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Commentary: Miscellaneous
Z Magazine/ZNet article: June 2, 2002
(1) What Is a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

The most common definition of a conspiracy is two or more people secretly planning a criminal act. Examples of related conspiracy theories include belief that JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; that negotiations between the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in Carter's last year failed because Reagan aides secretly struck a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; or, more recently, that 9-11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly engineering rightward alignments in the United States or Israel.

A broader definition of conspiracy includes legal acts that are, however, sufficiently misleading. For example, even if the U.S. president and his top aides could legally perpetrate the secret 9-11 attacks, doing so would still be a conspiracy. Legal assassination disguised as an accident or secretly pinned on someone else might also fit the second, broader definition because it's not just secret, but actively deceptive. But no definition of conspiracy, however broad, includes everything secret.

People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some result. But if this is always a conspiracy, then virtually everything that happens is a conspiracy. When General Motors executives get together and decide what kind of Chevy to produce next year, it would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, even a university academic department getting together in a closed session to make a personnel decision, would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be ubiquitous and therefore vacuous. Even in the broadest definition, there must be some significant deviation from normal operations. Thus, no one would call all the secret acts of national security agencies conspiracies. Spying is sufficiently normal and expected that no one calls it a conspiracy.

Most business decisions and government policy decisions are made in secret but are only deemed a conspiracy when they transcend "normal" behavior, either by working against the norms of surrounding institutions, in the narrow definition, or by manipulating and actively imposing wrong perceptions, in the broader definition. No matter what definition we use, we don't talk of a conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes only candidates and their handlers working privately to develop effective strategy. Seeking to win an election, even secretly, is operating "normally" within the bounds of surrounding institutions. We do talk about a conspiracy, however, if the electoral behavior includes stealing the other party's plans, spiking their Whiskey Sours with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional activity transcending electoral institutions or actively misleading and manipulating events.

(2) What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?

Any particular conspiracy theory may or may not be true. Auto, oil, and tire companies did conspire to undermine the trolley system in California in the 1930s. Israeli agents did secretly attack Western targets in Egypt in 1954 in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal. The CIA did fake a shipload of North Vietnamese arms to justify U.S. aggression. Conspiracies do happen.

But a conspiracy theorist is not someone who simply accepts the truth of some specific conspiracies. Rather, a conspiracy theorist is someone with a certain general methodological approach and set of priorities.

Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by looking for groups acting secretly, either outside usual institutional norms in a rogue fashion, or, at the very least to manipulate public impressions, to cast guilt on other parties, and so on. Conspiracy theorists focus on conspirators' methods, motives, and effects. Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators' joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely drop from view.

Thus, conspiracy theorists ask "Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in 1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles?" rather than seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy. They ask "Did a group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from Vietnam?" rather than examining the shared Vietnam assumptions and policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as an examination of institutions would emphasize.

Because personalities matter so much in conspiracy theories, attention focuses largely on what one individual said to another, whether a phone conversation implicates so and so, the credibility of this or that witness, and who knew what when. Suspicion abounds. For conspiracy theorists, no sooner does something happen, then a conspiracy is suspected. Is there a new disease called AIDS? A biological warfare lab must have created it. Did Clinton aide Vincent Foster appear to commit suicide? Someone must have killed him. Did flights TWA 800 and Airbus 587 crash? There must have been a missile involved.

(3) What characterizes institutional theorizing?

An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other institutional dynamics that promote or compel important events and, most important, have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists of course notice individual actions, but don't elevate them to prime causes. The point of an institutional explanation is to move beyond proximate personal factors to more basic institutional factors. The aim is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning about particular culpable actors. If the particular people hadn't been there to do the events, most likely someone else would have.

To the institutional theorist, the behavior of rogue elements is far less important than the ways in which the defining political, social, and economic forms lead to particular behaviors. An institutional theory of the U.S. missile attacks on Sudan or the Iran-Contra affair focuses on how and why these activities arose due to the basic institutions of U.S. society, not on the personal quirks of a womanizing Clinton or a loose-cannon Ollie North.

(4) Can thinking about conspiracies ever be institutional? Can thinking about institutions ever highlight conspiracies?

There are, of course, complicating borderline cases. A person investigating personal proximate causes of some occurrence in what appears to be a conspiracy-minded way could do so to make a larger institutional case. Thus, a person trying to discover a CIA role in 9-11 could be trying to verify a larger (incorrect) institutional theory -- that the U.S. government is run by the CIA. Or, more subtly, a person might be trying to demonstrate that some set of U.S. institutions propels actors toward conspiring. Someone studying Enron, for example, may be doing so not as a conspiracy theorist concerned with condemning the proximate activities of the board of Enron, but rather to make a case (correctly) that U.S. market relations instill motivations and provide the contexts that make conspiracies against the public by major corporate decision makers highly probable. The difference is between, on the one hand, trying to understand some broad claim about society by understanding its institutional dynamics, and, on the other hand, trying to understand some singular event by understanding the activities of the direct actors in it.

(5) What are the relative features and attributes of conspiracy theorizing and institutional theorizing?

For social activists, it makes sense to develop institutional theories because they uncover lasting features with ubiquitous recurring implications. On the other hand, if an event arises from a unique conjuncture of particular people who seize extra-systemic opportunities, then even though institutions undoubtedly play some role, that role may not be generalizable and an institutional theory may be impossible to construct. For a district attorney, it is sufficient to identify individual wrong-doers, but for those seeking social change it is important to go beyond particular participants. Unique events, of course, could be hugely consequential -- as in the attempt to assassinate Hitler -- but exploring the details of such events rarely if ever facilitates understanding society or history.

Institutional theories claim that the normal operations of some institutions generate behaviors and motivations leading to the events in question. For example, an institutional theorist is much more likely to explain U.S. foreign policy in terms of corporate and geopolitical interests, than in terms of the operations of shadowy characters, and when they look at corporate interests they are much more likely to focus on corporate interests generally rather than the interests of one rogue corporation that tries to hijack U.S. foreign policy to its narrow interests at the expense of the corporate system more broadly. When institutional theories address personalities, personal interests, personal timetables, and meetings, it will be to enumerate facts that need explanation, not because these are seen as explanations themselves. With institutional theories, organizational, motivational, and behavioral implications of institutions are the heart of the matter. Particular people, while not becoming mere ciphers, are not regarded as primary causal agents.

With conspiracy theories, regardless of the type of conspiracy identified, the balance of attention is inverted. The specific deceptive actions of rogue or at least greatly duplicitous and deceptive actors are highlighted.

Consider the media. A person seeking conspiracies will listen to evidence of media subservience to power and see a cabal of bad guys, perhaps corporate, perhaps religious, perhaps federal, censoring the media from doing its proper job. The conspiracy theorist will want to know about that cabal and how people succumb to its will, when they meet, etc. Discussion will highlight the actions of some coterie of editors, writers, newscasters, particular owners, or even a lobby of actors. In contrast, an institutional theorist will highlight the media's internal bureaucracy, socialization processes, profit seeking motivations in a market system, and funding mechanisms (selling audience to advertisers), as well as the interests of media owners directly and more broadly due to their class position. The institutional theorist will want to learn more about the media's structural features and how they work, and about the guiding interests and what they imply. The conspiracy approach will tend to lead people to believe that either they should educate the media malefactors to change their motives, or they should get rid of these malefactors and endorse new editors, writers, newscasters, or owners who will behave differently. The institutional approach will note the possible gains from changes in media personnel, but will explain how limited these changes will be. It will incline people toward a campaign of constant pressure to offset the constant intrinsic institutional pressures for obfuscation, or toward the creation of new media free from the institutional pressures of the mainstream.

(6) Why and how does much (but not all) conspiracy theorizing create a tendency for people to depart from rational analysis?

In a famous study back in the 1950s, researcher Leon Festinger wanted to find out how a religious sect would react when its prophecy that the Earth was going to come to an end failed to come true on the predicted date. When the fateful date arrived and nothing happened, did the believers cease to be believers? No. Instead they revised their beliefs to explain away the failed prediction by asserting that God had given humankind one more chance, and they maintained the rest of their belief system intact. One is entitled, of course, to hold whatever beliefs one wants, but beliefs like those of the religious sect are not rational or scientific, for it is a basic requirement of scientific beliefs that they be in principle falsifiable, that there be the possibility of disconfirming evidence. If a scientific hypothesis predicts X, and instead not-X occurs (and recurs repeatedly with no off-setting explanations for the discrepancy), then the hypothesis ought to be doubted. If the hypothesis flouts prior knowledge as well as current evidence, and is accepted nonetheless, then the behavior is often no longer scientific, nor even rational.

Conspiracy theorists tend to develop a similar attitude as Festinger's religious zealots toward counter-evidence. Where God's mysterious ways salvage the religious believers' failed predictions, added layers of conspiracy salvage disconfirmed conspiracy theories. To the conspiratorial mind, if evidence emerges contradicting a claimed conspiracy, it was planted. If further evidence shows that the first evidence was authentic, then that further evidence too was planted. One website, for example, claims that the Palestinian suicide bombers are actually hoaxes by Israeli intelligence organizations wherein bombs are set off by Israeli agents and a Palestinian body is later added to the debris. But what about the family members of the suicide bomber who speak to the media? This seems like pretty strong counter-evidence against the conspiracy claim. But this it poses no problem for the conspiracy theorist. He or she promptly claims that the family member interviews are all also staged by the Israelis. (See http://www.public-action.com/911/toothfairies.html.)

But don't we all ignore evidence that goes counter to long-held beliefs? And aren't we often right to do so? When magician David Copperfield apparently saws a woman in half, most of us don't suddenly give up our belief in physics and biology. We instead stand by past evidence and suspect a hoax and even if we can't figure out how Copperfield did it, we're not likely to walk into a chain saw anytime soon. We sensibly maintain our beliefs because we have an immense body of prior evidence supporting the prevailing view, and only the one televised magical counter-example.

Conspiracy theorists rarely have a vast amount of evidence confirming the conspiracy with only a little detail or two that doesn't quite fit and can reasonably be set aside. Quite the contrary, conspiracy theories are often strung together from the thinnest reeds of evidence and the counter-evidence is often an irrefutable negation of the very piece of evidence that the conspiracy theorist previously claimed was decisive.

Obviously the World Trade Center attack was a U.S. government hoax, declared conspiracy fans within days of 9-11, because most of the hijackers have turned up to be still alive. This claim took advantage of early confusions, but became completely discredited a short time later. The conspiracy theorists didn't miss a beat. The loss of their crucial evidence weakened their belief in a conspiracy not one iota. Likewise, why is the government not letting people listen to the voice recorders for Flight 93, the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, they intoned. To conspiracy theorists, this hid the fact that the official story of the hijacking was bogus. But when the government belatedly allowed the families of the victims to hear the tapes, few if any conspiracy theorists retracted their claims.

(7) Is a conspiracy theory regarding 9-11 credible?

There is no single conspiracy theory regarding 9-11, there are dozens of them, often mutually contradictory. Thus, it's not just institutional theorists who reject most conspiracy theories, but most conspiracy theorists reject most of them as well, except, of course, the one they happen to champion.

Here are some of the leading 9-11 conspiracy theories:

The World Trade Center was destroyed not by planes but by explosives.

The planes were not hijacked at all, but commandeered by remote control by NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command).

The planes were hijacked, but the hijackers were double-crossed and the planes were taken over by remote control by NORAD.

The hijackers were actually working for the U.S. government.

U.S. intelligence knew about the plot, but intentionally did nothing so as to cause massive deaths that would mobilize public support for a war on terrorism that would benefit the government.

The plot was actually organized by the Mossad.

The Mossad knew about the plot, but did nothing, hoping that the massive deaths would mobilize public support for Israel's war on the Palestinians.

Tower 2 of the World Trade Center was hit by a missile.

There was a joint plot by rogue elements in the CIA, the Mossad, other U.S. government agencies, Mobil (being investigated in a criminal case, all of the evidence against whom was in FBI offices in the World Trade Center), and Russian organized crime (which profited especially from Afghan heroin with which the Taliban was interfering).
We should be forthright here. None of the above strike us as remotely interesting much less plausible. Neither of us would ordinarily have ever spent even five minutes exploring the above claims, because they all fly in the face of our broad understanding of how the world works. But, because such theories seem to have some popularity among progressives, we are taking the time in this essay to briefly address them. However, before considering some of these specific theories, we need to be clear what isn't a conspiracy.

(8) Doesn't the existence of lies and cover-ups point to a conspiracy? And aren't lies and cover-ups profoundly politically important?

To the 9-11 conspiracy theorists, the U.S. (or Israeli or other) perpetrators were individuals of great evil, who intentionally slaughtered or allowed the slaughter of thousands. If it turns out that 9-11 occurred in part because one or more government officials were careless or inept, and those officials later conspired to hide their carelessness or ineptitude, it would be a conspiracy of an entirely different level of significance than the intentional mass murder put forward by the conspiracy theorists, of course.

Yes, ineffective and bungling officials should be taken to task. And officials who illegally try to hide their failings should be prosecuted. But neither problem bears on Left politics or even rises to significant importance. The aftermath of 9-11 saw the U.S. bomb a country despite warnings that doing so might kill millions by starvation. To focus on officials trying to hide their incompetence most likely only distracts from paying appropriate attention to the overt choices of Bush and Co. to endanger a huge number of people.

9-11 may well have involved a great intelligence failure, so it wouldn't be surprising for lots of officials to try to cover their posteriors. Thus we see lots of official cover stories and lots of inconsistencies in these official stories. This does not, however, prove the conspiracy theories. On the contrary, if events were as carefully choreographed as the conspiracy theorists claim, shouldn't the conspirators have been better at coordinating their stories?

Prominent conspiracy theorists Illarion Bykov and Jared Israel say: "It appears that Cheney may have blurted out the crucial fact that the Secret Service had an open line to the FAA, then realized he was talking too much and stopped before completing his sentence. But if he did indeed talk too much, he also stopped talking too late" (http://www.emperors-clothes.com/indict/indict-3.htm).

So here is Cheney, who has just successfully plotted to incinerate thousands of Americans, and, if we pay attention to this sort of discussion at all, we're supposed to believe that he didn't prepare his cover story well enough to avoid blurting out too much.

Who should investigate 9-11: Congress, an independent panel, or no one? Bush and Cheney have been trying to restrict the investigation. The conspiracy theorists take this as further proof of guilt. But if Bush and Cheney really had just plotted the murders of thousands of people, why would they "ask" Daschle to limit the probes? If he is intransigent, why wouldn't they just arrange for him to have a little "accident," thereby throwing control of the Senate back to the GOP (since South Dakota's Governor, who would appoint a replacement, is a Republican)? Why weren't nosy reporters who've tried to find documents relating to what Bush knew accidentally struck by trucks? Here are some of the most ruthless and devious murderers in history, we are told, and they "blurt out too much" and "ask" their foes not to probe too deeply.

Once one enters the terrain of conspiracy theorizing, there is a slippery slope to morass because no counter-evidence is ever enough and every report can be reinterpreted via new assumptions. There is an apocryphal story about Bertrand Russell giving a public talk and afterward an elderly woman walks up and says, "You got a lot right, but about the universe, you missed the point. Everything we see is on the back of a giant turtle." And Russell pondered a moment and says, "Well, okay, what's holding up the turtle?" And she replies, "another larger turtle." And Russell asks what supports that one. And she replies: "It is turtles all the way down." Conspiracy theorizing is often quite like that. If at first one conjured claim doesn't work, no matter, manufacture another.

(9) Do all the ignored warnings about 9-11 prove conspiracy or just incompetence?

Actually, ignored warnings prove neither. It is possible, for example, that there were many warnings but that these warnings were not readily distinguishable from the thousands of other intelligence reports being received at the same time. Despite the conspiracy theories claiming FDR knew in advance about Pearl Harbor, it remains the case that the most compelling explanation for the missed warnings in 1941 was the inability to detect the significant information from the noise. (This is the argument of Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 1962.)

Consider: should we have known that the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be blown up in the months following 9-11? There were certainly warnings available. But it was not blown up. If the bridge had been destroyed, we could point to all the signs that it was going to happen. But how were we to know that these warnings were to be taken seriously, while the dozens of warnings that focused on other targets were not? We didn't, and that's why most residents of the Bay area, probably including all those in the area who hold a conspiracy view, didn't steer clear of the Golden Gate Bridge.

There certainly could have been gross incompetence regarding 9-11. But even if it turns out that someone should have known what was going to happen, not just with hindsight, but by examining available intelligence information, both relevant and irrelevant, this would be a far cry from proving conspiracy.

One of the main arguments for foreknowledge of 9-11 is that any rational person looking at the warnings and evidence accumulated by U.S. officials before 9-11 would have concluded that an attack was going to occur. To not have put in motion measures to stop it therefore proves complicity.

Consider two clues:

The FAA has a "Red Team" whose job it is to try to smuggle explosives and weapons past airport checkpoints to test airport security. According to Bogdan Dzakovic, a member of the team, airport security failed 90 percent of the tests, but the FAA did nothing about it, essentially blocking further tests.

A report by the Library of Congress to the National Intelligence Council stated: "Suicide bomber belonging to Al Qaeda's Martyrdom Battalion could crash land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the C.I.A. or the White House."
These clues would lead some to conclude that the president "must have known": But the "president" who must have known in these cases was Bill Clinton. Dzakovic had his tests squelched in 1998 (Blake Morrison, USA Today, 25 Feb. 2002, pp. A1, A4) and the Library of Congress study was written during the Clinton administration (quoted in William Safire, "The Williams Memo," New York Times, 20 May 2002, p. A19). So either Clinton too was in on the plot (and his top aides, Gore, Cohen, Albright?) or else it's possible to have received such reports and still not done anything even though one wasn't a conspirator.

Conspiracy theorists often endow their enemies (whether the CIA or capitalists or Jews or Freemasons) with immense powers and near infallibility. Nothing is accidental or unintended. Therefore, since Bush and Co. must have perceived relevant evidence of an impending terror strike, say the conspiracy theorists, and would not have overlooked evidence if they didn't want such a strike to occur, they must have been in on it. But consider these indications of less than infallible perception:

The INS sent a student visa to two of the hijackers six months after 9-11.
Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was allowed on a plane despite his suspicious behavior and an FAA advisory to watch for shoe bombs.
Reporters tested security at airports post-9-11 and were able to get weapons past checkpoints. (Surely it can't look good for the Bush administration to appear so inept that he can't protect the public.)
Conspiracy theorists, of course, seeing turtles all the way down, may next claim that each of these instances were deliberate blunders carried out by U.S. officials in on the charades in order to give the impression of incompetence to cover up their masters' earlier crimes. And perhaps all of Bush's malapropisms are also part of the ruse. And his drug use and drunk driving and his C- grade in International Relations, or whatever. Again, it is a morass, distracting and unproductive.

(10) Why are conspiracy theories regarding 9-11 not credible?

For each of the different conspiracy theories, various possibilities exist for who was conspiring. Thus, when we take into account all the permutations of who was involved for each different theory, we have at least several dozen different conspiracy theories for 9-11. The average Leftist is supposed burrow among all this, virtually endlessly. Yet in fact none of these theories is even moderately persuasive.

Consider first those variations that have Bush pulling the attacks off alone, with perhaps a few trusted aides. One feels like one is entering a twilight zone of inattentiveness to reality even engaging in such discussion, but surely Bush couldn't arrange for U.S. agents to orchestrate the plot without the cooperation of top CIA or military intelligence officials; surely he couldn't get NORAD to take over the planes by remote control without the cooperation of top NORAD officials. Or imagine that the plot was the version requiring the least pre-planning -- namely, that Bush was surprised when the first tower was hit, but then consciously decided to act to allow the rest of the strikes to take place in order to reap the benefits of a war on terrorism. Could it be that Bush was able to figure out the implications of that initial attack, but that none of his other top advisers insisted that he take action? If it was obvious enough to Bush where all this was leading, wouldn't it have been obvious to top national security advisers who were not privy to the plot that something had to be done? Would these advisers have let Bush continue with his elementary school visit (where he was between 9 and 9:30 the morning of September 11) without insisting on an urgent meeting?

If Bush deciding alone on the spot to let the attacks continue is scarcely credible, no matter, consider another variation: that Bush had advance warning of what was going to happen and that he decided to let it happen, again in order to garner the benefits of the ensuing war fever. Bykov and Israel claim that there is no way that the president would have continued his elementary school visit after the Twin Towers were struck unless he knew about it in advance:

There is only one explanation for the Secret Service allowing President Bush to take the deadly risk of going to the Booker School on the morning of September 11th.

George Walker Bush knew the plans for 9-11. And because he knew those plans, he knew that nobody was going to attack the Booker School (http://emperors-clothes.com/indic t/indict-3.htm).

The premise here is that anyone aware that the Twin Towers were struck would know that the president and the country were in immediate danger. But then why didn't the Secret Service demand to rush Bush to safety? If Bush were going to overrule his Secret Service team, wouldn't we have seen some evidence of it between 9:05 (when Tower 2 was struck) and 9:30? And if Bush were so smart to have planned this whole thing, why would he interfere with the Secret Service's routine procedures? Why not let them rush him to safety? Or, if the Secret Service is in on it -- could the plotters really be certain that they all would maintain perfect silence about a mass murder plot?

Bush later allowed the Secret Service to hide him on various military bases rather than return directly to Washington, a decision that led to much criticism of the president for failing to lead the nation in a crisis. You'd think with advance planning, Bush could have arranged to look properly cautious at first and then like a heroic leader later. Instead he seemed confused and then chicken. (Of course, conspiracy theorists will say that the initial confusion and then the hiding were all part of the deception, finding turtles all the way down. Sure, sometimes it pays to feign stupidity -- as when Reagan said he couldn't recall anything about Iran-Contra -- but this was only after the plot was discovered. In the 9-11 case, however, according to these conspiracy theorists the initial plot is supposedly intended to make the president look like an idiot.) Criminals usually take care to prepare their alibis. Are we to believe that Bush planned the largest peacetime terrorist plot in history and didn't bother thinking through what would make his behavior seem least suspicious and most praiseworthy?

Would everyone hearing of the second attack on the World Trade Center at 9:05 a.m. have immediately known what was going on? Some of the conspiracy theorists say yes. But then why did the FAA not ground all U.S. flights until 9:40 a.m.? (Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, 24 Sept. 2001) Four planes were already known to have been hijacked, two had already plowed into buildings more than half an hour earlier. There are two possibilities. Either the FAA was in on the plot too, and its officials have been silent since, or else there was genuine confusion that morning and it was quite possible to not know what was happening. For that matter, even if the FAA were in on the plot, it's hard to see what purpose could be served by delaying the grounding of the planes. The morass.

What other top officials might have been involved in the plot in addition to Bush? Bykov and Israel say (with no particular evidence) that Rumsfeld and Myers, the Secretary of Defense and the acting Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were involved. If he wants to argue that according to the established chain of command, these are the individuals responsible for protecting U.S. national security and that they failed, that is surely true, but hardly something to warrant the political attention of the Left. But Bykov and Israel don't want to make this argument. They say explicitly: "Their behavior, as described in the media, presents the appearance of bewilderment, naivet and lack of preparedness. But we shall prove this appearance was contrived" (http://emperors-clothes.com/indic t/indict-2.htm).

So we are supposed to believe that the top Pentagon officials have arranged an attack on the Pentagon, where lots of their cronies and top aides worked. (Yes, maybe they could have arranged for their closest friends to be on the other side of the building, but this seems rather difficult to pull off -- and now we are into the morass, one claim after another, again.) And why, by the way, attack the Pentagon at all? Wouldn't Bush have gotten just as much support for his war on terrorism if just the WTC was hit and not the Pentagon?

Was the CIA involved? If not, how could the plotters be sure that the CIA wouldn't find out about the conspiracy and blow the whistle? If the CIA was involved, however, what about the fact that CIA chief Tenet was a Clinton appointee. (Yes, Democrats are as imperialist as Republicans; but a secret plot to commit mass murder is likely to be closely held. And if the Democrats are in on the plot, then why are folks like Hillary Clinton calling for an investigation?) One can weave a bigger web, with more turtles, ad infinitum. There is no proving a negative, particularly about events that are intrinsically largely beyond our purview of investigation. In such cases our overarching understanding of the context, the institutional situation, and our broader agendas should come into play. But not for those who see turtles all the way down.

One of Bush's closest cronies is Ted Olson. Olson was the lawyer who argued the Bush-should-be-president case before the Supreme Court and was made Solicitor General as pay-off. Was Olson in on the plot? Does it matter that Olson's wife, Barbara, was on the plane that hit the Pentagon? Was this too just to throw investigators off the scent of the plot? (Yes, we know, Ted may have wanted to leave Barbara for some super-model, and Barbara wouldn't give him a divorce, so maybe the whole plot was just a cover to get Ted out of his marriage.)

What about Attorney General John Ashcroft? Was he in on it? As the author of the Patriot Act that was made possible by the war on terrorism, he seems like someone with something to gain from 9-11. And we know that he was told by the FBI in July that for his safety he should avoid commercial flights (Newsweek, 27 May 2002). Doesn't this prove conspiracy? Well, no. It may show a callous disregard for the well-being of the American public -- instead of making the skies safe for all passengers, the privileged are taken care of and the rest are ignored -- but it doesn't indicate that Ashcroft or anyone else knew about 9-11. (For example, leaders often have access to better medical care than the population at large; rather than improve medical care for all, selfish elites provide themselves with first-class care and let others fend for themselves. This is contemptible behavior, of course, but it is systematically produced by the institutions of capitalist and elite-dominated societies and it is very different from suggesting that members of the elite secretly inject the general population with cancer cells.) In any event, if Ashcroft were privy to the 9-11 plot he certainly left himself vulnerable to charges of gross incompetence, rejecting in the months before 9-11 FBI requests for more counter-terrorism analysts (Newsweek, 27 May 2002).

If, to go on with the line-up of options, as in some versions of the conspiracy theories, bin Laden is controlled by or faked by the U.S. government, then why didn't the plotters arrange for the "evidence" to implicate Iraq (a place they're much more eager to invade than Afghanistan)? The hijackers could have left all sorts of material behind linking themselves to Saddam Hussein. Mohammed Atta's will could have referred to funds and direction from Baghdad. If, on the other hand, the U.S. plotters didn't control bin Laden, but only knew of his plans through some sort of electronic or human intelligence, then how could they be sure that the plane that struck the Pentagon wouldn't instead hit some target they really cared about?

Bush, of course, knows no history. But if any of the bright people around him were in on the plot, surely they would have told him how hard it is to keep a secret. Kissinger ordered the secret falsification of records of where U.S. planes in Indochina were bombing to hide the fact that Cambodia was being targeted. A radar operator spilled the beans. And what was at stake there was something that many US soldiers might not have cared very much about. But to have several hundred people involved in a plot to commit mass murder, not of people who can be considered sub-human, or "other," etc., but thousands of Americans -- that's a secret that would be extraordinary to expect to be kept secret. To take that risk at all, much less when they already had immense power, is simply not believable.

(11) What about bin Laden's former ties to the U.S.? Don't they reveal the secret roots of conspiracy?

Conspiracy buffs have given major play to the testimony of Michael Springman, a former U.S. consular official in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Springman has related that he was told by his superiors to admit into the United States a large number of Middle Easterners for terrorist training. But Springman served in Jeddah while the Soviet Union was still in Afghanistan. Thus, Springman can testify to nothing more than what we already knew: namely, that the CIA was backing bin Laden and other Arab terrorists in Afghanistan. Why does it follow that because the U.S. supported bin Laden (or other particular terrorists) at one point in time, thereafter these terrorists must be still working for the U.S. government? It doesn't, of course. Springman himself is an example of someone who was working for the U.S. government at one time and then broke with them. Another is Michael Ruppert, a former cop and now a leading conspiracy theorist.

Some conspiracy theorists claim that bin Laden never broke with the U.S. For example, in 1995, the US failed to take up Sudan's offer to extradite bin Laden. Jared Israel says "the simplest explanation" is "that bin Laden was a U.S. asset -- either part of the CIA, or someone whom the CIA used. Perhaps the 'Washington Post' writers were hinting at this explanation when they wrote:

"And there were the beginnings of a debate, intensified lately, on whether the United States wanted to indict and try bin Laden or to treat him as a combatant in an underground war." ('The Washington Post,' 3 October 2001)

And Jared Israel adds "Emphasis on the word 'treat' as in 'pretend that he was'" ( http://emperors-clothes.com/news/probestop-i.htm).

But the Washington Post writers (actually "writer") were hinting at nothing of the sort. They were referring to the debate in the U.S. government over whether to try bin Laden or kill him. (The article goes on to say that U.S. officials were reluctant to put bin Laden on trial in the United States -- a reluctance expressed post 9-11 as well -- and tried to get him extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he could be summarily beheaded, but the Saudis balked.)

Conspiracy enthusiasts have also given a lot of attention to a story in Le Figaro alleging that the CIA met with bin Laden in a hospital in the United Arab Emirates in July 2001. This story has never been confirmed and there are many reasons to doubt it. The article claims that "the local CIA agents known to many in Dubai" boasted to friends of meeting with bin Laden. Would the most heinous plot in history be entrusted to a well-known CIA agent who blabs to friends? And then implemented? Is this the way that U.S. government officials would choose to communicate with a co-conspirator. The hospital head denied the story, noting that "this is too small a hospital for someone to be snuck through the backdoor" (Joseph Fitchett, International Herald Tribune, 1 Nov. 2001). It should be noted that not all conspiracy theorists credit this story; one argues that the story was in fact a CIA plant: If bin Laden did meet with the CIA, "why are they telling us about it? Answer: Because they want us to know. Question: Why would they want us to "know"? Answer: Because it serves their purposes." (http://www.public-action.com/911/ ob_cia.html). Same evidence, two meanings, three meanings, no matter, turtles all the way down.

(12) What about looking at who benefits to see who must be responsible - doesn't that imply conspiracy?

There is a rule of thumb in mysteries to ask who benefits. This is often useful, but hardly definitive. First of all, we know from mystery writers that there is often more than one suspect with a motive. Does the US government gain from 9-11? Yes. Does Israel? Yes. But what about Russia (which now has a freer hand in Chechnya)? Yes also. How about China? Yes, also, with its free hand in Xinjiang, and the far lower likelihood that the United States will try to isolate it.

If one goes through history and uncritically and mechanically applies the "who benefits?" principle, one finds it a poor guide to understanding. The tragedy of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire (where 146 women died when their employer kept the exit locked to prevent them from taking breaks) was a great boon to the garment workers union -- should we conclude that the union was secretly behind the fire? The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, helped galvanize public opinion behind civil rights legislation. Was the bombing a plot by civil rights organizers? The Bolshevik revolution was made possible by World War I. Were the Bolsheviks secretly behind the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914? Teddy Roosevelt became president after McKinley's assassination. Was he the secret paymaster behind assassin Leon Czolgosz?

"Who benefits?" has another problem in historical analysis. Sometimes it's quite easy to predict the consequences of an action. Kill your well-insured, wealthy spouse and inherit a lot of money. But what are the consequences in a country teetering on the edge of recession of causing hundreds of billions of dollars of damage? George Bush certainly had the memory of his father's experience, whose war popularity didn't help him win re-election in the face of an economic downturn. And however much one could predict a rallying around the flag in the face of crisis, it is also true that presidents often get blamed for things that go wrong on their watch. As predictable as the wartime bounce in presidential popularity was that the inevitable search for who was responsible would lead many individuals -- an FBI agent here, an FAA bureaucrat there -- to try to cover their own butts by pointing the finger at higher ups. Whether Bush will emerge from all this stronger or weaker is by no means obvious.

(13) But surely the U.S. government is capable of committing atrocities, isn't it? Doesn't that make plausible a conspiracy?

Bush may kill millions of foreigners, millions of faceless Americans (with cigarettes, but probably not machine gun them), and probably not his mother (yes, if she were going to turn him in, etc., but not routinely or easily). Ten members of the ruling class could probably conspire to kill 1,000 foreigners and take the secret with them to their graves, but it is much less likely that they could conspire to kill 1,000 Americans or their mothers and be sure that this would remain a secret.

Conspiracy theorists have pointed to the Operation Northwoods document as proving that U.S. leaders were capable of 9-11. The document is a recently released top secret 1962 memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposing the staging of attacks on U.S. targets that would appear to be coming from Cuba, as a way to justify a U.S. attack on the island.

Thus, Jared Israel writes:

That is why Operation Northwoods is so important. For we now know that in 1962 the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed staging phony attacks to destroy U.S. property, killing Cuban refugees and U.S. citizens, in order to create a wave of indignation and rage, to justify an invasion of Cuba... (http://emperors-clothes.com/i mages/north-int.htm)

But, as Jared Israel knows -- and acknowledges later in his article, though others who cite the document ignore this -- the Joint Chiefs didn't call for killing U.S. citizens. They did propose sinking a boatload of Cuban refugees (though we don't know whether the Joint Chiefs would have arranged for a U.S. vessel to fortuitously be on hand to pick up the refugees in the water), but with regard to the shoot down of a plane filled with U.S. college students, the plan was to switch an actual planeload of students with an "unmanned" drone that would be shot down, supposedly by Cuba. Elsewhere, Operation Northwoods proposes blowing up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay in a "Remember the Maine" replay, but explicitly refers to a "non-existent crew." The document also suggests attacks on Cuban refugees in the United States "even to the extent of wounding." So if this document is supposed to show us what U.S. officials are morally capable of, it seems to suggest that they are capable of lying, deceit, conspiring to wage a war of aggression -- but not killing U.S. citizens.

Moreover, as far as we can tell, the plan proposed by the Joint Chiefs was rejected by the U.S. civilian leadership. (Actually, we didn't need this document to tell us that U.S. policymakers were willing to falsify an incident to justify invasion of Cuba. We've known for quite a while that during the Cuban missile crisis Bobby Kennedy proposed that Washington stage a "Remember the Maine" incident as a justification for war.) It should be noted that not all conspiracy theorists have been promoting the Operation Northwoods document. Carol A. Valentine argues that the document is itself a forgery, probably planted by Israeli intelligence, as proven by the fact that it uses the phrase "college students off on a holiday," which, says Valentine, no American would say (http://www.public-action.com/91 1/northwds.html).

Now imagine a committed conspiracy theorist reading the above paragraph. Whichever side they are on about Northwoods, they can go on and on with debate and assertion, piling hypothesis on top of hypothesis, turtles galore -- and what is one to do? When does one say, "Enough! This is just distracting attention from serious priorities"? Very early on, as in our view? Somewhat later? Later still? Never? Each has to decide for themselves.

(14) Why is conspiracy theorizing popular among critics of injustice?

Conspiracy theorizing that highlights individuals is the modus operandi of prosecutors, of course. After all, they must identify proximate causes and human actors to punish. But why does conspiracy theorizing appeal to people concerned to change society? Many possible answers arise.

First, the evidence conspiracy theories reveal can identify actual events needing other explanation. More, describing the detailed entwinements can become addictive. We find one puzzle and then another and another to uncover. The appeal is of the mysterious. It is dramatic, vivid, and human. And we can make steady progress, like in a murder investigation. Finally, the desire for retribution fuels forays into personal detail. It is a journalistic task with clear parameters and obvious satisfaction to be had, unless, of course, one rejects the entire premise, logic, method, and prioritization.

Second, conspiracy theories have manageable implications. They imply that all was well once and that it can be okay again if only the conspirators can be removed. Conspiracy theories explain ills without forcing us to disavow society's underlying institutions. They allow us to admit horrors and to express our indignation and anger or undertake vendettas, but without rejecting the basic norms of society. We discover that a particular government official or corporate lawyer is bad, but the government and law per se remain okay. We urge getting rid of bad apples, but leaving the orchard intact. All this is convenient and seductive. We can reject specific candidates but not government, specific CEOs but not capitalism, specific writers, editors, and even owners of periodicals, but not mainstream media. We can reject vile manipulators, but not basic institutions. And we can continue to appeal to the institutions for recognition, status, or payment.

Third, and least likely among Leftists, conspiracy theory can provide an easy and quick outlet for pent-up passion withheld from targets that seem unassailable or that might strike back. This is conspiracy theory turned into scapegoat theory. Some minority, some enemy, is tarred, and the talons are unleashed. Racism and conspiracies have long gone together, if not universally, certainly frequently.

Evaluating all this, it would be bad enough if conspiracy theorizing just attuned people to search after coteries while ignoring institutions, thereby reducing energies applied to useful ends as in the wasteful misallocation of energies of the many Kennedy assassination theorists of past decades. At least in that case the values at play could be progressive and we could hope, however faintly, that people involved would in time gravitate toward real explanations of more structural and important phenomena. But the sad fact is that the effects of adopting a conspiracy theory orientation can be and often are still worse.

(15) How do conspiracy theories lead to harmful political inclinations and allegiances?

Conspiracy theories often lead Leftists to establish connections to or tolerate alliances with right-wing crazies. One of the authors of this article was handed a stack of materials by a Leftist conspiracy enthusiast that included print-outs from Public Action, Inc. (http://www.public-action.com/), which, in addition to its 9-11 conspiracy claims, has links to many Holocaust denial sites. This is regrettably typical.

Conspiracy theories often lead to the foolish glorification of people who were supposedly not in on the conspiracy, but whom Leftists ought not be glorifying. Thus, John F. Kennedy has become something of a hero to JFK-assassination conspiracy theorists on the (probably false) grounds that he was going to get us out of Vietnam, a claim needed by them to provide rationales for various of their hypotheses, and so asserted no matter how divorced from serious evidence.

Conspiracy theories lead us to counterproductive and wrong priorities. There are many pressing issues for U.S. Leftists today -- preventing war in Iraq, restraining Israeli aggression, fighting the assault on civil liberties, exposing the phony U.S.-Russian nuclear arms deal, and so on. Unfortunately too many Leftists have gotten wrapped up in supporting the Democratic-party-led campaign to investigate what Bush knew and when. Just in the past few weeks, how much energy from people well on the Left has gone to the Bush question, with no credible gains, and away from directions where our energies are sorely needed? Leftists have gone from planning teach-ins on the Mideast to planning gatherings to talk about the detailed claims of who knew what when. (In fact, if we were to apply the "who benefits?" principle, we might ask whether conspiracy theorizing itself is a plot by the CIA to distract us all from the struggle against globalization? Imagine debating that conspiracy theory, hour after hour, and then debating about debating about....)

Conspiracy theorists cause the Left not to be taken seriously. Much of the public finds conspiracy theories loony. This is true of course, about lots of Left ideas, but (a) most Left ideas are true, unlike a lot of the conspiracy theories, and (b) most Leftists take their Left politics seriously. But on a certain level, many conspiracy theorists give the impression that they are playing games. Do they really believe what they write? If we thought the government was run by out-of-control murderers with immense power who would stop at nothing to get their way, would we be hanging around writing articles? Or would we be underground? Which is the appropriate response if one expects an imminent fascist takeover?
Conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert reports that his conspiracy web site has been hacked a number of times and he suggests that this is the work of those who want to shut him up. But he promises to make his site ever more hack-proof. Can he really believe that the CIA is attacking his site? If so, is it credible that his technical fix is going to stump the most well-paid and technologically-sophisticated intelligence service in the world that has just wiped out thousands of Americans and is being exposed by Ruppert? Credibility and seriousness are not enhanced by checking the links on Ruppert's site that he specifically recommends as providing "reason and reliable information." In addition to links to right-wing rumor-monger Matt Drudge (Ruppert's "favorite news site on the web"), TWA 800 conspiracy theories, Vincent Foster conspiracy theories, and the like, there is a link to "We the People," a site "dedicated to two of the most pressing issues of our time," CIA complicity in the crack-cocaine epidemic and the murder of Princess Diana in accord with orders from Queen Elizabeth and Bill Clinton. Another Ruppert recommended site is the Conspiracy Theory Research List, which leads us to the Bilderberg conspiracy site which, in a show of even-handedness, presents both sides of the question regarding whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a valid proof of a Zionist conspiracy. Elements of the Left taking Rupert seriously contributes to average folks ignoring not only Rupert, but the Left too.

As bad or even worse than the fact that many find conspiracy theories loony, is that all too many people take conspiracy theories seriously. Not only is it a way to rationalize horrible injustices and suffering without calling basic institutions into account, it is part and parcel of thinking that injustice is an inevitable part of the human equation. Some folks are bad, so we get lots of bad outcomes. We can't do anything beyond having a good district attorney and going on about our business. If everything is under the control of immensely powerful and incredibly evil forces, there is no point in fighting injustice. Left-wing conspiracy theorizing, no less than right wing conspiracy theorizing, when it appeals to the public is worse than when it doesn't.

Finally, conspiracy theories lead to bizarre judgments of who one's enemies are. We're not talking here about Jared Israel's characterizing Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Michael Albert as "accomplices in genocide" (http://www.emperors-clo thes.com/analysis/revenge.htm) because this is not a function of his conspiracy theorizing but of his Milosevic worshipping. But consider some other conspiracy theorists' political judgments. One brands The Progressive, Z Magazine, and The Nation as "supposed leftist media organs" because their writers don't accept the Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theories (http://www.webcom.com/lp ease/media/cockburn.htm). Another charges that "leading progressive/left/liberal thinkers and writers like I.F. Stone, Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn will only criticize the monied and powerful to the extent that they think it is safe for them to do " as demonstrated by the fact that they do not accept JFK conspiracy theories, making them "no different in principle" from the mainstream news media (http://www.r tis.com/reg/bcs/pol/touchstone/february97/worsham.htm). Such confusions don't help the struggle for social justice.
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