Chip Berlet is a leftist writer who opposes the 9/11 Truth movement. In my opinion, he raises valid objections to what he calls “conspiracism” (which he distinguishes from the kinds of conspiracies that are actually likely to exist). But he wrongly classifies, as full-blown “conspiracism,” the idea that 9/11 was an inside job. Thus he echoes what seems to be a key propaganda ploy on the part of those covering up major crimes by high-level people within the U.S. government, namely lumping the evidence for such crimes together with some truly wacky (and truly dangerous) ideas to create the stereotype of the nutty “conspiracy theorist.” Berlet also, apparently, either ignores or has not yet looked at some of the better evidence for government complicity in the attacks of 9/11. On the other hand, I also think that what Berlet calls “conspiracism” is a genuine and dangerous trap which too many people in both the 9/11 Truth movement and the anti-war movement have fallen into, and it would be wise to pay attention to critiques of same.
Let’s look first at Chip Berlet’s article Post 9/11 Conspiracism. See also this response to Chip Berlet by Mark Robinowitz on the “Oil Empire” site.
The latter page contains copies of email correspondence between Robinowitz and Berlet, in which Berlet repeatedly dismisses Robinowitz’s evidence and insults Robinowitz’s research ability. But then, finally, Berlet all but admits that he himself has not examined most of the evidence that Robinowitz presented. Assuming Robinowitz has quoted him accurately, Berlet confesses: “I did not answer your long list of questions about 9/11 because I am employed as a researcher by a non-profit think tank that sets my research agenda,” and then, in a subsequent email, “The vast majority of research PRA conducts and publishes is not related to the issue of conspiracism.” I’ll say more about “conspiracism” later.
Elsewhere, e.g. in The New Pearl Harbor: A Debate On A New Book That Alleges The Bush Administration Was Behind The 9/11 Attacks, Berlet correctly refutes some of the weaker arguments made by people in the 9/11 Truth movement, such as the claim that the Pentagon was hit by something other than a 757. However, by no means does everyone in the 9/11 Truth movement endorse the latter claim. (See Pentagon no-757 theories: debunkings from within the 9/11 Truth movement.) Berlet falsely claims that such flimsy arguments are characteristic of the entire 9/11 Truth movement, ignoring mountains of better evidence for government complicity in the attacks of 9/11. (For a good summary of a lot of the better evidence, see 911proof.com.)
Against the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, Berlet’s main line of attack is to dismiss this idea as “conspiracism.” But what is “conspiracism”? His page on Post 9/11 Conspiracism distinguishes “conspiracism” from plausible conspiracies as follows:
People with unfair power and privilege generally try to hold onto that unfair power and privilege. Sometimes they make plans that are not publicly announced. Sometimes they engage in illegal plots. Real conspiracies have been exposed throughout history. History itself, however, is not controlled by a vast timeless conspiracy. The powerful people and groups in society are hardly a “secret team” or a tiny club of “secret elites.” The tendency to explain all major world events as primarily the product of a secret conspiracy is called conspiracism.
But a belief that 9/11 was an inside job does not, in and of itself, imply a belief that “History itself … is .. controlled by a vast timeless conspiracy” or the idea that “all major world events” are “primarily the product of a secret conspiracy.” To believe that 9/11 was an inside job, one needs only to believe that one particular major world event, namely 9/11, was the product of a secret conspiracy within the U.S. government, rather than just a secret conspiracy of 19 young men with box cutters plus a bearded older man in a cave. One might also believe, as Berlet himself concedes further down on the page, that there have existed other conspiracies by people within the U.S. government to commit various other crimes. (Berlet lists the Tuskegee experiments, COINTELPRO, and the Iran-Contra scandal.) One might also believe in the history of known previous false flag operations. But still, it’s a far cry from that to belief in a single vast generations-old conspiracy which masterminds just about everything.
It is, unfortunately, true that quite a few people in the 9/11 Truth movement are also “conspiracists” in a sense closer to Berlet’s definition. An example is what I call anti-Illuminism, which I have found to be disturbingly commonplace among activists in both the antiwar and 9/11 Truth movements here in New York. (See The recent growth of anti-Illuminism: Dreadful ideology about the dreaded Illuminati.) Another example is the conspiratorial anti-Jew bigotry advocated by a small but vocal minority of people in the 9/11 Truth movement. Perhaps “conspiracists” are more likely than most other people to notice real conspiracies, as well as imaginary ones.
But the idea that 9/11 was an inside job does not, in and of itself, imply “conspiracism” in the sense in which Berlet claims to be using that term.
The idea that 9/11 was an insude job does lead logically to a number of conclusions, some which are spelled out on the 9/11 Truth page of the TruthMove site. But none of these conclusions, either, require belief in a single overarching conspiracy which controls and micromanages the entire rest of the world.
In the Z Magazine article Debunking Conspiracy Theories: An Interview with Chip Berlet by David Barsamian, Chip Berlet makes some good arguments against “conspiracism” in the sense of grand-conspiracy theories like anti-Illuminism and conspiratorial anti-Jew bigotry a la Henry Ford’s The International Jew. For example:
People who believe in conspiracy theory are correct in analyzing that the world does not work the way power elites say it works; that there is a disjuncture between how power is realized and how we’re told the U.S. works — as a democracy with everyone having a vote and everyone having a role in developing policies for the United States.
The problem is when this is all attempted to be knit together into one seamless tapestry that goes back hundreds of years and involves everybody who is in the media, education, and politics. It’s this extension into complete control over all aspects of a person’s life that debunks conspiracy just on the basis of rational investigation. You simply can’t have a conspiracy that goes back centuries and extends across so many different sectors of a society and not have it unravel as people turn against each other.
Indeed that would be true for an alleged conspiracy “that goes back centuries and extends across so many different sectors of a society.” Such a vast and overarching secret could not be kept for very long.
But the idea that 9/11 was an inside job does not require such a conspiracy. It requires only a much smaller, limited-purpose conspiracy within the CIA plus probably a few high-ranking people in the administration, such as the President and/or the Vice President and/or the Secretary of Defense, plus maybe a few high-ranking people in NORAD and/or the FAA, plus maybe Larry Silverstein and/or some high-ranking person in the Port Authority and/or in Securacom, plus maybe a few high-ranking people in the New York City government. (It also requires a larger set of subordinates unknowingly used by the knowing conspirators.) It is possible, though a challenge, for a relatively small group of people to keep a secret, at least for a little while, especially if the people in question, such as CIA agents and military officials, are already accustomed to keeping secrets and trained to do so.
The Z Magazine interviewer says: “Some of the groups that keep turning up over and over again are, for example, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the Bilderburgers, the Rockefellers, and others.”
To which Berlet replies:
Some of these are institutions that have real power in the world and we should be investigating them as power brokers. The dilemma is assuming because a group has power that it has control. There are many powerful groups that meet and plot strategy. The Bilderburgers are a real banking group, the Trilateral Commission really does affect foreign policy.
That’s Bilderberg, not Bilderburg, and it’s not just a “banking group.” It’s a privately-organized, highly secretive off-the-record gathering of powerful people, both from the governments of many different countries and from large corporations of various kinds. (See Bilderberg: The ultimate conspiracy theory by Jonathan Duffy, Thursday, 3 June, 2004, on the BBC News site.) While it probably does not micromanage the world to the extent that many “conspiracists” believe, it certainly is a vehicle of multinational corporate influence on the governments of many different countries – and probably, in many cases, against the best interests of the general publics of those countries.
But there isn’t one group that is the puppeteer over everything; there are a number of groups that are jockeying for power. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they have falling-outs. That’s the distinction here. An institutional analysis would look at the role of these powerful groups and say, “This is where they’ve been successful, this is where they’ve failed. These groups worked together for a number of years. Now they don’t work together.” It’s the insistence on a kind of Manichean thinking: there are evil forces in the world and good people have to expose them, and everything will be fine once they are exposed. This is a magical explanation of how the world works. Power concedes nothing without a struggle, as Frederick Douglass pointed out. You cannot change the way power is exercised in the world simply by exposing a handful of people. There needs to be a struggle to explain how systems and institutions and structures of society affect us.
Even if we could expose a handful of people who are powerful, there would still be powerful forces of capitalism and class exploitation. There would be powerful forces of white supremacy. There would be patriarchy. There would be heterosexism.
I agree with all the above. But it’s irrelevant to the question of whether 9/11 was an inside job.
Berlet then gives an interesting brief history of “conspiracism”:
Skipping over the 2,000 years of Christian millennial, apocalyptic allegations of conspiracy, we can cut to the chase around the late 1700s. The basic idea really starts as a defense of the monarchy and oligarchy in Europe against the Enlightenment, against free thinkers and liberal thinkers in Europe who were demanding that citizens have a right to have a say in their society. People who defended church-state alliance, the monarchy, and oligarchy put out a series of books alleging that calling for voting and democracy and the scientific method and the Enlightenment was all a plot by people trying to destroy society by undermining church and state. The basic allegations of modern conspiracy thinking start out as a right-wing attack in defense of the status quo. Ironically, as more and more democracy was introduced into society, this flips and people now are criticizing the government, claiming that the government is run by the conspiracy.
For many decades these are right-wing theories that surface against the Jesuits, against Jews, against anarchists, and during the McCarthy period, against Communists. The basic theme is that the reason you’re unhappy with the government is that there are these secret elites who run everything. The original allegations started out with the Illuminati, which is said to be controlling the Freemasons. In the 1900s, this gets changed to the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a hoax document that alleges that Jews run everything.
I agree that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion probably drew inspiration from earlier anti-Illuminist propaganda.
In the 1950s, it’s all about the Communists and the State Department and the CIA versus the really righteous people in the military and conservative groups. Today it filters down so that a number of progressives have adopted this way of thinking and claim that ever since the JFK assassination the government has been run by a handful of secret elites.
Berlet fails to mention one of the most disturbing aspects of “conspiratorialism” among progressives, namely that some of these supposedly progressive folks blame “the Illuminati.” Historically, the Bavarian Illuminati held progressive views and were vilified precisely because of their progressive views. Hence anti-Illuminism, no matter who advocates it, inevitably plays into the hands of reactionaries of the most retrograde sort. (See The recent growth of anti-Illuminism: Dreadful ideology about the dreaded Illuminati.) So, Chip Berlet would indeed have very good reason to be concerned about the growth of anti-Illuminism – especially within progressive movements, where it is, most definitely, a Trojan horse, for more reasons besides just its diversion of attention away from the “institutional or structural analysis” that Berlet says he favors:
The reason I get so frustrated with this is that we’re sitting here in a library. Just a few feet from us there are 300 or 400 books written by right wingers over the last 50 years making all of these allegations. Then I have a shelf of books by progressives who have adopted this way of thinking and made it a progressive issue by abandoning any kind of systemic institutional or structural analysis.
I would suggest that Berlet spend more of his time exposing and opposing anti-Illuminism, specifically, if his think tank, PRA, decides to continue its crusade against “conspiracism.”
There is a habit of people who promote conspiracism to delete from the discussion any counterevidence. I think that’s very clearly the case with the people who are talking about 9/11 being a plot by the Bush administration or the Mossad from Israel. They come up with all these tantalizing little facts and then string them together into a conclusion that isn’t borne by the facts. What’s more, the facts they choose don’t include all the facts that would negate their assumption. They delete any evidence that contradicts what they’re saying.
That’s certainly true of some people in the 9/11 Truth movement. However, some people in the 9/11 Truth movement are more careful researchers than others.
Later, the Z Magazine interviewer says: “Two prominent conspiracy theories are the assassination of John F. Kennedy and September 11.”
If indeed the CIA was involved in the the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then that too, like the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, does not require a “conspiracist” worldview.
I personally have not yet studied the Kennedy assassination in-depth and do not yet have a position on whether there is sufficient sound evidence in favor of the idea of government involvement in that particular crime. I’m simply noting a category error here. Whether or not it’s true, the idea of CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination does NOT belong in the same “conspiracist” category as anti-Illuminism or the idea of a vast, world-controlling conspiracy of Jews. Rather, it would be essentially just another criminal conspiracy within the government, of pretty much the same kind as Iran-Contra, only more blatantly treasonous. Given that the CIA has had plenty of experience doing assassinations overseas, and given the lack of accountability that follows from the CIA’s extreme secrecy, it’s not at all far-fetched that some folks in the CIA might assassinate someone at home too.
Regarding the Kennedy assassination, Berlet concedes that “the basic research of the Warren Commission was terrible,” but then goes on to say:
However, what a lot of people did — and this really starts on the left with Mark Lane and his book — was to valorize Kennedy in some way — this idea that Kennedy represented some ideal, utopian presidency and that his assassination, therefore, ushered in everything that was bad, especially the continuation of the Vietnam War. There are legitimate arguments back and forth about what Kennedy was planning on doing, but the bottom line is that you cannot ascribe everything bad that has happened since November 22, 1963 as flowing from this single assassination. The attacks on the civil rights movements, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Iran-Contra scandal, these are not all traceable back to the Kennedy assassination. If you look at some web pages, you will see that when they recommend the books that you need to read to understand U.S. politics—not just the Kennedy assassination, but the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination, Flight TWA 800, and the AIDS virus—they’re all somehow connected to this power elite that runs everything and is destroying the world.
All of this is irrelevant to the question of whether the CIA, or some other part of the federal government, actually was involved in the Kennedy assassination.
Berlet also says:
The allegation that comes through in JFK really is one that starts in the political right wing, which is that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy. But you have to understand that this theory came from groups like the John Birch Society, which were so far to the right that they thought the Kennedy government was left-wing. But also, they thought that the military-industrial complex was a liberal, left-wing plot involving internationalism, so that they thought that this was an internecine struggle within liberalism and within the left and within the Rockefeller internationalists.
The left comes along. They don’t like the military-industrial complex. They take this allegation. They delete the right-wing analysis about the military-industrial complex being left wing and internationalist and part of the corporate global elites and they invert it and say, “Well, we know the military-industrial complex is right-wing. Therefore, the right wing killed Kennedy; therefore, Kennedy had to be good.” This is very appealing, but it’s completely nonrational and nonlogical and there is no evidence to defend it.
Again irrelevant to the question of who actually was ultimately responsible for killing JFK. Analysis of possible motives, whether from a right-wing or left-wing point of view, are not the most important type of criminal evidence.
Moreover, the right wing origins of an idea do not prove it to be false. Berlet here is committing the fallacy of guilt-by-association.
Nor does the idea that the CIA killed JFK have, in and of itself, the same kind of Trojan-horse consequences for progressive movements as does full-blown “conspiratorialism” (especially of the anti-Illuminist and Jew-hating varieties).
As is true of the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, it may also be true that many of the same people who say that the CIA killed JFK are also “conspiracists” in the sense that Berlet defines and denounces. But it is certainly possible to believe that the CIA killed JFK without being a full-blown “conspiracist.”
About the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, Berlet then says:
Have the people that have alleged these things to be true met the requirements of either basic logic or conventional journalistic practices? I don’t think so.
As I said, some researchers are more careful than others. I would suggest that Berlet look at the websites I’ve listed on the sidebar of this blog, under “Links – 9/11 – what happened?”
Regarding the “PATRIOT” act and the wars that followed 9/11, the Z Magazine interviewer says: “… The thinking here is that these outcomes clearly benefited the Bush administration agenda so that it must have been involved” in the 9/11 attacks.
To which Berlet replies: “That’s the basic fallacy of logic, sequence implies causation. If sequence implies causation, then anything that happens before and after can be linked. And that’s not true.”
No, the point of explaining how the Bush administration benefitted from 9/11 is to establish a possible motive. Of course, a possible motive, by itself, does not establish guilt. (Otherwise, for example, everyone who inherits some money would automatically be guilty of killing one’s parents.) However, evidence of motive is a valid part of a criminal case – in conjunction with many other kinds of evidence, of course.
Berlet then says:
What’s more, it erases a whole history. We know, for instance, that almost all of the aspects of the Patriot Act had been proposed for ten years by conservatives who were horrified by the regulations and the restrictions that were put on government intelligence agencies after the FBI COINTEL program was exposed. When Reagan took office, he began to unravel regulations and restrictions. Clinton continued this policy. So it’s both Democrats and Republicans. We know from reading reports from the Heritage Foundation and from conservative pro-intelligence agency journals that these folks wanted a whole lot more power in the hands of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.
Far from being “erased” by the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, the above only establishes even more of a likely motive.
What is a much more logical explanation is that, given the horrendous events on 9/11, this gigantic wish list from conservative pro-intelligence agency people was put back on the table, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had the backbone to stand up against it so it passed into law. That is a much more rational and reasonable explanation for what happened and it assumes that whenever there is some amazingly tragic and focusing event, there are people ready to exploit it to pursue their own ends.
Which explanation is “more rational and reasonable” depends on other kinds of evidence, most of which Berlet does not examine in this article, though he does comment on some of it.
Nowhere in this article does Berlet address what I consider to be some of the strongest evidence that 9/11 was an inside job, such as the Straight-down collapse of WTC 7 For other strong evidence, see 911proof.com.
Nor does he address the way the investigations were carried out and the substantial evidence of a coverup. The latter evidence is very solid and has been raised by many mainstream media sources and in some mainstream professional journals, not just by people in the 9/11 Truth movement. (See, for example, various articles linked on this page of 911proof.com.) The evidence of a coverup does not, in and of itself, prove that 9/11 was an inside job, but it does prove the need for a new and more truly independent investigation.
One issue Berlet does address is the apparent NORAD stand down. Berlet claims that NORAD just wasn’t able to respond in a timely fashion. This is an area I personally haven’t yet researched in enough depth to comment, except to note that the changing NORAD timelines are one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting a coverup.
On another issue, Bush’s behavior on 9/11, Berlet says:
If you’re going to try to argue that Bush set up this whole chain of events, or at least knew about it and did nothing, then you would think that his reactions during the day could have been better and more skillfully plotted out by his handlers, who obviously tell him what to say, where to go, and what to think. We have a situation where Bush seems to act in an inappropriate way. He then went into hiding, which certainly didn’t help him because it was the wrong thing to do in terms of his image. So if you’re arguing that this was all skillfully plotted, then why was his reaction that day and his handlers’ reactions so inept?
Perhaps because most of his advisors were not in on the plot? Or perhaps to help plant the seeds of an incompetence theory?
Berlet then responds to the claim that something other than a 757 hit the Pentagon. As I said earlier, this is an allegation which the more careful 9/11 researchers do not make.
The interview ends with a dismissal of the whole 9/11 issue as a waste of time.
In other words, just because the question of who really did what on 9/11 is complicated, we should be satisfied with sloppy official investigations and let the possible real criminals get away with it???
P.S., 10/17/2007: This blog entry has been linked to by one on Screw Loose Change, The Chameleon Truth Movement, where I’ve been implicitly accused of being a “Bilderberg conspiracy nutbar.” I’ve posted, as a comment there, a clarification to my paragraph about the Bilderberg group.
P.S., 12/11/2007: See the very interesting blog entry Conspiracy is an Absolute Fact by John Doraemi. I have not researched all the specific instances of wrongdoing by government officials that he alleges, so I can’t vouch for all of them, but the following is undoubtedly true:
When high level government officials agree that the Geneva Conventions are “quaint,” “obsolete,”  and that they are not going to follow the letter of the law , and that they are going to condone torture , this is a conspiracy, simply one of many that remains unprosecuted at this time.
Another very interesting article I came across which, in different words, makes some of the same distinctions I made in this blog entry, is “Of Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories: The Truth Buried by the Fantasies,” by Robin Ramsay, written back in 1996. (A copy of this article can be found on a website I prefer not to link to, but it can easily be Googled.)