Monday, April 25, 2005

Snopes Gets It Wrong is the invaluable internet site for cataloging and debunking urban legends.

But in at least one case, they make a bold assertion far outside their realm of expertise.

I had been meaning to criticize them about this for a while, but the original story has resurfaced again, so it's time.

Last July, in an internet magazine nobody's heard of, a writer reported observing very suspicious behavior aboard an airliner, in which 13 Syrians (not Americans of Syrian descent, but actual citizens of Syria, which is at war with us) seemed to be up to something.
The take-off was uneventful. But once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.

Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.

For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing. Not one of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their seats.

Watching all of this, my husband was now beyond "anxious."
The event was indeed confirmed to have happened; other witnesses came forward. Others, however, dismissed this all as racist paranoia and "profiling." These men, it seemed, were musicians, on their way to a gig.

Snopes categorically dismissed the story:
Claim: Reporter encounters terrorists on airline flight who are making a dry run at assembling a bomb on-board.

Status: False.
As things turned out, although the events Ms. Jacobsen claims to have witnessed on her flight did occur (more or less), her interpretation of them (that they involved a group of terrrorists making a dry run for building a bomb in-flight) was erroneous. The men she observed on her flight were exactly what authorities told her they were: a group of Syrian musicians who had been hired to play at the Sycuan Casino & Resort near San Diego. Like any other group of passengers, the men in the musical ensemble talked to each other, moved around, ate food, and used the restrooms while the flight was in progress.

According to federal air marshals, Ms. Jacobsen "overreacted":
Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, "overreacted," to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.
Now hold it right there!

Neither the air marshalls on board, nor especially Snopes, have the necessary information to make such a bold claim! They cannot in principle, logically, make such an assertion of outright falsehood, just because these Syrians had day jobs as musicians.

If they Syrian intelligence agents attempting to test security, they would OF COURSE have a plausible "cover story."

What, you think they carry ID that lists their occupation as "terrorist"?

Let me tell you something about the spy business.

In my previous line of work as a DoD-funded scientist and thus a potential target of intelligence gathering, I had mandatory training to alert me to the very real world of foreign spies who in a very real way are, right now, attempting to gain our secrets. Even non-secret information of a technical nature is economically valuable, even to many of our so-called "allies."

Some of it's blatant; some is subtle. But it's very, very real.

And it turns out, the actual professional agents, as a matter of course, tend to recruit "normal" people to probe and steal, because the pros are "known" to each other, and the regular people already have very plausible "cover stories" in their usual day jobs.

Cover stories are bread and butter in the secret world! They're used all the time!

So it is the height of misinformed arrogance, fueled by an impulse to appear morally superior, to say the possibility of a security probe -- or worse -- is False! With the available information, the most one can say is "inconclusive."

Consider the following items.

Chechen terrorists took down two airliners in Russia by apparently assembling a bomb in the lavatory:
After first trying to play down a possible terrorist connection, Russian authorities now are openly saying that the near-simultaneous crashes of two passenger airliners, which left the same Moscow Airport less than an hour apart on Aug. 24, were probably caused by the explosion of bombs carried on each of the planes by a darkly dressed Chechen women.
Actor James Woods, who in real life is apparently very smart, observed 4 middle-eastern men behaving very suspiciously a month before 9/11 on a flight he was on, and one of them turned out in hindsight to actually to have been Mohammed Atta, and they were INDEED doing a dry-run of the 9/11 hijackings! Woods had reported this behavior, but nothing was done:
In August, actor James Woods told the FBI he had observed suspicious activity on American Flight 11. He said he was alone in first class with four men of apparent Middle Eastern descent. The men neither ate nor drank during the six-hour flight, and spoke to each other only in whispers.
So you see, dry runs are real.


It would be insane to believe they have stopped.

And recently, another writer reports how she went to a mosque in the deep South for one of those interfaith meetings, but she purposely arrived early to hear what they were preaching before the meeting, and was allowed in because it was assumed she wouldn't understand Arabic.

But she did speak Arabic.

And heard, apparently, things like this:
The first speaker was the head of the Muslim Students' Association at the nearby university. Although I missed the beginning of the discussion, I caught up quickly. He was talking about the problems he had encountered on a recent trip, when TSA flagged him for extra screening. He joked about the fact that they had stopped him for extensive screening. He had anticipated that he would be screened and he had filled his carryon luggage with printouts of the Quran from the Internet, and had 15 or 16 CDs labeled in Arabic, and he had a notebook computer with him.

As he expected, he was delayed – he thought it was very amusing that while several TSA personnel were scrutinizing his personal belongings that his classmate from Jordan was able to walk through security, along with his American girlfriend, without any problems whatsoever.

One of the men said, in Arabic: "Blonde Americans are good for something!" Another man advised him to be cautious, since there was an American woman in the room. The imam spoke up and told everyone I didn't speak Arabic.

At that point, another student took the podium. His name was Khaled, and he began to recount his recent trip to New York City. Khaled and three of his companions had gone to New York for several days in January. He told of how uncomfortable his trip up to NYC had been. He felt like he was being watched, and thought he was the victim of racial profiling.

Khaled and his friends were pretty unhappy about it, and while in New York, they came up with a plan to "teach a lesson" to the passengers and crew. You can imagine the story Khaled told. He described how he and his friends whispered to each other on the flight, made simultaneous visits to the restroom, and generally tried to "spook" the other passengers. He laughed when he described how several women were in tears, and one man sitting near him was praying.
Interesting. Sounds like the behavior on the earlier Flight 327! Even if either one is meant as intimidation only, it is still a hostile activity, designed to spread fear, and cost us time and money in gumming up air travel on which our modern economy depends. This is pure sabotage.

Saboteurs are not protected by the Geneva Conventions. Traditionally, their actions are not considered criminal, to be handled by civilian law, but as illegal acts of war subject to summary execution.

The meeting continued:
The others in the room thought the story was quite amusing, judging from the laughter. The imam stood up and told the group that this was a kind of peaceful civil disobedience that should be encouraged, and commended Khaled and his friends for their efforts.

He pointed out that it was through this kind of civil disobedience that ethnic profiling would fail.

One of the other men, Ahmed from Kuwait, gave a brief account of his friend Eyad, who had finally gone to Iraq. Ahmed was in e-mail contact with Eyad, and hoped by the following week to be able to bring them more information about the state of the "mujahideen" in Iraq.

As the meeting drew to a close, the imam gave a brief speech calling for the protection of Allah on the mujahideen fighting for Islam throughout the world, and reminded everyone that it was their duty as Muslims to continue in the path of jihad, whether it was simple efforts like those of Khaled and his friends, or the actual physical fighting of men like Eyad.
The same imam who demanded that the men continue in the path of jihad did a complete 180-degree turn in this session, stressing instead the suras that promoted the "brotherhood" between Muslims, Christians and Jews. "After all, we worship the same God, and follow the teachings in the books he gave each of us. We are all the same, we are all People of the Book," he stressed.

The differences between the sessions were striking. Clearly the second session was a recruiting session.
The reason for concern is obvious: Two different doctrines are being promoted. One peaceful, friendly, warm and fuzzy doctrine is being used to draw people in, with a focus on the well-being of their children.

But the Arabic-speaking sessions clearly have an anti-American tone.
Never mind also the really incomprehensible situation in which Syrians are given any visas at all to enter the country! What you think we let Japanese tourists into the country in 1944? Or Germans in 1943? It would be absurd!

Yet today, not only do we let foreigners from hostile countries in, which allows the easy infiltration of recruited agents, we are forbidden from being suspicious of them.

I mean, what's the whole point of even having a visa system, if not to deny them from time to time as necessary? Handing them out, however, has become an end in itself, defeating the whole purpose.

Well, even though the airline people would like to dismiss the story of suspicious behavior on Flight 327, it won't go away, as Homeland Security still finds it interesting. The original author, dismissed by Snopes as overreacting, was recently interviewed by agents at length:
Here's what I find fascinating: while one arm of the government (the Federal Air Marshal Service) has vehemently maintained all along that "nothing happened on flight 327," the other, more muscular arm (the Department of Homeland Security) has been conducting a rather large investigation about it. Based on my 4 ½ hour meeting with the agents, I can tell you that not only have they been investigating what did happen during the flight, but they've also been investigating who botched the subsequent investigation as well as how it got botched.
There were 13 men on a domestic flight acting in such a way that many passengers felt their lives might be in danger. And yet not one of the individuals responsible for that threatening behavior was detained. Only two were put under light questioning, let alone medium or heavy questioning. Two individuals from a terrorist-sponsoring nation were allowed to speak on behalf of the other 11 men. In this War on Terror, whatever happened to a middle ground?
As they stood to leave, one of the agents shook my hand and said, "Thank you for writing those articles." The most senior agent asked if he could touch my very pregnant belly. Then he said, "As a fellow American I can say you did your duty." A third agent borrowed a line from my original article: "If 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 13 terrorists learn to play instruments?"
Stick to disappearing hitchhikers, Snopes, and stay out of National Security issues.

You and your PC-ilk like Transportation Sec. Mineta are just making it harder for us as a society to muster the will to act against a mortal threat.

You'd rather have the blood of innocents on your hands than risk "offending" foreigners.

Oh, but wait, I guess we've all been guilty of something since at least Columbus, right?


Blogger Spiney Widgmo said...

Don't forget, by running enough dry runs and having it reported, people will get immune to worrying, and most importantly reacting. 'We've been hearning about this for years and nothing has happened!' ... yet.

5:50 PM, April 25, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has been my experience that Snopes is not at all receptive to be corrected, even when they are posting on subjects outside their realm of expertise. On matters concerning technology or anything that requires knowledge above and beyond coffee klatch table discussions, they are just as bad as they are with national security issues.

5:47 PM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People will do everything to keep their heads in the sand, including making up false "facts" to prove their point. I agree that Snopes plain gets it wrong, are have really no business "debunking" criminal or terrorist claims. They need to stick to urban myth's.

5:35 PM, December 29, 2007  
Blogger WarriorShaman said...

I was just doing a search on and came across your post. They are biased and incorrect on many topics. Just because you publish an online blog does not mean you are CREDIBLE.

7:13 PM, December 29, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are so right about their left leanings, I was on there reading something about batman when a strange link caught my eye - turned out to be the old urban legend about a woman taking a drunk guy home and tying him up and a guy dressed as batman raping him typical urban legend
the difference was the way they handled it - they speculated that homophobia was the cause of the urban legend
I thought wait a second - what does being tied up and raped have to do with homophobia - anyone of any sexuality would fear that - only a left leaning pc minded idiot would think that urban legend was created from homophobia

I looked further and typed rape in their browser, I found that where they were discussing rape of women they handled it with sensitivity it was only with the rape of men did they scoff and sneer
I used to like the site and point the email noobs to it when they sent me bs emails about sandals causing acid burns etc but now after seeing the same leftist theme running through most of their site I am beginning to believe they have an agenda
their supposed neutrality is a bit bent

1:11 AM, January 24, 2008  
Anonymous Frank said...

Mwahaha hahahaha hahahaaah... Thanks for the laugh. It must have been years since I heard so amusing paranoid delusions.

Sure, it is possible these people where terrorists with such an excellent cover story that all further investigations turned up nothing. I would say the odds that any given foreigner is a terrorist is about 1 in a couple of million. Meanwhile the odds that they where just traveling together like they said would be what... 1 in the number of people on the airplane who does not travel alone? 1 in a couple of hundred then?

You think these people spread fear? Even when they do try to make people uncomfortable? Sure, they might make half a dozen people uncomfortable. YOU on the other hand, who spread this fear for everything that is different, YOU cause discomfort for hundreds of thousands of people who believe in your arguments and will forever be fearful, will forever feel that sensation of dread and terror when they are reminded of your rants by a group of foreigners talking to each other on an airplane.

You, Sir, are a terrorist.

4:16 PM, December 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is some of the most ridiculous gibberish I've ever read online (and that is saying something.)

Snopes reported what it had to report - facts of the case as it was reported at that time. YOU don't know any more than that either, but you try to weave a tale of musicians masquerading as terrorists, imaginary dry-runs, and hear-say bullshit implying all mosques are full of terrorist plots.

Regardless of any secondary investigation that may (or may not) have been conducted regarding the musicians on that flight, the story stands as is - the people in question were released. It was not a screw-up to do so, as they had committed no crime. There was no evidence to hold them, despite your personal suspicions/paranoia.

10:05 AM, January 10, 2009  
Blogger RDS said...

Sad, scared commenters with their head in the sand.

If Snopes were honest, they would have called this one "Undetermined."

It is impossible for them to know one way or the other the actual motives behind this real indicent. Yet they confidently proclaim it false, because they wish it to be.

Terrorists are real.

Dry-runs are real (ask actor James Wood who saw Atta doing just that on a flight shortly before 9/11; even Snopes admits that one!)

Cover stories are real.

So I'm the terrorist? I'm delighted to be getting my message out!

12:36 AM, February 27, 2009  
Blogger Heather said...

[This has more to do with the CPSIA, but I thought you'd enjoy this "Snopes is Wrong" Seuss-style spoof story.]

"People BELIEVE what we say, yes they do!
Whatever we say they'll believe that it's true!

They won't check their own facts; they'll rely upon us --
We'll lull them to sleep and they won't make a fuss!..."

8:22 AM, March 03, 2009  
Anonymous David said...

Another interesting story is the one of the Obama birth certificate. Snopes shows a birth certificate in mint condition that lacks even a fold mark on it. They claim it's the legal birth certificate of Barack Obama. Even though the Hawaiian governor sealed those records and Obama won't release them. Yet somehow Snopes obtained a perfect copy of the original. It doesn't say certified copy on it anywhere. When I asked Snopes about the suspicious condition of their copy, and that it's a sealed record, there was only silence.

10:08 PM, April 08, 2009  
Anonymous Chris W said...

The plane landed without a hijacking, blowing up, or running into anything, so I would say that's very clear proof that Snopes is 100% correct. The reporter was imagining things.

It's a simple fact that terrorism is not a serious problem in US. More people choke to death on food each year than have ever died in terrorist attacks in the US, and choking isn't considered a serious problem. Any terrorist incidents that do happen are big news, precisely because they are so uncommon (that's basically the definition of "news"). You can start worrying about terrorism if it becomes common enough that news outlets stop reporting them.

Being paranoid like this only makes the events that have happened that much more powerful: the whole point of terrorism is to terrorize people. If you aren't terrorized, the attack was unsuccessful.

10:36 AM, August 13, 2009  
Anonymous Thom H said...

Chris W., how many people died on 9/11? Why would anyone with a brain say its "not a serious problem"? Please convince me its not a problem.

3:02 PM, August 06, 2012  
Anonymous Protonius said...


IMO: Excellent article!

Yet I'm also amazed -- or should I say disheartened and disturbed -- by some readers' comments in which they claim that --

(a) because the planes (described in the article) didn't blow up, then obviously there were no valid grounds for suspicion

about the behavior of the observed characters onboard; and --

(b) the article itself is fulfilling the role of "terrorist" because it is hyping fears of terrorism even though there is

in essence no real threat of terrorism in the United States.

In my view, the facts of what this nation has been facing -- even though I might wish it were otherwise --- fly in direct

contradiction against those commenters' assertions AND their logic.

Why, for example, does the nation have an FBI, DIA, CIA, DHS, TSA, and even state & local police forces, that all have as one

of their primary functions -- or so we are told -- the rooting out of "terrorism"?

Why, starting with GWB but advancing immeasurably under Obama, are so many agencies of the Government -- and the Executive

Branch, alone or with the Congress -- conducting major efforts (including many which various Constitutional law experts

consider to be unconstitutional) to tap-into just about all our electronic communications, check us all (at airports, train

stations, roadways, and more) for any "terrorist"-type items that might be in our possession? Why is this nation STILL AT WAR

(unconstitutionally or not) to, allegedly, fight "terrorism"?

And why is it that this current Governmental regime (as well as the prior one), and various of the above-mentioned agencies,

is ever-more-strenuously pushing the idea of "If you see something, say something"?

And yet, these particular commenters, who say that the article itself is hyping unfounded fears of "terrorism", somehow have

a grasp on a (purported) "truth" that says that there is NO threat of "terrorism" in the U.S., that NONE of the above facts

exist, and that, therefore, the fears raised by the article are based on falsehoods and faulty thinking? So what are these

COMMENTERS' assertions based on?

Or are they suggesting that the whole Government-promoted panoply of "terrorism-fears" is hogwash? Or that 911 -- regardless

of whomever was behind it -- never happened?

Well, as some critics have long been asserting, maybe this "war on terror" is, in fact, little more than a "psy-ops fiction"

that has been put into place by powerful interests for purposes of their own; but that's an entirely different issue than

what the above-mentioned commenters are claiming (and are claiming without providing supportive substantiation) -- i.e., that

the fears of these airplane-passengers (íncluding by James Woods) are founded in unjustified paranoia, and that SNOPES, in

similarly discounting those passenger's concerns, had it entirely right.


9:23 PM, December 31, 2012  
Anonymous Protonius said...


But let's get back to the issue of SNOPES' alleged objectivity & accuracy:

One of this article's other commenters points to what he sees as a basic -- and, I would add, highly significant -- flaw in

SNOPES' account of Obama's "birth certificate" -- that of SNOPES displaying what it claims to be an image of the ACTUAL,

ORIGINAL, Hawaii-issued Obama birth certicate, even though, as the commenter states, the actual, original, Obama

Hawaii-issued birth certificate has, according to a great deal of other documentation, NEVER been publicly revealed --

presumably not even to SNOPES.

I have also followed the b.c. issue, over the past few years, with great interest, and similarly found (in my view) SNOPES to

be way-off-base -- and lacking verifiable substantiation -- on various key aspects of the Obama birth certificate issue. How

SNOPES could find a way to declare that the alleged (and allegedly) Hawaii-issued Obama b.c. is 100% valid, regardless of the

various, publicly-accessible, forensics-analyses, by forensics experts, that have found flaw after flaw after flaw in the

alleged document (and in its image even from the White House's own website), should -- in my opinion -- at the very least be

an indicator that SNOPES is NOT infallible.

Does SNOPES also, perhaps, have an "agenda" that intentionally steers it to SUBJECTIVELY issue a finding? Don't know -- but

the Obama b.c. analysis by SNOPES does, in my view, open a question.

9:24 PM, December 31, 2012  

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