Pentagon: an interview with journalist Richard Benedetto

di Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, journalist Richard Benedetto was driving to work at USA Today when American Airlines Flight 77 flew above him, heading towards the Pentagon.

Benedetto accepted our request for an interview, and his account shows once more that conspiracy theories about the Pentagon attack are the product of excessively imaginative minds. Indeed, like many other eyewitnesses, Benedetto confirms that an airliner followed the route verified by NTSB and crashed into the Pentagon.

We thank Richard Benedetto for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give an account of what you saw and experienced that morning? What do you recall, generally speaking?

Richard Benedetto: I was driving to work at USA Today that morning and I was listening to the radio because I was already hearing reports about the World Trade Center being hit by two airplanes. All of a sudden I heard an airplane coming from behind me, it was very loud and very low. It's very unusual to see a plane in that particular area because the Ronald Reagan Airport, which is not very far away from the Pentagon, is where most of the planes in that area land but they would be kicking a different route. I looked out of the windows of my car to the left and up, and I didn't have to look very far up, and I saw this big American Airlines jet going by and heading down towards the ground and I remember shouting to no one, as I was alone in the car, “That plane is going to crash!” It disappeared behind the bridge, I heard the thud which sounded like artillery fire, and I saw a big black puff of smoke come up.

Many of the cars on the highway in front of me stopped, someone actually tried to turn around and go the other way; I pulled my car over to the side and ran down under the bridge toward the Pentagon and as I emerged from the other side of the bridge I saw a big fire and black smoke coming out of the building and people running out. There were police officers pushing people running toward the building back. I stood there watching what was going on as this unfolded. A firetruck had been already pulled up, because there was a firetruck adjacent to the Pentagon that was always parked there, and it was already spraying water. This is basically what I saw in the aftermath of the event.

Undicisettembre: Can I ask you a silly question? Are you positive it was an American Airlines jet?

Richard Benedetto: It was American Airlines, sure as heck! Yes. That plane was very very low.

Undicisettembre: How long did you stay there in the afternoon? Were you able to go to work afterward?

Richard Benedetto: I stayed there the whole day. I immediately made a call to my office, cellphones were still working at that moment, and they told me to stay there, so I continued to stay there until 6:30 that evening. Then eventually I got into the Pentagon because they held a press conference. The Secretary of Defense, who was Rumsfeld, and the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services, Mr Levin, held a press conference, I think to show that the building was still functioning. We reporters were escorted in there through the corridors that were still smoking, you could smell the kerosene fumes from the jet fuel.

Undicisettembre: What did you do in those hours between the incident and when you went into the Pentagon?

Richard Benedetto: We were all situated by a gasoline filling station across the street which was a station that was used by the Pentagon vehicles only, it was not a public filling station. We were there and many people from the Pentagon came out and briefed us from time to time, mostly military officers.

Undicisettembre: The next question is inevitably about the size of the hole in the face of the Pentagon. Some people say it was too small for an airliner. What's your opinion about this topic? Did you get a good look at the hole before the section of the building collapsed?

Richard Benedetto: I couldn't see the hole itself because there was a lot of smoke coming out of it, as the day wore on the smoke cleared and I could see the hole after the collapse. But I never questioned whether or not the whole was big enough for an airliner.

It was only a while afterward that I heard someone said it wasn't big enough and some people came out with those theories, especially with the theory of the plane coming from the North.

Undicisettembre: What's your opinion on the many conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 and specifically the Pentagon incident?

Richard Benedetto: Since I saw the airplane and I saw it happen I know what my eyes told me: it was not faked. If it was fake, where did that airplane that I saw go?

Undicisettembre: What are your feelings about conspiracy theorists?

Richard Benedetto: There are conspiracy theories about everything, from the JFK murder on. Some are more plausible than others, this particular one makes no sense to me. I don't understand what people think was the purpose in that particular case.

Undicisettembre: Most of the conspiracy theorists, at least in Italy, now seem to believe that an airplane hit the Pentagon but it didn't fly the route the official version says it followed, but flew further north (see this image: the blue line is the official path, the yellow line is the North Path). Based on your experience, I guess you can rule out this crazy idea, right?

Richard Benedetto: The plane was definitely coming from the west. It followed the blue line in the picture you showed me.

Undicisettembre: Have you ever met any conspiracy theorists and tried to debate them?

Richard Benedetto: No, I haven't.

Undicisettembre: While you were there at the Pentagon was anyone having doubts about the fact that a plane had hit the Pentagon?

Richard Benedetto: There was no doubt being expressed among either the reporters or people from the Pentagon we were talking to or eyewitnesses. We did interview people who had been in the building who came out and talk to us while we were in that designated place, we talked to a number of people who were in the building at the time of the crash. None of those that I interviewed said that they saw the airplane itself, but they felt the impact of the plane, saw people who had been thrown to the ground, saw people being injured. They were all pretty shocked themselves.

Undicisettembre: That's an interesting point. You made interviews with people who came out the Pentagon. What can you tell us about them?

Richard Benedetto: They were very nervous and very shook up, very shocked. People who were working there were sent home, so some were just wandering around without knowing what to do. They were wandering around endlessly, some of the metro system was not working, some were waiting for somebody to come and pick them up. It was a chaotic situation, but as a reporter you always try to talk to the people who might have been closest to it, so we did interview a lot of folks who were in the building.

Undicisettembre: As far as you know are there many conspiracy theorists among your colleagues?

Richard Benedetto: Not among mainstream journalists, no. It's not a popular topic here. The 9/11 conspiracy theories seem to be more popular outside the US. There are some people who have these theories but it's not a big topic among the mainstream media.

Undicisettembre: So in your opinion they are more popular in Europe than in the US?

Richard Benedetto: Yes, more in Europe. There are also some coming from the Middle East because some of these theories that I heard claim that it wasn't done by Arabs but by the Jews. But mainstream media play other conspiracy theories such as the JFK ones, especially this year past being the 50th anniversary.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Richard Benedetto: I was a White House correspondent at the time, covering the George W. Bush administration, so for the next several months most of my coverage was focused upon the US response to 9/11: the military response, the legislative response, the passage of the Patriot Act.

Many people in the compression of time have a sense that somehow 9/11 happened one day and the next day we invaded Iraq, that's not true at all: it was 18 months afterward. The other theory that is out there is that there was no debate and that the media were accomplices in all that, that's not true either.

There was a lot of debate, there were a lot of news articles that were very skeptical of the idea of going into Iraq. But in the compression of time people have a different sense of what happened. That's also true even in conspiracy theories.

Undicisettembre: Are there other aspects related to 9/11 that in your opinion deserve further investigation?

Richard Benedetto: As journalists I think we need to do researches about what happened between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. There are many college professors, actually I'm a college professor myself since retiring from USA Today, that believe that there was a rush to Iraq that was never debated or covered very heavily: it's just not true.

It was not only debated in the American media but also in the UN, there were several resolutions that passed the Security Council before the United Stated invaded Iraq that supported that, there was a final resolution that did not pass. But the Congress also passed a resolution bipartisan to invade Iraq: Senate and House. They both debated very long and hard.

But there's a sense out there, even in the academia now, that we didn't do that.

One thing that I point out is that it was inevitable that we were going to do that mainly because the American people wanted to do that. It was a revenge that was involved here and it was like a snowball rolling downhill over time. In fact as time went on and they debated more and more about what to do in Iraq public support for invasion went up, not down. It only started to go down when the war started to go badly.

Undicisettembre: Did you have psychological consequences after 9/11?

Richard Benedetto: It was very disturbing to see something like that, especially when you are not ready for it. It's not the same as being involved in a war directly, I assume that those kinds of psychological effects are much more severe. It makes you think about the fragility of life and makes you think about how things can change in a minute, it makes you think about the things that are more important. I was 60 at that time, that is a moment when you start to reassess your life: what's important and what's not.

So if there was an effect on me, it wasn't a psychological effect but it was like making me say to myself: what's important and what's not important?

Undicisettembre: Has this event given you a new insight into journalism?

Richard Benedetto: Yes. There was a need to explain the story the best I could from the perspective that I had, which was the White House. I was telling the story based upon what was happening in the White House: what the President was doing, what the President was doing in Congress. I went up to Capitol Hill during the time when the debate was being held on the so called Patriot Act which set in motion some of the rules and regulations that we are still debating today about surveillance and security and privacy vs security issues. You thought about those things for the first time, having covered the White House from the Reagan administration to the Bush administration you weren't debating this kind of thing until then. So these things became big issues and they continued to be big issues and very complex.

I tried to give the full story and not be caught in the heat of the moment or the passion of the moment. It certainly made me want to do a better job as a journalist.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country is still living in fear or has it regained its standing in the world?

Richard Benedetto: I don't think the country is living in fear, the American people adjusted quickly. There's the concern that a terrorist attack can occur anytime but people don't walk around thinking about it. I think President Obama worries about it all the time for a couple of reasons. First he doesn't obviously want the American people to be hurt, second he worries about what effect it would have on his presidency. I don't think he wants the responsibility of having presided over another terrorist attack.

I think one of the reasons why he's so willing to have such broad and comprehensive surveillance by NSA is that he thinks and he hopes that by doing that they can prevent another terrorist attack.

Nessun commento: