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The Big Lie

Find Out Why Many Muslims Think Bin Laden Is Innocent

If ever the world became a global village, it was last Sept. 11, when hundreds of millions of people around the world saw and heard the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But the very technology that made that the most communicated and most witnessed event in history also has contributed to what some are calling "the big lie."

It turns out an overwhelming majority of people in the Muslim world, according to a Gallup poll, do not believe the attacks of Sept. 11 were orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, or by Arabs, or by Muslims.

Many believe, instead, that the whole thing was a conspiracy orchestrated by Jews.

Where did they hear that? From the television and the Internet.

How pervasive is the belief in "the big lie"? We found out when we visited a wedding party in a small town in Pakistan.

The scene: Muslims walking into a large tent where wedding party guests are gathered. Americans are rarely seen in places like this these days. But our guide, Khalid Khawaja, grew up there, and CBS reporter George Crile accepted an invitation to join him at this wedding party.

All the town's leading citizens were there: the mayor; the pediatrician; a chemical engineer; a businessman; a journalist. And not one of them had anything friendly to say about America.

Said one guest: "People hate America. Yeah, that's true."

Such statements have come almost to be expected in the Islamic world. But what came next caught reporter Crile completely by surprise.

The Jews did it. That's exactly what they are saying: the mayor, the businessman, the journalist, the baby doctor...everyone. And, as one of them said, "Osama is totally innocent!"

Totally innocent? It sounds incredible - the idea that Osama bin Laden had nothing to with the World Trade Center attacks. But as the Gallup poll later confirmed, that's exactly what most Muslims believe.

"I was surprised that very few, even among the elites, believe that bin Laden did it," says Dr. Shibley Telhami, the man whom Gallup commissioned to analyze the findings of its survey.

What is most important about the results of the polls?

Says Telhami, "Well, if you look at the polls - and the ones that I have done in the Arab world - pertaining to Sept. 11, it's clear that there's almost a unanimous view that bin Laden was not responsible for Sept. 11. And that actually comes as a shock to Americans, given the evidence that is obviously out there. How could this be?"

It's a perplexing question. In this information age, it may be that the Sept. 11 attack was witnessed by more people than any event in history. And there was every reason to believe and hope that a consensus would have formed around the world about what had happened and who was responsible.

Mass murder had been committed and pictures of the 19 militant Muslim hijackers were printed in the papers. In America, there has never been any doubt about who was ultimately responsible. In the words of President Bush: "The evidence we have gathered points to a person named Osama bin Laden."

But as pollster Telhami explains it, when the president talks, most Moslems simply don't listen. He explains, "People say, 'Yes, you're giving me evidence. But frankly, I don't trust the system. I don't trust the messenger. I don't trust the message. I just don't believe.'"

But what is widely believed across the Muslim world, is the story we heard of the Jewish conspiracy, in which 4,000 Jewish employees at the World Trade Center were warned to stay home.

CBS News consultant Milt Bearden ran the CIA's Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Today, Bearden worries that America faces a new kind of threat that it doesn't yet understand.

"You couldn't even get a bad movie put out with a science fiction story line like this," says Bearden. "But yet that one caught on very quickly throughout that part of the world… This current war that we're in now is the first war in the information era… information, misinformation, disinformation."

Bearden says the story of the 4,000 Jews is an example of the new kind of threat we face.

There's always been a belief in the so-called "Jewish conspiracy" in the world of Islam. But it seems now to have just taken off, and gone into the almost unbelievable stratosphere.

How the myth of the 4,000 Jews became reality in the minds of Muslims around the world is a cautionary tale from the dark side of the information age.

It began on Sept. 13 in Jordan when rumors of Israeli involvement in Sept. 11 surfaced as news stories in two Arab papers.

The next day, a crucial element was added: the figure 4,000. That was the number of telephone calls an Israeli ambassador told reporters had come into his government from worried Israelis unable to contact their relatives in New York.

Then on Sept. 17 in Beirut, al Manar, a television station controlled by the radical Islamic group Hezbollah, aired the full fantasy for the first time. Billed as a special investigative report, al Manar claimed that 4,000 Israelis employed at the World Trade Center had not shown up for work on Sept. 11.

The next morning, this tale hit the Internet and began moving from one Islamic Web site to the next. In the days and weeks that followed, the story spread like wildfire all across the Muslim world, surfacing in newspapers, radio and TV reports and talk shows in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and beyond

In just a matter of days, one falsehood piled on top of another and passed on to audiences around the globe had produced "the big lie" - a lie now accepted as fact throughout the Muslim world.

Most Americans probably would say that's ludicrous. And they also might say that if certain people want to believe it, there's not much to be done about it.

But Bearden says, "That's been the way Americans go at it. We say, 'Let them believe what they like.' You know: 'Sticks and stones.' Well, guess what? That doesn't work any more. We've got to come to deal with that."

As an example of how quickly lies can lead to violence, Bearden points to the 1979 incident at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. At Friday prayers, a mullah told a fantastic tale of American and Israeli soldiers marching on the holy city of Mecca. Within minutes, thousands of Pakistanis headed for the U.S. embassy and onto newscasts around the world.

From CBS Evening News: "The invaders ran shooting through the corridors, took over the roof and set fires, reportedly with Molotov cocktails..."

Adds Bearden, "And a lot of Americans barely escaped through a hatch onto the roof. Otherwise, it would have been an even greater disaster. That is just simply the information thing just going crazy."

Two Americans and two Pakistani employees were killed. The embassy burned to the ground. And all because of a rumor.

There was absolutely nothing to it?

"Nothing," says Bearden. "No, there was just nothing there… You know, 'the big lie' usually has something somewhere. This had nothing."

But in 1979 Islamabad, it spread like a proverbial prairie fire, but on a somewhat limited basis, in and around Islamabad. And Bearden's point is: Now, when that sort of spark goes out, it reaches a billion people plus.

"The world is connected," he explains, adding, "1979 was still sort of a steam-driven world. And now anything that goes on in the information world is instantaneous.

Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers is in charge of promoting America's image abroad. A successful Madison Avenue advertising executive, Beers was recruited by the Bush administration to use her skills to sell America.

Has she taken her own poll on the Arab world?

Beers: "We do a lot of internal polls…we have an ongoing recognition of how moods and feelings, as well as opinions are in the…"

Rather: "If your polls reflect anything close to what the gallop poll ..."

Beers: "They are close."

Rather: "Imagine that i'm a person, at a Pakistani wedding party. And i'm absolutely convinced bin Laden didn't do it. No Muslim did it. The Jews did it. Israel did it. Israeli intelligence did it, I say to you. You say what?"

Beers: "I would like to make available to you all the data, and the information that we have. Let me refer you to our Web site. Here's this booklet we just produced, which will help you follow the complete activities of the hijackers - their relationship to bin Laden. Let me show you the very words bin Laden himself has used to talk about his role."

Undersecretary Beers was outlining the Bush administration's strategy for countering disinformation. The centerpiece of that effort -published two months after the attack - was a glossy, four-color booklet spelling out the evidence of who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. The State Department printed 1.3 million copies.

"The embassies took this piece," recalls Beers, "and it became the most widely published document we ever put out in the State Department."

But it hasn't worked.

Says Beers, "Well, we're dealing with a large, tumultuous environment right now. And I will grant you we probably did not get that booklet in as many hands as we wished. The literacy rate in some of these countries is very low. And we have to communicate on a different level."

Can we turn this around?

"I'm spending every hour that I have," Beers replies, "and I'm surrounded by an amazingly devoted group that says we must turn this around."

This summer, the House of Representatives passed a $255 million bill aimed at improving America's image abroad. The centerpiece: a new 24-hour Arabic-language satellite television network designed to beam America's message to the Muslim world.