In 1974, F.W. Winterbotham told a story that put thirty years of historical analysis into question.  His story involved a huge conspiracy, amidst one of the most widely studied events in human history, and it had been kept secret for nearly three decades.  And it was true.  It was a conspiracy of commonality.

This week Morning Feature has explored conspiracy theories.  Wednesday we looked at valid reasons to consider such theories.  Thursday we explored a common fallacy in conspiracies of conflation.  Yesterday we explored a kind of real conspiracy – conspiracies of convenience – and the dangers of misinterpreting them.  Today we conclude the series.

Conspiracy Theory 104 – Conspiracies of Commonality

Note:  This series will not attempt to prove or disprove any given conspiracy theory.  The series isn’t about donning a tinfoil hat, but asking why we find them attractive, and how we make them.

In 1974, former Royal Air Force officer Frederick William Winterbotham was the first to break almost thirty years of silence on The ULTRA Secret.  This was of course the British code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park where cryptanalysts – first working from models smuggled out of Poland, then using mathematical algorithms and one of the world’s first computers – were able to decipher much of the World War II German message traffic encrypted on the Enigma machine.  It was a huge operation employing hundreds if not thousands, amidst one of the most widely studied events in human history.  And no one had leaked it for 29 years.

The revelation cast most of what had been written about World War II into doubt.  There were thousands of volumes of official and popular histories, memoirs, and analyses, and not one had mentioned that the British were “reading the other fellow’s mail” and distributing that information to key field commanders.  How many of the war’s “brilliant” plans had only been brilliant because the planners had advance knowledge of the German dispositions and intentions?  How many of the “mistakes” were even worse than imagined, because the planners should have known better?  In the next decade, the pendulum of history would swing first toward overreaching claims that Bletchley Park was solely responsible for every victory, and finally back toward a more nuanced truth that the code-breakers often provided useful information but rarely with the level of detail or timeliness to be truly decisive.

The Bletchley Park operation was kept secret after the war because the British and Americans didn’t want the Russians to know how skilled their code-breaking methods had become.  Ironically the Russians already knew about ULTRA courtesy of the Cambridge Five, a group of British intelligence officers later revealed to be Soviet agents.  By the mid-1950s, when the British knew the Russians were aware of ULTRA, the habit of secrecy had been set.  No one involved in ULTRA saw any reason to disclose it to the public, and it remained secret until Winterbotham broke the story.

Conspiracies do happen.

Yesterday we explored conspiracies of convenience, where people or institutions are well positioned to benefit by whatever events may happen and act in concert to benefit by events that do happen, but don’t actually cause those events.  Where those people or institutions act in secret and/or under cover of disinformation it is a conspiracy, but one of opportunism, hence the term “convenience.”

Bletchley Park was a classic conspiracy of commonality, that is, people or institutions acting in concert to direct events toward shared interests, where at least some of the action is done in secret and/or under cover of disinformation.  Unlike conspiracies of convenience where the actors work to benefit by whatever events might happen, here the actors work to cause events that advance their shared interests.  They may succeed or they may not, but they do intend to cause the events by which they hope to benefit.

Commonality is more challenging than convenience.

The element of causation – working to direct events toward shared interests – is a key difference between conspiracies of commonality and conspiracies of convenience.  It makes conspiracies of commonality both more difficult to carry out and more difficult to prove.

First, it’s usually more difficult to cause an event than to benefit by an event that happens for other reasons.  Conspirators of commonality need to control events, so these conspiracies tend to be either very small – a few people working to cause an isolated event such as a bank robbery – or very big indeed.  Once you get past things that three or four people can do, perhaps with assistance from a handful of others, the complexity quickly escalates to a point that you need a lot of people.  The more people you need, the more compelling the shared interest must be to motivate both their participation and their silence.  So you rarely see medium-sized conspiracies of commonality.  They’re either very small and acting on a mundane interest, or very big and acting on a compelling interest.

Second, the element of causation makes conspiracies of commonality far more difficult to prove.  It’s not enough to say that action A enabled event B, allowing some group to benefit.  You have to prove the group did A with the intent to enable B.  And ironically, that’s often easier to do for small conspiracies with a mundane shared interest, because often the conspirators’ other interests will motivate them to break the silence.  They want credit for what they did, or to enjoy the proceeds, or to avoid getting in trouble for something else.  So they brag to friends, or spend money lavishly, or cut a deal and spill to the cops.

By contrast, with very big conspiracies acting on compelling interests, other motivations often pale by comparison and the people involved have a greater interest in keeping the secret.  A big conspiracy also often has enough clout to conceal documents and/or plausibly spread disinformation.  Sooner or later the story does come out, but usually not until the compelling interests have been diluted by intervening events.  For example, both the embarrassment surrounding Watergate and collapse of the Soviet Union led to a wealth of secret documents and operations being opened for examination.

Ideology and ‘open’ conspiracies.

Among the most common and obvious of compelling interests is ideology, a “body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.”  While in some cases ideology can and does motivate truly ‘secret’ conspiracies of commonality, it more often motivates ‘open’ conspiracies, where the actors and interests are known or even publicly declared.

Ideological conspiracies are more often ‘open’ because an ideology is a normative concept.  It defines an ideal set of motives, relationships, and behaviors for a group.  To the extent that the members of the group internalize the ideology, they will govern their own behavior according to that ideology.  Thus an ideology must be public, at least in its expectations, in order to serve its normative function.  So truly ‘secret’ ideological conspiracies usually happen only when the ideology is forbidden, or so widely disfavored that to publicly espouse it would carry severe consequences.

But even where the ideology is publicly declared and accepted, we still see conspiracies of commonality when people act in secret and/or under cover of disinformation.  These are often called ‘open’ conspiracies because the actors are usually known and their shared interest is often publicly declared, but they still hide at least some of their actions.  They may want an outcome that is consistent with their declared ideology but would violate another societal value.  Or they may want a political, military, or corporate advantage that would be mooted if their actions were made public.

Back to disinformation….

These ‘open’ conspiracies can rarely act in complete secrecy, or at least not for very long.  They’re known and often prominent actors, so their actions usually get at least some attention.  Some of their actions are impossible to hide by the nature of the action itself.  For example, you can’t test a new military jet in an underground hangar.  So while these ‘open’ conspiracies do employ secrecy, they often also use something even more dangerous: disinformation.

We explored this briefly on Wednesday, quoting Winston Churchill’s statement, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”  That may arguably be unavoidable in wartime, but disinformation is an insidious and toxic practice in a democratic society.  The entire basis of democracy rests on the citizens making informed choices about their government, and when the government practices disinformation then democracy is compromised at its very core

And often the conspirator need only kick-start the disinformation, then stand back and let the public continue it.  The UFO controversy is a case in point.  There is now good evidence that some in our government thought attributing unusual aerial events to extra-terrestrials would be a good way to keep new technologies secret.  The early ‘leaks’ that aliens might be visiting earth sparked a spate of science fiction movies, but also a plethora of concerned citizen groups determined to discover the truth.  The government then issued official denials, and seeded ‘skeptic’ groups to debunk claims of UFOs, including some “explanations” as transparently absurd as the claims themselves.

Once both ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’ had reached critical mass, those who had begun the disinformation campaign could sit back and watch as unprovable claims were met by often equally unprovable denials, all of it deflecting attention from the legitimate question: “What flew over my house last night?”  The real answer – when it wasn’t an ordinary event – was probably a classified military project.  But so long as the witnesses and skeptics were arguing about little grey visitors from Zeta Reticuli, the military could test almost anything, almost anywhere, and no one would be the wiser.

In terms of hiding classified technology that can only be tested out in plain sight, it was a great success.  But that success comes at a steep price: an entirely justified distrust of government and our media.  Every time our government spreads disinformation and the media obligingly repeat it – as happened in the run-up to the Iraq War – the distrust only deepens.  It becomes ever more difficult to know what sources to trust and what claims to believe, and more difficult to make informed decisions as citizens in a democracy.

Former CIA director William Casey is often quoted as saying, “We will know that we have succeeded when everything the public believes is false.”  It is perhaps fitting irony I’ve never found an original source for that quote.  Maybe Casey said it.  Or maybe it’s more disinformation.


Happy Saturday!