Point PC-3:  Cell Phone Calls From the Planes: The First Official Account

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Introduction

Although the public’s understanding about the 9/11 attacks depended heavily, from the beginning, on alleged “cell phone calls from the planes,” for several years – from September 2001 until July 2004, when The 9/11Commission Report was issued – there was no official statement about the reported calls. But ideas about such cell phone calls were conveyed to the public in this period by America’s mainstream media,[1] and these ideas were never challenged by the FBI or (later) by the 9/11 Commission. This set of ideas, by default, can be called the first official account of the reported cell phone calls.  

This first official account is of interest because in 2006 it was contradicted by the FBI, and The 9/11 Commission Report can be seen, when read in light of this later FBI report, to have explicitly endorsed only two of the reported cell phone calls, both of which came from low elevations (as reported in “Point PC-4. Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The Second Official Account”).

 

The Official Account: First Version

Passengers and flight attendants on the 9/11 flights were able, reported the media, to use cell phones (as well as onboard phones) to let people on the ground know what was happening on their planes:

  • The day after 9/11, a BBC story said: “A senior U.S. intelligence official told MSNBC.com that mobile phone communications [cell phone calls] from [UA] Flight 93 indicate that three passengers overpowered the hijackers but were unable to maintain control of the plane.”[2]
  • The next day (September 13, 2001) a Washington Post story said: “[Passenger Jeremy] Glick’s cell phone call from Flight 93 and others like it provide the most dramatic accounts so far of events aboard the four hijacked aircraft.”[3]
  • The same Post story about this flight said: “The plane was at once a lonesome vessel, the people aboard facing their singular fate, and yet somehow already attached to the larger drama, connected again by cell phones.”[4]

The media also gave accounts of particular passengers and flight attendants on the planes who used cell phones to communicate with people on the ground. (Wherever possible, the FBI interview of the recipient of the cell phone call, usually conducted the morning of 9/11, is sourced in the footnote):

  • On the afternoon of 9/11, CNN reported that US Solicitor General Theodore “Ted” Olson told CNN that his wife, well-known CNN commentator Barbara Olson, had “called him twice on a cell phone from American Airlines Flight 77,” stating that the plane had been taken over by hijackers armed with “knives and cardboard cutters.”[5] When interviewed by the FBI, Olson said that he did not know if her calls were made from her cell phone or the telephone on the plane.[6] In subsequent media interviews, Olson went back and forth on whether his wife used her cell phone or a seat-back phone, but her call was almost unanimously reported in the media, in line with the initial CNN story, as a cell phone call.
  • Later on 9/11, an Associated Press story reported that businessman Peter Hanson called his father – Lee Hanson of Connecticut – from United 175. The AP stated that “a minister confirmed the cell phone call to Lee Hanson.”[7]
  • According to The Washington Post on September 13, Kathy Hoglan talked about her nephew, Mark Bingham. In “his cell phone call to her” from UA 93, she reportedly said, he “managed only to tell his aunt and mother, Alice Hoglan, that the plane had been hijacked and that he loved them.”[8]
  • On September 16, a Washington Post writer David Maraniss, discussing UA 175, said: Brian Sweeney called his wife Julie: ‘Hi, Jules,’ Brian Sweeney was saying into his cell phone. ‘It’s Brian. We’ve been hijacked, and it doesn’t look too good.’”[9] According to the FBI’s interview with Julie Sweeney on October 2, 2001, she had been out when her husband called. She “returned home to find that her husband had left a message, made from his cell phone aboard the plane, on their answering machine. The answering machine recorded that the message was left at approximately 8:58 AM.”[10] At that time, US 175 was reportedly at about 25,000 feet. (It is important to note that the message was on Julie Sweeney’s answering machine, which would make it difficult to argue that her report – that her husband had called on his cell phone – was based on faulty hearing or memory.)
  • Maraniss also, saying that people aboard UA 93 were “connected [to the larger drama] by cell phones,” added: “Thomas E. Burnett Jr., a California businessman, called his wife, Deena, four times.”In an AP story on September 12, Martha Raffaele wrote: “In a series of four cellular phone calls, Burnett had his wife, Deena, conference in the FBI.The FBI’s report of its interview with Deena, carried out on 9/11 itself, indicated that she had spoken of “three to five cellular phone calls.”[11]A year later, McClatchy reporter Greg Gordon wrote that Deena Burnett had been “strangely calmed by her husband’s steady voice over his cell phone.”[12]A segment about Deena Burnett on CBS’s Early Show said:Tom Burnett made four cell phone calls from Flight 93 to Deena Burnett at home, telling her he and some other passengers were going to ‘do something.’”[13]
  • On September 22, a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about UA 93 passenger Marion Britton began: “She called longtime friend Fred Fiumano, from whom she had borrowed a cell phone.”[14]

 Summary:  Responses by the 9/11 Commission and the FBI

 The 9/11 Commission Report appeared to support the truth of the picture provided in the media – that there had been several cell phone calls from the 9/11 planes – by virtue of referring to FBI interviews reporting cell phone calls, while never suggesting any reason to doubt this view. 

  • With regard to the aforementioned report about businessman Peter Hanson – according to which he had called his father – the FBI, which had interviewed the father (Lee Hanson), wrote this: “He believed his son was calling from his cellular telephone.”[15]
  • With regard to the aforementioned stories that Deena Burnett had received several calls from her husband, Thomas Burnett, the FBI, which interviewed her on 9/11 itself, wrote: “Burnett was able to determine that her husband was using his own cellular telephone.”[16]
  • In discussing UA 93 (which was the source of most of the reported cell phone calls), the Commission wrote: “Shortly [after 9:32 AM], the passengers and flight crew began a series of calls from GTE airphones and cellular phones. . . . . At least ten passengers and two crew members shared vital information with family, friends, colleagues, or others on the ground.[17]

Accordingly, the media clearly suggested that passengers and flight attendants on the 9/11 flights communicated with people on the ground by means of cell phones, and this suggestion was never challenged by the FBI or the 9/11 Commission until 2006 when the FBI presented evidence under oath at the Moussaoui Trial, that there were only two (low-elevation) cell phone calls.

 

The Best Evidence

Various technological reports between 2001 and 2004 indicate that, given the cell phones available in 2001, cell phone calls from high-altitude airliners – meaning ones above 20,000 feet - were very unlikely.[18]

·       The most extensive of these reports were by Canadian mathematician and scientist A. K. Dewdney, who for many years had written a column for Scientific American.[19] In 2003, he published reports of experiments he had carried out in single- and twin-engine airplanes, showing that at 20,000 feet, there was a one-in-a-hundred chance of successful calls from a single-engine plane, and in a twin-engine plane (which has greater insulation), the success rate at 7,000 feet was 0 percent. He also pointed out that cell phone failure would occur at even lower altitudes in large airliners, which are even more insulated.[20]

  • When the times of the reported phone calls are compared with the official flight data paths, it is clear that some of the cell phone calls reported in the mainstream press occurred when the planes were above 40,000 feet, and all of them occurred above 20,000 feet.[21]
  • Dewdney’s report did not stand alone. Several other articles published between 2001 and 2004 cast doubt on the cell phone calls as being credible.[22]
  • In 2004, Qualcomm announced a successful demonstration of a fundamentally new kind of cell phone technology, involving a “picocell,” that would allow passengers “to place and receive calls as if they were on the ground.” American Airlines announced that this new technology was expected to be commercially available in 2006.[23]This technology, in fact, first became available on commercial flights in March 2008.[24]
  • The cell phone companies have, even before 9/11, kept extensive coded data on each call from the 3-sided cell phone towers, and these data provide triangulation location points.[25] Such data are routinely requested for court cases and would have been used in the massive cell phone investigation that ensued.[26]

Therefore the above-reported cell phone calls almost certainly could not have been received from any of the 9/11 planes.

 

Conclusion

Beginning with the reported cell phone calls by Barbara Olson aboard UA 93, the (first) official account of the 9/11 attacks depended heavily on media stories of cell phone calls from the 9/11 planes.

From 2001 until 2006, such stories appeared to be supported by the FBI and the 9/11 Commission. The Commission reported the stories about Barbara Olson from American 77; Peter Hanson and Brian Sweeney from United 175; and Mark Bingham, Marion Britton, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick from United 93. The 9/11 Commission and the FBI, moreover, did nothing to cast doubt on the belief that these people had, while in 9/11 planes, used cell phones to talk to people on the ground.[27]

Therefore, the (first) official account of phone calls from the 9/11 planes, which fleshed out the dramatic public story, is objectively so improbable  as to be unbelievable – a fact that casts doubt on the credibility of the official account of 9/11 as a whole.

 

References for Point PC-3

[1]Were Hijackers Reported on Cell Phone Calls?” Chap. 17 of David Ray Griffin, 9/11 Contradictions: An Open Letter to Congress and the Press (Northampton: Olive Branch (Interlink Books), 2008). The media did not investigate these cell phone reports at a time when their use on airliners was not only highly unlikely, but was also prohibited by regulations from both the Federal Aviation Authority and the Federal Communications Commission. See: “In-flight phone-free zone may end,” CNN, October 3, 2004; also “Cell Phones In Flight Considered,” Washington Post, December 9, 2004.

[2]I know we’re all going to die,’” BBC,September 12, 2001.

[3]Charles Lane and John Mintz, “Bid to Thwart Hijackers May Have Led to Pa. Crash,” Washington Post, September 13, 2001 (originally at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A14344-2001Sep11 but now available only here).

[4]Ibid.

[5]Tim O’Brien, “Wife of Solicitor General Alerted Him of Hijacking from Plane,” CNN, September 12, 2001, 2:06 AM. Although this story, as now found in the CNN archives, indicates that the story was posted at 2:06 AM on September 12, reports of the story started appearing on blogs at 3:51 PM on September 11 (see here and here). On Fox News three days later, Olson suggested that she had been using the “airplane phone” (Hannity & Colmes, Fox News, September 14, 2001). Later that same day, Olson told Larry King that she must have used a cell phone (“America’s New War:Recovering from Tragedy,” Larry King Live, CNN, September 14, 2001). In November, he endorsed the onboard phone version of the story (Theodore B. Olson, “Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture,” 16 November 2001, Federalist Society), which he then repeated a few months later in an interview in what appears to have been his final public statement on this issue (Toby Harnden, “She Asked Me How to Stop the Plane,” Daily Telegraph, March 5, 2002). A year after 9/11, however, CNN was still reporting that Barbara Olson had called her husband “on her cellular phone” (“On September 11, Final Words of Love,” CNN, September, 10, 2002).

[6]For example, David Maraniss, in a Washington Post article four days after the attack, said: “By 9:25, one of the passengers, Barbara K. Olson, the television commentator, was on the cell phone with her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson.” David Maraniss, “September 11, 2001,” Washington Post, September 16, 2001; updated September 20, 2001 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A38407-2001Sep15). This story is no longer available at the Post’s website. But it is available, with a new title (“Another Workday becomes a Surreal Plane of Terror”), at a different website. Olson’s FBI interview, carried out on 9/11, is available online.

[7]Karen Gullo and John Solomon, “Experts, U.S. Suspect Osama bin Laden, Accused Architect of World’s Worst Terrorist Attacks,” Associated Press, September 11, 2001. Mr. Hanson’s FBI interview on 9/11, saying that he believed his son was calling from his cell phone, is available online. Hanson’s mother, Mrs. Eunice Hanson, reported the cell phone call to others interviewed by the FBI.

[8]Charles Lane and John Mintz, “Bid to Thwart Hijackers May Have Led to Pa. Crash,” Washington Post, 13 September 2001.

[9]David Maraniss, “September 11, 2001,” Washington Post, September 16, 2001.

[10]Julie Sweeney’s FBI interview is available online, see page 15. The elevation is shown on page 4 of the NTSB Flight Path Study.

[11]Martha Raffaele, “Passengers May Have Thwarted Hijackers,” Associated Press, September 12, 2001. Deena Burnett’s FBI interview is available online.

[12]See Greg Gordon, “Widow Tells of Poignant Last Calls,” Sacramento Bee, 11 September 2002.

[13]Two Years Later…,” CBS News, 10 September 2003.

[14]Jim McKinnon, “13-Minute Call Bonds Her Forever with Hero,Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 22, 2001. An FBI interview conducted September 20, 2001, indicated that Britton had called using a “cellular telephone” during the hijacking of Flight 93.

[16]FBI, “Interview with Deena Lynne Burnett (re: phone call from hijacked flight),” 9/11 Commission, FBI Source Documents, Chronological, September 11, 2001, Intelfiles.com, September 11, 2001.

[18][According to Marco Thompson, president of the San Diego Telecom Council:] ‘Cell phones are not designed to work on a plane. Although they do.’ The rough rule is that when the plane is slow and over a city, the phone will work up to 10,000 feet or so. ‘Also, it depends on how fast the plane is moving and its proximity to antennas,’ Thompson says. ‘At 30,000 feet, it may work momentarily while near a cell site, but it’s chancy and the connection won’t last.’ Also, the hand-off process from cell site to cell site is more difficult. It is created for a maximum speed of 60 mph to 100 mph. ‘They are not built for 400 mph airplanes.’” San Diego Metropolitan, October 2001.

[19]A.K. Dewdney, “Project Achilles Report: Parts One, Two and Three,” Physics 911, January 23, 2003; “The Cellphone and Airfone Calls from Flight UA93,” Physics 911, June 9,2003.

[20]The results of Dewdney’s twin-engine experiments are reported in Barrie Zwicker, Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11 (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2006), 375.

[21]For example: According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, which reflected official documents, United Flight 93 was at 34,300 feet when passengers and crew members began making calls, and it soon climbed “to 40,700 feet”(The 9/11 Commission Report, 11-12, 29). The times of the reported calls may be compared with the timed flight path elevations.

[22]Betsy Harter, “Final Contact,” Telephony’s Wireless Review, November 1, 2001; “Will They Allow Cell Phones on Planes?” The Travel Technologist, September 19, 2001; Michel Chossudovsky, “More Holes in the Official Story: The 911 Cell Phone Calls,” Global Research, August 10, 2004; Ted Twietmeyer, “911 Cell Phone Calls from Planes? Not Likely,” August 23, 2004.

[24]Stephen Castle, “Era of In-Flight Mobile Phone Use Begins in Europe,” New York Times, April 18,2008 . In contradiction with this report and those in the six previous notes, the New York Times, three days after 9/11, published a story stating that cell phones can work in almost all phases of a commercial flight” (Simon Romero. “After the Attacks: Communications; New Perspective on the Issue of Cell Phone Use in Planes,” New York Times, September 14, 2001. This story seems best understandable as disinformation to tamp down doubts about whether the reported cell phone calls from the planes could have occurred.

[25]For example, such data have been available (through a Texas law firm) since 2000.

[26]This data would certainly have been sourced during the “study of all phone records from the flight, an examination of the cell phone records of each of the passengers aboard 9/11 [sic] who owned cell phones, and interviews with those who received calls from the flight, as well as with the family members of other passengers and crew. This work (see reference to it here) was conducted in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s case against Zacarias Moussaoui.” However, this data has never been cited by officials to: 1) justify changing the status of earlier reports of cell phone calls to seatback calls, or 2)support the status of the two alleged low-flying cell phone calls by Felt and Lyles.

[27]The 9/11 Commission Report, 8 (Hanson and Brian Sweeney), 9 (Olson), 11, 28 (Burnett), and 456 (Bingham and Glick).

 

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