Conspiracy theories run into cold facts

Date: May 13, 2002
Source: The Russia Journal
By Ira Straus


One keeps hearing it in Moscow: "Maybe the CIA planned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just look how it benefited American power and the U.S. economy." (Americans would be surprised to hear that it helped their economy, but never mind.) "After all, we have no proof that Osama bin Laden did it. Isn't it just the same as the idea that maybe the FSB (Russia's secret police, the main successor to the KGB) orchestrated the apartment bombings in Russia in 1999?"

I heard this from a girl down the street. I heard it from a student in one of my classes. Americans also heard it recently in Washington, from a leading Russian political scientist speaking at the Kennan Institute.

Let us examine the alleged conspiracies and conspiracy theories. It would be nice to find equivalence and conclude that the FSB was innocent. Unfortunately, in this case there is no equivalence.

First, in the case of the WTC attacks, there is no evidence that it was the CIA. None, zero, zip. But there is solid public evidence that it was Islamic fundamentalists and that they were connected with Osama bin Laden.

Second, in the case of the Moscow and Volgodonsk bombings, there has been no evidence that it was the Chechens. None. But there is some evidence that it was the FSB.

The two cases are as far from equivalent as possible. The evidence on the Islamic fundamentalists and bin Laden in the WTC case is considerable, starting with mobile phone calls from hijacked planes, moving on to instructional materials found in vehicles and ending with tapes released by and of bin Laden. Whether the public as yet has been given a definitive "proof" is not a relevant question; the allies were satisfied with the evidence given them, and intelligence agencies rightly protect their sources in order to prosecute the war.

Blaming the bombings in Russia on the FSB, on the other hand, is unfortunately justified by some evidence, inconclusive, to be sure, but inevitably so in the absence of a transparent investigation from the government. The evidence starts with the Ryazan incident, in which the FSB was caught planting bomb materials in an apartment block. This was later explained away as an exercise, which hardly fit the facts. The only explanation that made sense was the unmentionable one.

Then there is the test of plausibility: It is far more plausible that the FSB would murder its own citizens. A few hundred dead, for a specific practical purpose of the stability of the state and of the entire Russian Federation - this is light stuff, compared to the millions who were killed to satisfy a dictator's whims half a century ago . . . a dictator who was let off rather lightly in some recent remarks of President Vladimir Putin in Poland. And whose picture now sits on the desk of the security guard in the building where I live, alongside pictures of Putin and the Virgin Mary.

The coordination needed for bombing a few apartment buildings was far less than for the attacks on the World Trade Center. Secrecy would be much less difficult for this low-tech operation.

Then there are the Russian traditions of secrecy and American traditions of openness. The American professional pride in whistle- blowers and in publishing leaks of malfeasance often made it impossible for U.S. officials to maintain even the most valid and vital state secrets.

Then there's the test of "cui bono." The mainstay of any conspiracy theory is to attribute some "bono" to the very party that was damaged.

It is obvious who benefited in the case of the apartment bombings in Russia. The electoral campaign of Putin gained momentum. The advocates of a harsher war in Chechnya were strengthened. And, there would have been a benefit to any terrorists who delighted in causing mass suffering to Russians. So, it is not impossible that terrorists would have done it. Conceivably, internationalist Islamists like Khattab, although Chechen terrorists seemed instead have fit the classic mode of hostage taking for bargaining purposes.

In the case of the United States, bin Laden would seem to have gained his usual benefits: vengeance, conflict-proliferation, ego gratification and ideological gratification ("propaganda of the deed" on behalf of Islam). When people were arguing against a military response by the United States, they said that such a response would mean "falling into bin Laden's trap," since they were quite sure that it would lead to a "war with all Islam." No one doubted that it was his scheme to spread conflict. And bin Laden has continued releasing tapes in which he relishes the war. No surprises here.

However, the conspiracy theorists are not satisfied with the obvious evidence. Nor do they notice the actual conspiratorial apparatus of bin Laden, which seems publicly proud of how it can secretly plan its crimes on a global scale. Nor do they seem to notice the evidence of a growing conflict between the United States and bin Laden long before those bombings.

No, this would be much too simple an explanation. Instead, they find some made-up benefits for the United States out of this nightmare. The U.S. economy is supposed to have benefited from the Sept. 11 attacks. Actually tens of billions of dollars in damage was done, indirectly hundreds of billions in security and insurance risks, with no end in sight; but lots of ordinary Russians repeat the economic-benefit line anyway.

Then there is the matter of regime response. The Russian leadership knew immediately whom to blame and what to do about it, despite the lack of evidence. The United States, by contrast, didn't know what to do or whom to blame.

Then there were the conspiracy theories held by the Russian regime itself. One of the main sources of genuine conspiratorial behavior in history is a group of people who believe they are battling a great conspiracy. Often they conclude that a little conspiracy of their own is the necessary response.

As of 1999, Russia was in the grip of a vast global conspiracy theory. The West was perceived as agent of malevolent forces scheming to cause Russia to fall apart. The war in Kosovo was depicted as a part of the scheme, one whose real meaning and purpose was very different from the surface one described by Western moralizers who were talking about stopping an ethnic massacre. No, the "real" story was, you see, that CNN and the Western mass media had become the arbiters of the New World Order. They had led the West by the nose to intervene in Yugoslavia on behalf of the Muslim rebels there. Next they would be leading the West to intervene in Russia on behalf of the Chechen rebels.

Russians and Serbs were well aware that Bosnian Muslims had staged massacres of their own people to get international sympathy for their fight against the Serbs.

Given the utterly one-sided, conspiratorial way in which Russians were discussing this pattern of dirty tricks -recognizing only the Muslim tricks but not the Serb ones, depicting the global media as part and parcel of one great apparatus of deception together with the Muslims - it would be surprising if the thought didn't cross the minds of some Russians to try the same trick and set the balance straight.

"If the Muslims can do it and get international sympathy, why can't we?" they thought. Maybe it's just what we need to whip up public sentiment and get international support for our just cause.

Finally, there is today the ongoing suppression of discussion and evidence. The war against the media has gone on and on despite the abandonment of the 1999 conspiracy theories that provided the original justification for it.

Duma members have had to rely on their parliamentary immunity to get copies of the Boris Berezovsky documentary into the country. News media have failed to show the film, which only repeats what they all said a couple of years ago, when the media climate was still much freer.

But all this is pointless. For the crime, if it did take place, would have taken place in a period when the regime had very different ideas about the world than it does today.

It wouldn't be hard for it to explain away the events as an unfortunate manifestation of a troubled moment in Russia's evolution, a tragic misstep by overzealous FSB agents, acting out of patriotic Russian misperceptions about the external world and trying to get some control over what seemed like an emerging nightmare scenario for their country.

Be that as it may, the regime doesn't seem able to put the matter behind itself. It seems to be digging itself in deeper and deeper, suppressing the media and punishing those who mention the unmentionable.

It isn't Americans with "conspiracy theories" that Russia has to refute. It is the Russian people - apparently 50 percent of them - with their common-sense suspicions. And it is the evidence that must be refuted, the only evidence extant. Russia's well-wishers in the West might be satisfied if Russia would finally produce some authentic evidence of Chechen involvement. Or, if there is none, the state has to find a way to come to terms with a more plausible version of the truth.


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