Barbara Olson
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The story...

Barbara Olson reportedly called her husband Ted Olson (the US Justice Department's Solicitor General) twice, shortly before Flight 77 was reported to hit the Pentagon. However, not everyone believes this to be true.

David Ray Griffin in The New Pearl Harbor, for instance, mentions four possible reasons to doubt Ted Olson's testimony.

1. He is very close to the Bush administration.

2. He stated that there are many situations in which "government officials might quite legitimately have reasons to give false information out."

3. Olson's reports about the conversations with his wife are both vague and self-contradictory.

4. On the other flights, telephone calls were reportedly made by several passengers and flight attendants, but Ted Olson is the only person who reported receiving a call from Flight 77.

And there’s a fifth objection also commonly made about these calls.

5. It’s said that Olson didn’t have any credit cards and had to call collect, yet if you don’t have a credit card than you couldn’t use one of the plane phones.

Our take...

1. "Close to the Bush administration". True, however that's not evidence that he's lying. And anyway, how close would he have to be to cover up the death of his wife?

2. Why did Olson say Governments might give out false information? Let's look at the context.

"The United States Government's top lawyer has said that officials have the right to lie to American citizens, telling the US Supreme Court that misleading statements are sometimes needed to protect foreign policy interests.

"It's easy to imagine an infinite number of situations where the government might legitimately give out false information," the Solicitor-General, Theodore Olson, told the court on Monday.

"It's an unfortunate reality that the issuance of incomplete information and even misinformation by government may sometimes be perceived as necessary to protect vital interests."...

Ms Harbury, a lawyer, has alleged that the US officials lied to her to conceal the involvement of a Central Intelligence Agency informant in the torture and murder of her husband. She argued that she should have the right to sue the officials responsible for the alleged cover-up.

"If they hadn't lied to me, I might have been able to save my husband," said Ms Harbury, who took the unusual step of representing herself before the court.

The US officials involved say they never intentionally lied to Ms Harbury. Instead, they withheld certain information or simply refused to search for information in order to protect American operations in Guatemala"...

So we see Olson defines "false information" as "incomplete information and even misinformation", in this example to protect intelligence operations. Is anyone really surprised? We'd be surprised if there's a single country in the world that wouldn't do the same thing. And this statement really doesn't look like he's justifying lying about the murder of his wife and many other US citizens.

3. "Olson reports about the conversations with his wife are both vague and self-contradictory". 

"Vague" -- why is this a surprise? Is it possible that Olson was upset at the time, that he was misquoted at some point, that he remembered other details later?

What's more, the reasons for calling his recollections "vague" are unconvincing. For example:

"Olson' recollection of the call's timing is extremely vague, saying it "must have been 9:15 or 9:30. Someone would have to reconstruct the time for me.""
(from a CNN report)

So he didn't remember exactly when the call was made. Are you 100% sure that you would, in similar circumstances? But there's more:

"In one account, Barbara Olson calls from inside a bathroom. [Evening Standard, 9/12/01] In another account, she is near a pilot, and in yet another she is near two pilots. [Boston Globe, 11/23/01] Ted Olson's account of how the call is made is also strange and conflicting. Three days after 9/11, he says, "I found out later that she was having, for some reason, to call collect and was having trouble getting through. You know how it is to get through to a government institution when you're calling collect." He says he doesn't know what kind of phone she used, but he has "assumed that it must have been on the airplane phone, and that she somehow didn't have access to her credit cards. Otherwise, she would have used her cell phone and called me." [Fox News, 9/14/01] But in another interview on the same day, he says that she used a cell phone and that she may have gotten cut off "because the signals from cell phones coming from airplanes don't work that well." [CNN, 9/14/01 (C)] Six months later, he claims she called collect "using the phone in the passengers' seats." [Telegraph, 3/5/02] But it isn't possible to call on seatback phones without a credit card, which would render making a collect call moot. Many other details are conflicting, and Olson faults his memory and says that he "tends to mix the two [calls] up because of the emotion of the events." [CNN, 9/14/01 (C)] "

Nothing too astonishing here. She made two calls, for instance, so maybe the details got mixed up: one she was in the bathroom, the other near two pilots. Or maybe a pilot was hiding near the bathroom. Who's to say? Mix in a misquote or misunderstanding with the reporter, and his understandable mental state, and it would be surprising if there weren't contradictions to be drawn. In fact, if all the accounts were identical, people would doubtless be telling us that was suspicious, too.

It’s also worth noting that some people say mobile calls aren’t possible at high altitude, therefore Olson couldn’t have called from the bathroom. But what altitude was the plane at, throughout its route? Maybe not too high at all, as the 9/11 Commission reported.

At 9:29, the autopilot on American 77 was disengaged; the aircraft was at 7,000 feet and approximately 38 miles west of the Pentagon.

4. "Barbara Olson made the only call" -- that's sometimes claimed, presumably because it then looks like her statement is the only evidence of a hijacking. However, flight attendant Renee May also made a call, as reported at the time and in the 9/11 Report:

At 9:12, Renee May called her mother, Nancy May, in Las Vegas. She said her flight was being hijacked by six individuals who had moved them to the rear of the plane. She asked her mother to alert American Airlines.

5. The most common criticism of the Olson calls can be summed up from this Joe Vialls article.

Though the American Airlines Boeing 757 is fitted with individual telephones at each seat position, they are not of the variety where you can simply pick up the handset and ask for an operator. On many aircraft you can talk from one seat to another in the aircraft free of charge, but if you wish to access the outside world you must first swipe your credit card through the telephone. By Ted Olson’s own admission, Barbara did not have a credit card with her.

Interesting, if true, but did you spot the problem? As usual with these big claims, there’s no reference, no way of cross-checking to see if you really can’t speak to an operator without a credit card. And that’s important, because we actually have the testimony of the operator who spoke to Todd Beamer on Flight 93:

The caller was Todd Beamer... "He told me that he had dialed zero to report his plane was being hijacked...", she said...

"I asked if he wanted to be connected to his wife and he said no, that he did not want to upset her..."

What’s this? Reaching an operator is as simple as pressing zero? And having done that, the operator may well put you through to someone without you spending any money? Perhaps “calling collect” without a credit card isn’t so difficult, after all.

Of course there are two objections to this idea. First, maybe you still needed a credit card to contact the operator. Seems unlikely to us (surely you’d want people to be able to get help as easily as possible?), but it’s possible. We’d like to see some evidence indicating this, though, not just assertions.

And second, Todd Beamer was calling from a United flight, while Olson was on American Airlines Flight 77. Maybe they had phones that worked in different ways? Sounds plausible, but the accounts we’ve read suggested they both used GTE Airfones. At least, American Flight 11 did:

As the hijacking unfolded, Ong punched the number 8 on a seatback GTE Airfone

And the operator who spoke to Todd Beamer on United Flight 93 worked for the same company:

Telephone operator Lisa D. Jefferson... an 18-year veteran of GTE Airfone...

It’s still possible that the planes used different phone systems, or that Beamer used his own credit card to reach the operator. However, the accounts we’ve seen provide no evidence to support this, therefore the idea that Olson could not have made collect calls remains unproven.

See also our thoughts on the chances of making a cellphone call at altitude.

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