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Commentary: Grapevine, Internet - however you hear a story, check the facts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2011 - The e-mail arrived the way these things typically do -- unsolicited and without prior introduction. For a virus to thrive it must spread, and this particular viral message appeared to be flourishing because the entire first page of the transmission was devoted to listing the cyberspace addresses it had visited previously. It was forwarded to me by a friend who'd received it from a mutual acquaintance. Word gets around.

The text consisted of an anonymous narration by an individual who related that he/she had recently seen a videotape replay of Lt. Col. Oliver North's sworn testimony before the Senate's Iran-Contra Hearings in 1987.

North's senatorial inquisitor is said to have questioned him as to why he had spent nearly $60,000 to install an elaborate security system on his private residence. North replied that he and his family had recently been threatened by a terrorist, whom he subsequently identified as Osama bin Laden, "... the most evil person alive that I know of."

The senator asked for North's recommendation as to how best deal with bin Laden and the colonel answered, "Well sir, if it was up to me, I would recommend that an assassin team be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth."

According to this apocryphal tale, the tape ended with the senator strongly disagreeing with that approach, smugly insinuating that North was delusional. And get this: It turns out the clueless political hack who had disparaged the good colonel's prescient warning was none other than Al Gore!

If these revelations weren't shocking enough, the email went on to relate that Mohamed Atta had been arrested in 1986 for blowing up a bus in Israel. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, the Israelis agreed to release certain political prisoners, but refused to set anyone free who had "blood on his hands."

Enter dunderheads Bill Clinton and his dim-witted secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to pressure the Jewish authorities into releasing Atta. Atta later repaid that courtesy by flying a hijacked airliner into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Atta's history was supposedly included in initial reports of the terrorist attacks, but was later censored.

The correspondence concluded with an admonition to pass this information on to unsuspecting friends and relatives so the public could be made aware of these important facts. This particular message claims to have been in continuous circulation since 9/11/01.

The verisimilitude is the most seductive of deceptions because it contains a kernel of truth. Given the passage of time and imperfections of memory, this tenuous link to reality can cause Arcadian fables to ring true.

In this case, I remembered Oliver North testifying in the Iran-Contra inquiry and mentioning something about an expensive security system and some kind of terrorist threat. Had he mentioned Osama bin Laden? I couldn't recall but wouldn't have taken note if he had because in 1987, I -- like most people -- had never heard of the man.

A cursory fact check, however, was sufficient to reveal significant cracks in the foundation of this particular story. The first of these was the published remarks of Col. North, himself, about his uncanny precognition. He said, "Though I would like to claim the gift of prophesy, I don't have it."

His infamous security system -- which cost $16,000, not the reported $60,000 -- was installed in response to a threat from Abu Nidal, a Palestinian terrorist with no known connection to bin Laden and no known involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Like virtually everybody else, North had never heard of bin Laden in 1987. If he had, he would have probably considered him an ally because at the time, Osama was fighting with the U.S.-sponsored Mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

North was questioned not by a senator but by the committee's legal counsel, John Nields. Al Gore, incidentally, was never a member of the Iran-Contra committee.

Mohamed Atta's criminal past fell victim to an editor's fact-checking, rather than political censorship. He was a student at Cairo University from 1985 until he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1990. The 9/11 hijacker was never imprisoned in Israel and was not freed at the behest of Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher or anyone else.

Preliminary reports confused Mohamed Atta with Mahmoud Mahmoud Atta, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was extradited to Israel for the 1986 bus bombing. The latter man played no role in the 9/11 attacks and, when the mistake was discovered, reference to the Israeli crime was deleted from subsequent accounts.

Interestingly, when then-President Clinton tried to take out bin Laden with a cruise missile, he was accused of trying to "wag the dog" to avert public attention from the more important story of Monica Lewinsky. And according to Bob Woodward, in the pre-9/11 days of the G.W. Bush administration, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice grew so weary of hearing about Osama bin Laden that she threatened to ban from her office anyone who mentioned him. That policy was later abandoned in favor of an all-Osama-all-the-time approach.

The email concluded with an exhortation to never forget. I'm trying not to, but when reckless distortion replaces historical fact, it can be difficult to remember accurately.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.