Working from his home office in a small town in England, Darren Williams spent four weeks this summer making a short but startling video that raises novel questions about the 2001 attack on the Pentagon.
The pictures seem incompatible with damage caused by a jumbo jet, and no one mentions seeing one. Red arrows point to unbroken windows in the burning building. Firefighters stand outside a perfectly round hole in a Pentagon wall where the Boeing 757 punched through. It is less than 20 feet in diameter.
Propelled by word of mouth, Internet search engines and e-mail, the video has been downloaded by millions of people worldwide.
American history is rife with conspiracy theories. Extremists have fed rumors of secret plots by Masons, bankers, Catholics and Communists. But now urban legends have become cyber legends, and suspicions speed their way globally on the Web over not months and weeks but days and hours.
"The dissemination is almost immediate," said Doug Thomas, a University of Southern California communications professor who teaches classes on technology and subgroups. "It's not just one Web site saying, 'Hey, look at this.' It's 10,000 people sending e-mails to 10 friends, and then they send it on."
The Pentagon video could be a case study.
Williams, 31, a systems analyst, belongs to an online group that blends discussions of science, politics and the paranormal hosted by American author Laura Knight-Jadczyk, whose books include one on alien abduction.
Williams created a Web site for his video, www.pentagonstrike.co.uk, and e-mailed a copy to Knight-Jadczyk. On Aug. 23, Knight-Jadczyk posted a link to the video on the group's Web site, www.Cassiopaea.org. Within 36 hours, Williams' site collapsed under the crush of tens of thousands of visitors.
But there were others to fill the void. In Texas, a former casino worker who downloaded the video began drawing almost 700,000 visitors a day to his libertarian site. In Louisiana, a Navy specialist put the video on his personal Web page, usually visited by a few friends and relatives; suddenly, the site was inundated by more than 20,000 hits. In Alberta, traffic to a cab driver's site shot up more than sixfold after he supplied a link to the video.
Across thousands of sites, demand for the video was so great that some webmasters solicited donations to pay for the extra bandwidth.
"Pentagon Strike" is just the latest and flashiest example of a growing number of Web sites, books and videos contending that something other than a commercial airliner hit the Pentagon.
Most make their case through the selective use of photographs and eyewitness accounts reported during the confusion of the first hours after the attack. They say they don't know what really happened to American Airlines Flight 77 and offer no other explanations, and that they're merely asking questions that haven't been answered satisfactorily.
The ready and growing audience for conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been particularly galling to those who worked on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the bipartisan panel known as the 9/11 commission.
"We discussed the theories," said Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director. "When we wrote the report, we were also careful not to answer all the theories. It's like playing Whack-A-Mole. You're never going to whack them all. They satisfy a deep need in the people who create them. What we tried to do instead was to affirmatively tell what was true and tell it adding a lot of critical details that we knew would help dispel concerns."
Conspiracy theories are common after traumatic events. Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University who has written books on the culture of conspiracies, said contradictory and inconclusive eyewitness accounts often leave room for different interpretations of events.
"Conspiracy theories are one way to make sense of what happened and regain a sense of control," Barkun said. "Of course, they're usually wrong, but they're psychologically reassuring. Because what they say is that everything is connected, nothing happens by accident, and that there is some kind of order in the world, even if it's produced by evil forces. I think psychologically, it's in a way consoling to a lot of people."
The belief that the government is lying about the Sept. 11 attacks is coming from both the right and the left. Experts say more than suspicion of the Bush administration is at work.
"It seems that since the end of the Cold War, the enemy is the United States government, the enemy is within," said Rick Ross, whose Ross Institute of New Jersey monitors cults and other controversial groups, many of which see manipulative forces working behind the scenes. "Instead of projecting conspiracy theories out, it's become internalized."
Zelikow, for example, lacks credibility with many who question the work of the 9/11 commission because he wrote a book with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. He believes it's futile to discuss evidence with people convinced of a conspiracy.
"The hardcore conspiracy theorists are totally committed," Zelikow said. "They'd have to repudiate much of their life identity in order not to accept some of that stuff."
David Ray Griffin considers himself an unlikely recruit to what is called the "9/11 Truth Movement." The retired theologian initially dismissed the notion that it was not an airliner that hit the Pentagon.
After visiting several Internet sites raising questions about the attack, he ended up writing a book. "The New Pearl Harbor," published last spring, argues that a Boeing 757 would have caused far more damage and left more wreckage strewn around the Pentagon.
"There are reasons why people doubt the official story," he said. "There are photographs taken, and there is no Boeing in sight."
Suspicions formed as the Pentagon still smoldered.
For 2½ years, the attack on the Pentagon has been discussed and researched by members of Knight-Jadczyk's online group, the Quantum Future School. Its talks formed the basis for articles in which Knight-Jadczyk argues that after the attack on the World Trade Center, eyewitnesses at the Pentagon were predisposed to see a large airliner.
She believes the Pentagon was attacked by a smaller plane and members of the Bush administration were somehow complicit because it was beneficial for war-profiteers and Israel.
Asked if there were unreleased photographs of the attack that would convince the doubters, Zelikow, of the 9/11 commission, said, "No."
"The question of whether American 77 hit the Pentagon is indisputable," Zelikow said. "One reason you tend to doubt conspiracy theories when you've worked in government is because you know government is not nearly competent enough to carry off elaborate theories. It's a banal explanation, but imagine how efficient it would need to be."