The CIA Didn’t Invent Conspiracy Theories – But It Does Understand Them

The CIA has been the subject of innumerable speculated conspiracies since its founding in 1947.

Some, such as covert shenanigans in Iran, Guatemala, Syria, Indonesia, and Cuba; are absolutely real. Others, such as their purported involvement in assassinating President Kennedy, or shooting a missile at Air Force One from a stolen submarine in Puget Sound; are not.

But did you know that the very term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the CIA, in the late 1960’s.

As the story (which they definitely don’t want you to know about) goes, the Agency needed a way to discredit those who thought the Warren Commission – which pinned the blame for JFK’s death solely on Lee Harvey Oswald – was a sham.

Because the cabal that rules the world is both intensely evil and intensely stupid, they even put their plan in a memo,¬†CIA Document 1035-960, called “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report.”

That memo, released in the late 1970’s thanks to a New York Times FOIA request, puts it in clear, stark terms:

“Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries.”

It goes on to detail all of the ways that CIA agents can refute theories that the Agency was involved, and covered it up with a sham report.

The notion that the CIA “invented” the term conspiracy theory has been debunked all up and down the internet. Skeptic Mick West found a usage of the term dating back to an 1870 medical journal, though not in its’ modern context.

By the end of the century, the term “conspiracy theory” was being used to denote all manner of perceived plots and collusion.

The journal “New Outlook” published an article in September 1895 debunking the idea that “secession was the outcome of a conspiracy of Southern Senators and Representatives at Washington” and alleging that the “conspiracy theory [was]¬†based on a misconception of the so-called Union minorities” in states that would make up the Confederacy.

There are numerous, proper uses of the term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even as the JFK assassination approached, the term was being used by scholars to denote the purported plotting of sinister elements for nefarious purposes, such as an influential 1960 paper called “The Conspiracy Theory of Politics of the Radical Right in the United States,” written by William C. Baum.

So with the notion that “the CIA invented the term ‘conspiracy theory’ in 1967” out of the way, what about the nefarious¬†CIA Document 1035-960?

It’s real. It was really written in 1967, partially released in 1976, and fully declassified in 1998.

This shouldn’t surprise you. Conspiracy theories usually work by taking a true, minor piece of information and blowing it up into something false and major.

This memo wasn’t part of some master plan to cover up the government’s involvement in knocking Kennedy off. It was a way for the CIA to protect its reputation, and the veracity of the Warren Commission, by giving advice on how to fight conspiracy theories and pointing out the logical fallacies they rely on.

And may I be so bold as to say that while the CIA can be criticized for a lot of things, they were right on the money with this memo?

Much of the memo is specific to the Warren Commission, but it makes some points (dubbed “useful arguments”) that can be applied to almost every conspiracy theory, from allegations that the moon landing was faked to 9/11 conspiracy theories to today’s hot new right wing plot, QAnon.

Here are some of them:

b. Critics usually overvalue particular items and ignore others

This is a hallmark of conspiracy theories. Believers take minor errors, mistakes in initial reporting, people not acting the way they’re “supposed to act” after a shooting, and the vagaries of eyewitness testimony all as signs that the entire incident in question was fraudulent.

A perfect example is the conspiracy theory that Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg wasn’t actually present for the shooting that turned him into a nationally known activist – citing an out of context snippet of an interview he gave.

But Hogg recorded footage of the shooting while it was going on and he was in hiding. These theories overvalue the interview snippet, which has little worth, and ignore the cell phone footage he took, which is hugely valuable.

c. Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States, esp. since informants could expect to receive large royalties, etc

The bigger a conspiracy is, the more people need to be in on it, the more people can fail at their duty, and the more people can be caught.

The Sandy Hook shooting being a hoax would require dozens of parents essentially surrendering their children to a government plot – and thousands or tens of thousands if you believe the children themselves never existed.

Even one of these people cracking and going to the press would destroy the entire conspiracy.

e. Oswald would not have been any sensible person’s choice for a co-conspirator. He was a “loner,” mixed up, of questionable reliability and an unknown quantity to any professional intelligence service.

It’s Oswald’s lack of credential and accomplishment that make him such an unlikely person to have acted alone, according to conspiracy theorists. It simply doesn’t make sense that such a person could assassinate the president without considerable help – yet there’s also no reason why he couldn’t have. He was a trained marksman firing at a slow-moving, unprotected target.

Conspiracy theories often rely on unilateral decisions that something “couldn’t have” happened the way we’re told, or a certain person “wouldn’t do that.” Yet they do happen, and people often act in ways we don’t deem them capable of. The CIA got that in 1967. Many people don’t in 2018.

g. Such vague accusations as that “more than ten people have died mysteriously” can always be explained in some natural way e.g.: the individuals concerned have for the most part died of natural causes; the Commission staff questioned 418 witnesses (the FBI interviewed far more people, conduction 25,000 interviews and re interviews), and in such a large group, a certain number of deaths are to be expected.

This notion that nobody dies unless someone powerful takes them out is all over conspiracy theory literature, from the “Clinton Body Count” and its successor lists of those close to the Obamas or 9/11 to die, to the “Dead Doctors Conspiracy” that accuses someone of murdering holistic healers around the country.

The bigger a circle is, the more people are in it, and the more people are in it, the more likely some of them are to die – for any reason.

The Clintons and Obamas have known thousands of people. Millions work in medicine. Statistically, some of them are going to pass away – and that number gets even higher if you relax the standards by which you include people.

So, to recap: the CIA did not invent the term “conspiracy theory.” But they did seem to display a preternatural knowledge of how they work, who believes them, and how to deflate them.

If we all had such knowledge, conspiracy theories would be a lot less likely to exist as we know them.