Thursday, February 11, 2010

Conspiracies real and imagined (4): the US public gets used to conspiracies

This is fourth and final part of a four-part discussion of the book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2009).

The final three chapters of the book reivew the history of major government criminal and near-criminal acts, from the Watergate scandals to the Cheney-Bush administration's lies about the reasons for their drive to war in Iraq.

In between, there came a remarkable number of revelations that accustomed the public to the idea that government officials routinely conspire to break the law. And typically get away with it. She covers the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration's paranoid reaction to it. A documentary on this particular piece of our history was just released on February 5, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, that looks to be a good one. In the wake of Watergate, a massive amount of illegal spying on the part of the Nixon administration was exposed.

During the Ford administration, Congressional committees investigated revelations of CIA and FBI misconduct that exposed the fact that the CIA had engaged in a variety of illegal activities, including attempts to assassinate leaders of democratic countries. These revelations included J. Edgar Hoover's slimy efforts to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., because Hoover was a white racist who despised the civil rights movement. Those revelations promoted fresh looks at the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy as well as that of King's.

During the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra scandal revealed a secret operation managed by Col. Oliver North to illegally aid rightwing terrorists in Nicaragua and sell arms in violation of the administration's official policy to the Islamic theocracy in Iran. And we're still learning more all the time about the methods used by the Bush II administration to generate Congressional and public support for the Iraq War. And about the torture program and illegal surveillance, the vote suppression and crassly partisan prosecutions, that far outdid the Nixon administration in their contempt for the law and common decency.

Olmsted gives a capable summary of the growth of far-right terrorist groups during the 1990s and gives an idea of the extreme anti-government theories that animated them. Her brief discussions about the sometime agreement of far left and far right on some conspiratorial views of government is also pretty well done. But that is not a major focus of her book, so she leaves it a bit unclear who it is she means by the far left. But the examples she does give make good points, like the mixture of far-right and more left/antiwar theories of the Kennedy assassination in Oliver Stone's JFK movie of 1991.

I was particularly impressed with her treatment of the tragic case of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who exposed CIA connections with Latin American drug trafficers in a 1996 series of stories in the paper. She takes some space to describe in a nuanced way how his reporting was seized upon by conspiracy theorists who alleged that the CIA was deliberately flooding African-American ghettoes with crack to control the black population. But she also makes it very clear that Webb's basic reporting was sound. And that the mainstream press did him a real injustice in ridiculing his story. The truth of it was that Webb was doing real investigative work at a time when the Establishment press was happily plunging off the cliff they jumped off in 1992 with the Whitewater story, plunging from journalism to stenography and infotainment in a descent that has not yet hit bottom.

ConsortiumNews has a number of stories on the late Gary Webb and the Contra Crack story. Narco News has made available the original stories, known as the Dark Alliance series.

Olmsted in her Conclusion discusses several aspects of conspiracy theories and their relation to reporting and historical research on actual conspiracies. It's actually a good brief primer on critical thinking about conspiricist-type reasoning. Thinking in a self-justifying loop and failing to challenge assumptions that evidence seems to contradict is a good sign of falling into the conspiracy-theory trap. Cynical though the conspiracy theory may have been in this case, she gives a very good example of how this works, Dick Cheney's completely false story about 9/11 ringleader Muhammad Atta having rendevouzed with Iraqi intelligence in Prague:

Too often, conspiracists press their analysis beyond the realms of facts and logic and in doing so inject toxins into the public discourse. In the 9/11 case, both types of conspiracists, the official and the alternative, constructed narratives about an event, and then constructed ever more elaborate justifications for believing in those stories. This was not so much a leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable, as Richard Hofstadter said, as a slow march toward self-delusion (and the deliberate deluding of others). Conspiracists can sometimes be like children who tell lies and must make up greater and more detailed lies when they fear discovery. Dick Cheney spoke of a "contact" that was "pretty well confirmed," which then became a "fact," which ultimately became a "number" of contacts. The invasion of Iraq flowed from this kind of tortured reasoning. Other theorists often followed a similar trail of logic. [my emphasis]
Our celebrity reporters and pundits like to sneer at conspiracy theorists, and often have good reason to. But how many of them saw through the official conspiracy theories that were so central to the Cheney-Bush administration's case for invading Iraq? Judith Miller? Tom Friedman? Watergate legend Bob Woodward? Mild-mannered and ever-reassuring David "Bobo" Brooks? David "Dean Of All The Pundits" Broder?

She also makes a valuable point in discussing Sen. Frank Church, in particular. Church headed the special Senate Committee created in 1975 to investigate revelations of government misconduct in intelligence operations at home and abroad. Formerly called the "United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities", it is understandably referred to as the Church Committee. Church had great faith that such investigations could clean up problems of governmental misconduct and prevent them from recurring, as well as increasing public faith in our democratic government. It was obvious from the polls and the political environment at the time that public confidence in the integrity of government had sharply declined from earlier decades. The reason for this in still commonly given as being a result of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

But Olmsted makes a valuable observation that applies not only to the revelations of the Church Committee and the corresponding Pike Committee in the House of that time, but of a number of situations since, most notably the Cheney-Bush torture program:

The percentage of Americans who said they distrusted the government actually increased during and after Church's investigation.

This distrust stemmed in part from the absence of justice following Church's revelations. There was confession, but no expiation. No one went to jail as a result of Church's disclosures. Nor was there much contrition — certainly not from former president Nixon, who would tell the interviewer David Frost in 1977, "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."55 The inherent difficulty of Church's project - discovery without justice, a (cold) war crimes trial with criminals but no convicts - convinced many Americans that public officials routinely committed crimes, covered them up, and escaped the consequences. Americans knew more about their government's secret activities, yet they also distrusted their government more than ever before. More information did not create more trust. [my emphasis]
During the Cheney-Bush administration, we know from what's already in the public record and from the explicit admissions of both Bush and Cheney that in their administration "public officials routinely committed crimes, covered them up, and escaped the consequences."

It should not be that way. It really is the duty of the Obama administration to prosecute crimes committed by the previous administration, particularly the torture crimes and the murders committed in connection with the torture program. Giving encouragement to new conspiracy theories will not be the worst consequence of failing to do so. New conspiracies to violate the law will be a much worse result.

The cycle needs to be broken by restoring the rule of law in the Executive Branch. And that cannot be accomplished with pardons, cover-ups and Look Forward Not Backward.

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