Friday, January 15, 2010

Cass Sunstein, Adrian Vermeule, Obama, and Conspiracy Theories

I'll have more to say about this over time - but an email touting Obama's role in suppressing conspiracy theories is going around. While I do not have enough evidence to know if Obama knew or agreed with the opinions in the paper referenced below, it's certainly cause for question and concern.

Glenn Greenwald sums it up nicely here:

It's certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive "false conspiracy theories" have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, "crazy conspiracy theorist" has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

Who is it who relentlessly spread "false conspiracy theories" of Saddam-engineered anthrax attacks and Iraq-created mushroom clouds and a Ba'athist/Al-Qaeda alliance -- the most destructive conspiracy theories of the last generation? And who is it who demonized as "conspiracy-mongers" people who warned that the U.S. Government was illegally spying on its citizens, systematically torturing people, attempting to establish permanent bases in the Middle East, or engineering massive bailout plans to transfer extreme wealth to the industries which own the Government? The most chronic and dangerous purveyors of "conspiracy theory" games are the very people Sunstein thinks should be empowered to control our political debates through deceit and government resources: namely, the Government itself and the Enlightened Elite like him.

It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein's desire to use covert propaganda to "undermine" anti-government speech so repugnant. The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned -- rationally -- to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein's proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is. In other words, people don't trust the Government and "conspiracy theories" are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

Read the whole thing at

Then read my letter to Adrian Vermeule below, re this paper, which he co-authored with Sunstein.

Dear Professor Vermeule:

I’m reading the paper you and Cass Sunstein wrote about Conspiracy Theories (, and had a few questions I hope you can answer.

1. Who wrote which parts? Did one of you write most of it and if so, who was that?

2. Why do you say “as a general rule, true accounts [of conspiracies] should not be undermined.” Which true accounts should be undermined, and under which circumstances?

3. If we say “all Asian people” do something, aren’t we being racist? When you generalize about conspiracy theorists as if they are a homogenous set of people (and trust me, that’s far from the truth), aren’t you being, shall we say, labelist? Assigning characteristics of some individuals to an entire group, without justification?

4. Which statement would you agree with more, and why?
a. All conspiracy theories should be dismissed at first glance.
b. All conspiracy theories should be investigated, and evaluated on the evidence.

5. There was a time when the Watergate affair was characterized as a “third-rate burglary.” Would the public have been better served by not pursuing what really happened?

6. If a conspiracy theory becomes consistently predictive, does that make it valuable? Isn’t that how we judge scientific theories, by their consistently predictive value?

7. Did you ever consider the possibility that it is not a lack of information, but rather a supply of information, that gives birth to some conspiracy theories? That conspiracy theory is sometimes simply pattern recognition?

8. There was a time when the notion of an arms-for-hostages deal, i.e., Iran-Contra, was considered a crazy conspiracy theory, until, of course, it was proven to be true. Some people had the information before others, and were denigrated as conspiracy theorists. Should we then acknowledge that some conspiracy theorists can be very good researchers?

9. If the CIA really did kill Kennedy, isn’t that worth investigating? As someone who knows for fact that the CIA lied about what they knew about Oswald, because I have the records from the CIA to prove it, isn’t it worth pursuing WHY they lied about Oswald? Isn’t that an act of patriotism, not paranoia?

10. Why do your talking points sound so similar to the ones published in this CIA memo? (And yes, I have a copy of this memo from the National Archives. I’m not relying on some Internet page. I typed this in from the document myself.)

11. How can you say that we can’t keep secrets in this “open society” when CIA people know they lose their job, their pension, and can be sent to jail for revealing them?

12. What is redacted here, or is this still a secret, nearly forty years after the document was first shown to members of Congress? Why can’t I know what’s redacted in this “declassified” report of the CIA’s “family jewels”? This is jewel #1, of all things.)

For the record, I too am frustrated with how gullible people are, and how quickly they can jump to unsupported conclusions. Why do some people refuse to believe a conspiracy happened, even when the evidence is there (e.g., Holocaust deniers)?

Some conspiracy theorists are indeed too gullible, are not skilled in the evaluation of evidence, and see shadows where none exist. But to group all conspiracy theorists into this bucket is to miss the fact that there are serious people -- professors, lawyers, judges, presidents -- who believe these theories precisely because of the evidence, not in spite of it.

As someone who has spent nearly twenty years studying the actual conspiracies of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Smedley Butler’s account of the plot to overthrow FDR, and in great detail, the CIA’s full history (mind control, infiltration and manipulation of the media, using academics to promote practices favorable to the agency, etc., bugging schemes, exotic weaponry, coups and assassinations and yes, the CIA’s curious obfuscations regarding its potential role in the assassination of President Kennedy), it seems that an honest investigation of conspiracy theories is the only way to dispel false conspiracy theories. Dismissing them out of hand without a proper hearing is anti-intellectual and simply compounds the problem.

Opening records, providing access to witnesses, conducting an honest inquiry -- isn’t that the simple way to either prove or disprove conspiracy theories? The trick is to find an honest group to hold an honest investigation. I’ve known very few truly honest people in my life. This will forever be a challenging task, especially when money and power are at stake.

Conspiracy theories aren’t the problem; they’re the symptom. And they’re not the symptom of “mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism” that you suggest. They are the symptom of a government that lies to the people, often through the mainstream media. Most people aren’t stupid. And you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

We know the CIA lied about what they knew about Oswald to other agencies of the government just a month before the assassination because we have two communications drafted within hours of each other, by the same people, with one describing Oswald as older, fat and balding, and one describing him accurately. That’s not an accident, because the inaccurate description was escalated to nearly the Deputy Director’s level for approval, indicating, as one of the signees said on the record, sensitive information that was closely held and revealed only on a “need to know” basis. Those were the CIA officer’s words, not some screenwriter’s.

Does that prove the CIA killed Kennedy? Of course not. But it proves people are not crazy to suspect such. And it proves people who automatically discount that either haven’t seen the CIA’s own records to this effect for themselves, and understood them, or that they are suffering from, to borrow your words, a “crippled epistemology.”

What we really need is conspiracy literacy. People need to be taught how to evaluate evidence. There’s a hierarchy of evidence. For example, most people should believe sworn testimony over unsworn testimony, for example, if there’s a very real chance the person not only could but would be prosecuted for perjury. And to demonstrate why that caveat is needed, since there was no chance Richard Helms was going to be prosecuted for perjury when he lied about the CIA’s role in overthrowing Allende in Chile, he lied in his testimony. And while he was initially charged, it was dismissed, despite his outright admission of lying -- calling it a “badge of honor.” Is it any wonder people imagine hidden conspiracies when they see this kind of behavior flaunted openly, instead of punished?

What we really don’t need is what you suggested: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.

Been there, done that. It was called COINTELPRO when the FBI did it and Operation Chaos when the CIA did it. And neither worked. Which leads to my final question:

13. Why would you suggest the conspiratorial infiltration of groups by government operatives as a means to combat conspiracy theory? Can you appreciate the irony there?

I’m cc’ing this to many people, and will post this publicly. I will do the same with any response you provide.

Thank you for your time.

Lisa Pease
Conspiracy Realist

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

They've been infiltrating "conspiracy" discussions for a long time.

Donald Rumsfeld was the first person to claim a "missile" hit the Pentagon (Oct 12, 2001), which was pure disinformation to screw with the skeptics.

for the history of this hoax, which most of the "truth" movement swallowed uncritically and now is too embarrassed to admit it's fake

They did the same thing to the independent investigators of the JFK assassination, too, sow the public discussion with half truths, disinformation and sometimes actual truths uttered by those without credibility in order to make the whole thing a big mess. The internet just allows them to do it faster.

Karl Rove's M.O. was to mix truth and lies together, most famously the fake memos given to Dan Rather at CBS (see BS) in 2004. The memos had been slightly doctored - Bush did go AWOL from the National Guard, but the scandal over the memos convinced the rest of the media to ignore the story.

Mark Robinowitz

“If the organizing principle is that the government lies, but there’s no organizing principle to how you get to the truth, then anything is possibly the truth. People will organize around disinformation just as easily as information. The way covert operations do effective disinformation is they give the truth to the people who are discredited and they give the lie to the people who have great credibility - the way they disinform from both ends and confuse people. They put out stories - as we know from the assassinations - that will lead us down false paths, that will lead us to false sponsorships.”
-- John Judge, Coalition on Political Assassinations
Fake Debates
Identifying Misinformation: State Department’s Rosetta Stone to 9/11 disinformation
promotes 9/11 conspiracy hoaxes, ignores “Crossing the Rubicon” and other quality investigations
[an expanded version of an original article written for Michael Ruppert's From the Wilderness]

3:25 AM  
Blogger Bruce G. Fraser said...

Comment to Lisa Pease;

I want to express my gratitude to Lisa Pease for her work over the years and for
taking on Cass Sunstein and his interest in sabotaging conspiracy theorists. As a comment I’d like to add some recent events that are unsolved and ignored for Mr. Sun- stein to contemplate. Perhaps Lisa can add them to the long list of reasons why
we need a bureau of conspiracy reality far more than any of the police-state censorship being proposed.

- Who was the anthrax mailer? The question remains. It was the 2nd successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil during GW Bush’s watch. Since the “suicidal” Dr. Bruce Ivins
was eliminated as a suspect because his DNA was wrong the FBI gave up the investigation. When they cancelled their last press conference, wherein they were scheduled to present more conclusive evidence, the agent in charge explained the cancellation by saying ….”there will always be a spore on the grassy knoll.” That is not an answer. The crime is no less than murder and extreme treason. Particularly in light of the fact that the anthrax was from American bio-weapons labs and not from Iraq as was first announced.

ABC’s investigative reporter, Brian Ross, claimed proudly to be the first news journalist to break the story on the anthrax being from Iraq. He refuses to discuss it now. He must hold his career in a more important light than the truth about who planted the lies justifying our invasion of Iraq. What about all the death, suffering and profiteering that ensued.

John McCain declared the anthrax to have been from Saddam Hussein on the Letterman Show about eight days after the anthrax letters were discovered. That was not mentioned during McCain’s Presidential campaign. Where was he told that the anthrax was from Iraq?

- Why did the fact that Kellogg, Brown and Root was responsible for the death of 12 of our soldiers never get publicized at all in the major media, or be placed before congress to resolve.
The soldiers were electrocuted in showers that were improperly grounded by untrained subcontractors working for KBR. That is not troop support. It is treason by negligence.
12 deaths!

- The Niger yellowcake documents of 2002 were actually worse forgeries than
birther, Orly Taitz ridiculous, Kenyan birth certificates for President Obama.
The Niger yellowcake forgeries were off by ten years and the national logo of Niger.
They were so obviously forged it hardly seemed necessary to send Ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger to confirm that they were fake. The resulting mess regarding the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Scooter Libby and even quail sniper, Dick Cheney seemed like a designed waste of time. A customized preocuppier to distract the people from real issues. Gossip.

Well there are a few more considerations showing how the study of history being shaped by conspiracy is important to maintaining freedom.

Hope you can use them,
Bruce Fraser – Newberg, OR.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Maturin42 said...

I listened to the 5/13/10 show today. Thank you, Lisa. Your letter to Sunstein, Vermeule was right on the money. The conflating of ridiculous theories with plausible and fact-supported hypotheses in order to discredit them is common in my experience, particularly with the 9/11 Truth movement. I also think the presence of disinfo agents is pervasive. How better to lodge a meme in the minds of the public that they are not using a tactic, than to suggest in a scholarly paper that the government should "consider" using the tactic.
As though they are not already busily at work cognitively infiltrating. Good show.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW said...

Nicely written and I will spread as I can. As a Harvard trained therapist with decades of experience I can assure your readers that conspiracy theories are not the product of either paranoia or narcissism. Way too much work for a narcissist who is glory seeking, and paranoids would never put their work out where they could be targeted. Poof - another myth gone.

12:06 AM  

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