Back in March, the Pentagon announced a new public-private partnership to form a “Defense Innovation Advisory Board” chaired by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, parent company of Google, with other board members to be selected jointly by Schmidt and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. This week, a list of additional board members was released — and it included some names that raise eyebrows.
Among the board members that had been announced prior to Tuesday’s press release were Walter Isaacson, a former CNN executive and Time managing editor who is currently president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a D.C. think tank, and William McRaven, a former commander of United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s membership was also previously announced. Hoffman and Schmidt, who are both billionaires, also both attended this year’s exclusive and secretive Bilderberg Meeting in Dresden, Germany in June.
The biggest new names added this week to the list, which is now up to 15 people, and certainly the ones that drew the most media attention, were those of another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of online mega-retailer Amazon and owner of influential media outlet The Washington Post, along with astrophysicist and television personality Neil deGrasse Tyson.
On their own, those board members already mentioned (with the exception of Tyson) may raise questions as to whether they, as a collection of primarily wealthy executives and managers rather than technicians or researchers, are best suited to their positions. Also included in the list of board members, however, but given much less media attention, is Cass Sunstein, a controversial legal scholar, former Obama administration official — and a proponent of propagandistic policy initiatives so bizarre they are worth discussing at some length given his new quasi-governmental appointment.
Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor, has written at length on various political and legal issues, including the 1993 book Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, which has been criticized at length in at least one law journal. Though I haven’t read that longer work, Sunstein’s 2008 essay “Conspiracy Theories,” co-written with Adrian Vermeule, provides more than enough insight into the authors’ fuzzy logic (although Sunstein apparently later expanded on his ideas in another 2014 book that has received abysmal ratings on Amazon). In the essay, the authors repeatedly return to the theme of conspiracy theories being exceedingly “harmful” and “dangerous.” They strive to provide an operational definition that will make their meandering rant vaguely coherent.
“There has been much discussion of what, exactly, counts as a conspiracy theory, and about what, if anything, is wrong with those who hold one,” they write. “Of course it would be valuable to specify necessary and sufficient conditions for such theories, in a way that would make it possible to make relevant distinctions. We bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more intuitively that a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” (emphasis in original).
In his 2013 book on conspiracy theories in America, The United States of Paranoia, author Jesse Walker identifies five categories of conspiracy theories: the enemy within, the enemy outside, the benevolent conspiracy, the enemy below and the enemy above. The definition “intuitively” seized on as the “dangerous” type of conspiracy by Sunstein and Vermeule corresponds directly to Walker’s “enemy above,” which may speak to the former authors’ sycophantic elitism (which could also possibly account for Sunstein’s appointment to the new DoD board). On the very next page, however, the absent-minded professors are contradicting themselves.
“Not all false conspiracy theories are harmful; consider the false conspiracy theory, held by many of the younger members of our society, that a secret group of elves, working in a remote location under the leadership of the mysterious ‘Santa Claus,’ make and distribute presents on Christmas Eve. This theory is false, but is itself instilled through a widespread conspiracy of the powerful – parents – who conceal their role in the whole affair. (Consider too the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.)”
Based on the definition that these brilliant legal scholars presented on the previous page, though, Santa Claus and his “powerful” elf labor force would necessarily be theorized to attempt to conceal their role in “machinations.” This is clearly not a part of the Santa Claus mythos, given the ubiquitous presence of mall Santas around Christmas time. The authors blatantly have forgotten what they were talking about within one page, and are now discussing the parents as real life conspirators in telling a false story that doesn’t qualify as conspiracy theory under their own definition, while apparently failing to notice their own flawed reasoning. (Not to mention that the Santa example is ridiculously childish and inappropriate to include in an essay that goes on to calmly weigh the pros and cons of government censorship of both unpopular and popular ideas and the use of aggressive psychological operations against law-abiding civilians).
Sunstein and Vermeule admit that even using their narrow definition (appropriately) some conspiracy theories (even some involving people in positions of power and authority!) have been proven true. “The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House,” they write. “In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of ‘mind control.’ Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).”
Despite the authors’ selective admissions that their basic premises are nonsense, they go on redundantly explaining their flawed thinking for an agonizing 20-odd more pages.
Ultimately, they propose “cognitive infiltration” of various groups to undermine “extremist” conspiracy theories that supposedly pose a threat. The paper clearly implies that conspiracy theories of 9/11 foreknowledge by American or Israeli officials fall into this category, and seems to hint that some others, such as JFK assassination theories involving the CIA, belong there as well.
The “cognitive infiltration” the authors promote is, in fact, a suggestion that government engage in actual conspiratorial activity to disrupt “extremist” conspiracy theorizing. The authors write that “we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.”
The authors note, however, that conspiracy theorists are unlikely to accept information directly from the government, and surreptitious private partnerships may therefore be required.
“Government can partially circumvent these problems if it enlists nongovernmental officials in the effort to rebut the theories. It might ensure that credible independent experts offer the rebuttal, rather than government officials themselves. There is a tradeoff between credibility and control, however. The price of credibility is that government cannot be seen to control the independent experts. Although government can supply these independent experts with information and perhaps prod them into action from behind the scenes, too close a connection will prove self-defeating if it is exposed” they write.
The thinking (and lack thereof) of Sunstein and his co-author are deeply troubling on many levels. It is perhaps even more troubling, though, that this pseudo-intellectual government flunky is apparently among the few chosen specifically for their academic talents on a board otherwise dominated by elitist technocrats and militarists, who are likely even less qualified for their positions, if that’s even possible.
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