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Jan 21

Conspiracy theories

Over the weekend I watched an entertaining documentary titled Who Really Runs The World. The documentary says that events of great emotional significance cry out for grand explanations. And that as trust in authority weakens, so does the willingness of some people to accept simple, but emotionally unsatisfying, explanations. The documentary says conspiracy theories as we know them, began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

In the beginning of the documentary, it makes two assertions (based on surveys of British people):

* If you trust friends and family, you probably won’t believe in conspiracies.

* The poorer you are, the more likely it is you’ll believe in conspiracy theories.

Then the documentary focuses on four particularly popular conspiracy theories in the UK, based on surveys:

* 58% of people think that President Bush wanted 9/11 to happen.

* 45% believe Diana was murdered.

* 15% of people think the British government planned the London Bombing.

* 32% of young people believe the government have hidden evidence of alien landings.

These numbers are significant (the larger figures, for example, represent portions of the population large enough to say, elect a government). Since perception is often the only thing that matters politically, governments have to wrestle with a problem whenever significant tragedies take place: how do you balance the need to dominate the reporting of an emerging story, with the duty to be prudent and responsible about the kind of data released, and how it’s interpreted to the public?

The Glorietta blast is a case in point.

Two Saturdays ago, the Inquirer editorial said the government continues to suffer from a credibility gap, because of the eagerness with which it wanted to explore the terrorism angle (Adventures of Isabel has a video clip to prove it).

Investigations take time. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster came out in late 2005, for example, and wasn’t discussed widely in public until 2006. However, the original theories proposed soon after the event, not all of which may have been proven true later on, probably dominate public thinking on the matter up to now. In that time, conspiracy theories -and sites, such as 9-11 Research– abound, and much energy is spent Debunking the 9/11 Myths.

As for myself, I’ve tried to refrain from providing an opinion on what happened in the case of the Glorietta Blast. My past entries, Testimony and Evidence, sum up what was known, then (and remains known, as far as personal testimonies are concerned, which still have to be reconciled with the physical evidence). My script for The Explainer, episode 64, focus more on the lessons that could be learned from the tragedy.

At the start of the year, the issue came to the fore, once more, with the authorities saying they were due to release their report on January 4. What followed was a p.r. shot across the bow from Ayala Land, and then a delay in the release of the government’s report, as well as something like back-pedaling on the part of the authorities, in terms of the charges they intended to file. Implications were made, all around, that one side, or both, were basically engaged in trying to extort a more favorable report. In its entry on the subject, The Daily PCIJ did its own sniffing around:

Another well-known security expert told the PCIJ that the government seems to have pulled a clever cover-up, as high-ranking police officials allegedly even threatened Ayala Land Inc. (ALI), asking the mall owner to choose between protecting the company’s reputation or sacrificing the country’s economy.

Ayala Land’s version is that the explosion was due to a bomb. The authorities insist it was a gas explosion. The government’s evidence is in the PNP Final Presentation, available on line. Ayala Land’s counter-arguments are also available online, through its 3-D walk-through. The Ayala media offensive included, as the authorities prepared to wrap up their (delayed) work, a visit where a Security Expert Doubts Gas Theory in Glorietta Blast. This was followed by Ayala releasing information beyond the original report it had commissioned, debunking the methane angle. All sides have their fierce advocates: see Tongue In, Anew, who compiled the reasons for supporting the bomb angle; see The Journal of The Jester-in-Exile who seems content with the official explanation, as does reason is the reason.

Others, though, think both sides have provided only partial answers.

Tony Abaya (whose professional background is chemistry), in a recent column, thinks it was gas, but not methane:

But I disagreed and still disagree that the gas was methane. I still think it was LPG. The PNP based its methane theory on the fact that the pumps in the sub-basement — which were supposed to pump out the mostly liquid waste from the building’s toilets and restaurant kitchens to the city’s sewerage line — had malfunctioned the previous five days and thus may indeed have caused methane gas to build up in the basement. I argued in my articles that five days were not enough time for methane gas to accumulate to the volume needed to cause such a large explosion. Solid waste takes about ten days to generate methane; waste diluted by the toilets’ flush water and the kitchens’ wash water would take much longer.

The PNP claims that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Australian Federal Police and an Israeli security consultant employed by the NAIA all concurred that it was a gas explosion, not a terrorist’s bomb. But only the Israeli has been directly quoted. Why? What did the FBI and the Australians actually say in their reports? Did they disagree with the PNP on which gas caused the explosion?

The PNP also said that there were two explosions (which is correct), but that one minute and 45 seconds separated the two blasts. This long time gap seems to have been inserted to explain that the methane blast caused the standby generator’s diesel fuel — which does not vaporize or gasify at room temperature — to also explode.

But the maximum temperature in the basement and sub-basement would have been reached at the moment of the explosion, not one minute and 45 seconds later, by which time the room temperature would have gone down appreciably. Besides the lone survivor who was interviewed on ANC by Chiqui Roa talked as if the two blasts occurred one after the other, not one minute and 45 seconds apart, which is quite a long time in the sequence of events..

According to my informant, who has done contractual repair work for Ayala Land and its lessee, Makati Supermarket Corp. in the premises, there were LPG cylinders in the basement, to which the kitchens of at least three busy restaurants — Luk Yuen, Kimpura, and Peking Garden – were connected by copper tubing. Considering how busy these restaurants must have been at 1;30 pm on a Friday afternoon, it is reasonable to assume that there were at least ten restaurant-size 50 kg LPG cylinders in the basement on that day. Enough to cause the severe damage that the shopping mall suffered, plus the death of 11 persons and the injuries to 108 others.

My informant also said that all those who had done work in the premises were required by Ayala on Oct. 22 to sign a written promise not to talk to media about the incident. But, of course, that is mere hearsay. Ayala has always insisted that it was a terrorist’s bomb that blew up, apparently for insurance liability purposes.

Just last Christmas Day, a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle next to a truck delivering cooking gas cylinders in the city of Baiji in northern Iraq. The twin explosion killed 25 people, injured 88, and severely damaged buildings in the immediate neighborhood.

On June 29 in London, two Mercedes-Benz sedans, parked in the Haymarket theatre district and nearby Park Lane, were each found to contain cooking gas cylinders, plus cans of gasoline and tens of thousands of nails. That the two improvised explosive devices failed to explode — the bomber was apparently an amateur who may have made the same mistake in the wiring of the two bombs — can be ascribed to pure luck. According to British police, if the two bombs had exploded, “hundreds of people” would have been killed.

This is not say that the Glorietta explosion was set off by a bomb. In the absence of bomb fragments or shrapnel, a bomb crater and/or substantial nitrate deposits in Ground Zero, one cannot conclude that it was a bomb, especially since no one has claimed credit for it. But it does say that cooking gas — whether methane or butane/propane in LPG – can be just as lethal.

People like Philippine Commentary (a scientist) insist that the absence of a crater trumps any assertion that the explosion could have been caused by a bomb. As Ricky Carandang reported in his blog,

I don’t know enough about physics or forensics to refute or agree with the conclusions of the Inter Agency Task Force, but they did take me down there and showed me where the bomb was supposed to have been planted. It was an area just under the stairwell. Forensic investigator Fennimore Jaudian is the PNP’s go-to guy for these things and he says if there had been a bomb planted there, there should have been a crater. He also says the staircase would have been obliterated, which it wasn’t.

The Arroyo government has never been known for its commitment to the truth, but they have also cited reports by the FBI and the Australian Police. The Aussie investigators who examined the blast site and concluded that the explosion was not caused by an explosive. I’ve spoken to the Aussies and they back up the official findings. I feel they would have no reason to lie.

The FBI also examined the site, but according to Metro Manila Police Chief Geary Barias, they have never provided the IATF a copy of their final report.

But Carandang says that beyond protecting its ass, the Ayala Land counter-arguments can’t be ignored:

The IATF has never satisfactorily explained why RDX and HMX were present at the blast site. RDX and HMX are explosive substances used by the military. They are not available commercially, and their sale is restricted by the US government. And contrary to what the PNP says, they are not present in ordinary household items like deodorants or cosmetics. The PNP admits there was RDX found at the site, but they say this could have been due to contamination.

In her own report, Ayala Land’s investigator has concluded categorically that the blast was caused by an explosive. Aini Ling is an acknowledged expert in investigating explosions and fires. She has even assisted Philippine authorities in a number of investigations, most notably in the Superfery 14 bombing in 2004. It was Ling who concluded that Superferry was a bombing. The samples she took were examined by Armstrong Forensic Laboratories, a US government accredited forensic lab with 25 years of experience.

This resulted in Carandang going to Malaysia to interview the forensic investigator named by Ayala Land (refer back to the PCIJ report which summarizes, and links to, the two sets of samples taken, and the lab analyses, conducted by that expert) . In an update to his entry, he wrote,

OK everyone, I’m back.

Aini Ling says she can’t explain why there was no crater without a more thorough look at the blast site. She says her conclusion that it was a bomb or bombs was based on the results of the swabs that she took and she won;t speculate on anything beyond the report.

Aside from the RDX and HMX, there were other chemical substances there that are components of an explosive. She added that none of these materials are easily obtained in the open market. I prodded her to say who could have access to those explosives and she said the immediate answer would be military.

I find her credible. I don’t think she would sacrifice her good name or her career to falsify a report just for Ayala. When I met up with her she and her colleagues from Forensic Services Bhd were in the middle of giving a lecture on arson and explosives to a groups of insurance investigators. If she turns out to be wrong, I believe it would have been an honest mistake.

For me now the next step is to get a copy of the Australia Federal Police report. The Aussies have concurred with the PNP findings, and like Aini Ling, I believe they have no reason to lie.

I have hard copies of Ling’s report and the Armstrong lab results and will try to find way to encode them and post them here or send anyone a copy if they’re interested.

Beyond getting the Aussie report I don’t know what more I can do to get to the bottom of this.

These latest Ayala-inspired revelations, then, may serve to keep the question bubbling, but have not been definitive enough to debunk the authorities conclusively, but haven’t been definitively been debunked, in turn. In a comment on Carandang’s blog, Philippine Commentary (aka DJB), says,

The biggest problem for Ling and Collier is there ain’t no hole in the ground full of RDX whose radius for a known material is even directly related to the mass of the high explosive’s TNT equivalent.

Just between us girls, I think Aini Ling KNOWS this was not, could not have been a bomb and she’s really making those who’ve indulged her look like fools. She is basically a high powered lawyer with a PhD in forensic chemistry.

She gives eternal life to the Conspiracy Theorists and govt skeptics in preparation for a long court battle, who’s ground she is cleverly preparing.

Unfortunately, the local Mass Media have been duped and used by these “foreign experts”.

I do think smoke has jumped the gun, a bit, in assuming the only way this will get resolved is in court:

Let’s not blindly assume that the PNP was correct, fine. But let’s also not let our jaundiced view of the PNP – and the government – blind us to the necessity of taking Ayala to task as well. What was RDX doing in their basement? What use was RDX being put to in a mall that receives thousands of people on a daily basis. For Ayala to just stubbornly maintain that it was a bomb and not negligence is tantamount to an unsubstantiated general denial that, in court, doesn’t hold water at all.

If Ayala wants to prove the PNP wrong, it should eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the presence of RDX in its basement. But so far, no one has asked this of Ayala. Not the crusading media, not the NGOs, not the human rights groups who have so far remained silent about this fatal breach of respect for the right of people to life. I have to wonder: is it because government is such an easy target that people forget that big corporations can be at fault as well?

Jumping the gun, because assumptions are made about the RDX although she is correct in pointing out that this could be a neither-side-is-right situation.

Personally, what puzzles me, since all angles ought to be considered, is why Tony Abaya seems so alone in pursuing the LPG angle; or why a confluence of events hasn’t been considered: what if it was a small bomb, with psychological shock in mind, but which ended up triggering a gas blast (whether methane or LPG) that was completely unintended, because unforeseen?

It could be both sides are covering up, and that while both are proposing diametrically opposite explanations, there’s a confluence of interests in wanting lots of heat, but little light.

But to think that would be to indulge a conspiracy theory.

So for now, it’s back to what I think ought to be the case: a more rigorous comparison of what we know, and what remains to be discovered, if an iron-clad explanation’s to be made.

Both sides leave me unsatisfied at this point.

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74 comments

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  1. Rob' Ramos

    I found this quote from sir Abe about “the Fourth Estate” is very interesting:

    “As new media owners, they saw the utility of the newly found power to defend their business interests from the government or rival elites while creating public awareness of matters favorable to those interests and ignoring others.”

    It reminds me of the very first lesson Ma’am Doreen taught us in journ class: media is power.

    “Why do you think some papers still see print even if they’re losing money for their owners?”, that great lady asked us still-wet-behind-the-ears Comm. sophies. After an uncomfortable silence – journalism is not totally idealistic? Perish the thought! – she answered it herself: “because its power.”

    That was a pill that took quite a bit to swallow, I’m sure. Sure as hell took me quite bit of time to do so, and even today I cringe whenever that particular truth stares me in the face everyday.

    Hey, it’s (part of) the world I work in. I should know, di ba?

  2. leah

    I don’t think Bush planned 911, but he had to be happy it occurred, as he benefited from it. Churchill was elected when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That is a historical fact.

  3. Jeg

    Churchill was elected when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That is a historical fact.

    Hi leah. Churchill became PM in 1940. Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941. I suppose you meant “Churchill was elected when Poland was invaded.”

  4. manuelbuencamino

    MLQ3

    Got it

  5. mlq3

    not that i want to stir the pot, but i suddenly remembered something viz. glorietta. one eyewitness was at starbuck’s and i seem to recall that the person also pointed out that anyone who spent time in the area would have noticed the large tanks of lpg kept in the loading bay.

    if you pursue the lpg angle, then a super simple explanation comes to mind. someone, either walking outside or working in the area, could have been careless and tossed a cigarette near the tanks.

    also, i’m surprised a story i heard at the time hasn’t been verified and brought up, which is that (according to the version i heard) someone working in one of the restaurant kitchens recalled that a few months prior to the blast, the restaurant had a problem because one night, raw sewage started oozing out of the drains, into the kitchen.

  6. UP n student

    mlq3: A problem with holding can we defend it at plaza miranda? as sacrosanct is that it reduces governance to great speech-writing and staying with popular themes. A secondary weakness is that Mindanao- or Camarines-Norte projects lose out to Rizal- or Bulacan-projects.

  7. mlq3

    upn, the alternative is worse, i’d think. the idea you can, or should, rule, despite public opinion.

  8. Jeg

    A problem with holding can we defend it at plaza miranda?

    Metaphor, UPn. Plaza Miranda is a metaphor. It means open debate. These days people hold open debate in newspapers and blogs, as well as in formal and informal settings.

  9. UP n student

    Actually, I meant what I said. Firstly, speechwriting and populist themes drive a lot of Philippine governance. And more important to me is this fact. The majority of Filipinos live outside of 20 kilometers of Plaza Miranda, yet their interests and desires are always at risk when are large number of people gather themselves (or are trucked in) within 10 kilometers of Plaza Miranda.

  10. mlq3

    upn, all excesses should be avoided, but you seem to want to ignore the natural dynamics that occur where there is a national capital. and that the capital is itself a microcosm of the nation. manila, for example, hasn’t been a majority tagalog city since liberation. one can consider, too, the ability of congress to gerrymander provinces and create cities, and the portion of the national budget that goes to non-capital city oriented projects.

    re: speechwriting and populist themes, how else is communication supposed to take place between officials and the constituencies that make possible their holding positions of authority? until we develop telepathy, mass communications through words and pictures, including symbolic actions, is part of the process.

  11. nash

    Jeg,

    I submit, well spotted. I should have said blog ‘post’ instead of ‘title’.

    Anyways, I wish everyone success in their forensics careers. If you kindly draw a picture, put it inside a box, I will guess what it is using astral projection.

  12. cvj

    Nash, if the authorities are not transparent, we might as well rely on the wisdom of crowds approach.

  13. Jeg

    Nash, you miss the entire point of MLQ3’s post.

    The documentary says that events of great emotional significance cry out for grand explanations. And that as trust in authority weakens, so does the willingness of some people to accept simple, but emotionally unsatisfying, explanations.

    That’s why MLQ3 indulged us with a conspiracy theory of his own (the small bomb and unintended consequences theory). To stress the point.

    To reiterate: Trust in the authorities is weak. None of those here are under any illusions that they’d solve the mystery of the giant fart at Glorietta. (Allow me a ‘Duh’ at this point.) Perhaps you trust the authorities. In that case, I understand why you missed the point.

  14. Jeg

    also, i’m surprised a story i heard at the time hasn’t been verified and brought up, which is that (according to the version i heard) someone working in one of the restaurant kitchens recalled that a few months prior to the blast, the restaurant had a problem because one night, raw sewage started oozing out of the drains, into the kitchen.

    Also reports that shop owners at Glorietta-2 have been complaining of a foul smell from somewhere a couple of months prior to the explosion. But I suppose, unless corroborated, an interview with a shop owner would still be inconclusive. The official methane-diesel gas theory might influence recollection. “Oo nga. Naalala ko yung bantot.” Just like that lone witness who said he (or she?) smelled gunpowder right after the blast. You hear a boom, you assume terrorist bomb, and your mind can fool you into smelling gunpowder. That’s why Grissom doesnt put much trust in witness testimony.

  15. nash

    Duh, we don’t trust our institutions and I agree with that, 100%.

    Still, I find it funny that we all (including) can give some explanation given that we ourselves did not have access to the site.

    And I’m not being mean, I’m just amused.

  16. nash

    ps.

    Dear Jeg,

    allow me to point the fallacy of logic in the second to last statement of your previous comment.

    cheers

  17. Jeg

    I assure you, nash, I dont ascribe meanness to anybody I meet in MLQ3’s blog. Really, we’re all just text on a computer screen here.

  18. Carl

    Conditions in our midst that are not considered critical by the media or social problems that affect mainly ordinary people could be passed up for important public debate. Agenda-setting is power, an awe-inspiring one, in fact. – Abe N. Margallo

    Nicely put. This media power has proven to be even stronger than the government’s executive power to set the legislative agenda judging from our recent experience.

    The scary thing is that there is no check-and-balance entity intrinsic in our society against this power.

  19. UP n student

    On : how else is communication supposed to take place between officials and the constituencies that make possible their holding positions of authority?

    But you know it exists — communication between officials and constituencies. Many blogthreads ago, you mentioned that our congressmen (and by extension I’ll include mayors) have offices where they receive their constituencies (whose pleas may be for ‘a job for a child’, healthcare assistance, and any ‘buntong-hininga’ of theirs). This is another reason why the constitutional process — IMPEACHMENT — is superior to Abe’s People Power marches. Representative democracy allows the incorporation of the desires of the communities hundreds of kilometers away from EDSA into country-affecting action.

  20. UP n student

    Communication between officials and constituencies may also be in a round-about fashion — the incumbent always pays attention to threats to his/her re-election.

    And when cvj shouts “guns, goons and gold!!!”, then again the clamor is for another of your blogthreads — the imperative of rule of law AND the imperative of strengthening the national institutions so that rule-of-law becomes sacrosanct. First becomes the need to reduce the power of gold when it comes to re-election (translation: economic progress and jobs). If jobs is via the benignO- or cvj-route — overseas — then let it be (because what happens is that the benign0’s and cvj’s, because they have gold, are now less fearful of the guns and goons).

  21. hvrds

    When state institutions are said to be weak it is simply because they have been politicized and monetized as part of the evolutionary process of history. Do not expect ersatz democracies to exhibit as strong and effective institutions that are apparent in more advanced economies.

    But that means that the state is still centralized and autocratic. Street sweepers and garbage collectors still report to the “monarch.”

    So that keeps all state institutions including the police and military under a neo-monarch.

    The people will not trust these institutions since the reality is well known that they cannot displease the Queen and Big Mike. The history of economic crisis after crisis has weakened the economic base of the state and has made it strategically dependent on a few.

    The philosophical underpinnings of the entire state bureaucracy is still wrapped around that autocratic tradition.

    Even the legislature and a large part of the Supreme Court operate under that autocratic tradition.

    The recent executions of activists and journalists probably by state actors have forced the head of judiciary to take notice as this became a problem when world wide attention was focused on it.

    Just look at the fundamentals of state power as embodied in fiscal policy implementation – Taxation.

    It is ironic that the Philippines has been under the ideologues running the multilateral institutions that believe in curtailing state power in the economy and the net result has been as far as weak economies the debasement and the destruction of state institutions that are necessary to provide the very conditions for a level market economy.

    So the question comes back to haunt us which comes first the chicken or the egg. Economic development cannot happen without state participation but the state is a captured state.

    Inevitability of history can only be diverted by enlightened leadership but supported by a critical mass of enlightened citizenry but in the domestic scenario how do you turn natives into citizens?

  22. Chona

    UP n : I agree with you, I think, that people-march-EDSA belittles the votes of the Mindanao, Visayas, or Southern Luzon population. But because the poorer are less informed than the NCR population, then the usurping of their votes via EDSA-marches makes sense.

  23. TonGuE-tWisTeD

    Some have forgotten the facts about Glorietta already. Let me refresh you with some.

    1. The PNP announcement that the blast was caused by methane came on a Saturday – a day after the lady chemist produced the RDX findings in the top-level briefing. But they forgot that it wasn’t until Tuesday or Wednesday that they were able to enter the basement because it was flooded and smelled like crap.

    2. The Aussies have discounted the possibility of diesel causing the damage. They also urged the PNP to look for more evidence. At that point when the Australians submitted their findings, even they were unsure of the cause.

    3. The Israeli was merely an observer and didn’t need to produce a report. In local lingo, he was just “pala” or “palakpak boy”. Whatever he said didn’t carry any weight at all, any 4-year old who knows Google and can type could explain better. He also didn’t have access to the basement.

    4. The slab that covered the unserviced stairway was lifted several meters (some say 14mtrs) and the force required was 270 tons according to Dr. Etheridge. That data can be checked and disputed if wrong. Nobody did. Now, based on floor plans and the equipment listed, the volume of free space in the basement, if filled with 14% methane, the calorific value of the gas would only be equivalent to 45 liters of diesel. Not enough to create the damage.

    5. Manuel Buencamino’s blog carried the news that a week before the Glorietta havoc, the Dept. of Foreign Affairs building in Pasay City experienced an explosion which investigators claim was caused by – dyandyaraaan! – methane gas. Two methane explosions in a week makes it common therefore?

    6. The properties of methane are listed in Dr. Etheridge’s report. But I’d like to add that methane dissolves at the rate of 26mg per liter of water. The sump pit is basically diluted with water at a highly-disproportionate mix. A six feet six inches high fridge is a comparable size of the pit. Even filling it up with pure shit won’t produce enough methane in days. Further, by the slow rate with which the gas was produced, there could have been several opportunities that arcing from a switch or a motor could trigger an explosion, albeit a small fart compared to the damage. Between 5% and 14% (some say 15%)of methane accumulation (which is the ONLY explosive range), I don’t find it plausible that the methane could be triggered precisely (and accidentally)when air-gas mixture was at its most potent! Static electricity, for example, which was produced by the aircon ducts in the service area reception should have ignited the gas when it was a mere 5%, isn’t it?

    These and those by the Malaysian expert, plus many other facts you can read in my blog, jester’s and DJB’s (can’t remember the others). I suggest you read all these and make your own conclusion.

  24. UP n student

    Chona: We do have a point of agreement — that people-march-EDSA belittles the votes of the Mindanao, Visayas, or Southern Luzon population. Of those who marched for EDSA2, the reactions seem to be binary — one group is wary (and many from this group, also weary) with the lament of we’ve been had!!! ? Another group remains gung-ho and still disregarding that EDSA2 was a disenfranchisement of the poor who could only participate during elections. But go check out Abe Margallo “redsherring” blogthread. Maybe you’ll find additional insights.

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