debunking conspiracism
novelist and entertainer K.J. McElrath, lawyer and activist Glenn Greenwald is by David dos Dantos and television personality Giorgio A. Tsoukalos
K.J. McElrath, Glenn Greenwald and Giorgio Tsoukalos

K.J. McElrath and Glen Greenwald appear disoriented. This is not the post 2016 election political struggle that they had anticipated. Or know how to fight. They were prepared to wage a virtuous virtual campaign against a President Hillary Clinton by continuing to expose the secrets of the military intelligence complex that spies on Americans and conducts a forever war to police the Middle East. Instead, the exposures of massive troves of mostly prosaic secrets via Wikileaks that they celebrated and propagated helped to shove history down a different path, leaving them stumbling and flailing.

What do you do when you are so successful that you put yourself out of business? That’s the daunting problem the March of Dimes confronted when a cure for polio almost wrecked their business model. That’s the problem that almost made Al Qaeda obsolete when Moscow withdrew the Red Army from Afghanistan. Both organizations survived by finding new targets: birth defects in the case of the March of Dimes and the United States in the case of Al Qaeda. McElrath, Greenwald and their followers have yet to realize the daunting nature of the organizational problem that they and their allies at Wikileaks now face.

Witness McElrath’s descent into conspiracism as he posits that supervillain masterminds in the CIA conspired to elect Donald Trump as part of their dark plan to undermine American democracy – “[W]as this the CIA’s agenda all along? Is it possible that it wasn’t the Russians who manipulated the election in favor of Trump, but rather, intelligence agencies? Did certain people in the CIA realize that a Trump Administration would be a disaster, and therefore, more easily overthrown?” Cue Giorgio Tsoukalos. As with the amusing nonsense of ancient alien theory when you only have one explanation, that’s the only explanation you give.

Here are just a few of the many problems with McElrath’s conspiracy theory. First, lots of people who don’t work at the CIA predicted that President Donald Trump would be the disaster that he has become. Yet none of them appear intent on undermining our democracy.

Second, the contemporary CIA is not in the business of overthrowing democracy, ours or anyone else’s. To be sure, the pre-Church Committee CIA helped overthrow an impressive collection of foreign leaders, including Mohammed Mossadeq and Kwame Nkrumah in 1953, Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, Patrice Lumumba in 1960, Raphael Trujillo in 1961, Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and Salvador Allende in 1973. But look closely at those dates. When was the last time the CIA actually overthrew a foreign leader? When was the last time it toppled a government, let alone a consolidated democracy like the United States?

Third, the idea that the leaders of the intelligence agencies of the United States Government, staffed as they are by highly educated individuals who have taken oaths to defend the Constitution, secretly conspired with one another to overthrow our democracy in a plot so ludicrous that it features Donald Trump is absurd. The CIA, NSA, FBI and the rest are organizational competitors who jealously defend their own institutional turf. That they have been roused from their normal inter-service rivalry to defend their collective interests as organizations only because the current administration openly ignores their work product and appears to operate under the influence of the intelligence agencies of a hostile foreign power. In their opposition to egregiously bad policy making, the behavior of the intelligence agencies is best compared to that of the scientists working at NASA, EPA and CDC. Hardly a conspiracy worthy of the name unless you are an anti-government extremist.

Fourth, McElrath’s demand that the intelligence agencies of the United States, which have as part of their institutional mission the keeping of secrets from hostile foreign powers, produce “irrefutable proof” that Trump “is in bed with Putin and working with or for the Kremlin” is both absurd and a suspicious echo of the response by the Trump White House, the Kremlin and their friends at Fox News and Breitbart News. Since Wikileaks is in the business of exposing secrets, let it offer “irrefutable proof” substantiating the assertion that the CIA, NSA and FBI are conspiring to overthrow American democracy.

Fifth, something important is missing in the Glen Greenwald Faction/Wikileaks narrative: material about the intelligence services of Russia and China are missing from the storyline. Spy agencies of allied countries put in appearances but largely as entities subordinate to their American counterparts. More generally, the perspective on international politics presented in the narrative is that the United States is always in the wrong. Which is every bit as distorted as the perspective presented by conservative news entities that the United States is never in the wrong. That both perspectives are now being deployed to oppose investigation of Russiagate is, for lack of a better word… creepy.

If Greenwald, McElrath and whoever else they speak for are to be politically relevant they will need a renovated information mission. Conspiracism is easy but empty. Ending up as the libertarian-left version of Alex Jones’s Infowars would be a sad fate. Revealing hacked documents from the decision to poison Alexander Litvenienko with Polonium-210 would go a long way toward redeeming a reputation for fearless crusading. So too would an offering of hacked personnel files from the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China. Maybe some hacked video from the interrogations of Azeri political prisoners at Baku Investigative Prison No. 1. Surprise us.


Images: the photo of novelist and entertainer K.J. McElrath is a promotional author photo via (fair use); the photo of Lawyer and activist Glenn Greenwald is by David dos Dantos via Wikipedia (Creative Commons); the photo of television personality Giorgio A. Tsoukalos is an unattributed photo from his Facebook page (fair use).
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.