Point PC-2: The Reported Phone Calls from Barbara Olson

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Americans were first told that terrorists had hijacked an airliner when CNN gave a report about US Solicitor General Theodore “Ted” Olson, who said that his wife, well-known TV commentator Barbara Olson, had called him twice from American Airlines (AA) Flight 77, stating that terrorists had taken over this flight. This would have been roughly a half hour before this plane, according to the official story, crashed into the Pentagon.

The Official Account

Ted Olson reported, according to CNN, that his wife had “called him twice on a cell phone from American Airlines Flight 77,” saying that “all passengers and flight personnel, including the pilots, were herded to the back of the plane by armed hijackers,” who had “knives and cardboard cutters.” [1]

Although Olson had originally told CNN that his wife had used a cell phone, the FBI’s September 11th summary of its interview of him said: “[Mr. Olson] doesn’t know if the calls were made from [Barbara Olson’s] cell phone or the telephone on the plane.” [2] But during a September 14 interview on Hannity & Colmes, Olson suggested that his wife had reached him at the Department of Justice by using the “airplane phone.” [3] Ted Olson continued to go back and forth between the two alternatives. [4]

In any case, the first call from his wife, Olson told the FBI, lasted “about one minute.” [5] The second call, he told Larry King, lasted “two or three or four minutes.” [6]

The 9/11 Commission Report stated (in 2004) that the FBI and the Department of Justice believed that there had actually been four calls from Barbara Olson. [7]

The Best Evidence

The story about Barbara Olson’s report of the hijacking of AA 77 was foundational for the official account of 9/11. This foundational role is illustrated by the fact that, although it has been widely held that the hijackers had box cutters, this idea was provided only by Ted Olson’s report of his wife’s phone calls. In any case, in spite of the foundational role of the Olson story, there were three serious problems with its credibility:

  1. One problem is that, although Ted Olson went back and forth on whether his wife had used an onboard phone or a cell phone, she evidently could not have used either:
    • With regard to the possibility that Barbara Olson had used a cell phone, the FBI ruled this out in 2004, saying: “All of the calls from Flight 77 were made via the onboard airphone system.” [8]
    • There is also evidence that Barbara Olson could not have made the calls attributed to her in The 9/11 Commission Report: This is the evidence, cited in the Burnett section of Point PC-4: “Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The Second Official Account”, that the cell phone technology available in 2001 would not have allowed cell phone calls from this airliner. [9]
    • Further evidence that Barbara Olson could not have used an onboard phone to call from AA 77 is provided by a page in the Boeing 757 Aircraft Maintenance Manual (757 AMM), dated January 28, 2001. The first sentence of this page states: “The passenger telephone system was deactivated by ECO FO878.” (ECO F1463 and F1532 were later orders to remove the phones.) This page indicates, in other words, that by January 28, 2001, the passenger phone system for the AA 757 fleet had been deactivated. [10]
    • The impossibility of Olson’s having used an onboard phone is further supported by a pilot and a flight attendant:
      • After being a fighter pilot, and having attended the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, Captain Ralph Kolstad served as an airline pilot for 27 years, during 13 of which he flew Boeing 757s and 767s for American Airlines. He wrote: “[T]he ‘air phones,’ as they were called, were … deactivated in early or mid 2001. They had been deactivated for quite some time prior to Sep 2001.” [11]
      • Flight attendant Ginger Gainer, after reporting that the Boeing 757s prepared for international flights had stickers on the seatback phones “indicating that they were inoperative,” added: “I asked several current and former Flight Attendants for American … who flew domestic … and they all said that they recalled the phones as having been disabled at the time, or gone.” [12]
    • There is one more reason to be skeptical about the claim that Barbara and Ted Olson talked that morning by telephone: Neither the telephone company records, nor the Department of Justice phone call records, nor Barbara Olson’s cell phone call records have ever been made public, in spite of the fact that there has been much discussion of the authenticity of the reported phone calls from her. [13]
  2. A second more serious problem is that the Olson story was contradicted in the FBI’s 2006 report to the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. In its report about phone calls from AA 77, the FBI stated that there was one call from Barbara Olson (not two), and that this call was “unconnected,” so that it lasted “0 seconds.” [14] This report thereby contradicted Ted Olson’s report that his wife had made two calls to him, one that lasted “about one minute” and another that lasted “two or three or four minutes.” [15]
  3. A third problem is that Barbara Olson’s story as told by her husband is simply implausible. According to this story, 60 passengers – including pilot Charles “Chic” Burlingame, a former Navy pilot who was a weightlifter and a boxer [16] – were held off in the back of the plane by three or four hijackers (one or two would have been in the pilot’s cabin). And yet these alleged hijackers were, as a 9/11 Commission staff document mentioned, “not physically imposing, as the majority of them were between 5’5″ and 5’7″ in height and slender in build.” [17] If these small men were armed only with knives and box cutters, the pilots and the male passengers could have easily overpowered them.
Although Ted Olson reported two calls from his wife and the 9/11 Commission attributed four calls to her, the best evidence shows three problems in the official account. These problems, taken in reverse order, lead to this threefold conclusion:

  1. Barbara Olson’s account of what occurred on AA 77, as told by her husband, is implausible.
  2. The FBI’s report on phone calls from AA 77 indicates that she did not reach her husband from that flight.
  3. Various accounts indicate that she could not have called her husband from AA 77. [18]

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References for Point PC-2
Tim O’Brien, “Wife of Solicitor General Alerted Him of Hijacking from Plane,” CNN, 12 September 2001, 2:06 AM. Although this story, as now found in the CNN archives, indicates that the story was posted at 2:06 AM on September 12, reports of the story started appearing on blogs at 3:51 PM on the 11th (see this and this.)
9/11/2001: FD-302, Interview with Theodore Olsen [sic] (re: phone call from hijacked flight),” 9/11 Commission, FBI Source Documents, Chronological, September 11, 2001, Intelwire, 14 March 2008.
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News, 14 September 2001.
Ted Olson again gave the cell phone version on CNN, Larry King Live, 14 September 2001. He suggested the seatback phone version on three additional occasions: Hannity & Colmes, Fox News, September 14, 2001; Theodore B. Olson, “Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture,” 16 November 2001, Federalist Society, 15th Annual National Lawyers Convention; and Toby Harnden, “She Asked Me How to Stop the Plane,” Daily Telegraph, 5 March 2002.
Interview with Theodore Olsen [sic], 9/11 Commission, FBI Source Documents, Chronological, September 11, 2001, Intelwire, 14 March 2008.
America’s New War: Recovering from Tragedy,” Larry King Live, CNN, 14 September 2001.
The first three of the four calls attributed to Barbara Olson in The 9/11 Commission Report (p. 455, note 57) were, like all of the reported calls by Tom Burnett to his wife, far above an elevation at which cell phone calls might have been possible (National Transportation Safety Board, “Flight Path Study, American Airlines Flight 77,” February 19, 2002). And the fourth call (reported by the 9/11 Commission as lasting 4 minutes and 20 seconds), was dialed at 9:30:56, when AA 77 was flying erratically up and down between 6,000 and 7,000 feet(see NTSB Flight Path Study, AA 77, as above).
This document is available at Pilots for 9/11 Truth.
E-mail letters to Rob Balsamo and David Griffin, December 22, 2009.
Letter from Ginger Gainer to David Griffin, February 16, 2011. The practice of using inoperative stickers for deactivated airphones was confirmed to Elizabeth Woodworth in a telephone call to a former AA mechanic, January 7, 2013. The time it would have taken to deactivate the phones on the ECO FO878 order, which involved pulling the circuit breakers and collaring them, was estimated by this mechanic to have taken 20-30 minutes.
See note 15, below.
United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui, Prosecution Trial Exhibit P200054. This FBI report on phone calls from AA 77 can be viewed more easily in an article by Jim Hoffman, “Detailed Account of Phone Calls from September 11th Flights.”
Whereas Ted Olson said that his wife called him twice, the Department of Justice and its FBI said in 2006 that the records show that she had attempted only one call to him, which was not connected. But the DOJ’s records also indicate that there were three calls that were connected but were from an unknown caller to an unknown recipient, and the DOJ and the FBI declared, prior to the evidence it presented under oath at the 2006 Moussaoui Trial, that they believed all of these to have been from Barbara Olson to her husband: See the previous note and also a DOJ memorandum for the record, “Briefing on cell and phone calls from Flight 77,” May 20, 2004. With regard to the question of whether this multi-call claim should be taken seriously, it is strange that the investigators, who went to great lengths to identify the phone call recipients for Flight 77, should have failed to retrieve from AT&T Wireless the recipients of four long Operator-dialed (OSPS) calls from this flight. The information regarding Flight 77 calls reported by the Department of Justice was derived from “a study of all phone records from the flight, an examination of the cell phone records of each of the passengers aboard 9/11 [sic] who owned cell phones, and interviews with those who received calls from the flight, as well as with the family members of other passengers and crew. This work was conducted in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s case against Zacarias Moussaoui.” This footnote has been taken from Elizabeth Woodworth, “9/11: What the Telephone Records Reveal about Calls from AA Flight 77: Did Barbara Olson Attempt Any Calls at All?” September 16, 2011.
Staff No. Statement 16: Outline of the 9/11 Plot,” 9/11 Commission, 16 June 2004.
The evidence shows only that Barbara Olson did not call Ted Olson’s office from aboard AA 77. That conclusion leaves open the possibility that Ted Olson’s office may have received calls that people in this office believed to be from Barbara Olson while she was in the air on AA 77. This distinction is important because of evidence that
  1. Lori Keyton, who was serving as a secretary in Ted Olson’s office that morning, reported receiving two calls for him that morning (see Interview with Lori Lynn Keyton, Secretary, DOJ, September 11, 2001), and that
  2. these calls were forwarded to Ted Olson’s special assistant, Helen Voss (see Interview with Helen Voss, Special Assistant to the Solicitor General, September 11, 2001). As to how these calls were really made, the publicly available evidence seems insufficient to answer that question.


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