Cellphone calls faked

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Much of what we know happened on the hijacked 9/11 flights came from passengers and flight attendants, who called family and others to pass on key details. Yet there are those who say the calls were faked, scripted, a tool to sell the hijacking story, and the voices behind them weren't those of the real passengers at all.

A key technical objection to this comes from a study carried out by AK Dewdney. He flew over London, Ontario, in a light aircraft, while trying to make cell phone calls, and concluded that "ordinary cellphones, digital or analog, will fail to get through at or above 8000 feet abga". His study is flawed, however: he flew over a populated area with a large number of base stations, which means the range of an individual station could be considerably reduced: we would expect calls at altitude to be difficult. Read more here.

David Ray Griffin seems to think the number of calls was significant, saying "At least nine of the calls were reportedly made on cellphones" in "Debunking 9/11 Debunking", then reporting the following:

However, there are serious problems with this assertion.

The first is that there's very little evidence that nine of the calls were made on cellphones, as opposed to airphones (seatback phones that would work at altitude). Griffin gets this figure from Rowland Morgan's "Flight 93 Revealed", and a glance as this reveals his figures mostly come from press reports. So, for example, Morgan points out that Elizabeth Wainio was a cellphone caller according to this September 22 2001 MSNBC report:

Clear enough. But do we know for sure she was passed a cellphone, or has someone just made that assumption? We would say the latter is at least possible, as a September 28 2001 specifically says she was passed an airphone:

In reality, FBI testimony at the Moussaoui trial spoke of only two cellphone calls from Flight 93 (although they admitted the possibility of at least one more). Dr Griffin concedes the point later, after a fashion:

Here he presents the total of "nine or more cell phone calls" as though it was a Government claim that they've been forced to retract, but that is false. That total comes from people like Morgan, who are simply assuming that reports of cellphone calls are accurate, and contradictory claims of using airphones are not.

Were there even airphones of the American Airlines flights, though? It's been reported that they were deactivated by that time. However, American Airlines manager John Hotard says that while the deactivation order preceded 9/11, he could find nothing to say it was carried out on Flight 77:

Even if there were only two calls, of course, there's still AK Dewdney's claim that the chances of both being successful were "one in ten thousand": 1/100 multiplied by 1/100. But that's misleading. Apart from the probability being based on his flawed study, he's also assuming we're talking about two specific call attempts: passenger A calls, gets through, passenger B calls, also gets through. What we don't know, though, is how many call attempts each passenger might have made. If each hit redial 100 times, for instance, then even on Dewdney's figures he would expect them both to make a successful call, and in fact think them unlucky if they didn't.

No need to take our word for it, of course. There are plenty of people saying that calls are possible from much greater altitudes than 8,000 feet. Read a selection of them here, then ask yourself - is it really plausible they there are all mistaken or lying?

But what about the "pico cell?", asks David Ray Griffin, amongst others. In Debunking 9/11 Debunking he quotes American Airlines as saying it allowed passengers to "place and receive calls as if they were on the ground", that "commercial availability of cell phone use in flight is approximately 24 months away" (as of 2004), and says "this new technology would hardly have been hailed as a breakthrough if cell phone calls from airliners had already been possible".

In reality, though, there's a huge difference between cell phone calls from airliners being "possible" (but only occasionally, and only for short periods of time), and working as if passengers "were on the ground". It's the latter service that people will pay for.

Further, cell phone calls aren't allowed right now because airlines are concerned they'll interfere with electronic systems on the plane. The pico cell is all about overcoming that, as this 2005 press release explains:

The pico cell breakthrough comes in offering more reliable, safer use of mobiles at altitude, then. There's nothing here to say the 9/11 cell phone calls could not have been made.

There's more to this issue than simply technical questions, though. The content of the calls is questioned in some cases, particularly the Mark Bingham call, where he's said to have introduced himself to his mother with the words "Mom, this is Mark Bingham". In Debunking 9/11 Debunking Dr Griffin asks if this is believable, and calls it a "goof", yet fails to point out to his readers that Bingham's mother has said he did this sometimes.

As an alternative explanation, Dr Griffin, Loose Change and others have mentioned the possibility of "voice morphing", technology that could have been used to fake the voices of the passengers. At the heart of the claim is this 1999 Washington Post story:

This poses obvious problems. Like how did the conspirators obtain a “10-minute digital recording” of several passengers? Especially as many of the ones who made calls weren't even supposed to be Flight 93 passengers until the very last minute.

And they’re not the only ones. In fact, so many people changed their plans within around 24 hours to take this flight, that has been marked up as an anomaly in itself. A Team8Plus page (http://www.team8plus.org/content.php?article.8) points out this also applies to Jeremy Glick (missed his flight the day before), Mark Bingham (took an extra day to recover from a birthday celebration), Honor Elizabeth Wainio (changed to a direct flight at the last minute) and possibly Edward Felt (last-minute business trip) amongst those who made phone calls, and others who didn’t.

But let's suppose this were possible. The article also told us that the system works in “near real time”, in other words there’s a time lapse between the person speaking, and the system morphing their voice into someone else. How long? It doesn’t say, unfortunately, but it’s unsafe to assume that this system is capable of carrying out real-time conversations. And it's not just us saying that, either, as Dr George Papcun, the scientist quoted in the Washington Post "voice morphing" story, has also issued his first comment on the issue:

As Dr Papcun points out, while the voice morphing is difficult enough, it's dwarfed by the challenge of managing the content of any conversation. How are any conspirators going to know how an individual is likely to behave in this situation, what they might say? There can't be any guessing here, no slip-ups, you can't afford to make a relative suspicious. You must have an "actor" who can react precisely as the passenger would, on reflex.

And as an example of the research required, consider the call by Linda Gronlund, who reportedly called her sister to pass on the combination of the safe containing her will (which suggests no-one else knew it, because otherwise why bother?):

In our view the case against the passenger calls is far from proven, then. Plenty of people say it's possible to make calls from altitude, the study claiming otherwise is flawed, and the conversations were most unlikely to have happened by "voice morphing". On balance, we believe the calls were genuine, reflecting what the passengers saw and experienced on 9/11.