Sometimes conspiracy theories point toward something worth investigating. A few point toward the truth.
The challenge in thinking about a case like the suspicious suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, the supposed “billionaire” who spent his life acquiring sex slaves and serving as a procurer to the ruling class, can be summed up in two sentences. Most conspiracy theories are false. But often some of the things they’re trying to explain are real.
Conspiracy theories are usually false because the people who come up with them are outsiders to power, trying to impose narrative order on a world they don’t fully understand — which leads them to imagine implausible scenarios and impossible plots, to settle on ideologically convenient villains and assume the absolute worst about their motives, and to imagine an omnicompetence among the corrupt and conniving that doesn’t actually exist.
Or they are false because the people who come up with them are insiders trying to deflect blame for their own failings, by blaming a malign enemy within or an evil-genius rival for problems that their own blunders helped create.
Or they are false because the people pushing them are cynical manipulators and attention-seekers trying to build a following who don’t care a whit about the truth.
For all these reasons serious truth-seekers are predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories on principle, and journalists especially are predisposed to quote Richard Hofstadter on the “paranoid style” whenever they encounter one — an instinct only sharpened by the rise of Donald Trump, the cynical conspiracist par excellence.
But this dismissiveness can itself become an intellectual mistake, a way to sneer at speculation while ignoring an underlying reality that deserves attention or investigation. Sometimes that reality is a conspiracy in full, a secret effort to pursue a shared objective or conceal something important from the public. Sometimes it’s a kind of unconscious connivance, in which institutions and actors behave in seemingly concerted ways because of shared assumptions and self-interest. But in either case, an admirable desire to reject bad or wicked theories can lead to a blindness about something important that these theories are trying to explain.
Here are some diverse examples. Start with U.F.O. theories, a reliable hotbed of the first kind of conspiracizing — implausible popular stories about hidden elite machinations.
It is simple wisdom to assume that any conspiratorial Fox Mulder-level master narrative about little gray men or lizard people is rubbish. Yet at the same time it is a simple fact that the U.F.O. era began, in Roswell, N.M., with a government lie intended to conceal secret military experiments; it is also a simple fact, lately reported in this very newspaper, that the military has been conducting secret studies of unidentified-flying-object incidents that continue to defy obvious explanations.
So the correct attitude toward U.F.O.s cannot be a simple Hofstadterian dismissiveness about the paranoia of the cranks. Instead, you have to be able to reject outlandish theories and acknowledge a pattern of government lies and secrecy around a weird, persistent, unexplained feature of human experience — which we know about in part because the U.F.O. conspiracy theorists keep banging on about their subject. The wild theories are false; even so, the secrets and mysteries are real.
Another example: The current elite anxiety about Russia’s hand in the West’s populist disturbances, which reached a particularly hysterical pitch with the pre-Mueller report collusion coverage, is a classic example of how conspiracy theories find a purchase in the supposedly sensible center — in this case, because their narrative conveniently explains a cascade of elite failures by blaming populism on Russian hackers, moneymen and bots.
And yet: Every conservative who rolls her or his eyes at the “Russia hoax” is in danger of dismissing the reality that there is a Russian plot against the West — an organized effort to use hacks, bots and rubles to sow discord in the United States and Western Europe. This effort is far weaker and less consequential than the paranoid center believes, it doesn’t involve fanciful “Trump has been a Russian asset since the ’80s” machinations … but it also isn’t something that Rachel Maddow just made up. The hysteria is overdrawn and paranoid; even so, the Russian conspiracy is real.
A third example: Marianne Williamson’s long-shot candidacy for the Democratic nomination has elevated the holistic-crunchy critique of modern medicine, which often shades into a conspiratorial view that a dark corporate alliance is actively conspiring against American health, that the medical establishment is consciously lying to patients about what might make them well or sick. Because this narrative has given anti-vaccine fervor a huge boost, there’s understandable desire among anti-conspiracists to hold the line against anything that seems like a crankish or quackish criticism of the medical consensus.
But if you aren’t somewhat paranoid about how often corporations cover up the dangers of their products, and somewhat paranoid about how drug companies in particular influence the medical consensus and encourage overprescription — well, then I have an opioid crisis you might be interested in reading about. You don’t need the centralized conspiracy to get a big medical wrong turn; all it takes is the right convergence of financial incentives with institutional groupthink. Which makes it important to keep an open mind about medical issues that are genuinely unsettled, even if the people raising questions seem prone to conspiracy-think. The medical consensus is generally a better guide than crankishness; even so, the tendency of cranks to predict medical scandals before they’re recognized is real.
Finally, a fourth example, circling back to Epstein: the conspiracy theories about networks of powerful pedophiles, which have proliferated with the internet and peaked, for now, with the QAnon fantasy among Trump supporters.
I say fantasy because the details of the QAnon narrative are plainly false: Donald Trump is not personally supervising an operation against “deep state” child sex traffickers any more than my 3-year-old is captaining a pirate ship.
But the premise of the QAnon fantasia, that certain elite networks of influence, complicity and blackmail have enabled sexual predators to exploit victims on an extraordinary scale — well, that isn’t a conspiracy theory, is it? That seems to just be true.
And not only true of Epstein and his pals. As I’ve written before, when I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.
But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.
Likewise with the secular world’s predators. Imagine being told the scope of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged operation before it all came crashing down — not just the ex-Mossad black ops element but the possibility that his entire production company also acted as a procurement-and-protection operation for one of its founders. A conspiracy theory, surely! Imagine being told all we know about the late, unlamented Epstein — that he wasn’t just a louche billionaire (wasn’t, indeed, a proper billionaire at all) but a man mysteriously made and mysteriously protected who ran a pedophile island with a temple to an unknown god and plotted his own “Boys From Brazil” endgame in plain sight of his Harvard-D.C.-House of Windsor pals. Too wild to be believed!
Where networks of predation and blackmail are concerned, then, the distinction I’m drawing between conspiracy theories and underlying realities weakens just a bit. No, you still don’t want to listen to QAnon, or to our disgraceful president when he retweets rants about the #ClintonBodyCount. But just as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s network of clerical allies and enablers hasn’t been rolled up, and the fall of Bryan Singer probably didn’t get us near the rancid depths of Hollywood’s youth-exploitation racket, we clearly haven’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with Epstein.
So to worry too much about online paranoia outracing reality is to miss the most important journalistic task, which is the further unraveling of scandals that would have seemed, until now, too implausible to be believed.
Yes, by all means, resist the tendency toward unfounded speculation and cynical partisan manipulation. But also recognize that in the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his circle, the conspiracy was real.
Senator Mitch McConnell is usually impervious to criticism, even celebrating the nasty nicknames critics bestow on him. But Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is incensed by the name “Moscow Mitch,” and even more miffed that he has been called a “Russian asset” by critics who accuse him of single-handedly blocking stronger election security measures after Russia’s interference in 2016.
Democrats had been making the case for months, but it was supercharged last week by the testimony of Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, who told the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians were back at it “as we sit here.”
Mr. McConnell cites several reasons for his opposition — a longstanding resistance to federal control over state elections, newly enacted security improvements that were shown to have worked in the 2018 voting and his suspicion that Democrats are trying to gain partisan advantage with a host of proposals.
Republican colleagues say that Mr. McConnell, a longtime foe of tougher campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, is leery of even entering into legislative negotiation that could touch on fund-raising and campaign spending.
“Democrats want more aggressive legislation to protect America’s elections after Robert Mueller’s stark warning about Russian interference,” began one report aired on a Louisville television station last week. “Mitch McConnell blocked it.”
Even President Trump felt compelled to come to his defense — as only he could.
“Mitch McConnell is a man that knows less about Russia and Russian influence than even Donald Trump,” the president told reporters Tuesday as he was leaving for a speech in Jamestown, Va. “And I know nothing.”
That did not relieve the heat on the majority leader, who on Monday had appeared to open the door ever so slightly to doing more on election preparedness.
“I’m sure all of us will be open to discussing further steps Congress, the executive branch, the states and the private sector might take to defend our elections against foreign interference,” he said as he seethed on the Senate floor over what he described as McCarthy-style attacks on his integrity and distortions of both his position on election security and his hawkish history of challenging Russia.
Throughout his political career, Mr. McConnell has made opposition to the Kremlin a hallmark of his foreign policy stands.
For once, Democrats seemed to be getting to a man who has embraced his portrayal as Darth Vader and the Grim Reaper overseeing a Senate graveyard for legislation that he opposes. When an unsubstantiated West Virginia Senate campaign ad in 2018 called him “Cocaine Mitch,” he began answering his Senate telephone with that identifier.
“Moscow Mitch”? Not so much: “I was called unpatriotic, un-American and essentially treasonous,” he fumed on the Senate floor.
Democrats pressed their advantage. And why not? The hashtag #MoscowMitchMcTraitor was trending on Twitter, and Senate Republicans of all stripes were being asked about the blockade.
“So long as the Senate Republicans prevent legislation from reaching the floor, so long as they oppose additional appropriations to the states, so long as they malign election security provisions as, quote, partisan wish lists, the critics are right to say Leader McConnell and Republican senators are blocking election security,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said on the floor Tuesday.
Mr. Schumer has in the past suggested that another potential reason behind Mr. McConnell’s position is the thought that interference emanating from Russia could aid Republicans. “I hope it’s not because he thinks it will benefit him, because Putin could turn around in a minute, and then do things that he doesn’t like,” Mr. Schumer said in June.
Lawmakers in both parties have election security proposals waiting on the sidelines, and the furor has caused some to step up demands for Congress to take up their bills.
Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, wrote on Monday to colleagues reconciling the annual House and Senate military policy bill to request that they include stalled sanctions legislation meant to deter Russia or other foreign actors from interfering in American elections. House lawmakers included a similar provision in their military policy bill, but the senators want to see it strengthened to slap Russia’s economy with intense sanctions if it is found to interfere in a future election.
“This conference committee represents this Congress’ best — potentially last — opportunity to enact meaningful legislation aimed at deterring Russia from a repeat performance of its 2016 presidential election interference,” the senators wrote. “We ask that you seize this opportunity and include the provisions outlined above in the final conference report.”
On Tuesday, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, signed on to a measure by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, that would require campaign officials to report to federal authorities any offers of campaign assistance from foreign entities.
“Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections remain relentless,” said Ms. Collins, who is also up for re-election next year, in a statement.
Mr. McConnell’s opposition to any and all election legislation has bottled up the bills in the Senate Rules Committee. The panel’s chairman, Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, has hesitated to advance any of the measures since they would go nowhere on the floor.
Mr. Blunt said he repeatedly had been assured by the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the federal intelligence agencies that they were not lacking resources to combat election interference.
“They always say, ‘No, we don’t need anything,’” Mr. Blunt said Tuesday. A former state elections official himself, Mr. Blunt said he agreed with Mr. McConnell that the federal government should not gain more authority over state elections.
“Mitch would not want to see us further federalize the process and that’s where I am, too,” Mr. Blunt said.
Proponents of the bills say they are devised to keep the states in the lead. A Democratic measure approved by the House would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand that states use the money for machines with backup paper ballots and require a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks. States would be required to spend federal funds only on federally certified “election infrastructure vendors.”
A bipartisan measure in both chambers would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads. Another bipartisan Senate proposal would codify cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt backup paper ballots.
Backup paper ballots got an endorsement Tuesday from an unlikely source: Mr. Trump. He took to Twitter to call for “Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!).”
We should immediately pass Voter ID @Voteridplease to insure the safety and sanctity of our voting system. Also, Paper Ballots as backup (old fashioned but true!). Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2019
With the focus on the issue intensifying, Mr. McConnell and Senate Republicans will face more pressure to act.
If they do, the most likely result would not be advancing stand-alone bills but instead using the annual spending bills that must pass this fall to funnel more money to states to secure their elections and to make certain they have a paper-ballot trail that can be audited if questions arise about the legitimacy of an outcome. Ten states now lack full capacity to do so, according to the Rules Committee.
Mr. Schumer encouraged that idea Tuesday. “If McConnell wants to address election security in the appropriations process, we would welcome his support on an amendment to send more funding to the states,” he said. “We want to get something done on election security because this is not about party, this is a matter of national security.
Mr. McConnell said Monday that he would not be intimidated into acting on election interference.
He also will probably not be answering his phone “Moscow Mitch.”
MIAMI — The mystery surrounding a Russian intrusion into Florida’s voter registration systems during the 2016 election deepened on Tuesday when Gov. Ron DeSantis said that the F.B.I. had revealed to him which counties in the state had been targeted — then required the governor to keep the information secret.
At a news conference in Tallahassee, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, said that officials from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security had asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement pledging not to identify the two counties that fell victim to a “spearphishing” attempt by Russian hackers.
That the Russians breached security protocols in not one but two counties was previously unknown. Last month, the Mueller reportconfirmed that the F.B.I. believed that the Russian military intelligence unit known as the G.R.U. breached “at least one Florida county government.” Elections officials said that if the intrusion came through a spearphishing email, as it apparently did, it would put hackers in a position to potentially alter registration data, though not the tabulation of ballots.
.. Mr. DeSantis, who took office in January, had insisted on being briefed on the hacking after the release last month of the report by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Upon reading the report, the governor expressed frustration at the F.B.I. for not informing the state of its findings earlier, and vowed to make the details public if they were not classified.
.. “This is not acceptable, to keep secret attacks on the most public of our political processes: our elections,” said Ion Sancho, a Democrat and the former elections supervisor of Leon County, which includes the state capital, Tallahassee.
there is still much to uncover—and America’s intelligence services will work to uncover it. For example, how did the Kremlin know where to aim its disinformation effort? How did it know which communities to target, in which counties and states? One can argue that the Russians had a better sense of where to deploy their resources than did the Clinton campaign. Why did Trump and those around him consistently parrot Russian talking points? Why was the campaign so intent on disregarding expert advice on Russian issues? The Mueller report notes that while investigators couldn’t prove a conspiracy, some people nonetheless displayed conspiratorial behavior (destroying communications, engaging in a cover-up, and obstructing the work of investigators). The FBI, which has the benefit of secret intelligence, is certainly aware that it has only scratched the surface of Russian activities in 2016. Cyberhacks, troll farms, and the use of WikiLeaks are hardly cutting-edge espionage tradecraft. The Russian efforts that have been revealed to date were poorly hidden and displayed little professional elegance. Counterintelligence agencies must find it hard to believe the cupboard is already bare.In the CIA, where I worked for 28 years, we used the analogy of a traffic light. A field officer pursuing a potential source would press forward slowly, assessing the target’s reaction to increasingly provocative and conspiratorial requests. As long as we received a “green light” in response, we would push the relationship further in the direction of our goal. If we hit a “yellow light,” we would reassess and try a different tack. We would stop only when we hit a firm “red light.” From the Mueller report, we now know that those around Trump were consistently flashing green.. A number of commentators have focused on the bumbling nature of those in and around the Trump campaign, concluding that their ignorance and naïveté militate against their ability to engage in a conspiracy. This is a misunderstanding of how the espionage game works. Intelligence services recruit plenty of gullible people. The responsibility for recruiting, training, exploiting, and protecting a clandestine operation lies on the side of the professional intelligence service: The spy service must translate the target’s potential willingness into a productive and secure relationship; the professional intelligence officer must slowly manipulate the relationship in an increasingly conspiratorial and secret direction, then help rationalize it for the target. The Cold War was littered with Kremlin spies the West failed to uncover in a timely manner because Western agents assumed they were too obvious, absurd, drunk, dim-witted, or low-level. Naive and ignorant people can get in too deep when manipulated by professionals.
.. Likewise, counterintelligence professionals know that criminal prosecution is rarely the best tool for neutralizing the enemy. Even when investigators and intelligence officers are confident they’ve uncovered a spy, it is not a given that the person will be prosecuted. Hundreds of Americans spied for the Soviet Union during World War II and the Cold War, and only a small handful were ever brought to trial. The government’s methods of uncovering spies and its need to protect its sources limit its ability to produce convictions.
To some, it may seem unfair that investigators would not drop their efforts even after Mueller concluded that he could not “establish that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference.” Trump clearly thinks he’s been vindicated; he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and said on Twitter that they discussed the “Russia Hoax” in their “long and very good conversation.”
Nevertheless, counterintelligence professionals realize they don’t have the whole story and will continue to work behind the scenes, slowly uncovering the activity of hostile intelligence services. From experience, they understand that failure to prove Russian espionage does not mean it didn’t happen. While the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” is something Americans take as solemn truth, to the Russian intelligence services it is just another vulnerability worth exploiting.