Alexander Cockburn: Sometimes Conspiracy Theories are True

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alexander Cockburn co-edits CounterPunch. He is a regular columnist for The Nation and also writes a weekly syndicated column. Among his books are Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press, End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate (both co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair) and Washington Babylon, co-authored with Ken Silverstein.]

Unlike the French or the Italians, for whom conspiracies are an integral part of government activity, acknowledged by all, Americans have been temperamentally prone to discount them. Reflecting its audience, the press follows suit. Editors and reporters like to offer themselves as hardened cynics, following the old maxim “Never believe anything till it is officially denied,” but in truth, they are touchingly credulous, ever inclined to trust the official version, at least until irrefutable evidence—say, the failure to discover a single WMD in Iraq—compels them finally to a darker view.

Once or twice a decade some official deception simply cannot be sedately circumnavigated. Even in the 1950s, when the lid of government secrecy was more firmly bolted down, the grim health consequences of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, Utah, and Nevada finally surfaced. In the late 1960s, it was the turn of the CIA, some of its activities first exposed in relatively marginal publications like The Nation and Ramparts, then finally given wider circulation.

Even then the mainstream press exhibited extreme trepidation in running any story presuming to discredit the moral credentials of the U.S. government. Take assassination as an instrument of national policy. In these post-9/11 days, when Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, publicly declares, as he did before the House Intelligence Committee, that the government has the right to kill Americans abroad, it is easy to forget that nothing used to more rapidly elicit furious denials from the CIA than allegations about its efforts, stretching back to the late 1940s, to kill inconvenient foreign leaders. Charges by the Cubans through the 1960s and early 1970s about the Agency’s serial attempts to murder Fidel Castro were routinely ignored, until finally the Senate hearings conducted in 1976 by Sen. Frank Church elicited a conclusive record of about 20 separate efforts.

Indeed, there was a brief window in the early ’70s, amid revulsion over the Vietnam War and the excitement of the Watergate hearings, when the press exhibited a certain unwonted bravado, in part because investigative committees of Congress, enlivened by Watergate, made good use of subpoena power and immunity from threats of libel. Hence the famous Lockheed bribery hearings....

Sometimes a cover-up does surface, propelled into the light of day by a tenacious journalist. Then there’s the outraged counterattack. Are you suggesting, sir, that the CIA connived to smuggle cocaine into America’s inner cities? Gary Webb’s career at the San Jose Mercury News was efficiently destroyed. Those who took the trouble to read the subsequent full report of CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz found corroboration of Webb’s charges. But by then the caravan had moved on. A jury issued its verdict, but the press box was empty.

Maybe now the decline in power of the established corporate press, the greater availability of dissenting versions of politics and history, and the exposure of the methods used to coerce public support for the attack on Iraq have engendered a greater sense of realism on the part of Americans about what their government can do. Perhaps the press will be more receptive to discomfiting stories about what Washington is capable of in the pursuit of what it deems to be the national interest. Hopefully, in this more fertile soil, Syd Schanberg’s pertinacity will be vindicated at last, and those still active in politics who connived at this abandonment will be forced to give an account.

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Arnold Shcherban - 5/28/2010

Fritz' report concludes that there have been no confirmed incidents of the CIA's officers/employees direct involvement in drug trafficking.
The worst the agency could be blamed for was (in the Fritz's own words) "bureaucratic inertia to react to such accusations on a consistent basis."