Conspiracy theorists are missing the real scandal of abused power

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On 1 October 1963, the CIA station in Mexico City intercepted a phone call to the Soviet Embassy. Speaking in broken Russian, the caller said his name was Oswald and asked if there was any reply to his request for a Soviet visa made in person a few days earlier. After consulting a colleague, the guard on duty said that no reply had been received.

The CIA memo about the call is part of a vast trove of previously classified US government documents relating to the assassination of President Kennedy, made public just before Christmas in the teeth of objections from the CIA and the FBI.

In the case of Lee Harvey Oswald’s phone call, made seven weeks before he shot JFK dead, from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, one likely reason for CIA secrecy is clear.

The JFK assassination

The CIA memo, written after the JFK assassination on 22 November, says that “this piece of information was produced from a telephone tap centre which we operate jointly with the office of the President of Mexico. It is highly secret and not known to Mexican security and law enforcement”.

Other secrets are more unsavoury, such as a plot to stage a false flag attack on the US naval base at Guantanamo harbour in Cuba. “We could blow up a ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” thereby providing an excuse for invading the island, reads a memo from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The enormous cache of 13,173 documents does not throw much fresh light on the assassination, either confirming or refuting the multitude of conspiracy theories doubting that Oswald acted alone and alleging he was an actor in a wider conspiracy. But what the documents, many of them previously released but in a redacted form, do do is to paint a fascinating picture of the nefarious activities of the US government that it was still eager to keep secret six decades later.

Dirty dealings

The justification for secrecy is invariably governmental concern that national security will be compromised, but the reality is fear that lies, dirty dealings, failures and blunders will be exposed. One memo says the US might “arrange for caches of limited Soviet-Czech arms to be ‘discovered’ in selected Latin American countries, ostensibly smuggled in from Cuba”.

Not very nice, of course, yet concealing these discreditable but ageing secrets is scarcely an adequate explanation for governmental secrecy. A more powerful motive may be the determination of state institutions to preserve their status as the keepers of the nation’s secrets, which are given mythological significance – even though most of them can be easily guessed by any reasonably well-informed person. Anything damaging this mystique must be avoided, eliminated or hidden from public view.

This explains the US government’s obsessive secrecy over material relating to Oswald and JFK in the 1960s and its similar obsession 50 years later to punish WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for releasing a trove of classified but not very secret government cables.

An angry letter

The recent releases by the US National Archive show the CIA, FBI and other agencies panicking as the news of the JFK assassination came through. They were all eager to show that they had Oswald on their radar, but had not done anything that might have motivated him to kill JFK. The FBI had routinely assigned an agent to monitor Oswald as a former defector to the Soviet Union, who had tried to interview Oswald’s wife. Oswald had then written an angry letter to the agent which the FBI later destroyed to hide it from the Warren Commission, appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination and which concluded that Oswald had acted alone.

I have always believed that the Warren Commission’s conclusions were correct and the conspiracy theorists are deceiving themselves and others by doubting them. The assassin who succeeds is usually one who acts alone and is prepared to die in order to achieve their aim. Any wider conspiracy is likely to be detected by the security forces because somebody will be indiscreet, insufficiently fanatical, or an informer. Conspiracy theorists often imagine a large conspiratorial organisation but this could not, in the nature of things, exist if it wanted to stay hidden and carry out its mission.

More from Opinion

Although those who see conspiracies on every side from Pearl Harbour to 9/11 habitually discredit their own theories by partisan selection of dubious evidence, real plots and conspiracies do exist. For instance, I arrived in Russia as a foreign correspondent in 1999 soon after four mysterious bombings of apartment blocks had killed 307 and injured about 1,000 people, sending a wave of terror across the country. Chechens were blamed for the attacks, much though they were to the advantage of Vladimir Putin who promptly began the Second Chechen War and took over as Russian leader from Boris Yeltsin a few months later.

The Kremlin

Along with many Russians, I assumed from early on the Kremlin was behind the bombings, but I was convinced that whoever ordered them would have ensured that they would escape detection by acting at several removes from those, probably Chechen guns for hire, who had carried out the attacks.

The problem with conspiracy theorists is they assume conspirators are deeply evil and devious, but also naïve and simple-minded in hiding their tracks. It is these tracks that our theorist then identifies and which lead inexorably to the guilty parties.

Pundits frequently claim that our present era is peculiarly prone to conspiracy theories promoted by social media and by internet platforms. I doubt if we are seeing anything very new: our 17th century ancestors found no difficulty in believing in the Popish Plot without reading about it online.

The Catiline conspiracy

Demonising political enemies as plotters is an age-old and effective tactic. Historians still debate the reality of the Catiline Conspiracy in Rome in 63BC which Cicero claimed to have thwarted and saved the Republic. Many alleged conspirators were executed without trial, preventing any debate about the evidence against them.

A harmful consequence of conspiracy theories is that they lead people to ignore rational explanations. It has always appeared self-evident to me that Oswald was a left-wing supporter of Fidel Castro who killed JFK because his administration was attempting to overthrow the Cuban government – attempts amply documented by the latest batch of documents.

Fast forward half a century and Hillary Clinton blamed her defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election on a conspiracy by Putin and the Kremlin. But reading any account of her dysfunctional election campaign makes clear that its failure was largely her own fault.

Sufficient attention is seldom given to one simple but compelling reason why people promote their conspiracy theories in books and news outlets, which is that they can make a lot of money out of doing so.

Further Thoughts

‘Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proudly unveil his five promises to the British people this week’ (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

Few sights are more absurd or unreal than political leaders announcing their long-term plans for radical changes benefitting millions or their intention to reform giant institutions in a year or two. Grandiose pledges to create a better world trip off the tongue and they pretend to a degree of control over events that they must know they do not possess.

I always liked the caustic remark of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau when told in 1918 about President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for ending the First World War and for establishing a lasting peace. “Why does he need 14 points?” asked Clemenceau derisively. “Even the Good God only had 10.”

I remembered Clemenceau’s jibe when watching Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proudly unveil his five promises to the British people this week. These are to halve inflation; to grow the economy; to reduce debt; to cut hospital waiting lists; and to stop migrants crossing the Channel.

As exasperated journalists swiftly pointed out, the first three promises cover developments already underway and there is no date by which the last two tasks are to be accomplished. To be fair, Sir Keir Starmer struck back by producing similar guff about devolving government powers from the centre and doing many other good things without spending any money.

Presumably there are voters who are impressed by this sort of grandstanding. The former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would whip out a list of his pledges, such as bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland, and read them out on television.

I reported on the midterm Congressional election in 1994 when Republican Congressional candidates solemnly signed a “Contract with America”. President Clinton called it “a Contract on America” but, corny though it was, it helped the Republicans to a massive victory at the polls.

The hubris of these performances is self-evident, but perhaps they are effective because people would like to think that their leaders are in greater control than they really are. Few dare admit this publicly whatever their real thoughts and it is unwise to mock what George Bush senior called “The Vision Thing”.

Long term visions are peculiarly ludicrous in Britain today as prime ministers and ministers sweep in and out of office so speedily that the public no longer know their names. In addition, most of them have shown demonstrably low calibre in any job they have ever held. Yet these same people claim to be able to take decisions affecting a vast and complex organisation like the NHS with its 1.2 million employees.

A friend of mine who was a civil servant in the Ministry of Health in the 1990s, told me sadly this week of her despair when she tried to explain to Edwina Currie, then a junior health minister, in the back of a taxi on the way to a mental hospital how the treatment of mentally ill children might be improved. Currie listened distantly while giving her main energies to an interview with a morning radio show.

Beneath the Radar

I am fascinated by the impact of the third great revolution in archaeology over the last 10 years enabling scientists to study the migrations that produced modern Europeans. The study of human genomes from 5,000 years ago show that we have a much darker and bloodier ancestry than I had supposed.

Cockburn’s Picks

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a New Year address. ‘US officials and politicians compete to see who can be the most hawkish towards Beijing and escalation management is dismissed as appeasement’ (Photo: AP/ Xinhua)

China is presented as the great threat facing us all. Most of those who say so can barely find the country on the map. I found this lecture enlightening in a straightforward way about what the Chinese state thinks about Russia, America and the war in Ukraine. It is shocking to discover that the Chinese ambassador in Washington is treated as more of a pariah than than the Soviet ambassador at the height of the Cold War. US officials and politicians compete to see who can be the most hawkish towards Beijing and escalation management is dismissed as appeasement.

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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