Stephen R. Shalom & Michael Albert
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.
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?
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 Carter’s last year failed because Reagan’s
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
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 it’s not just secret, but actively deceptive.
But no definition of conspiracy, however broad, includes everything
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.
don’t 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 party’s plans, spiking
their rival’s drinks with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely
claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional
What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?
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.
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?
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
don’t 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
hadn’t been there to do the events, someone else would have.
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 theory—that 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?
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
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 Israel’s war on
Don’t lies and cover-ups point to a conspiracy?
Why aren’t 9-11 conspiracy theories credible?
What about bin Laden’s 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
may have involved a great intelligence failure, so it wouldn’t
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
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 we’re to believe that Vice President Cheney, having just
successfully plotted to incinerate thousands of Americans, didn’t
prepare his cover story well enough to avoid blurting out “too
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 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. So either
Clinton, too, was in on the “conspiracy” or else it’s
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 didn’t 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.
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 couldn’t
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-planning—namely, 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, 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 9:00 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 didn’t the Secret Service rush Bush
to safety? If Bush was 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? If Bush was smart enough to have
planned this whole thing, why would he interfere with the Secret
Service’s routine procedures? Or, if the Secret Service was
in on it—could 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. You’d 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 didn’t
bother thinking through what would make his behavior seem most
Wouldn’t 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, it’s hard to see what
purpose could be served by delaying the grounding of the planes.
and Israel say (with no particular evidence) that Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld and acting Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Myers were involved. If they want 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 true. 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, naivete and lack
of preparedness. But we shall prove this appearance was contrived.”
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?
Wouldn’t 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 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. 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. Doesn’t this prove conspiracy?
Well, no. It doesn’t 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
If, 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)?
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 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 it; another is Michael Ruppert,
a former cop and now a leading conspiracy theorist.
“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 McKinley’s
assassination. Was he secretly behind assassin Leon Czolgosz?
“Who benefits?” has another problem in historical analysis.
Sometimes it’s not easy to predict the consequences of an
action. 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. Whether Bush will emerge
from all this stronger or weaker is by no means obvious.
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 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, 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.”
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.
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
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 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 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.
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 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.
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 equation—some
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 doesn’t.
Conspiracy theories lead to bizarre judgments of who one’s
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 don’t help the struggle for social justice.
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.