Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology

DAVID-AARONOVITCH

Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done any book reviews, so it’s a good enough time to start an overview of the summer’s reading. And where better to start than with Dave Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, which has become quite the talking point. In fact, Decent Dave has now established himself as the commentariat’s conspiracy theory man, in the same way as his mate Francis Wheen became the mumbo-jumbo man. This is not necessarily a good thing, for reasons I’ll get into presently.

The book itself has been sharply dissected elsewhere, so I’ll keep my remarks on the text fairly brief before moving onto some more general political and methodological points. Firstly, what’s right with it is that it’s not badly written – certainly it’s not a scattergun rant like What’s Left?, but then Aaro doesn’t really do rant. And while he doesn’t know enough about the key issues like the JFK assassination to convince experienced conspiratologists, they aren’t the audience. There’s enough there for the general reader – Aaro is particularly good on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he’s evidently studied in detail – and most of his judgements are sensible. He even cites Chomsky positively, which is usually treif for Decents.

So that’s what’s right about Voodoo Histories, which is by no means an unenjoyable read. Now for what’s wrong with it. First is the question of what a conspiracy theory actually is, something that Lobster magazine has never been able to definitively answer. Yet, Aaro has succeeded in making an exact science of conspiratology. He defines a conspiracy theory quite simply and precisely as an explanation of events that seems unlikely to David Aaronovitch. Having set up his plausibility threshold, Aaro doesn’t even need to examine the evidence to dismiss a conspiracy theory. What’s the matter with this? I quote from Robin Ramsay’s review:

What is wrong with most conspiracy theorists is not what they think but the way they think. The basic premise of conspiracy theorists is the bastards are lying to us. This is not only demonstrably true sometimes, since 1945 and the wartime experience of disinforming the Germans, lying to the population became an official policy of this state, as well as the normal behaviour of the British ruling class and its civil servants who had been in power for most of the preceding centuries.

Aaronovitch’s ‘plausibility threshold’ is set too high and does not correspond with reality. Because his knowledge of recent history is limited, his ‘plausibility threshold’ falsely categories events as beyond plausibility – ‘conspiracy theories’. There’s no mystery here: he hasn’t read the evidence. Nor, as a mainstream journalist and broadcaster, can he afford to do so. And so his account of the Kennedy assassination (and other assassinations) here is inadequate; as is his account of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty in 1967, as is his account of America’s entry into World War 2, as is…. I can’t be bothered going through the whole thing in that kind of detail.

Robin makes his case well, and there is good reason why Aaro’s reliance on the test of plausibility is not good enough. Aaro’s dismissal of 9/11 conspiracy theories, for instance, is based on the idea that it is wildly implausible that the US government could have brought down the Twin Towers. Yet if nineteen jihadis with limited resources could bring down the Twin Towers, why is it inherently implausible that the US government, with all its resources, could do so? Want to fake a moon landing? Give me a couple of actors, some convincing-looking props, a movie camera and put me in Iceland’s volcanic desert and I can give you footage of a moon landing. Now you want to tell me it’s inherently implausible that NASA could have done it?

Let me digress a little. Many readers will have seen and enjoyed the movie Conspiracy Theory. You will recall the basic dramatic device, which is that the Mel Gibson character – and this may not have been too much of a stretch for Mel – believes just about every far-fetched conspiracy theory going. However, his researches rattle some bad guys, and soon it turns out that, even though Mel is deeply paranoid, they really are out to get him. The problem Mel faces, given his demonstrated paranoia, is convincing people that he isn’t talking rubbish. It works pretty well as a metaphor for conspiratology.

Look, when it comes to 9/11, my position is that al-Qaeda did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. In terms of the 7/7 London bombings, it’s fairly clear that Mohammad Sidique Khan and his mates did it, because they said they did it, and the evidence points in that direction. Which is not to say that there aren’t unanswered questions that the powers that be would prefer not to talk about – at the very least in terms of the security services’ failure to see what was coming – and that conspiracy theorists, whatever about their faulty frameworks, may not turn up some interesting things. Aaro’s approach – to engage in shameless nutpicking of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and then to huff that the spooks couldn’t possibly have had the ability to do it – is about as unconvincing as you can get.

(Parenthetically, the Decents’ Occam’s razor seems to malfunction when it comes to 7/7. We have a fair idea why Mohammad Sidique Khan did what he did, because he told us in his suicide video. Mostly, he spoke about Iraq. Yet the standard Decent line on radicalisation of young Muslims is that this has nothing to do with British foreign policy, but is entirely due to the works of Sayyid Qutb being available in some mosque bookshops, and the government not giving enough money to Ed Husain.)

At this point, the reader will probably be thinking of Aaro’s previous as a WMD Truther, and the author of That Bloody Prediction. But this is just the flip side of Aaro’s plausibility threshold. Aaro’s complaint – and you can see here the influence of Birt’s Mission to Explain – is that conspiratism takes hold because the broad masses are systematically mistrustful of their rulers. The trouble is that Aaro systematically gives our rulers the benefit of the doubt. It was inherently implausible that Mr Tony Blair, a pretty straight guy after all, would lie his head off to take Britain into a war of aggression. And what of the revelations that have emerged since? The US and Britain playing silly buggers with the UN weapons inspectors so as to provide a pretext for war? The escalation of bombing raids over Iraq in the second half of 2002, aimed at provoking Saddam into hostilities? These things pass Aaro by – they are beneath his notice, and if we pay attention to them, that’s just a sign of our own moral delinquency.

There are a couple of other points I’d like to make. The most obvious one is that there is a difference between Conspiracy and conspiracies. Aaro actually illustrates this in his opening chapters – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion invented a spurious conspiracy, but there was certainly a conspiracy to circulate the document. As for the Moscow show trials, well, it was clear the great Trotsky-fascist saboteur conspiracy didn’t exist, but the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence to prove that it did. (And managed to convince lots of British Fabians, who took a never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to the evidence.) The appeal of the Grand Conspiracy Theory – that a cabal of Masons or Jews or Illuminati or Communists are secretly pulling all our strings – is that it gives us an easy framework for understanding the world, and a defined group to either blame or join.

But while the Grand Conspiracy doesn’t exist, there are plenty of conspiracies about, and some of them are pretty big. Aaro would no doubt find it inherently implausible that a Masonic lodge could take over the secret service, police, military and judicial infrastructure of a major European country, or that in the same country a secret army of state-sponsored neo-Nazi terrorists would carry out false-flag bombings which the state would then blame on the left. Yet this did happen, and is very well documented. To bring things closer to home, there are lots and lots of conspiracies in the north of Ireland. This can lead one to a generalised conspiratism – this guy is an entertaining example – but it would be foolish in the extreme to say that, for instance, it is inherently improbable that Robin Jackson and Billy Wright were British agents of long standing. There are certainly persistent stories pointing in that direction, although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have unimpeachable documentary evidence.

On a more prosaic level, as any political scientist since Machiavelli can tell you, all politics is conspiracy – as long as you’re prepared to have a flexible definition of conspiracy. If you ever go to a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, you might think that a dozen people meeting in a room above a pub to discuss how to overthrow the government is pretty conspiratorial, even if it appears to be on the Mickey Mouse scale. I direct readers to Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers by Annie Machon, who surveilled the SWP on behalf of MI5 (a conspiratorial organisation itself):

It was a moot point whether the SWP had ever posed a realistic threat to the state. But after I’d carried out months of painstaking research, I was in no doubt. Although individual members of the party were committed, the SWP was small, relatively poor, and their politics fell outside MI5’s criteria for investigation – they neither had links to a foreign power, like the communists, nor did they practice entryism, like [Militant]. Their policies advocated educating people so that they could take part in a democratic movement to replace the existing political system. This was hardly the stuff of revolutionary nightmare.

Which kind of calls into question why the organisation just described has an internal regime that would be more suited to operating illegally under a military dictatorship, but I suppose if that’s the regime you want, fair enough. Militant of course spent decades pretending not to exist, constructing an elaborate fiction whereby the party was simply a paper, the members were “readers”, the Central Committee was the “editorial board”, and the annual conference was a “readers’ rally”. The CPGB, with which Aaro had some acquaintance, had lots of secrets, many of which Andrew Rothstein and Reuben Falber took to their graves.

Let’s take it out of the further left and into the political mainstream. Here is Peter Hitchens, in his entertaining new book The Broken Compass, on collaboration between the political and media classes:

The word ‘conspiracy’ suggests conclaves of sinister armed men in great cloaks and Guy Fawkes hats whispering in taverns by rushlight, with their hands on the hilt of daggers – a scene which seems ridiculously far removed from our world. How can anyone suggest that such things happen in our time? Actually it is this antiquated picture which is ridiculous, and misleading. The confidential co-operation of which I speak is far less picturesque, and a good deal more effective, than anything Guy Fawkes ever did. Those engaged in it wear well-tailored suits, sit in modish, well-lit London restaurants and carry BlackBerries, not daggers. Even so, they do not like others to know what they are up to and are careful to conceal it from the great mass of people who are unaware that it is going on.

The Hitch goes on to explain, mainly by reference to the mysterious bonding ritual known as “lunch”, how politicians, journalists and spin doctors collaborate in matters ranging from the artifice of a PR stunt to the spinning of a policy announcement to (perhaps the most important) the way in which certain politicians get a much better press than others. In The Triumph of the Political Class Peter Oborne details how, when the Tory leadership fell vacant, the press began to talk up Alan Duncan as a realistic contender. Eventually Duncan withdrew after failing to secure the support of even one fellow Tory MP. How was this? Well, Duncan was known for giving very good lunches, he assiduously courted and was courted by the press, and had his original support base extended beyond himself, that could have taken him a long way.

It’s conspiracy, yes, if you are prepared to leave the cloaks and funny hats aside and accept a more prosaic type of conspiracy. How, for instance, are we to explain the last fifteen years of Labour Party history if not in terms of the Blair and Brown factions conspiring against each other, the factional warfare all the more rancorous for the lack of policy differences. This is why, if I’m interested in the machinations of Labour insiders, I turn to Jackie Ashley in the op-ed pages, because Jackie has some feel for the actual Labour Party and is cynical enough to know factional conspiring when she sees it. Polly Toynbee is still waiting for New Labour to turn into the SDP in her head, and holds to a quaint idea of public-spirited politicians who just aren’t selling their policies well enough. Aaro, with his toxic mix of Eurocommunism and Birtism, wants us to accept policies devised by our benevolent rulers that we don’t like but will be good for us anyway.

And here’s the final irony about Voodoo Histories. Aaro gives us his usual matey style, setting himself up as the fearless wielder of Occam’s razor, the tribune of common sense. (I must admit, in my jaundiced way, that Aaro’s record with common sense is not self-evidently brilliant enough for me to find this wholly convincing. And his curt dismissal of Iraq is a bit too much like the way Wheen chortles about chiropractors and crystal healers without mentioning Sound Science.) But the strange thing is that the Decents, as a group, do see themselves as Illuminati, Dave more than most. They believe themselves an enlightened vanguard preaching the truth to the befuddled masses. They have their own revealed truths that make little or no sense to outsiders. (Aaro’s favourite blog, Harry’s Place, is full of puffs for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia thesis, aka The Protocols of the Elders of Islam.) They see things that ordinary people can’t see, such as the horrific levels of anti-Semitism at those Islington dinner parties that Nick Cohen keeps getting invited to. They delight in uncovering webs of sinister associations amongst their enemies, most of which associations don’t even exist. Rather often, they manifest some of the same traits of group psychology as, well, conspiracy theorists.

And now, here is Decent Dave popping up all over the place, assuring us that things are basically for the best, and we need to trust the powers that be, and any narratives that he finds implausible are conspiracy theories and therefore inherently absurd, and anyone putting such narratives forward must be a paranoid crank. If Aaro didn’t exist, some propagandist would have had to invent him.

45 Comments

  1. Cjcjc said,

    September 2, 2009 at 4:23 am

    At the Edinburgh Book Festival he freely admitted that “routine” conspiracies of the sort you describe exist, that we are frequently lied to and that all governments should be treated with scepticism.
    He also made the point that it was unlikely that a govt. which could fake 9/11 couldn’t plant some WMD’s in Iraq for the troops to “find”!
    10% of the audience were 9/11 troofers and those who tried to challenge him came across very clearly as the incoherent nutters they are…

  2. anglonoel said,

    September 2, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Excellent piece- will post at The Other Place (ie Facebook). What strikes me about Lobster is that there is a lot of material in its pages not so much about conspiracies, as about trying to identify networks of individuals with common backgrounds who are in positions of power or influence. Three networks that come to mind are (i) the LWT/Weekend World/Birtists alumni (including Dave A); (ii) the ex-Marxism Today crowd; & (iii) the ex-Living Marxism/RCP crowd (who in their Spiked/Institute of Ideas personas, are always quoting each other in their articles ie Frank Furedi, Mike Hume, James Heartfield, Claire Fox, Brendan O’Neill. The main exception is Kenan Malik- that is possibly why his writing and ideas are much more interesting than the others, who just seem to enjoy attempting to wind up the middle liberal classes with their bon mots). It seems that one person’s ‘conspiracy’ is another person’s ‘network’.

  3. ejh said,

    September 2, 2009 at 7:26 am

    why is it inherently implausible that the US government, with all its resources, could do so

    Well, because you need more than “could”. It’s inherently implausible – more than implausible – that such an operation could be organised from within the US government without knowledge of it spreading to many people who would not go along with it.

    I don’t really agree with the idea of there being conspiracy all over the place, because things just aren’t that tight. Even if you take what it occasionally being called the conmspiracy to mislead the public about WMDs – well, it had conspiratorial elements perhaps, but personally if I was organising a conspiracy along those lines I hope I’d do rather better than to copy-and-paste somebody’s undergraduate thesis (or whatever it was).

    What I’m saying is that real-life “conspiracies” tend to be leaky, ad hoc, possessed of no more than normal human levels of competence and rather more visible to the naked eye than they might wish. It’s not really the standard mode of behaviour of the ruling order, although of course there’s a large tendency to secrecy in both business and government and all sorts of disincentives to speaking out. In truth, cover-up rather than conspiracy is what happens habitually, and cover-ups are not really well-oiled operations.

    To my mind we’re not really talking about “a more prosaic type of conspiracy” but, by and large, something that’s not conspiracy at all, but more a set of incentives to keep quiet and disincentives to do otherwise. Of course there are people who meet secretly to discuss a common objective and plan a way of achieving that objective – as I say, that’s how business works – but in order to exercise power you need to provide information and give instructions to people whose motives may not be the same as your own and whose actions are not entirely within your control. Where objectives are shared, groups are small and the level of commitment very high, the conspiracy may hold for a while – as with 9/11, or for that matter with military coups. But this level of shared commitment is not common and very far from infinite.

  4. Marc Mulholland said,

    September 2, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I enjoyed Aaro’s book (which I haven’t read cover to cover). He can certainly write, and for all The Lobster editor’s curt dismissals – which were far too cursory to sway me much at all – I thought Aaro’s discussion of the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory, for instance, was very adroitly and convincingly contextualised. I really learnt something of significance, not just ‘aren’t nutjobs nutty’.

    I was rather embarrassed, however, to see Aaro upbraid an American leftie for asking ‘serious questions’ about ‘Zionists’ and 9/11, as I’d just had an article on Marx published cheek to jowl in a journal with the same bloke. What would HP make of that!

    In all, a vastly superior book to Cohen’s execrable ‘What’s Left’, and from longer memory a lot better that Wheen’s anti-intellectual ‘Mumbo-Jumbo’.

  5. angrysoba said,

    September 2, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    I think the trouble is that Ockham’s razor isn’t designed for the world of politics. It’s fine when you are trying to explain natural phenomena in science because you don’t suspect that electrons and neutrons get together in smoke-filled rooms or think-tanks and don’t have newspapers or intelligence agencies to propagate and further their interests (let’s leave the selfishness of genes to one side for now). Aaronovitch’s definition of conspiracy theory seems to attribute a certain lack of guile to people whose positions of power are more likely to have been gained by at least a certain amount of deviousness so while he’s fine on 9/11 and 7/7 his position leads him to dismiss, practically out of hand, incidents that are far less clear-cut. Are we wrong to have ever suspected Hitler of having the Reichstag burnt down or to have thought Stalin could have been behind the death of Kirov? Aaronovitch seems to think so as he “debunks” both of these ideas in his book. His definition suggests we should have dismissed them a priori yet there are a number of historians (“real” historians!) who aren’t sure about this.

    • skidmarx said,

      September 2, 2009 at 3:26 pm

      I think Occam’s Razor is often appropriate, as long as you bear in mind that there are those with an interest in distorting reality and hiding their actions.

      • angrysoba said,

        September 2, 2009 at 11:50 pm

        Well, here’s Aaronovitch’s definition of a conspiracy theory:

        “the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another”

        So, when you take into account the existence of intelligence agencies whose very job is, presumably, covert and perhaps even complicated you end up having to throw out a lot of historical interpretations of events that are still pretty much orthodoxy. This doesn’t mean they are correct, of course but it seems like a shoddy way of doing history.

  6. Phil said,

    September 2, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    A lot of what Lobster features these days is about tracing networks and associations – conspiracies in plain sight, if they’re conspiracies at all. But then, Lobster has never really been about conspiracy theory – issue 2 had the strapline “Parapolitics, State Research”. I think what sometimes confuses people is that it’s never been anti- conspiracy theory either. (Or rather, Robin hasn’t; Steve Dorril is a bit more fastidious, and I think this was a minor factor in their split. (Full disclosure: Dorril once tried and failed to spike an article I’d written. Really full disclosure: he was right.)) The point is that people who are convinced there’s an alternative version are sometimes quite good at digging out holes in the official version, so the fact that you don’t buy the alternative version they’re pushing is secondary. Lobster‘s printed pages and pages of stuff on Diana’s death, for instance, without ever endorsing a particular version of what happened. Robin did take a position on 9/11 (no to “they did it”, maybe-sort-of to “they let it happen” and yes-definitely to “they ran a cover-up afterwards”), but even in that article the tone of the article was “this is interesting but not really persuasive” rather than “this is unbelievable paranoid nonsense”. I get the impression this would be a bit lily-livered for Aaro, but I find it quite refreshing.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      September 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm

      It’s the same principle as Fortean Times running lots of scientific anomalies without endorsing alternative explanations. Which is indeed the sort of thing that confuses some readers, while making lots of positivists extremely irate.

      Aaro seems to be going for a position that you have to assume the most obvious explanation is true. Except that, when the most obvious explanation is that Tony Blair is a lying shitweasel, he defaults to a position of the most obvious explanation that is consistent with his own prejudices. Take that, antirelativism.

  7. ejh said,

    September 2, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Oh, the answer to this

    Now you want to tell me it’s inherently implausible that NASA could have done it?

    is “yes, obviously”.

  8. jack r said,

    September 2, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    My main problem with conspiracy theories is their lack of utility. Capitalism is a system of élites. It doesn´t need a secret élite cabal to carry out secret conspiratorial acts. Because it´s a system based, for better or worse, on the idea that people running things are supposed to be running things.

    It´s not a trick, it´s just a system of inequality.

    • September 3, 2009 at 2:27 am

      Similarly, those nutters who go on about satanic ritual abuse of kindergarten kids so that they will grow up violent mind-controlled freaks don’t seem to realise that that’s what happens anyway, just living in 21st century capitalist media-culture. You don’t need a conspiracy to make it happen, it’s a natural outgrowth of the system.

  9. Fellow Traveller said,

    September 2, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    To be prosecuted for conspiracy under UK law you don’t actually have to do anything more than entertain violent fantasies in your diary and write school essays about the Columbine massacre.

    With that as the legal standard I’d say most alleged conspiracies exist.

    • ejh said,

      September 2, 2009 at 8:11 pm

      And of course there was this

      • Fellow Traveller said,

        September 3, 2009 at 3:40 pm

        Ah…Robert Carr, the Home Secretary whose house suffered catastrophic structural integrity loss at that hands of the Angry Brigade a few years before he went after Warren and Tomlinson. Ian Bone reports the death of Jake Prescott, one of the Brigade’s members imprisoned in connection with the bombing.

  10. Tom Griffin said,

    September 2, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Where objectives are shared, groups are small and the level of commitment very high, the conspiracy may hold for a while – as with 9/11, or for that matter with military coups. But this level of shared commitment is not common and very far from infinite.

    There’s an interesting passage by MRD Foot in one of Roy Godson’s books where he argues that British officers had an advantage in World War II deception operations because of their shared outlooks and similar backgrounds.

    Maybe the examples of British Security Co-ordination and Gladio show that some covert operations can go quite a long time without being unravelled, even if there are leaks here and there.

    In part that may have been because a lot of these operations originated in the early cold war when the necessary esprit de corps was much more widespread, because everybody who was anybody had some kind of war record. When the postwar consensus started to unravel in the mid-1960s you saw things like the exposure of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

    Of course, the big picture was utterly transparent, in that America accounted for 50 per cent of the world’s GDP in 1945, but covert action (if I can use that term rather than conspiracy) played a significant role in reproducing that hegemony. That was always a big part of Lobster’s basic thesis, and there’s an increasing body of scholarship on the cultural cold war etc to support it.

    Both the Reagan and Bush administrations tried to revive the Cold War style of covert action, both of which efforts partially unravelled in Iran/Contra in the first case and Iraq in the second.

    • Fellow Traveller said,

      September 3, 2009 at 3:57 pm

      The CIA secretly supported the Abstract Expressionist painters as part of its attempt to undermine Soviet social realism and funneled money to Steven Spender at Encounter. No wonder MI5 spied on American actors living in London; they were viewed as front line storm troopers like Team America.

      Remember, at one point, the law enforcement experts treated the Mafia as a loony toon conspiracy nutjob proposition, with J Edgar Hoover denouncing the very idea all the way up to the famous 1957 Apalachin meeting a New York state trooper stumbled upon, even though the OSS had worked with prominent Mafia bosses such as Lucky Luciano during the war (using the Sicilian mob to assist with the invasion of Italy).

  11. Richard J said,

    September 3, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    There’s an interesting passage by MRD Foot in one of Roy Godson’s books where he argues that British officers had an advantage in World War II deception operations because of their shared outlooks and similar backgrounds.

    As I think ajay mentioned on B&T a few months back, the Ultra secret was successfully kept for almost 30 years after WW2. I was reading (random purchase in a second-hand bookshop) the self-boasting memoirs of Chapman Pincher a month of so ago, and even a man so well-plugged into the secret services’ operations had only heard it mentioned in passing before it becamse publlic [1].

    [1] And even then, the person he’d heard it from, a retired admiral, knew only that we had access to high-level German communications; the sailor thought that it was coming from a highly-placed spy…

    • Tom Griffin said,

      September 3, 2009 at 9:57 pm

      On the other hand, according to Michael Smith, John Cairncross was handing Ultra decrypts to the Russians. Come to think of it, I suppose the Cambridge spies are the classic counter-example to Foot’s thesis.

  12. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 3, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    As for the Moscow show trials, well, it was clear the great Trotsky-fascist saboteur conspiracy didn’t exist, but the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence to prove that it did.

    What, exactly, was this mountain of forged evidence?

    • skidmarx said,

      September 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

      Most of the “evidence” seems to have been confessions.The Dewey Commission established its falsehood on a number of points:

      For example Pyatakov testified that he had flown to Oslo in December 1935 to “receive terrorist instructions” from Trotsky. The Dewey Commission established that no such flight had taken place. Another defendant Ivan Smirnov confessed to taking part in the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, at a time when he had already been in prison for a year.
      http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Dewey_Commission

      There was a mountain of forged evidence re-writing the history of the October revolution to place Stalin rather than Trotsky at the centre, most infamously this picture of Lenin with Stalin added:

      and this one from which the Stalinists removed Trotsky:

  13. charliemarks said,

    September 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I’ve not read the book, but have seen Aaro interviewed on it where the interesting thing about the protocols was raised – there was a conspiracy, but it was to whip up antisemitic feeling…

  14. Cian O'Connor said,

    September 3, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    The main argument against the 911 conspiracy theories is that the evidence (in particular the scientific and engineering evidence) overwhelming supports the official story. Well that and the insane complexity of the troofer’s theories.

    Could something akin to 911 have been faked? Absolutely. You wouldn’t need a terribly large group of people, and a group who know how to keep secrets (On the whole CIA dirty tricks types seem to keep their mouths shut. I’d guess that special forces types, who seem to be where they recruit from, probably have something similar to SoE types during the war. Its all about the totally not gay man-bond). I suppose one could choose to believe that CIA thugs are patriotic and wouldn’t go along with such a plan, but the evidence doesn’t seem to support it. And surely if the last 60 years has taught us anything, its that these people are insane, come up with really dumb plans, and that one really shouldn’t assume too much about their rationality. And if you were going to pick a family to be up to their neck in this kind of shit, you’d pick the Bushes.

    • ejh said,

      September 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

      That’s a really optimistic “absolutely”. I can see no reason to accept that you could find the right people to do this (nor indeed why you weouldn’t need a terribly large group of people involved, assuming you’re not asking the CIA men to fly the plane into the buildings themselves) without any substantial risk of it leaking out for any one of a large number of reasons.

      You don’t have to have some sort of doe-eyed view of the CIA to think this, you just have to operate some proportionality. But in the same way that it’s much, much harder for NASA to fake a moon landing than for somebody to do it on Youtube – precisely because it’s not really a question of resources – similarly it’s much, much harder for the US government to do this than a tightly knit group of religiously-motivated men. And it was hard enough for them.

      By the way ,could I deplore the “Reply” system on this blog? It’s making threads much harder to follow.

      • Cian O'Connor said,

        September 5, 2009 at 7:27 pm

        Well no obviously you wouldn’t ask them to fly a plane into the building themselves. You simply work with what you’ve got, which is a mass of angry muslims with delusions of martyrdom. If you’re lucky you find a group who already have a plan, otherwise you create a group and provide them with a plan. That’s pretty much it. Tiny group needed, fairly small operation with your actual agents thinking they’re working for somebody completely different. Obviously you’d have to be fairly lucky (or have more than one group on the go) to get 9/11, but you’d get something.

        The rest of the operation simply consists of low level bureacratic intransigence (which is in fact what happened, much of it some bizarre policy dictats from the Bush administration).

        “But in the same way that it’s much, much harder for NASA to fake a moon landing”

        Well that theory is ludicrous because it requires pissed off idealistic engineers (who you’d need to fake the thing) to keep their mouths shut. Which would never happen.

        Incidentally, does Aaro mention the great anthrax conspiracy? Because that was like totally real, the perpetrator still haven’t really been found and it obviously involved some government insiders. No leaks though…

      • ejh said,

        September 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm

        . If you’re lucky you find a group who already have a plan, otherwise you create a group and provide them with a plan. That’s pretty much it.

        But who is “you” here? One person? Twenty people? How many people do you actaully need to organise this, assuming Dick Cheney doesn’t actually know somebody on Facebook who’s got a group of jihadis ready and waiting?

        What’s going to guarantee that they all keep mouths shut afterwards? Don’t forget that they’ll neither be conveniently dead, nor – unlike your actual jihadists – in the fortunate position of being able to shout about this thing they’ve done – in your case it’s the opposite of the sort of thing you’re supposed to be doing. As well as being arguably the biggest thing ever done by anybody, and hence the hardest thing to keep quiet about.

        Which is part of what I mean about it being much, much harder for the organisation to arrange this. In practice you could never, ever, get within a million miles of being sure enough of everybody’s lifetime silence.

        (PS I can’t even see any “Reply” underneath Cian’s comment, so this will probably turn up in the wrong order. Sort it out….

      • John Green said,

        September 8, 2009 at 4:25 pm

        Agree about the “Reply” system!

        It would hugely difficult to organize such a conspiracy with total security if you are relying on the connivance and confidence of a large number of people, but a small, cohesive group within an organization like the CIA or MI6 could run a false flag operation, so that those recruited believed they were working for Al Qaeda, say, when they were in fact working for CIA or a disaffected element within it. The British military and intelligence agencies have often used pseudo gangs to discredit bona fide opposition organizations or movements they didn’t like, and that didn’t require much more than the connivance of a small group of operatives.

        Having said all that, within the context of 9/11 I think the likelihood of a conspiracy is bollocks. But then what do I know?

        Having said that,

        Having said

  15. Marc Mulholland said,

    September 4, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I saw Aaro being interviewed on ‘BookTalk’ last night. He referred to right-wing conspiracy theories about Clinton (generally, in the interview, he was sticking it to the right much more than to the left). Specifically, he singled out as barmy that ‘wag the tail’ allegation that Clinton bombed an AQ site in Khartoum, August 1998, simply to avoid impeachment over the Lewinsky affair. Christopher Hitchens, natch, does regard this bombing as a “crime … directly and sordidly linked to the effort by a crooked President to avoid impeachment”.

    Leaving aside the specifics of the case, Decents usually fawn pathetically around ‘The Dude’, but Aaro, to his credit, does tend to be rather more self-sufficient.

    • Phil said,

      September 4, 2009 at 3:21 pm

      I agree with ejh. If it were obvious which comments had already been looked at (hey, let’s reinvent Usenet!) it’d be an improvement; as it’s not, it’s a pain.

  16. skidmarx said,

    September 4, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I’d agree to,though as the facility was being used by others, I thought it appropriate to post an answer to Ken McLeod at 12 in that fashion.

  17. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 4, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    skidmarx # 16: if you have replied, I can’t see the reply.

  18. ejh said,

    September 4, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Odd you should say that. I can see a reply to #12 – but earlier, I couldn’t either, and as I now see, that was a long time after the reply had been posted.

  19. Ken MacLeod said,

    September 6, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Thank you, skidmarx – surprising as it may seem, I’m well aware of the points you raise. To say that ‘the Stalin government conspired to create a mountain of forged evidence’ strongly suggests something rather different: forged documents, for example.

    As far as I know, there’s not a scrap – literally, not a scrap – of documentary evidence that Stalin and his closest associates didn’t believe the confessions of Bukharin, Pyatakov, Radek, et al, and quite a few scraps of evidence that they did believe them. (Search for ‘confessions’ in the Google Books result for “The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin” by Erik van Ree (2002) for some details and discussion of this.)

  20. Mark Victorystooge said,

    September 7, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Governments and especially their intelligence agencies are habitually secretive. It didn’t survive his death, but the FBI of Hoover was very efficient at getting up to all sorts of nefarious stuff without exposure.
    One nasty way was described in a book I once read on Hoover. A magazine was planning to run an expose on the agency in the 1950s. Hoover put the owner and his family under surveillance, and the FBI photographed the owner’s wife in a sexual act with their (black) chauffeur. The existence of the photos was made known to the magazine owner. No expose, and the magazine was slavishly pro-FBI from then on.

  21. skidmarx said,

    September 7, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    I’m not at all surprised that a writer like yourself knows stuff.
    ‘m not sure why your objecton about about “forged evidence” is relevant. If you read Solzhenistsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago you’ll see that obtaining confessions without regard to their veracity was the m.o. of the Soviet secret police throughout Stalin’s rule (and has historically been the m.o. of the regular police in Second Babylon[or England if you prefer]).
    Did Stalin and his closest associates believe the confessions? Very probably.When you establish a secretive and violent regime designed to have people tell you what you want to hear, it’s likely that you’ll believe what your subordinates tell you.

    Returning to other items in the post, I was watching a rerun of Danny Wallace’s “Secrets of the CIA” from 2006 last night, and in amongst such as Noam Chomsky and Mike Gonzalez, who should pop up a couple of times but Aaro (there was also a quick cameo by a tired and emotional Christopher Hitchens). Without having read his book assessing it s validity is a bit like playing kriegspiel, but I’ve seen the same interview that a couple of other contributors to this thread have(it’s on frequent repeat on the BBC parliament channel during the recess). I think he dismmisses the idea that the CIA tolerated the crack explosion in the US, yet it would only be a repeat of what they did with Lao heroin during their war on South Vietnam.
    I might have a little trouble keeping this brief and coherent. My main point is that DA’s thesis appears to be that Western governments are by and large above board, yet the proven revelations about their security services show a history of conspiracy. Could the CIA/Mossad have set up 9/11? It is incredibly unlikely that they executed the operation (or have hidden the plane and murdered the passengers on the Pentagon-bound plane), but given their history (Gulf of Tonkin anyone?) it’s not so farfetched that they might have avoided taking action to prevent 9/11 because it would help to support their own aims. Still unlikely, but when they murder or allow to die millions round the world ,they are a lot more infernal than Aaro gives them discredit for.
    There was of course a Bush/Bin Laden link up, but with the rest of the family.

  22. ejh said,

    September 7, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Just to note that Francis Wheen is interviewing Aaro about the book on September 30 in the London Review Bookshop in that city. I wonder if Mary Beard will go along?

  23. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 7, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Wheen interviews Aaro. Well, that’ll be a tough inquisition.

  24. organic cheeseboard said,

    September 7, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Surely even walking into the LRB bookshop, let alone speaking there, is akin to attending a Nuremberg rally in Decentworld?

    re comment 22 by skidmarx – i had a flick throguh the aaro book and his view of the Gulf of Tonkin is, er, ‘interesting’ to say the least…

  25. skidmarx said,

    September 8, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    The Secrets Of The CIA programme had the story of how the CIA tried to blackmail President Sukarno of Indonesia with a fake sex tape, only to find it only enhanced his reputation:
    http://www.acicis.murdoch.edu.au/hi/blitar.html

  26. Cian said,

    September 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Justin,
    But who is “you” here? One person? Twenty people?
    Judging by the history of false flag operations, not many. 10-20 at a guess.

    How many people do you actaully need to organise this, assuming Dick Cheney doesn’t actually know somebody on Facebook who’s got a group of jihadis ready and waiting?

    That would be Dick Cheney, spent his life connected to the intelligence communities. Its a little difficult to take your skepticism seriously, when it depends upon you studiously ignoring the existence of large, clandestine, organizations set up for exactly this kind of operation.

    What’s going to guarantee that they all keep mouths shut afterwards?

    a) Spooks and special forces seem to be generally the close lipped type.

    b) Who cares? Unless its easily understood, plays well on TV and is pretty undeniable it will make a pretty minimal impact. Some crazy guy claiming to be CIA, not really the same. Some people would believe it, but then lots of people believe the 911 conspiracy theories. Others wouldn’t, and it would become just another artefact in the culture wars.

    Don’t forget that they’ll neither be conveniently dead, nor … in the fortunate position of being able to shout about this thing they’ve done – in your case it’s the opposite of the sort of thing you’re supposed to be doing.

    This is different from clandestine operations generally how exactly? And presumably you’d choose a group who did believe in this thing you were doing.

    As well as being arguably the biggest thing ever done by anybody, and hence the hardest thing to keep quiet about.

    I think you’re overassuming about human nature here. This is definitely true of some people, its not true of others. There are people who are good at keeping secrets and like doing so. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least some special forces types tend to be among those number.

    Which is part of what I mean about it being much, much harder for the organisation to arrange this. In practice you could never, ever, get within a million miles of being sure enough of everybody’s lifetime silence.

    Perhaps, but the people planning such an operation might assume that those they had chosen would remain silent. Even if they were wrong about this, it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from planning and executing it.
    b) You’re assuming that this matters. Its a lot easier to deny something that happened 20 years ago, it simply becomes a game of “he said, she said”, with the added advantage that the public have had 20 years of believing in the official version (so its going to take something pretty sensational to change that).

    A plan doesn’t have to be perfect, or foolproof. It simply has to be good enough and have room for plausible deniability. Sure there are going to be risks, but these are people who take insane risks all the time. They don’t think the way that you do, and they’re probably a little less careful/cautious.

    • ejh said,

      September 8, 2009 at 9:03 pm

      Its a little difficult to take your skepticism seriously

      I’m sorry? We’re in not-taking-people-seriously territory here?

      when it depends upon you studiously ignoring the existence of large, clandestine, organizations set up for exactly this kind of operation.

      “Exactly this sort of operation”? In what way “exactly”?

      This is different from clandestine operations generally how exactly?

      Well, exactly, the fact that normally in clandestine operations you’re not expecting a treason trial and execution if the truth ever gets out. Even in really nasty stuff – and don’t forget (as you appear to have forgotten) that most clandestine stuff isn’t treasonous, let alone mass-murder and treason.

      And presumably you’d choose a group who did believe in this thing you were doing.

      In what way “believe in”? How would you choose this group who believed in this exact thing?

      You’re making vast leaps of faith, logic and perspective – which, as it goes, is what the Truthers do. You can’t just magically pick twenty people, getting it right every time, who will all agree to carry out some enormous act of murder for no better reason than that they’re…what, getting paid for it? Why are they doing it, anyway? You never explained. We know to a large extent why the jihadis did it, but why are your imaginary spooks doing it? Twenty million bucks apiece that Dick’s got in a suitcase? Or what? What’s their actual motive?

      Is it really not possible to see how incredibly difficult this would be in practice? It’s not a question of trying to be perfect – although it’s actually bleedin’ obvious that you’d have to be a damned sight tighter and more reliable on this action than on any other action there’s ever actually been. It’s that you’re a million miles from your state of plausible deniability.

  27. jp said,

    September 21, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    shouldn’t the al-Megrahi case be seen as conspiracy? pretty leaky, but not so acknowledged by corporate media – you’d certainly be considered out-of-accepted bounds in the usa to say so. see:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n18/peir01_.html

    There are many, many successful conspiracies to convict which do not become common knowledge.

    sorry for the late entry.

  28. January 20, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    […] Unionist party reptile A note on cognitive bias Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology The Lost Revolution: a sketch on republican geography The Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental […]

  29. October 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    […] analysis of self-proclaimed sceptics here’s Robin Ramsay‘s, Joseph Green‘s and Splintered Sunrise‘s reviews. You could even be sceptical about our scepticism re: sceptics, but that may soon […]


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