now NIST, Popular Mechanics, and the 9/11 Commission will retract the dozens of errors that have been pointed out in their reports.

NOTES

[1] David Ray Griffin, Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory (Northampton: Olive Branch, 2007), 266-67.  

[2] Rowland Morgan and Ian Henshall, 9/11 Revealed: The Unanswered Questions (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 128-29. 

[3] Rowland Morgan, Flight 93 Revealed: What Really Happened on the 9/11 ‘Let’s Roll’ Flight? (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006), 52.  

[4] The letter of inquiry, which was written at the instigation of Ian Henshall, was sent December 6, 2004. The response from American Airlines was sent the same day.  

[5] Sam Ames, “Airline Grounds In-flight Phone Service,” CNET News.com (http://news.com.com/2100-1033-831093.html).    

[6] Email from Elias Davidsson, May 6, 2007. For the photograph, see http://www.airliners.net/open.file/0020665/L.  

[7] Hannity & Colmes, Fox News, September 14, 2001; Larry King Live, CNN, September 14, 2001 (http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0109/14/lkl.00.html); and Toby Harnden, “She Asked Me How to Stop the Plane,” Daily Telegraph, March 5, 2002 (http://www.tobyharnden.com/interviews_archive2.htm).  

[8] Rowland Morgan, “Barbara Olson’s Call from Flight 77 Never Happened,” Global Echo, December 2, 2004 (http://globalecho.org/view_article.php?aid=2434).  

[9] Debunking 9/11 Debunking, 266.

[10] Morgan and Henshall, 9/11 Revealed, 127.  

[11] The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Authorized Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 455 n. 57.  

[12] Tim O'Brien, “Wife of Solicitor General Alerted Him of Hijacking from Plane,” CNN, September 12, 2001 (http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/11/pentagon.olson).
 

[13] “In Memoriam: Charles ‘Chic’ Burlingame, 1949-2001,” USS Saratoga Museum foundation (available at http://911research.wtc7.net/cache/planes/analysis/chic_remembered.html).  

[14] According to 9/11 Commission Staff Statement 16, discussing the [alleged] hijackers in general, even “[t]he so-called muscle hijackers actually were not physically imposing, as the majority of them were between 5-5” and 5’7” in height and slender in build” (http://www.9-11commission.gov/staff_statements/staff_statement_16.pdf). My thanks to Matthew Everett for this reference.  

[15] Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan join me in retracting the claim about no in-cabin phones on AA 757s in 2001 and also in pointing out various reasons why the alleged call from Barbara Olson is nonetheless still very doubtful (email from Rowland Morgan, May 6, 2007).

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