Conspiracies Or Institutions? 9-11 and Beyond

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
and/or Israel. 

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
      the Palestinians 

  • Don’t lies and cover-ups point to a conspiracy? 

  • 9-11
    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
    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 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. 

    • Why aren’t 9-11 conspiracy theories credible? 

    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)? 

    • What about bin Laden’s former ties to the U.S.? 

    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. 

    • What about looking at who benefits? 

    “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. 

    • But the U.S. government is capable of committing atrocities. 

    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

    • Why is conspiracy theorizing popular among critics of injustice? 

    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 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. 

    • How do conspiracy theories lead to harmful political inclinations
      and allegiances? 

    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,
    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.