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Silja j.a. Talvi
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Eleanor J. Bader
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Conspiracies Or Institutions? 9-11 and Beyond
Stephen R. Shalom & Michael Albert
There has been much frenzied debate on the Internet and in the news recently suggesting that the government knew beforehand about the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks and let them happen in order to use these horrible events to pursue their right-wing agendas. In the months since 9-11, conspiracy theories have been multiplying rapidly, gaining, it would seem, popularity in the mainstream, on the right, and even on the left.
None of the conspiracies being talked about strike us as remotely interesting, much less plausible. Neither of us would ordinarily have spent even five minutes exploring conspiracy claims because they fly in the face of our broad understanding of how the world works. But such theories seem to have some popularity among progressives, so they must be addressed.
- 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 conspiracy theories include the belief that: (1) JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; (2) negotiations between the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in then-President Carters last year failed because Reagans aides secretly struck a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; (3) 9-11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly engineering rightward alignments in the United States and/or Israel.
A broader definition of conspiracy includes misleading, but still legal acts. 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 definition because its 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 a conspiracy, then virtually everything is a conspiracy. General Motors executives meeting to decide what kind of car to produce would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, every university department closed session 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. No one would call all the secret acts of national security agencies conspiracies, as they are sufficiently normal and expected.
We dont talk of a conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes candidates and their staff working privately to develop strategy. We do talk about a conspiracy, however, if their strategy includes stealing the other partys plans, spiking their rivals drinks with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional activity.
- What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?
Any 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 in a rogue fashion, or to fool the public. 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, rather than seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy, conspiracy theorists ask, Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in 1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles? Rather than examining the shared policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, as an examination of institutions would emphasize, they ask, Did a group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from Vietnam?
- What characterizes institutional theorizing?
An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other institutional dynamics that compel important events and have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists notice individual actions, but dont elevate them to prime causes. The point is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning about particular culpable people. The assumption is that if the particular people hadnt been there to do the events, someone else would have.
There are, of course, complicating borderline cases. A person trying to discover a possible CIA role in 9-11 could be trying to verify a larger (incorrect) institutional theorythat the U.S. government is run by the CIA. Or a person might be trying to demonstrate that some set of U.S. institutions propels those involved toward conspiring. Someone studying Enron 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 provide a context that make conspiracies against the public by corporate CEOs highly probable. The difference is between trying to understand society by understanding its institutional dynamics versus trying to understand some singular event by understanding the activities of the people involved.
- Does conspiracy theorizing create a tendency for people to depart from rational analysis?
In a famous study 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 asserted 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. If a scientific hypothsis predicts X and not-X occurs (and recurs repeatedly), 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 neither scientific, nor rational.
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, too, was planted.
- What about specific 9-11 conspiracy theories?
are, in fact, dozens of 9-11 conspiracy theories. Here are some
of the leading ones, many of them mutually contradictory:
- The World Trade Center was not destroyed by planes, but by explosives
- The planes were not hijacked, but commandeered by NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command)
- The hijackers were actually working for the U.S. government
- U.S. intelligence knew about the plot, but did nothing so as to cause massive deaths and thereby mobilize public support for a war on terrorism that would benefit the government
- The plot was organized by the Mossad
- The Mossad knew about the plot, but did nothing, hoping that the massive deaths would mobilize public support for Israels war on the Palestinians
- Dont lies and cover-ups point to a conspiracy?
- Why arent 9-11 conspiracy theories credible?
- What about bin Ladens former ties to the U.S.?
- What about looking at who benefits?
- But the U.S. government is capable of committing atrocities.
- Why is conspiracy theorizing popular among critics of injustice?
- How do conspiracy theories lead to harmful political inclinations and allegiances?
9-11 may have involved a great intelligence failure, so it wouldnt be surprising for lots of officials to try to cover their posteriors. This does not, however, prove conspiracy. On the contrary, if events were as carefully choreographed as the conspiracy theorists claim, the conspirators would 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.
So were to believe that Vice President Cheney, having just successfully plotted to incinerate thousands of Americans, didnt prepare his cover story well enough to avoid blurting out too much.
One of the main arguments for foreknowledge of 9-11 is that any rational person looking at the evidence accumulated by U.S. officials before 9-11 would have concluded that an attack was going to occur. Conspiracy theorists claim that failure to put in motion measures to stop the attack proves complicity. Consider two clues: (1) 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. (2) A report by the Library of Congress to the National Intelligence Council stated: Suicide bomber belonging to Al Qaedas 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. So either Clinton, too, was in on the conspiracy or else its possible to have received such reports and still done nothing.
Conspiracy theorists often endow their enemies (whether the CIA or capitalists or Jews or Freemasons) with immense powers and near infallibility. To them, nothing is accidental or unintended. Since Bush and Co. must have received evidence of an impending terror strike, say the conspiracy theorists, and would not have overlooked such evidence if they didnt want such a strike to occur, then they must have been in on it. But consider these indications of less than infallible perception: (1) The INS sent a student visa to two of the hijackers six months after 9-11. (2) Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was allowed on a plane despite his suspicious behavior and an FAA advisory to watch for shoe bombs. (3) Reporters tested security at airports post-9-11 and were able to get weapons past checkpoints. Incompetence does occur.
Consider first those variations that have Bush pulling the attacks off alone, with perhaps a few trusted aides. Could Bush possible have arranged for U.S. agents to orchestrate the plot without the cooperation of top CIA or military intelligence officials? Surely he couldnt get NORAD to take over the planes by remote control without the cooperation of its top officials. Or imagine the version requiring the least pre-planningnamely, that Bush was surprised when the first tower was hit, but then consciously decided to allow the rest of the strikes to take place in order to reap the benefits of a war on terrorism. If it was obvious enough to Bush where all this was leading, wouldnt 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 9:00 and 9:30 AM on September 11)?
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 didnt the Secret Service rush Bush to safety? If Bush was going to overrule his Secret Service team, wouldnt we have seen some evidence of it between 9:05 (when Tower 2 was struck) and 9:30? If Bush was smart enough to have planned this whole thing, why would he interfere with the Secret Services routine procedures? Or, if the Secret Service was in on itcould the plotters really be certain that they would maintain perfect silence about a plot involving the mass murder of U.S. citizens?
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. Youd think with advance planning, Bush could have arranged to look like a heroic leader. Instead he seemed confused and then chicken. Are we to believe that Bush planned the largest peacetime terrorist plot in history and didnt bother thinking through what would make his behavior seem most praiseworthy?
Wouldnt those hearing of the second attack on the World Trade Center at 9:05 AM have immediately known what was going on? Some of the conspiracy theorists say yes. Then why did the FAA wait until 9:40 AM to ground all U.S. flights? 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 there was genuine confusion that morning. Even if the FAA was in on the plot, its hard to see what purpose could be served by delaying the grounding of the planes.
So we are supposed to believe that top Pentagon officials arranged an attack on the Pentagon, where lots of their cronies and top aides worked? And why, by the way, attack the Pentagon at all? Wouldnt Bush have gotten just as much support for his war on terrorism if just the WTC was hit?
Was the CIA involved? If not, how could the plotters be sure that the CIA wouldnt 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. If the Democrats were in on the plot, then why are folks like Hillary Clinton calling for an investigation?
What about Attorney General John Ashcroft? Was he in on it? As the author of the Patriot Act, he seems to have much to gain from 9-11. We know that the FBI told him in July that for his safety he should avoid commercial flights. Doesnt this prove conspiracy? Well, no. It doesnt indicate that Ashcroft or anyone else knew about 9-11. In any event, if Ashcroft was privy to the 9-11 plot, he certainly left himself vulnerable to charges of gross incompetence by rejecting FBI requests for more counter-terrorism analysts.
If, as in some versions of the conspiracy theories, bin Laden is controlled by or faked by the U.S. government, then why didnt the plotters arrange for the evidence to implicate Iraq (a place theyre much more eager to invade than Afghanistan)?
Conspiracy buffs have given major play to the testimony of Michael Springman, a former U.S. consular official in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Springman said he was told by his superiors to admit a large number of Middle Easterners into the United States for terrorist training. But Springman served in Jeddah while the Soviet Union was still in Afghanistan. Thus, Springman can only testify to what we already know: namely, that the CIA was backing bin Laden and other Arab terrorists in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Why does it follow that because the U.S. supported bin Laden (or other terrorists) at one point in time, these terrorists must be later working for the U.S. government? It doesnt, of course. Springman himself is an example of someone who was working for the U.S. government at one time and then broke with it; another is Michael Ruppert, a former cop and now a leading conspiracy theorist.
Asking who benefits? is often useful, but hardly definitive. 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 McKinleys assassination. Was he secretly behind assassin Leon Czolgosz?
Who benefits? has another problem in historical analysis. Sometimes its not easy to predict the consequences of an action. George Bush certainly had the memory of his fathers experience, whose war popularity didnt help him win re-election in the face of an economic downturn. Whether Bush will emerge from all this stronger or weaker is by no means obvious.
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 North- woods 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.
But, as Jared Israel knowsand acknowledges later in his article, though others who cite the document ignore thisthe Joint Chiefs didnt call for killing U.S. citizens. They did propose sinking a boatload of Cuban refugees, but regarding the shooting 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 is a Remember the Maine replay, but explicitly refers to a non-existent crew.
First, conspiracy theories reveal evidence that can identify actual events needing other explanation. More, describing the detailed entwinements can become addictive. The appeal is of the mysterious. It is dramatic, vivid, and human. We can also make steady progress, like in a murder investigation.
Second, conspiracy theories have manageable implications. They imply that all was once well and that it can be okay again if only the conspirators can be removed. Conspiracy theories explain ills without forcing us to disavow societys 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 remain okay. We urge getting rid of bad apples, but leaving the orchard intact. We can reject specific candidates but not government, specific CEOs but not capitalism, specific writers, editors, and owners of periodicals, but not mainstream media. We can reject vile manipulators, but not basic institutions. We can continue to appeal to institutions for recognition, status, or payment.
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 materials by a Leftist conspiracy enthusiast that included print-outs from Public Action, Inc., which, in addition to its 9-11 conspiracy claims, has links to Holocaust denial sites. This is regrettably typical.
Conspiracy theories also lead to the glorification of people who were supposedly not in on the conspiracy, but whom Leftists ought not to 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 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 todaypreventing 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.
The left is often not taken seriously when it promotes conspiracy theories. Much of the public finds conspiracy theories loony. Many conspiracy theorists give the impression that they are playing games. 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? How seriously will the left be taken when, for example, conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert recommends as reliable a website claiming that one of the two most pressing issues of our time, is the murder of Princess Diana on orders from Queen Elizabeth and Bill Clinton.
Too many people take conspiracy theories seriously. Not only is it a way to rationalize injustices and suffering without calling basic institutions into account, it leads to the thinking that injustice is an inevitable part of the human equationsome folks are bad, so we get lots of bad outcomes. If everything is under the control of 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 doesnt.
Conspiracy theories lead to bizarre judgments of who ones enemies are. Some conspiracy theorists, for example, brand progressive media, writers, and thinkers who fail to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon as no different in principle from the mainstream. Such confusions dont help the struggle for social justice. Z
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University and is author of the forthcoming text, Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics (Longman). Michael Albert an activist, author, and systems operator for ZNet. His latest book is The Trajectory of Change (South End Press). This article on conspiracy theories is also available on ZNet with links, citations, and additional evidence and arguments.