Conspiracy theories are hard to kill. They’ve dogged virtually every national tragedy in our history, from the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and what David Ray Griffin now claims is our new Pearl Harbor: 9/11. What’s different about this conspiracy theory is the degree to which it has been helped along by its main suspect: the Administration of George W. Bush.

Bush’s initial refusal to investigate September 11 started the ball rolling. When he caved in to political pressure and agreed to a commission, he picked the worst possible chairman, Henry Kissinger, whose legendary but secret client list no doubt includes countries suspected of involvement in the attack. The real traction, though, has come from Iraq. By consciously misleading Americans about Saddam Hussein’s role in September 11 to justify an invasion, Bush answered the question every good conspiracy theory turns on: Who benefits?

Griffin’s subtitle suggests this book is a search for truth, but don’t let that fool you. His mind is all but made up. For a start, Griffin simply cannot accept that our national security system totally failed all on its own on September 11. What went wrong with an air defense system we’d been told would protect us from far more sophisticated attacks? Can the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) really be that incompetent? The FAA concluded that American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked at approximately 8:20 am. An hour and forty-three minutes later, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into the ground at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In between, the few F-16s that did scramble seemed to have flown everywhere except in the right direction, but even if they had found the hijacked airplanes, authority from the White House to shoot them down arrived after the fact or was relayed too late.

Then there are the FBI and the CIA. The two federal agencies charged with protecting us from terrorist attacks say they were surprised by 9/11 even though bin Laden all but took out an ad in the New York Times telling us when and where he was going to attack. Nor was recent history mute on how such an attack might go down. In 1994 an Algerian Islamic group ideologically affiliated with bin Laden hijacked an Air France plane and would have flown it into the Eiffel Tower if the French hadn’t stormed the plane during a refueling stop. A year later the Manila police uncovered a plot to blow up a dozen commercial airliners over the Pacific. Their investigation revealed that one of the Manila plotters, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had considered enticing some suicide-minded pilot to fly his airplane into the CIA headquarters. KSM, as we now know, would go on to mastermind 9/11.

Was anyone listening back then at the FAA or the Defense Department? Apparently not, but it gets worse. In January 2000, two members of KSM’s cell managed to slip into the United States and set up in San Diego although the CIA had them on a watch list for plotting attacks in East Asia. We’re told someone at the CIA neglected to inform the FBI, and the two made their flights on September 11. All this and still no one was fired or reprimanded?

So far, so good, but the 9/11 Commission has rendered much of the detail of this book stale news. What’s notable about Griffin’s take on these events is how easily he leaps to larger evils, a conspiracy at the top. Griffin is a thoughtful, well-informed theologian who before September 11 probably would not have gone anywhere near a conspiracy theory. But the catastrophic failures of that awful day are so implausible and the lies about Iraq so blatant, he feels he has no choice but to recycle some of the wilder conspiracy theories, several of which were popularized by the crackpot author Thierry Meyssan in L’Effroyable Imposture, a bestseller in France:

§ that the Pentagon was hit by a missile rather than by American Airlines Flight 77;

§ that since it was impossible for the World Trade Center to collapse under the impact of an airplane, it had to have been brought down by internal explosives;

§ that United Airlines Flight 93 was shot down when it was learned that the passengers had taken control of the airplane because the conspirators could not risk the passengers’ getting off the plane and telling what really happened;

§ and that, most shocking of all, the Bush Administration knew the attack was coming and either let it happen or abetted the plotters as a way of jolting the nation into accepting its policy of pre-emptive warfare and transforming the Middle East.

It’s a monstrous proposition, which makes this a monstrous but in some ways important book. Someone, after all, should be asking in print why our foreign policy seems to have fallen into the hands of some malevolent band of Marx Brothers. For all its merits, the 9/11 Commission Report doesn’t even attempt to answer this question. Griffin’s book does, but since he’s an outsider to Washington’s Byzantine ways, he falls back on wacky theories.

Halfway through this litany of what went wrong September 11 and why, I found myself thinking about one morning shortly after I joined the CIA. I was drinking a cup of coffee, reading the morning traffic, when a fellow desk officer sitting next to me said out of the blue: “You know, it was the CIA that took down Nixon.” I waited for the punch line, but he wasn’t joking. “The Watergate burglars taped the door open on purpose,” he continued. “The plan was for a security guard to find the tape, call the police, and leave enough bread crumbs along the way to finger Nixon. Why else would they leave tape on the door like that?”

Working for an outfit that does break-ins for a living, I had to agree that leaving tape on the door was an act of gross incompetence. During basic training, the first thing they teach is that you always “pick to decode”–make a key. One of the Watergate burglars, James McCord, had been a CIA security officer; he definitely knew that taping or jamming open a door is the quickest way to get caught in a black-bag operation. Stranger still, at the arraignment McCord volunteered that he was a CIA agent, another major Langley no-no. From my office mate’s point of view, McCord was practically handing Nixon’s head on a platter to the Washington Post. If I worked at it hard enough, I could have come up with a reason the CIA might have wanted to take Nixon down. (It wasn’t so Spiro Agnew could take his place.) It was the idea of a conspiracy itself that I never could accept.

Yes, the CIA was formed, in essence, to conduct and foment conspiracies, but even within the vaulted offices of Langley, a secret like that couldn’t have lasted twenty-four hours before it had been leaked to the Times, the Post and at least two of what were then the three major TV networks. And so it is with Griffin’s Pearl Harbor hypothesis. Like most conspiracies, it has the allure of a deeper truth, but experience tells me that although this Administration is dedicated to keeping the truth away from the average citizen, it could never have acquiesced in so much human slaughter and kept it a secret. Especially when so many people would have to have been involved.

This is what I think happened on September 11. The trillions we put into national security were wasted. The military’s early warning system, the CIA’s and the FBI’s ability to collect and process intelligence, and the White House’s ability to deal with a national emergency never adapted to the new threat, terrorism, and the end of the cold war. Fail-safe procedures fail routinely, and depending on them is anything but safe. It wasn’t a conspiracy of silence that allowed Osama bin Laden to succeed so spectacularly in his mission; it was a confluence of incompetence, spurious assumptions and self-delusion on a grand scale.

As more facts emerge about September 11, many of Griffin’s questions should be answered, but his suspicions will never be put to rest as long as the Bush Administration refuses to explain why it dragged this country into the most senseless war in its history. Until then, otherwise reasonable Americans will believe the Bush Administration benefited from 9/11, and there will always be a question about what really happened on that day.