Thursday, 12 September 2013 14:58

Lance deHaven-Smith, Conspiracy Theory In America

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deHaven-Smith has written some interesting material about the historical aspect of how conspiracy facts and thinking have been dealt with in American culture. But where the book gets into trouble is when the author tries to present his own rubric about how the public should deal with these types of crimes, writes Larry Hancock.


Lance deHaven-Smith is a university professor who is a rather rare bird: he actually studies and writes about political conspiracies in America. In 2005 the Florida State instructor wrote a book called The Battle for Florida. This is one of the best volumes about the stealing of the 2000 election.

Like many of us, deHaven-Smith was shocked that there was no criminal inquiry into this naked power play by the Bush family and their accessory Katherine Harris. Neither the Justice Department nor the MSM ever launched serious investigations into whether or not there was any kind of planned and concerted effort to preempt the democratic process by depriving people of their civil rights. We know today what the price was in not exercising any kind of due diligence. For the presidency of George W. Bush was one of the worst in history. Beginning with a healthy surplus in the treasury, it almost immediately evaporated that with more of the discredited "trickle down" economics, which really should be called trickle up. It then orchestrated a completely manufactured war which needlessly killed thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. It culminated with a double economic crash in the real estate market and the stock market, the combination of which provoked the most devastating financial debacle since 1929. America has still not recovered from those three events. Which all began with a stolen election. Perhaps nothing illustrates to better effect the price of living in a country where high crimes and misdemeanors have become almost SOP since 1963. And perhaps nothing illustrates more dramatically just what the price of that accommodation has become for the general populace.

Perhaps as a result of that experience, the professor has followed up The Battle for Florida with a book that casts a much wider net. Conspiracy Theory in America is actually two books. It is first, an historical and sociological review of the attitudes toward the idea of the crime of conspiracy in America. In the last third or so, the author begins to concentrate on different conspiracies and to classify them into a chart he has devised. That part of the book is less satisfactory than the first. But let us deal with the historical aspect first.

As the author notes, the term "conspiracy theory" did not really figure into the American lexicon until 1964. In that year, the New York Times wrote five stories in which the phrase appeared prominently. This was the beginning of a megatrend of sociological significance. For today, the Grey Lady does about 140 stories per year which feature that term. If one googles the phrase, one will get an astronomical number of hits, three times as many as for similar terms like "abuse of power" or "war crime." (deHaven-Smith, pgs. 3-4). Today, noted authors use the term so indiscriminately, e.g. Vincent Bugliosi, that it has lost any real meaning. And in many ways it has simply become a cheap rhetorical slam. A way to marginalize and isolate arguments which the MSM does not want to consider. (p. 11) The use of the term as a pejorative leaves the clear connotation that people who argue in this manner really do not have any reasonable evidence to present, they only have suspicions. Which is far from the case of course. In fact, in many instances, e.g. the major assassinations of the sixties, it is actually the other way around: it's the official story which has no credibility or strong evidence to support it. But there is little doubt that the MSM and its allies have done a good job in depriving the term of any rational meaning. In fact, the repeated use of the word "conspiracy theory" in its neutered form today, implies that the official story is credible. When in fact, as Jim Garrison said way back then, the idea that all three killings in Dallas on that unforgettable weekend were coincidental is highly improbable. Therefore the author introduces the term he would like to substitute for it, SCAD, or State Crime against Democracy (p. 12). One of the things this would do is to eliminate the tendency to view these crimes in isolation to each other. Which the author thinks is a mistake. An example he uses is the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Another example he proffers is the assassination of JFK and RFK. deHaven-Smith writes that in the real world of criminal detectives, this isolationist view is not the norm. Detectives try and link crimes by methods of operation. And there does seem to be some similar traits in these two examples. (Although this may begin the author's tendency for a large grouping together of literally dozens of crimes which tends to mar the book at the end.)

Another point the author makes is that the MSM does allow for certain conspiracies e.g. Watergate, Iran/Contra. But in both cases it states that those crimes were uncovered and prosecuted. But the author points out, these crimes were discovered by accident. In the first instance, it was because a guard at the Watergate Hotel noticed a strip of tape dangling from a door, one that he had already removed. Therefore, he understood a breaking and entering was in process and called the police. In the second instance, it was because a young Sandinista militia member shot down an American supply helicopter over Nicaragua. This constituted a violation of the Boland Amendment, which specifically prohibited the United States from doing such a thing. But the crimes of the Plumbers Unit under the Nixon White House had been going on for months previously. As had the resupply of the Nicaraguan Contras. The author could also have added here: were the prosecutions of these crimes full and adequate? As we know, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon; and later writers, like Jim Hougan, have stated that the CIA had a much larger role in the affair, a role which was largely ignored. In the second instance, the drug-running aspect of that criminal episode was also largely ignored or denied at the time. But there is no doubt today that it did exist. And as Ford pardoned Nixon, George H. W. Bush pardoned several people in the Iran/Contra scandal. Perhaps so the ultimate trail would not lead to him? In that sense, the so-called investigations of these historical episodes were not really satisfactory. In fact, some would say they deliberately avoided what should have been the ultimate result. And as such, they allowed certain people involved in the crime s to escape, not just inquiry, but also visibility.

But, as deHaven-Smith notes, such a state of affaris was not always the case. Which is why the reader should note that jump in the use of the term in 1964. For if one takes the historical view, the concept of conspiracy, especially political conspiracies, has been around since the advent of the republic. As the author notes, the Founding Fathers were quite cognizant of the idea of political conspiracies. They actually wrote about guarding against "Conspiracies against the people's liberties" by "perfidious public offiicials" and to "tyrannical designs" by "oppressive factions". Back then, "factions" referred to power groups within society who had individual interests which were not always congruent with the public interest. (p. 59) And it was understood that these factions could and would use illicit means to achieve their ends, like bribery of public officials. Which, of course, constitutes conspiracy. Which may be a small scale plot. But deHaven-Smith quickly mentions a large scale one. This was the incredibly complex machination that Aaron Burr was going to employ to create an independent nation in the American southwest. Even though Thomas Jefferson and Burr were once friends and political allies, Jefferson urged that Burr be prosecuted on these charges. Burr was acquitted because he had not actually committed an overt act in order to aid a declared enemy of the union. (p. 64) In other words, it did not get out of the planning stages. But he did plan on it.

From here, the author notes other historical, and popular precedents of famous personages decrying the use of conspiracy to further illicit ends. For example in 1824, Andrew Jackson accused Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams of plotting "a corrupt bargain" to deprive him of the presidency that year. Whereby, Adams became president and Clay was then appointed by him as Secretary of State. Congressman Abraham Lincoln proposed the famous "spot resolution". This was designed to have President Polk show exactly where American blood was spilled by Mexicans on American soil. That resolution was designed to show that Polk had plotted with the army to deliberately provoke a war with Mexico in order to expand American territory into the southwest. Does this make Jackson and Lincoln "conspiracy theorists" who should not have been president?

The author then shifts the focus to Nuremburg. At the trials of the captured Nazis from the Third Reich, the beginning of the indictment accused the defendants of using false-flag terrorism, faked invasions and other camouflaged techniques to convert the German populace into a police state. (p. 71) This was necessary since the Nazis were never able to gain a majority in the German parliament by legitimate voting means. As deHaven-Smith notes, this is a key point to underline. Because it is important to understand that after the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had a vibrant, politically diverse liberal democracy called the Weimer Republic. It was torn asunder step by step due to terrorist tactics and political assassinations plotted by the military e.g. that of the great Rosa Luxemburg. By 1930, the republic had been destabilized to the point that the Nazis were now in striking distance of taking over the country.

The author points out that criminal conspiracies have also occurred in the financial sector due to the fact of lack of oversight. And also due to political corruption. A good example of the latter is the all too often overlooked Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980's. Another example would be the looting of Enron, and Enron's conspiracy to first, deregulate the California power grid, and then create phony "crises" and "outages" in the state in order to artificially raise rates and fleece the consumer.(See the fine film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.) A third example would be the conscious drive to deregulate Wall Street in the nineties, by eliminating the Glass-Steagall Act. And then to create the concept of the "derivative" and to be sure that this brand new invention could not be regulated. That goal was achieved largely through the aid of former Senator Phil Gramm.

In other words, the idea of conspiracy has been inbred into American society since the beginning. And people like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln accused others of resorting to it for political ends. People like Enron's Jeffrey Skilling used it to loot the California economy. Which helped bring the state a man named Arnold Schwarzenegger. To say that these did not exist, or the were not complex and large conspiracies is simply to be in a state of denial. The author then asks, well, how and why do people like Michael Schermer do the denying? What prompted him and others like him?

The book outlines three main causes which turned the domestic debate around on this issue. The first was the rise of political philosophers Karl Popper and Leo Strauss in academia. The second was the (infamous) 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The third was the equally infamous 1967 CIA Memorandum entitled "Countering Criticism of the Warren Report."

The author lays in the background to the rise of Popper and Strauss very nicely by outlining the work of historian Charles Beard. Beard, along with Frederick Jackson Turner, was perhaps the most influential historian of the first half of the 20th Century. He made his reputation with his groundbreaking book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. That volume argued that the Constitutional Convention was actually a power struggle between the upper economic classes, the mercantile class and land owning farmers. But he then went on to argue that the 14th amendment was also passed with the help of economic interests in order to make corporations the equivalent of people under the law. (http://www.celdf.org/article.php?id=407) Finally, toward the end of his life. Beard – who bitterly opposed American entry into World War II – argued that President Roosevelt had engaged in subterfuge by letting Pearl Harbor occur. (See, Beard's President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War.)

As most people who study histiography know, after Beard's death in 1948, the influence of Strauss, Popper, and especially Hofstadter, did much to deflate his reputation. Popper and Strauss, although different in their approaches, both advocated the limiting of liberal tendencies. Because both men believed that liberalism contained an inherent strain towards nihilism because of its extreme form of moral relativism. There was a nihilism of two types. One which tended towards the totalitarian rule of Nazism and Marxism; and one which was more gentle, which featured a permissiveness which bordered on hedonism which would sap the energy of society. (p. 79) Under the considerable influence of these two men, plus Hofstadter, academic studies of government now became more quantitative and behavioral in their approach. Beard's work, which was much more pragmatic and value oriented, fell into eclipse. Under deHaven-Smith's intellectual analysis, he maps out how Popper's teachings led to neoliberalism and those of Strauss led to neoconservatism. It should be added here that in his brilliant film, The Power of Nightmares, director Adam Curtis came to the same conclusion: namely that the work of Strauss, and its critique of liberal permissiveness, helped turn people like Irving Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz against the "permissive society" of Kennedy and Johnson. And helped convince them that to revitalize national unity, one had to have an international enemy. This was first the Soviet Union, and then the threat of Moslem terror. The author adds that Popper was probably the first person to use the term "conspiracy theory' as a pejorative. This was in his two volume work The Open Society and its Enemies. And Strauss wrote about, the "noble lies" which must be maintained in order to preserve society. (p. 100) There is little doubt that these two men had an impact in academia; and an even larger impact outside it.

Beard thought differently. To him, the survival of democracy relied upon what he called "critical historiography". And this was necessary in order to show that democracy was not being subverted behind the scenes.

What then follows is a long and detailed analysis of the 1967 CIA dispatch which went out to all CIA stations and encouraged them to contact friendly assets in the media. The goal was to employ propaganda techniques to discredit critics of the Warren Commission. The author also shows how the concept of "blowback" worked in this situation. One of the assets contacted was a man named John P. Roche. Roche was an academic who worked under Kennedy and Johnson. Roche wrote a letter to the London Times. The letter was clearly influenced by the CIA dispatch. As the author writes, "Roche implied that the mind-set of conspiracy theorists is a dangerous mix of mental problems, superstition and extremism." (p. 128) Time magazine then wrote an article based on this letter. (p. 121) Therefore, two MSM bastions were now using the CIA dispatch to attack the Commission critics – without revealing that they were using the CIA script in doing so. But there is no doubt that this theme then spread to another MSM bastion, The New York Times. As is shown in this book, "conspiracy theorist" now was used, not just to avoid any serious discussion about problems in the evidence; it also acquired the stigma Roche had attached to it, e. g. paranoid, radical, crackpot, were all words the Times now attached to that rubric. (p. 130) The author concludes Chapter 4 of the book by saying that "the conspiracy theory label has become a powerful smear that preempts public discourse, reinforces rather than resolves disagreements, and undermines popular vigilance against abuses of power." And as Popper and Strauss theorized, this is all done in the name of reason, civility, and preserving democracy. When in fact, one can cogently argue, the opposite is actually being achieved.

So far, deHaven-Smith has written some interesting material about the historical aspect of how conspiracy facts and thinking have been dealt with in American culture. But where the book gets into trouble is when the author tries to present his own rubric about how the public should deal with these types of crimes. He calls it State Crime Against Democracy, or SCAD. I've long felt that we needed a set of models or paradigms for "conspiracy theory" to assist us with our inquiries. Hopefully such models would address a variety of suspected conspiracies. After all we do have documented instances not only of conspiracies to commit illegal acts but also conspiracies to obfuscate or cover up embarrassing or damaging information. I recall being much impressed with Peter Dale Scott's effort to isolate and define elements of "deep politics" as they might associate themselves with any conspiracy involving attempts to influence government and public policy – in other words conspiracy beyond the routine day to day networking and conniving that we see in both politics and business, especially corporate business and even more especially corporate business as it relates to obtaining contracts for government projects and services.

But one thing that is missing here is that the author should have covered all the bases by differentiating types and characterizing a full range of conspiracies, giving due consideration to the well-established practice of CYA – "cover the Agency", "cover the Bureau" or the ever popular and endemic "cover your ass". After all, CYA by itself is endemic to the human condition but often presents us conspiracy research types with the challenge of separating conspiracies of commission with conspiracies of omission. In the culminating discussion of the book and in the tables that end it, this issue is not really discerned or dealt with. Neither is the related issue of media complicity in order to further the cover-up.

Early in the introduction, deHaven-Smith captured my sympathies by espousing the legitimacy of conspiracy investigation and coming down hard on the position taken by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule in their highly negative law journal article on conspiracy theories in general. One can only wonder if those two considered that their proposals to influence popular conspiracy theories through options such as public information campaigns, censorship and fines for internet service providers hosting conspiracy web sites actually fueled the very phenomena they were writing about – suspicion of omniscient government conspiracy against the public. After all, Sustein had himself been appointed to head the Obama Administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy, talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Sort of reminds me of the title of a country song – "What was I thinking?" Didn't Sustein and Vermeule ever consider the alternatives of "fact checking" or hear about Snopes – did they feel they had to jump directly to suppression of inquiry? Smith gives the pair his full attention and gained my moral support with his remarks.

The introduction kept my attention and raised my interest as the author moved on to present his concept of SCAD / State Crime against Democracy, a construct referring to "an attack from within on a political system's organizing principals". He positions SCAD as a "high crime", committed against the people's liberties and in the category of treason. Continuing in that vein he also differentiates it from political crimes such as Watergate or Iran-Contra and gives the alternative definition of SCAD as "state criminality" and "elite crime." At that point I began to wonder if SCAD was really all that different from Peter Dale Scott's "deep politics" which might also produce what could be called elitist or at least "establishment" conspiracies. But I found no reference to either Scott or his extensive writing on the subject in this book.

And at that point in the introduction I have to admit to doing a bit of a double take as deHaven-Smith introduces the contention that America's entire cultural attitude toward conspiracy has not just evolved from the general attitude of skepticism expressed by the countries' founding fathers but that the reversal in attitude has been intentionally and carefully managed, "planned and orchestrated by the government itself" beginning shortly after the Second World War. He continues that theme by noting that he has found commonalities in multiple contemporary SCAD's related to "targets, timing, tactics and policy consequences" and that the patterns associated with the SCAD's suggest that they originate with "military and military-industrial interests which have the intent of fomenting social panic, encouraging militarism and wars."

At this point it began to dawn on me that this book was not going to be exactly what I had anticipated. That the author was setting himself a high bar, writing not only about the study of conspiracy and the cultural milieu for conspiracy theory in America but offering his own perceptions of the evolution of a large scale, ongoing elitist conspiracy not only to undermine the perception of conspiracies, but to conduct a series of ongoing and associated State Crimes Against Democracy. What I thought was going to be a book focused on the theory of conspiracy and the academic and media bashing of conspiracy proponents in modern day America now was evolving into a full-fledged conspiracy book in and of itself: an American version of Jonathan Vankin's books on the subject.

The book most definitely does have its academic side, indeed the author begins with a chapter titled "The American Tradition of Conspiracy Belief", which I found to be a very interesting historical study. He continues that contextual development with a chapter on "Conspiracy Denial in the Social Studies", examining the evolution of historical perceptions of the nature and presence of conspiracy in governmental and political affairs, very interesting to me as a history buff. This kind of intellectual history on Strauss and Popper is exactly the sort of material I would have anticipated from the title, and I found it quite educational. In concluding those chapters he does maintain the elite conspiracy theme of the book by introducing the "possibility" that American militarists have been organizing and maintaining a series of SCAD's which could involve "political assassination, false flag terrorism, election theft, military provocation and contrived economic crisis".

Continuing the dual concept of a "conspiracy theory conspiracy" and the existence of a series of State Crimes against Democracy, the next chapter explores the manner in which such an ongoing SCAD conspiracy could indeed protect itself with an associated effort to essentially gut the basic American skepticism and critical facility, a conspiracy to neutralize conspiracy theory. In addressing that idea, the author goes into considerable detail on the CIA's effort to neutralize critics of the Warren Commission and to undermine any popular emergence of a public concept of conspiracy in the murder of President Kennedy. This is an area familiar to many students of the JFK crime, however the book's overview is well structured and will probably be a surprise to many readers. One issue with this chapter is that it also evolves into a limited case for conspiracy in the JFK assassination and along with the authors' other discussion of the Kennedy assassination has to be relatively superficial due to space limitations. It also introduces some points which are perhaps not the strongest that could be made in regard to a conspiracy of commission in that crime.

At that point the book moves into Chapter 5, some 130 pages into the core of the 202 page book. It is there that deHaven-Smith fully introduces the construct of the conceptualization (both his words, not mine) which he designates as State Crimes against Democracy. His initial presentation of the concept is academic, some of which I personally found interesting and some of which I'm not sure I followed. As an example he seems to find it very important that the aerial images of the buildings during the 9/11 attack were not publically aired for over eight years, citing an article on that in the New York Times. However he notes that while the authors of the article clearly believe that to be quite significant they themselves make no effort to present what that might explain about the attack on the World Trade Center, and deHaven Smith himself notes that the article simply "flirts with dark suspicions." In the chapter, examples of suspected SCAD's are addressed, ranging from tainted elections to political assassinations and both policy consequences and possible Modus Operandi of SCAD's, including "Linguistic Thought Control" are discussed.

Perhaps most importantly the SCAD chapter goes much further than simply examining the possibility of SCAD and potential indicators or "finger prints" of such conspiracies; it associates multiple events, characterizes categories and projects trends. Based on that analysis, the author concludes by painting a picture of an organized and ongoing series of elite/militarist organized SCAD's being conducted against the American public. To emphasize his position, he specifically discusses trends in regard to mass deception regarding defense related information and assassinations, before and following the Second World War. While much of this dialog will seem familiar to conspiracy oriented readers, it is presented with an aura of scientific support and it certainly seems that the author is going beyond simple hypothesis and theory to advocating a conclusion that there has been an elite conspiracy involved in both commission and obfuscation of "high crimes" against the American public.

Now in the interest of transparency, most people who know my work and my opinions are very much aware that I have a problem with grand conspiracies which contain extended linkages, maintained over decades. Those who share that view may be less enthusiastic about this book, those who follow grand conspiracy lines of thought will find it extremely interesting and reinforcing. But there is one issue that I would be remiss in not noting. It appears to me that a great deal of the authors' analysis is based on his categorization and trending of the events that he classifies as SCAD's; those are illustrated in tables 5.1 and 5.2 in the book. I love tables, they can be really fulfilling after you spend years of digging and research and I believe they are often excellent tools at disclosing patterns. But being a conspiracy researcher and skeptic myself, my first inclination is to want to paw through the data in the tables – but then I also love end notes, what can I say.

Table 5.1 is a chart of the modus operandi of U.S. SCADs and suspected SCADs – so naturally I want to see a list of what those are and how the author integrates them by category. With kudos to deHaven-Smith, Table 5.1 is broken down at the end of the book, with the title "Crimes against American democracy committed or allegedly committee by elements of the U.S. government". The table includes events beginning in 1798 and extending to 2004 and I assume it to be the source material for the overall analysis and trending of SCAD's discussed in what seems to be the key chapter of the book, Chapter 5. Table 5.1 discusses perpetrator motives, policy implications, identifies the suspected or confirmed perpetrator and then gives remarks on "degree of confirmation of government role" for each suspected SCAD. It also gives a confidence ranking for each – low, medium, and high. I did not find any specific set of criteria for making such rankings; however each incident is referenced to the source book and author from which it was taken.

The problem here is that none of the listed SCAD's is really analyzed in extended detail in the book and some of them are described as circumstantial even in the table. Several are listed as low in confirmation and some as medium. Of some 27 subjectively ranked, only 14 are listed as of a high confidence level. Included among the high rankings are the Sedition Act of 1798, the Lincoln assassination, the election of 1876, the McCarthy anti-Communist campaign, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Ellsburg burglary, October Surprise, Watergate, Iran-Contra (which I thought had been designated a political conspiracy not a SCAD in the Introduction?), the 2000 Presidential election, the post 9/11 Anthrax attacks, Iraq-Gate, the False Terror Alerts of 2004 and the 2004 election.

The issue then is that the tables and trend analysis, as well as the overall theme of an ongoing elitist conspiracy against democracy and the American public seems to rest to a great extent on the data and evaluations of the incidents selected as SCAD examples. Certainly the reader will make their own call on the author's premise and conclusions but in doing so it would be well advised to spend time considering the data sets which are used to support them. In sum, deHaven-Smith should have written either a shorter, or a much larger book.

(with James DiEugenio)

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:10

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