Episode 180: Havana Syndrome and the Power of Mainstream, Acceptable Conspiracy Theories
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “I Was A Teenage Conspiracy Theorist,” The Atlantic magazine playfully titled a 2020 essay. “Choose your reality: Trust wanes, conspiracy theories rise,” the AP reported in 2022. “Do You Know Someone Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories? We Want to Hear About It.” wrote The New York Times.
Adam: Fears of “conspiracy theories” are a common trope in the US media, a worry that’s grown more acute with the rise of QAnon, anti-vaxx sentiment, antisemitism and a host of other dangerous theories that unduly rot brains throughout the country. To a great extent, this understandable: Many ideas that meet the definition of “conspiracy theories” are, indeed, baseless and dangerous and can direct people’s political energy and resources into wasteful, racist, and downright stupid rabbit holes.
Nima: But that fact shouldn’t delegitimize or foreclose all skepticism of those in power, but too often the term “conspiracy theory” is used to do just that. Repeatedly, media lump together so-called conspiracy theories, regardless of their accuracy, rationale, and ideology: at once, UFO chasers, QAnon, and the Black Panther Party being subject to FBI disruption are somehow placed in the same category of paranoid kooks. At the same time, unproven, and often debunked ideas advanced by media that also meet the definition of “conspiracy theories” — such as Saddam Hussein being behind 9/11 or so-called Havana syndrome — are treated as unassailable, meriting ongoing investigation, limitless resources, and of course, utmost solemnity.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll detail the double standards applied to conspiracy theories inside and outside of the realm of US corporate media. We’ll examine the development of the concept of conspiracy theories and the media’s selective invocations of the term to discredit real grievances directed at US US power and the US government, and moreover, how power-friendly conspiracies — namely those focused on Enemy States like the Havana Syndrome narrative — are permitted to fester and grow without pushback because their red-yarn-dot connecting implicates the right lists of Acceptable Bad Guys.
Nima: Later on the show, we will speak with Branko Marcetic, staff writer for Jacobin magazine and author of the book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden which was published by Verso Books.
Branko Marcetic: The way the media bias, the way the propaganda transmitted to people, it’s often not by outright lies and fabrications, although that definitely happens, of course, but it’s as much to do with what’s left out, what’s emphasized, what’s focused on to exclusion of other facts.
Adam: For the purposes of this episode, our goal is less to like litigate what conspiracy theories we feel like are on the spectrum of accurate or inaccurate, it’s more to show that the standards that apply to certain conspiracy theories are not consistent with those that are applied to others, based on their utility to those in power and how mainstream, acceptable conspiracy theories, you can pretty much float kind of whatever you want so long as it serves to funnel more money into the Pentagon and make elites happy and feel good about themselves, specifically, those targeting enemy states which we’ll detail here. Rather than sort of get into the weeds of what conspiracy theory is right or wrong, which strikes me as an impossible task, especially for a media criticism show, it’s not really the goal of this. Our goal is simply to show that the term is not really applied to what our textbook definitions of conspiracy theories when those “conspiracy theories,” quote-unquote, serve those in power and reaffirm biases towards those who are not in good standing with the US establishment.
Nima: I feel like I wore my tin foil hat for nothing Adam.
Adam: You did wear your tin foil hat for nothing. I apologize. I know we were ready to go down the rabbit hole.
Nima: I was doing a whole corkboard thing I was going to —
Adam: You were going to get the cigarettes and snort a bunch of Adderall and start connecting the dots, but not today, my good friends.
Nima: Not today, we’re doing straight-up media criticism, and so away we go.
The concept of conspiracies — and the rhetorical utility of these notions of dark forces and hidden agendas operating to influence specific, often sinister, ends — is as old as politics and debate. According to scholar Joseph Roisman, ancient Athenians had, quote, “an a priori readiness to believe in the pervasiveness of conspiracies in human affairs,” and often employed conspiracy theories rhetorically to shift the favor of juries in murder trials and inheritance fraud cases. Roisman points to Athenian general and politician Creon during the Peloponnesian War in the 5th Century BC, as popularizing “conspiracy theories” and rhetoric about plots in the political sphere. Using historian Thucydides and playwright Aristophanes as sources, Roisman traces political conspiracy rhetoric to Creon’s many speeches warning Athenians of oligarchs plotting Athens’ surrender to Sparta in order to then dismantle its democratic institutions. Roisman concludes that the art of Ancient Greek oration — an early form of public media — rose in tandem with a reliance on conspiracy theories and suggests that this widespread conspiratorial mindset in the Athenian public, both the elite and the masses, helped strengthen and sustain Athenian democracy, writing that, quote, “it was thanks to the belief in plots and the plot detectors that faith in the validity of basic values and the existing system could be reaffirmed.” Essentially, as reviewers of Roisman’s 2006 book, The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens, Andrew Wolpert and Victoria Pagán explain this, quote:
With a suspicious world view, the conspiracy ‘spoiler’ had the ability to police Athenian society; in this sense, the rhetoric of conspiracy served to remind fellow Athenians that their behavior was always under scrutiny and their attempts at conspiracy were detectable.
Adam: Fun fact, fun fact, Nima, I played Creon in Antigone in high school.
Nima: Did you? Sweet.
Adam: Yeah, I was King Creon. I really hammed it up, I did a really bad acting job. Even the student newspaper was critical. It was not good.
Nima: (Laughs.) Chewing the scenery.
Adam: That planted the seeds of my media criticism when they leveled a mild criticism of my over the top performance.
Nima: This whole career has been your event.
Adam: You know, maybe it had, you know, I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe this is my Joker origin story. Anyway, go on.
Nima: (Laughs.) That’s great. Fast-forwarding a couple millennia, Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli — yes, that Machiavelli — in 1513 wrote his Discourses on Livy, examining the Roman historian Titus Livius’s famous history of Rome. The longest chapter of The Discourses, Chapter 6 of Book 3, is about political conspiracies. It begins this way, quote:
…history teaches us that many more princes have lost their lives and their states by conspiracies, than by open war. But few can venture to make open war upon their sovereign, whilst every one may engage in conspiracies against him.
Indeed, Machiavelli was tortured and exiled because he was falsely accused of planning a conspiracy against the Medici.
Adam: Still, some of the earliest conspiracy theories as we’d understand them — though most have lost any cultural purchase they once had — can be traced to the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment-era practice of Bavarian Illuminism, founded in 1776 and described by historian Richard Hofstadter as, quote, “a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason,” attracted a number of intellectuals and politicians — it was known as the Illuminati.
Freemasonry and Illuminism drew anger and skepticism from reactionaries who began to theorize that the Bavarian Illuminati were behind the French Revolution. Historian Michael Taylor has written that the conspiracy theory that the Illuminati were secretly behind the French Revolution appealed to British Conservatives at the time because it highlighted two sources of rebellion that they were deeply concerned about, namely free-thinking women and the rebellious Irish. Many on the Right were devoted to defending the monarchy and other patriarchal institutions against feminist Enlightenment thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, and others. The 1797 text Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies by Scottish scientist John Robison which found some influence in the US, led to the anti-Masonic movements of the 1820s and 1830s.
NIMA: Robison wrote that the conspiracy included a “project for a Sisterhood, in subserviency to the designs of the Illuminati,” and called upon the female readers of his book with that exquisite title to “join against these enemies of human nature and profligate degraders of the sex,” Thomas O’Beirne, an Anglican Bishop of Ossory, warned that the Illuminati’s most powerful asset was, “a female libertine, a female atheist.” But also the Irish Rebellion the following year in 1798, convinced even more British Conservatives that the Illuminati and the Freemasons were diligently at work to destroy the monarchy. They believed that the leaders of anti-colonial British rule were organized in systems of clubs, these hierarchical orders, that they said eerily paralleled the supposed structure of the Illuminati.
Livia Gershon wrote a really good piece about all this in September 2020 for JStor Daily, in which she discusses Taylor’s paper in the journal “Eighteenth-Century Studies,” entitled British Conservatism, the Illuminati, and the Conspiracy Theory of the French Revolution, 1797–1802. Check it out for more.
ADAM: That’s not to say there weren’t, of course, Freemasons, many signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons quite openly, many intellectuals of Europe in the 1770s, 1780s. And they were heavily influential in the arts and culture and intellectual circles, but they, except for maybe, I guess, you could say their goal was to sort of infiltrate certain aspects of civil society, and maybe that sounds more sinister than it really was, but you could sort of see how that could be seen as, especially by religious people, who viewed them as being deist, as most of them weren’t deist overtly, they had Catholics, Protestants, they even had some Jews, God forbid, although no women, they didn’t really make the cut. They viewed themselves as part of a vanguard of the Enlightenment, a kind of civilized civic institutions, and then of course, the French Revolution happened, and then they all got the boot in terms of being heavily regulated, outlawed.
Nima: But definitely connected to this secularizing, right?
Adam: A secret group with secret rituals, right? This is why Alex Jones was obsessed with the Freemasons because he was sort of seen as this, while at the same time talking about how much he loved the founding fathers, I don’t know, it’s kind of a paradox. But one could sort of see why all this secret imagery and obsession with, you know, kind of secret rituals, why that could be viewed as being somewhat satanic, right? And especially when you put it in the United States context, a country that’s devoutly religious it can be seen as somewhat demonic, right?
Nima: Right, and especially as it is kind of pulling the strings behind all the kind of either political or social or cultural machinations.
Adam: Even though membership in these lodges were usually public, right? It wasn’t even that secret.
Nima: You mean, it wasn’t as sinister as we’re meant to believe?
Adam: Well, I’m sort of sympathetic to their values so maybe I’m being unfair, but no, if they can convince Yousef II to outlaw torture, then that’s fine by me. I don’t really care.
Nima: That’s right. You heard it here, folks. We’re pro-Mason.
Adam: One mode of conspiracism that has, as a worldview, infected politics for centuries is of course antisemitism. A form of racism, it also views everything through the lens of a plot concocted by Jews in secret to sort of dominate the world. And of course, no discussion of the Western history of conspiracy, logic or conspiracy thinking, would be complete without acknowledging a very dark side to that type of mindset that manifests not as any kind of coherent class politics, but as just hatred for Jews.
Nima: Yeah, so early antisemitic conspiracies included, of course, the Blood Libel, the idea that cabals of Jews would ritualistically murder Christian children, a horrifying lie pushed famously in Thomas of Monmouth’s hagiography, The Life and Passion of St. William of Norwich, published in 1173, to promote the beatification and sainthood of a 12-year-old boy named William who was murdered in 1144 in Norwich, England. The murder went unsolved, but Thomas, who was a monk, claimed in The Life and Passion hagiography that William was, in fact, crucified by a group of Jews. These types of theories then spread widely throughout Europe, through both the pulpit and the printing press.
ADAM: And mass expulsions targeting Jews were pretty common in the Middle Ages. Whenever various royalty or leaders or clergy would get in trouble, they would turn their anger and popular resentment towards Jews, blaming them for either their financial difficulties, or some sort of fall from grace or moral turpitude. The Edict of Expulsion in 1290 by Edward I of England, demanded that all Jews leave England by All Saints Day on November 1 of that year, of 1290. And any Jews who were who remained or didn’t convert would be subject to death. Jews would not be permitted to return to England until the English Civil War about 350 years later.
Nima: Now, of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of years of antisemitic conspiracy theories that proliferated that we are not going to get into. We don’t need to tell that entire history here. But of course, a new level of that conspiracy theory was reached because of anti-socialist and anti-communist fears that gripped Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Adam: Yeah. And socialists throughout history and other leftists, anarchists, would go out of their way to sort of point out that antisemitism was a false class politics that it was a siren song designed to distract the working class. The Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin said in 1919 in his speech, quote:
Antisemitism means spreading enmity towards the Jews. When the accursed tsarist monarchy was living in its last days it tried to incite ignorant workers and peasants against the Jews. The tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organized pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. In other countries, too, we often see capitalists fomenting hatred against the Jews in order to blind the workers to divert their attention from the real enemy of the working people: capital.
But it’s worth mentioning that the Soviet Union’s relationship with Jews was not perfect. And of course, Stalin frequently engaged in antisemitism himself. But the sort of desire for socialists, communists, leftists, to redirect people away from antisemitism was key because antisemitism always was, if you’re engaging in proletarian or populist politics, right, antisemitism has always been pushed to sort of redirect resources into, away from a kind of coherent worldview of class solidarity into this vile kind of pseudo-politics, pseudo-class politics of racism. It’s kind of the Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance version of quote-unquote elites, right? — ‘wink, wink, we all know what that means’ — versus a real kind of coherent definition of the word “elites.”
Nima: Now the same year that Lenin gave that speech, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in English, having originally been published in Russian in 1903. The Protocols are a shoddy forgery that came out of the tsarist Russian empire that claimed that Jews had infiltrated key pillars of society, and were really pulling the strings. Indeed, antisemitic conspiracy theories here dovetail with anti-Freemason conspiracies since far-Right elements throughout Europe would argue, and still argue, that Freemasons were simply a cover for the Elders. So in many ways, anti-Freemason theories were a backdoor or a more palatable way for people to just smuggle in base antisemitic conspiracy theories into kind of mainstream discourse, masking it under just criticizing this Illuminati-Freemason cult. This is basically what Alex Jones has built an entire career on.
Adam: Yeah, so obviously these kinds of Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik-Communist theories heavily animated the Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s, which killed six million Jews. And that sort of thinking was that they were secretly behind everything that was undermining the white race was really central to the ideology of Nazism. An ideology that very much is still in vogue and popular today, unfortunately.
Nima: One of the first known appearances of the term “conspiracy theory” in the media comes from a letter to the editor in the January 4, 1863 edition of the New York Times, regarding England’s support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The term would continue to appear in the 1870s, often in news reports about criminal trials.
But the usage of the term by the press accelerated greatly after the 1881 assassination of US President James A. Garfield. According to a 2018 study by researcher Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, the term was used widely in reference to the question of whether Garfield’s assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, had accomplices.
So for instance, this from the Philadelphia Times from July 4, 1881, the headline is, “The Conspiracy Theory.” Subhead: “Was it a Deep-Laid Scheme? — Guiteau Makes a Long Statement.” This was a special dispatch to the Philadelphia Times reporting from Washington.
Another article from the same day July 4, 1881 but published in the Evening Star, a local Washington DC paper, had this headline, quote, “President Garflied and all His Cabinet Reject the Conspiracy Theory.” The article says this, quote:
The theory that the shooting was the result of any conspiracy has been entirely abandoned. Indeed it has never been seriously entertained, save by a few. The President does not believe in any conspiracy, nor does a single member of his Cabinet.
Adam: The term resurfaced more definitively some 60 years later with the publication of the 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. In the book, Popper introduced the concept of “the conspiracy theory of society,” which he defined as, quote:
the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon…and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.
Popper called this theory the, quote, “very opposite of the true aim of the social sciences.” In other words, anyone who thinks certain people in power might be up to no good is just a tin-foil-hat-wearing oddball, and no respectable discipline or institution should take them seriously.
Not coincidentally, the text spent much time critiquing Marxism, equating it to fascism for its putative tendency to “close” societies and preclude independent thought and reason. Billionaire and right-wing bugbear George Soros is, in fact, one of Popper’s acolytes. Soros’s quote-unquote “philanthropic organizations” are collectively called Open Society Foundations — created in part to distribute anticommunist media in Europe and Asia. They were named in honor of Popper’s book.
Reports addressing quote-unquote “conspiracy theories” and theorists grew significantly in the 1960s, after, of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Evoking the theories of Karl Popper, politicians and media alike consolidated those on the Right and Left — people who questioned the official narrative, but with disparate theoretical frameworks, whether blaming the CIA, Soviets, or some other group — into one class of quote-unquote “conspiracy theorists.”
Here’s an excerpt from a widely syndicated April 13, 1964 column by Roscoe Drummond, referring to the Warren Commission report on JFK’s assassination. It would read, quote:
I suspect that those who will be the most disappointed in the Commission’s report will be the Europeans who still seem intent upon believing that the assassination just had to be ‘some kind of a plot,’ a conspiracy in which Lee Harvey Oswald was used and then silenced by Jack Ruby’s bullet.
Much of the French and British press still favor the ‘conspiracy’ theory and they will have a hard time accepting the Warren Commission verison that there was no plot.
The final report, which stated Oswald acted alone, was released to the public in September of 1964. Here’s a headline from a syndicated New York Times story, June 1, 1964, reads, “JFK-Assassination Probers To Sift Conspiracy Theories.”
In November 1964, Harpers published an essay by historian Richard Hofstadter entitled, quote, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter, who we cited earlier, chronicled the early conspiracy theories — or “paranoid style” — of European and American reactionaries and argued that this remained a feature of the McCarthyist right-wing.
After all, at the time, the far-right John Birch Society was on a crusade to dismantle the UN, which it viewed as “an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”
While Hofstadter was focused on the Right, his “paranoia” framing would persist, with regard to anyone deemed a conspiracy theorist — not just those of the Right. Another syndicated New York Times piece, from January 3, 1968, ran with the headline that read, quote, “Conspiracy Theorists Said ‘Paranoids.’” And stated the following:
John P. Roche, special consultant to President Johnson, has dismissed as ‘marginal paranoids’ the proponents of conspiracy theories in the assassination of President Kennedy.
It would go on to state:
Roche makes these points in a letter published Wednesday in the Times literary supplement. The letter compliments John Sparrow, warden of All Souls College, Oxford, for a recent article critical of the conspiracy theorists.
Nima: “Marginal paranoids” is such a fantastic term. That’s like my new band name.
Adam: “Marginal paranoids” is going to be the name of my math rock band.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. That’s so good. That’s our new math rock band. I like that. The marginal paranoids.
Soon, the labels of “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” would often become go-to labels targeting anyone skeptical of official narratives for important events, targeting not only those with questions about say the JFK assassination, but also radicals like the Black Panther Party. Here’s an example from the St. Joseph News-Press from January 1970. The article is headlined, “There Is No Anti-Panther Plot.” Dateline from Washington, it begins like this, quote:
No conspiracy theory, with the Justice Department as its malevolent mastermind, is necessary to explain why police departments across the nation are locked in often mortal combat with Black Panther units.
There are plenty of non-conspiratorial reasons why police fight Panthers. Some of the reasons stem from the inflammatory conduct, and especially the purple rhetoric, of Panther leaders.
But there was, of course, a conspiracy targeting the Black Panthers, something the FBI now openly admits. For years the FBI ran COINTELPRO operations on the Black Panthers, sowed divisions, killed its leaders, sent black mail and fake letters, had an entire network of undercover agents and informants working to undermine and discredit the Black Panthers and other so-called “radical” Black groups of the 1960s and 1970s. These plots have been admitted to, studied and written about. For instance, in C. J. Bloom and Waldo E. Martin’s book Black Against Empire, which, if you haven’t read it, and you’re listening to this, please do pick it up. It shows how these conspiracies, yes, networks of plots working together for a certain purpose under the radar, right? Secret plots, that these conspiracies were real, and they had real deadly effects, but the idea that these are merely conspiracy theories, allows these stories to be instantly discredited, regardless of what the historical record actually shows.
Adam: In fact, just six years later, in 1976, six years after this article was published dismissing and poopooing conspiracy theories, the Church Committee disclosures which were brought about by the scandals of Watergate, the FBI break-in et cetera, they disclosed the fact that the Panthers were subjected to FBI conspiracies. One New York Times headline by John Kifner from May of 1976 read, quote, “F.B.I. Sought Doom of Panther Party.” Quote:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out a secret, nationwide effort to ‘destroy’ the Black Panthers, including attempts to stir bloody ‘gang warfare’ between the Panthers and other groups and to create factional splits within the party, according to the staff report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities.
The bureau’s efforts, part of the Cointelpro or counterintelligence program, contributed to a climate of violence in which four Black Panthers were shot to death, the report says.
So that was just sort of poo pooed as conspiracy, oftentimes, of course, years later is sort of revealed as very much obviously not one, which shows this sort of power of this term, the sort of pejorative nature the term, and obviously we’d be remiss to not point out that the term itself can be wielded, and not inherently, but very often is wielded in a racialized way that African Americans who say, ‘Well, this is fishy, or this is weird’ are dismissed as being conspiracy theorists far quicker than establishment more white conspiracy theories would have been dismissed.
Nima: Right, and that’s on everything from say, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Black Panther Party leaders, all the way to the way that the American healthcare system treats Black patients, and so everything gets painted as ‘Oh, well, you know, those are just conspiracies,’ a way of undermining critical looks at power. Yes, some of which may not be true, but when you call something a conspiracy theory or you label someone a conspiracy theorist, you are instantly undermining any kind of credibility or genuine assessment of what may be happening or what they may be observing as a pattern in our society or in power structures, and that is on purpose that is a deliberate use and weaponization of that term.
So, detecting some insensitivity in the quote-unquote “paranoid” framework of conspiracy theory, media in recent years have taken to pathologizing conspiracy theorists in a more ostensibly evolved way, often invoking psychoanalysis to explain why people may doubt official narratives. Still, this approach is all too often condescending, and ultimately seems more interested in simplifying and delegitimizing grievances rather than addressing them, let alone trying to provide solutions.
So for instance, political commentator, Ezra Klein, who was one of the founders of Vox, exemplified this really well in a 2014 interview with quote-unquote “behavioral economist” and political commentator Cass Sunstein, who incidentally, has been married to Samantha Power since 2008.
Ezra Klein: How do conspiracy theories work?
Cass Sunstein: There seem to be three main things. First we know that if people have experienced some terrible event, like an assassination or an economic downturn or a lost plane, the human mind tries to find some sort of outlet for the grief or rage or just uncertainty. So there’s often a very rapid inclination to try to find some account. The second thing that accounts for the rise of conspiracy theories is social networks. So we know that if people are talking to like minded others there can be an account that will go viral just because that’s who they’re listening to, and even if they have a reality check from some external source, it won’t be credible, because it can be folded into the conspiracy theory itself. ‘Of course, they would say that.’ Which is why there’s a lot of evidence that when there’s a correction of a conspiracy theory, or something like it, it often amplifies people’s belief in the original thought, because the denial seems like proof. The third thing, which is noteworthy data about individuals, is that some people are drawn to conspiracy theories, a little like moths to flame. So a good predictor of whether people will believe in conspiracy theories is whether they believe in other conspiracy theories, and that effect is so intense that people will believe in logically incompatible conspiracy theories. So if you think Princess Diana was murdered, you’re more likely to think that she’s still alive, and this can’t simultaneously be true.
Adam: Yeah. So here you have this kind of head patting, which seems to suggest that people are predisposed towards conspiracy theories, as if their brains are just kind of different, and compares them to moths “drawn to a flame.” How this framework is helpful is not really clear, it sort of just seems like, and of course the entire video is sort of deeply unconcerned with figuring out what are some of the material reasons that people may be more drawn to false conspiracy theories? Or what conspiracy theories are true and what can we learn from those and what those kinds of edge cases are? Because there’s obviously a large gray area for most people.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a flattening of what conspiracy theories mean here.
Adam: Yeah, it’s just there’s this acceptable thing we all kind of agree on. This is very typical of Ezra Klein’s writing. There’s this flat thing we all sort of agree on. There’s the truth, and there’s the wacky stuff, and then we need to sort of figure out the way of stopping the wacky stuff, and it’s a very intellectually incurious way of looking at the world. There’s no sort of interrogation of what, again, some of these fringe or edge cases are or gray areas are, where it’s not so simple, and people like Cass Sunstein, who have a history he wrote a paper where he called for the quote, “cognitive infiltration,” unquote, of online forums, where he basically said the government should be in the job of employing teams of covert agents and quote-unquote “independent advocates” to infiltrate online forums and basically to push people away from quote-unquote, “false conspiracy theories,” unquote, which seems like to me along with his semi-ironic advocation in a 2006 piece of what he called the Goldstein effect. So in 1984, there’s this mysterious head face that comes up, Emmanuel Goldstein, and he’s this official enemy of the state, right? In George Orwell’s 1984, there is someone called Emmanuel Goldstein, a former member of the party, who becomes the despised enemy, and he sends these cryptic messages which the party uses to kind of codify its power and control. Cass Sunstein wrote an article called, “On the divergent American reactions to terrorism and climate change,” the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a professor, where he basically argues that climate change needs a version of this, he kind of ironically argues for an Emmanuel Goldstein and he says, ‘Well, the war on terror has one and Osama bin Laden,’ right? He sends these cryptic messages. He sort of keeps the War on Terror alive and keeps fear alive because it can be, he basically makes a psychological argument that people respond to an enemy, a face, they don’t respond to abstractions, and climate change has this problem. So this along with his advocation of quote-unquote “cognitive infiltration” of online forums is weird because Sunstein himself is sort of arguing for conspiracy, right? He’s arguing for secret or shadowy deception for some greater good, and you see this a lot with a lot of this patronizing, anti-conspiracy framework where it’s like, ‘What we push is obviously true and good.’ There’s, again, there’s not a lot of intellectual curiosity about any of the edge cases. It’s just sort of taken for granted that Harvard professors, you know, they know what’s right, they know what’s good, and anyone who doesn’t sort of agree is an idiot, and then, of course, Cass Sunstein later became a huge proponent of, I wouldn’t say alt-right, but kind of anti-trans, anti quote-unquote “critical race theory,” magazines like Colette, promoting their articles talking about how great they are, and it’s like, well, okay, so what does he view as the acceptable truth? And if someone like that is in charge of information for a White House, is that someone we really want to sort of make those decisions? Because presumably, it’s all done in a very undemocratic way. I mean, presumably, Cass Sunstein is not holding a plebiscite to see what isn’t what isn’t an acceptable conspiracy theory, he’s just going to tell us what is and what isn’t.
Nima: Exactly, and then that itself is not deemed a conspiracy, I think, is the kind of irony in that, right?
Adam: No. And, you know, in his defense, you know, these are fairly open things he’s talking about, but most people are, of course, are going to be privy to this kind of internal discourse, and the way we sort of skip over the step of like, well, okay, like, then let’s establish, presumably, there’s some scale of totally batshit, lizard people stuff, and then plausible, and then kind of probably not true or reasonable inquiry versus something we now know as fact. Many times we’ll see things like MK ULTRA or COINTELPRO put in the conspiracy bucket, which we’ll get to, that are just objectively true. I mean, they’re sort of acknowledged by these organizations themselves, and so, you know, it’s it is a scale and people like Ezra Klein and Cass Sunstein are sort of deeply incurious about establishing those epistemological boundaries, they sort of just want to move to the part where we lump everything into one kind of nasty conspiracy category.
Nima: Yeah. I mean, it seems like if you are kind of skeptical of something early enough you’re going to be deemed a conspiracy theorist, and then when it becomes sort of common sense or commonly understood or just normal history, those accusations of conspiracy theory are completely swept under the rug, right? Those are forgotten, and there’s no atonement for those people who have kind of labeled entire groups conspiracy theorists, in retrospect, there’s no kind of mia culpa or apology or reckoning with like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, when we said that all of those people who were talking about MK Ultra or talking about plots against the Black Panther Party,’ it never works the other way, it never comes back to then discredit the people who discredited the people who maybe were onto something, it still only works as a way to just maintain kind of a status quo understanding of how power is currently operating. Historical record and future discovery be damned.
Adam: And it’s tough, because Americans objectively believe in some batshit stuff, right? I mean, anyone who has spent five minutes on Facebook will tell you that there’s some stuff, you’re like, okay, that’s bad, we probably shouldn’t be spreading that. So, you know, everybody makes editorial decisions. I think the question is whether or not those editorial decisions have any kind of democratic input or popular input, or rather, it’s just guys from Harvard making these decisions.
Nima: Right, then you don’t fucking trust shit, and then, but then it gets lumped into everything else. Yeah, exactly. And I mean, to this point, you know, media concern with conspiracy theories has really crescendoed in the Trump and freshly-post-Trump years, in a climate marked by worries — many of them justified by extreme information disorders online in digital spaces, deliberate disinformation campaigns, deliberate horseshit, but some also, of course, misdirected and used mostly to silence a certain kinds of dissent.
So for instance, The Atlantic magazine ran a series on conspiracy theories from 2020 to 2022. It was called “Shadowland.” At the helm of the operation, of course, was Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. The series has been adapted into a documentary series for the NBC streaming platform Peacock, still, of course, with Goldberg and the Atlantic magazines imprimatur.
Long before his prestigious post at the Atlantic, Goldberg was a reporter for the New Yorker — and before that he was an Israeli prison guard in occupied Palestine. But while he was at the New Yorker, he authored a March 2002 piece, titled, “The Great Terror,” that peddled one of the most consequential and destructive conspiracy theories of the last 30 years: the theory that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks and had, quote, “possible ties to Al Qaeda.” Though these theories were discredited even at the time, Jeffrey Goldberg was steadfastly committed to them, appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered on February 4, 2003, just weeks before the US- and British-led invasion of Iraq, to re-broadcast, reaffirm these speculations that he had published the previous year. Here is an excerpt from the conversation with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. Quote:
Robert Siegel: It’s reported that Colin Powell is expected at the UN tomorrow to reveal recorded conversations between Iraqis which show, we read, that the Iraqis have been trying to evade weapons inspectors.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.
Siegel: Do you have a sense that there are any similar intelligence intercepts which similarly, and equally conclusively, show that they’re connected to al-Qaeda in some way?
Goldberg: I have no information in terms of intercepts. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they found those. However, I think what has happened over the past year is that as the CIA has captured a good number of al-Qaeda operatives, high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives, and has debriefed them, interrogated them or have the Jordanians do those interrogations, they’ve developed some information about the links between al-Qaeda and Saddam.
Adam: Never, of course, has Goldberg’s dangerous rumor mongering been called a “conspiracy theory” ; he never suffered any professional or personal consequences from floating this theory. He simply went on to get hired to better and more prestigious jobs. Nor did he suffer the lightest consequences for this conspiracy theorizing. Incidentally, it wouldn’t be a conspiracy episode without floating a little conspiracy theory which is —
Nima: We have one of our own.
Adam: We have one of our own here. We looked very diligently for the audio for this conversation and it is not on the All Things Considered webpage even though every other audio from this episode and dozens of episodes on both before and after it have all the audio, the audio for that particular interview was missing from the website. Cue X-Files music.
Nima: The truth is fucking out there.
Adam: We’re going to keep looking for the transcripts online, so whatever. But anyway, we couldn’t find the audio. That’s why we had to read it in our best actor voice. Other 9/11 conspiracy theories that are perfectly okay in mainstream media including blaming Iran for 9/11 which is extremely popular. The International Business Times has run several articles doing so, Epoch Times does it at least once a week, Fox News does it all the time as does former Vice President Mike Pence, who consistently floats that Iran was behind 9/11, even though this is a totally discredited conspiracy theory, but again, this is part of the acceptable conspiracy theories. This is not going to discredit any of these media outlets, and needless to say, when someone does a retrospective on 9/11 conspiracy theories or does a 10 year or 20 anniversary on 9/11 that goes over the conspiracy, there is Jeffrey Goldberg’s conspiracy theory mentioned, never was the Iran did 9/11 conspiracy theory mentioned because these are not considered conspiracy theories, because the people they accuse vis-a-vis conspiracy theory are baddies and so that doesn’t really count.
Other conspiracy theories which we’ll call mainstream conspiracy theories that have been taken for granted in US media, one of which is a sizable percentage of Russiagate reportage. One of the ironies of the Trump era is that major media was very concerned with conspiracies and discrediting conspiracy theories, meanwhile, the editorial standards of anything involving Russia, Russiagate, Russia connections to Trump was kind of thrown out the window. Now, clearly, there were elements of Russiagate that were true, or at least I think they were true, based on my editorial judgment. Russia clearly ran bot networks somewhat surely through the IRA, but they had bots, they had spam, they organized fake Facebook groups. That all seems true. Russia has never denied that. Russia has also never really denied they hacked the DNC and leaked their emails to discredit Hillary Clinton. I think that’s probably true. Not 100 percent, but I’m like 95 percent that probably happened. But then that sort of general, ‘Let’s fuck with Clinton,’ aspect, and ‘let’s promote Trump,’ because he’s obviously very sympathetic to Russia in key ways, because he’s a paleo conservative and loves tough white guys. That got sort of spun into all kinds of batshit things where pretty much anything that involves the Russia Trump connection was taken for granted. You could sort of run it in any major publication. One egregious example, which was one July 2018 article by Jonathan Chait headlined, “What If Trump Has Been a Russian Asset Since 1987?” We’re just asking questions. The article mindlessly speculates that Trump was controlled by the Kremlin for over 30 years, without offering up any verifiable proof at all, using only circumstantial evidence and very loose connection — similar to other widely discredited conspiracy theories. Jonathan Chait was kind of mocked at the time by your sort of softer, more mainstream version of the Russiagate world, you know, I think it’s a spectrum, there are some who were like pretty sober, I think seemed reasonable and others who just fucking went off the deep end with whatever they wanted to believe, but of course, you know, he wrote for New York Magazine, he never suffered any professional consequences. When it came to Russiagate, you could pretty much say whatever you want, and I think Jonathan Chait kind of took that and ran with that, because it was like, what was he going to do? Suffer professional consequences? You know, because he framed everything in a ‘what if?’ ‘What if?’
Nima: I mean, because when you’re talking about official enemies of the US state, or kind of, you know, US, UK, Five Eyes network, you can say whatever you want, I mean, you can kind of say whatever you want about Iran, you can say whatever you want about China, you can say whatever you want about Russia, you can say whatever you want about Cuba, you can say whatever you want about Venezuela, you can say whatever you want about Bolivia, right? You can kind of do whatever and not suffer any consequences or even if there is a little scrutiny, you can maybe walk something back a few weeks later in an article that no one reads because it’s buried, but there’s no accountability for that kind of stuff, and those articles, those speculations, whether they’re based on dissidents, whether they’re based on people with grievances from these countries, whether they’re based on just pure bullshit, you could truly say whatever you want, because the official line of this country allows it. But if you were to say the same thing, if you were to speculate about the same things, within say, the United States government that would be deemed conspiratorial and discredited.
Adam: Yeah, and no recent examples more egregious and more telling of this than the Havana syndrome narrative over the past —
Nima: Our number one favorite.
Adam: The primary thing we’re going to be talking about today and talking about with our guest, is the Havana syndrome narrative which, you know, the Sokal affair where someone tried to like trick a postmodern journal by writing a fake, you know, saying like math equations are racist or whatever, it was cynical right-wing thing to do, but we could do a Sokal affair with the Havana syndrome, we could not have written it better, which is a mysterious, highly implausible, absolutely zero evidence theory about multiple brain zappers going on in dozens of different locations, we could not have scripted that better, and it sort of just went along for several years, and this was a perfect object lesson in how the editorial standards are different depending on who the conspiracy theory is targeting or who it’s about.
Nima: So for those who may not know about Havana syndrome, here’s the gist. Between late 2016 and the summer of 2017, dozens of US and Canadian diplomats and spies affiliated with embassies in Havana, Cuba reported such symptoms as vertigo, fatigue, headaches, and loss of hearing, memory and balance. In 2017, US intelligence and military personnel reported having these symptoms in other places, such as China and Russia.
Now, by 2018, media had given the mysterious malady a name: Havana syndrome. Media also emphasized, without any proof mind you, the idea that the condition was a result of quote-unquote “sonic attacks,” caused by quote-unquote “microwave weapons,” wielded, of course, by Official Enemies, namely: Russia.
Adam: Yeah, and we saw Havana syndrome, to be clear, everywhere. CNN, MSNBC, nightly news, everywhere we got nonstop reports about Havana syndrome, and every one of them took it totally 100 percent seriously.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Man #1: The American State Department staffers suffering from the mysterious Havana syndrome.
Woman #1: It’s Havana syndrome.
Woman #2: A member of his team reported that they were experiencing symptoms similar to Havana syndrome.
Woman #3: And vice president Kamala Harris’s trip to Vietnam was delayed by more than three hours over a suspected case of Havana syndrome.
Woman #4: US spies and diplomats known as Havana syndrome.
Man #2: But State Department under growing pressure tonight to do more to help its staffers who are suffering from a mysterious illness, the so-called Havana syndrome.
Man #3: Havana syndrome, you may be familiar, causes a strange combination of symptoms that can include sudden vertigo, nausea, dizziness, headaches, hearing loss.
Woman #5: There are a couple hundred cases of these incidents in total, and about 100 of them among intelligence officers.
Man #4: As the US Embassy dealt with two new cases of that mystery illness known as Havana syndrome.
Woman #6: He’s also met with some of the officials who have been impacted by Havana syndrome.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: Yeah, and so we got this sort of non stop, again, including mainstream media. One New York Times report from September of 2018, which is done in this very serious official tone, headlines, “Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers.” Excerpt includes, quote:
Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.
Is it possible that scientists looking for “threats to national security” may tend to have an anti-Official Enemy bent? Possibly.
Interestingly, the scientist cited who did research on microwaves that can quote-unquote “trick the brain” happens to have been a consultant to multiple federal agencies and calls the Cuban government a “dictatorship.” So motivated reasoning is not an option here.
The entire article is devoted to exploring the possibility of deliberate sonic attacks — and none of it to exploring the possibility that this could be wrong or just another, God forbid, “conspiracy theory.”
The article also opens with a reference to Cold War-era “Moscow signals,” supposed microwave weapons beamed out by the Soviets for purposes of mind control. Were it not in service to the United States, the theory might invite snark from the pages of the Atlantic or the Washington Post. Or, for a more discerning journalists, the precedent of Moscow signals might be an opportunity for some reflection on the dubiousness of Havana syndrome.
Nima: But no, but it takes it seriously, right?
Adam: It takes it totally seriously.
Nima: It starts with this thing where it’s about something ludicrous, and then actually is like, ‘No, but that’s what’s happening now.’
Adam: But over the years, again, GQ, New York Times, constantly had these very serious, credible stories about microwave, sonic attacks on people’s brains, scientists were subtly telling the media that this didn’t make a fucking lick of sense, that it just scientifically didn’t make sense, logistically didn’t make sense, you know, forget the sort of national security application of having multiple kinds of 9/11 style attacks against the United States that we sort of didn’t have any attribution for.
Nima: Where is this brain laser beamed from? How does it transport around the world?
Adam: Yeah, well, it has to be the size of a semi truck, which we’ll get into with our guest, and there was never any indication they knew where it was or how it was even theoretically possible.
In early February 2018, there was a study in Science Magazine that found no proof of the attack. According to a declassified report ordered by the State Department and leaked to BuzzFeed News in September 2021, the cause of Havana syndrome was found not to be microwaves wielded by a foreign adversary, but crickets. These findings date back to at least 2019. Other reports, internal reports, were leaked that also suggested this was most likely a combination of crickets and a psychogenic illness, which is to say, a sort of contagion that people would have believed they were having this problem when there were really other issues that have been going around.
In 2021, the United States Congress passed the HAVANA Act signed by Joe Biden, which signed into law quote, “authorizes the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and other agencies to provide payments to agency personnel who incur brain injuries from hostilities while on assignment.”
Nima: This is after this has been discredited.
Adam: Well, it didn’t matter, because that gets folded into the conspiracy theory, as Cass Sunstein told us, because then there was a meta conspiracy that the government was trying to cover it up for some reason, it’s not really clear.
In June 2022, the State Department announced that US diplomats and family members impacted by “Havana syndrome” symptoms who required at least a year of medical assistance would be eligible for compensation payments between $140,000 and $187,000.
In March 2023, there was a multi-intelligence agency report that studied it for several years and established they have no credible evidence supporting the idea that a foreign adversary is behind the so-called Havana syndrome, reported by personnel. The LA Times report, quote:
The findings, released Wednesday by U.S. intelligence officials, cast doubt on longstanding suspicions by many of those who reported cases that Russia or another country may have been running a global campaign to harass or attack Americans using some form of directed energy.
Most of the cases investigated appeared to have different causes, from environmental factors to undiagnosed illnesses, according to the officials, who said they had not found a single explanation for all or even most of the reports.
Instead, officials said, there is evidence that foreign countries were not involved. In some cases, the U.S. found adversarial governments were confused by the allegations and suspicious that Havana syndrome was an American plot. And investigators found “no credible evidence” that any adversary had a weapon that could cause the reported symptoms or a listening device that might inadvertently injure people.
So this was a multi agency report — CIA, NSA, FBI, you name it — all had the same conclusion, which is that there’s no evidence it is true. So then the story kind of just went away. For obvious reasons, there’s, of course, still some fringe holdouts, because there’s a lot of class action lawsuits and, you know, God bless them, I guess.
Nima: And the HAVANA Act is still standing law.
Adam: Correct. But basically, because all these agencies that have come out and said this doesn’t make any sense, again, the substance of which we’ll get to with our guest, it kind of just went away, and it’s like, well, there was a 60 Minutes report, I mean, there were multiple articles.
Adam: In GQ. Obviously the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Post editorial board had the most bizarre reaction to this, which is, ‘We need to do something, this is real, and it’s serious, and the solution is to get more money to investigate,’ and it’s like, well, if we’re under attack by foreign enemies, shouldn’t we do more than write a few more checks?
Nima: ‘We have to examine this.’ But that itself kind of proves that everyone knew this was ludicrous.
Adam: Yeah. Well it’s a total zombie story because there was no incentive really to say, ‘Guys like this are off the rails.’ I mean, this just doesn’t make any sense, because it did nothing but pad the State Department, Pentagon and CIA budgets, and when your conspiracy theories serve and flatter those in power, they’re not conspiracy theories, they’re sort of reasonable inquiry.
Nima: Speculation that deserves more investigation.
Nima: And so to discuss this more we’re going to be joined by Branko Marcetic, staff writer for Jacobin and author of the book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, which was published by Verso Books. Branko is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us folks.
Nima: We are joined now by Branko Marcetic. Branko, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed, we’re thrilled to have you back on the show.
Branko Marcetic: Hey, great to be back.
Adam: So yeah, I want to begin, you’ve been writing about this pretty much the whole time. So you’ve been following the kind of narrative, sub narratives, meta narratives around Havana syndrome over the past, I guess, three, four or five years it’s been. There was this sort of reoccurring pattern where there would be a leak by the State Department or somewhere in the White House or federal government saying like, ‘You know, we haven’t really found any evidence, we think it’s probably just a psychogenic illness or some other cause we’re not really sure.’ Put in very polite terms. And then it feels like a few months later, a few weeks later, there would be this blockbuster story, and it seemed like, I think I said on Twitter, like a year ago, I was like, this is going to be the story that just breaks me because it’s felt like a psyop to sort of see how outlandish the conspiracy theories could get, where they could sort of push the envelope of acceptable wild speculation to kind of see how far they could go. I don’t think it was by design, but sort of that’s what it ended up being. You had Julia Ioffe’s now infamous GQ article that basically just came out and said, ‘Oh, it’s consensus now among policy makers and officials that it’s a brain laser, literally just a brain zapper thing.’ That was in October 2020, and that really put it in conventional wisdom and then Congress responded to this article and others that advanced a similar line saying, basically, we need money for people who suffered from it, we need money to investigate it. 60 Minutes did a segment in June 2022, where they kind of took it at face value as well, and with each kind of ascending segment or mainstream article so many people would literally just say, ‘Am I going insane?’ You would actually question your sanity in the sort of traditional sense.
Nima: It’s like the media was brain-lasering us all.
Adam: Yeah, I know the word gaslighting gets thrown around a lot, but there was a general sense of like, I felt like I was going crazy because it seems so manifestly stupid to me, and then, of course, a DNI multi intelligence agency investigation said, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, that’s not necessarily the final word. We don’t just take the government for their word, per se, but it seemed like they kind of gave up on it. Can we sort of talk about the editorial standards surrounding the stories, specifically the GQ article and others like it? I know there was skepticism here and there, but it seemed like it sort of took on a mind of its own.
Branko Marcetic: Yeah, I mean, the phenomenon you’re talking about, I know well, because I followed, whenever a piece of news about Havana syndrome came out, I would read it, but it wasn’t something I was following super closely, and so you know, you’d read something, you know, the BuzzFeed piece based on the State Department investigation, which was done, I believe, September 2018, so pretty early on, saying that ‘Actually, we think this is probably just literal crickets.’
Adam: In Cuba specifically and in other places it became psychogenic.
Branko Marcetic: Right. Yeah. And then, and then, you know, 2019, there was some neuroscientists looked at the brain scans of the people who were alleged to have been zapped by whatever maligned laser weapon had been used, and they said, ‘Actually, there’s no injuries to these brains, there’s certain phenomenon, but they’re all very not uniform, and it’s not really clear what exactly was going on.’ So I would see this and I go, okay, okay, so we came, we figured it out, it’s not a real thing, it’s probably just a combination of psychosomatic and maybe some environmental factors. Great, we can move on from this. And then as you say, some months later or a year later or however long later, you would see a piece, or the 60 Minutes example, you’d see an entire segment about how ‘Actually, this was a laser weapon, and this was a really an active thing, and it still continues to be an active thing, and by the way, don’t listen to any of these naysayers who are saying that maybe actually, there isn’t a supervillain bond supervillain weapon being used.’ The 60 Minutes segment is a good example of this where the entire thing, it’s all about the weighting of the stories, and that’s often, I mean you guys talked about this, the way that media bias, the way that propaganda is transmitted to people, it’s often not by outright lies and fabrications, although that definitely happens, of course, but it’s as much to do with what’s left out, what’s emphasized, what’s focused on to exclusion of other facts, and the 60 Minutes thing is such a good example of that I think because of this is a very serious, very establishment, you know, you couldn’t get more kind of “official,” quote-unquote, journalism than 60 Minutes. This is the way it’s meant to be done. And how do they do it? They put an enormous amount of weight on the testimony of the people who are suffering, and I have no doubt that they were really experiencing the things that they were experiencing. But that’s not the question. I mean, whether someone can believe that they’re ill and not actually be ill. It’s sort of a pertinent question: is this actually happening or is it just in someone’s mind? And so they put all this weight on these people talking about the terrible things that happen to them, but there’s no actual evidence presented that this was from a microwave weapon aside from I think, at the end of the segment that kind of go through, they interview a few experts, very serious looking experts who explained, you know, I’ve been studying this for decades, and I think it totally could have been the case. But beyond that, nothing, and then the alternative explanations are sort of just quickly dispensed with in that segment as if it’s just kind of a, ‘Well you see what these poor people who have been attacked have had to deal with, no one even believes them, not even the government believes them.’ But I think there’s one line where they say, ‘Some people said it was a cicada.’ They don’t say this is ridiculous. But it immediately jumps to another interview with a Havana syndrome quote-unquote “survivor,” where they say, ‘This is a terrible thing and I was attacked in my house,’ and so on and so forth to undermine that claim. It’s not even really gone into. So yeah, I mean, it’s classic. It’s just bad journalism. But of course, the bad journalism here is in pursuit of a particular, I think, ideological goal.
Adam: This point can’t be stressed enough, right? This is a narrative that bloats the Pentagon budget, in fact, it did, it reinforced premises for sanctions. So what they would say is they would say that the only logical explanation was it has to be microwave brainwaves, because otherwise, it was effectively saying you were denying the lived experiences of these State Department officials, and this gets into sensitive territory too correct?
Nima: The State Department version of the fentanyl stories.
Adam: Yeah, and this is something many medical experts who were early critics of Havana syndrome would say, ‘Look, it’s not that you don’t feel it, that it doesn’t necessarily have a physical causation,’ and then they would say the kind of meta conspiracy cover up is that the government actually didn’t have incentive to pounce on Havana syndrome, but actually had incentive to cover it up because they don’t want to pay insurance claims or some shit, even though they could just ask Congress and print the money anyway. What did you make of that kind of denying agency type language, because it was very common people would use it and it always struck me as somewhat cynical, because I again, I do believe that these people believe they had this problem.
Nima: But then they become victims of a conspiracy, which is the story to begin with, is kind of a bogus made up thing, but then they’re the victims of the conspiracy of the conspiracy of the conspiracy.
Branko Marcetic: I mean, for one, I think, it points to the idea of just sort of mindlessly taking the lead of anyone who’s a victim of anything, of course we want to have empathy and sympathy for these people, whatever they’re suffering from, but I mean, it’s not as if just having suffered from something makes you the ultimate authority. Figuring things out like this is the task of collective human action and all human knowledge investigation. But I mean, the idea that this is false, or that it must be a microwave weapon, because the US government has incentive to cover it up doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s the opposite. I mean, this started happening in 2016. We first heard about it, I think, in 2017, and conveniently, it came in the first year of the Trump administration, which was incredibly hostile to Cuba, it sort of took on this unofficial policy of basically retrying to engineer regime change in Cuba by loading up restrictions and pressure on the Cuban economy, and those efforts started, I think, two months before the first Havana syndrome story came out. So to me, it’s the exact opposite, and the fact that this has since migrated to basically every geopolitical adversary of the US government, you know, to Russia and into China. I think Serbia was one point, for some reason?
Adam: That’s a throwback to that weird period in the late ’90s before 9/11 where they were the main bad guys and like 24, and like that stupid movie with Owen Wilson, but go ahead.
Branko Marcetic: Well, you know, ’90s nostalgia was very big in the tail end of the 2010s. So you know.
Nima: Behind Enemy Lines, solid.
Branko Marcetic: That’s right. Yeah. So that to me, it also suggests that there’s political reasons for this. But I mean, to me, what’s interesting is when you look at a lot of these stories, and these interviews, and the Julia Ioffe’s actually, it’s kind of a good example of this, it’s an interview with one guy who suffered from this, basically, and what he describes is entirely compatible with the more reasonable, and you might say more evidence and scientific driven, conclusion that this was psychosomatic that this was to do with, you know, environmental factors that were not necessarily the cause of a laser brain weapon. He describes about how stressful his job was, that, you know, there’s an entire paragraph, which he talks about, he spent 12 hours working every single day, he was working or looking at a screen for just hours and hours and hours, he had this incredibly high pressure job, and you know, on top of that, the thing that is, I think, clearly at the root of what the world views of all these people who have suffered from whatever these health episodes are, is that they’re quite paranoid. They were looking at, like everyone else, they were looking at what was happening in American politics, and the world post 2016, they were alarmed by Trump and in their case, the foreign policy implications, meaning that we weren’t being aggressive enough in the world stage, they hoped or they feared rather, and I think all of this, it’s not unreasonable to think that it would have been a cocktail of things that kind of led them to suffer these things. Like I said, you can, if you read between the lines of a lot of these interviews, it starts to kind of come across there.
Nima: Yeah. Well, I mean, I love the name itself created specifically to push forward a certain kind of narrative, right? I mean, like, it wouldn’t be as effective if it were called, like, Paris syndrome, but it’s Havana syndrome, right? So it instantly takes you into this, sure Cold War, but also just like a national security framework. And you mentioned this idea that this has now happened or at least been reported on, Havana syndrome-style attacks, in all of these different places, right? The places where this reportedly has happened, you know, include Vietnam, Moscow, Tbilisi, Colombia — I’m going back and forth between cities and countries here, humor me — Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Serbia, some reports in Vienna and Berlin, and obviously Havana, and then we get to this attack that supposedly happened, reported on in February of 2022, that happened in Washington, DC, like Havana syndrome attack in Washington, DC, and so you have all of these kinds of enemy states or pseudo hostile states, you have some kind of friendly places, but with a lot of diplomatic presence, right? I think maybe that’s why Tehran is not on the list, because there aren’t State Department staff there, at least not that are officially there, right? Because there’s no embassy or there’s no consulate in Iran so it would be a weird story.
Adam: If you think about it. That was the original Havana syndrome.
Nima: Right. Exactly. Right. But then you get to this DC attack in February of 2022, and what do we hear about it? The same stuff. We have like a 60 Minutes segment talking to John Bolton, being like, ‘Yeah, pretty much this happened and it was a deliberate attack,’ and yet, there’s like no investigative follow-up, which kind of gives up the story. It kind of proves that no one is taking this seriously. Branko, can you kind of talk about how the things that we’re hearing, the things that were reported on credulously, then like, they kind of don’t elicit ever what we would imagine would be the national security militarized response of the United States if these things were actually real.
Branko Marcetic: I mean, I think it’s worth thinking about the balloon gate, which happened pretty recently, which has several implications. Number one, the contrasting reaction of actual US officials to say, the Chinese balloon and then the several other unidentified flying objects that happened in the next week, it was far more public and angry and militaristic and panic than anything to do with Havana syndrome over the last few years, which I think is very telling. I think the other thing about that particular episode with the balloons shows how easy panic and the contagion of fear spreads, particularly in official Washington, I mean, you know, I mean, good God, the Biden administration fired a cruise missile at what was like a $12 balloon and one of them missed.
Branko Marcetic: So they were so swept up in this hysteria that had just taken over in the space of a week, that they potentially risked, you know, the lives of actual Americans to shoot down what was basically nothing. So I think that shows you how easily, you know, I mean, if it happens to we think it was the top of the top people in the US government, why would it not happen to sort of lower level functionaries and diplomats?
Adam: Right, exactly. It just never made any sense, right? Especially after the DC attack. I was like, okay, great, they’re going to call it the Virginia and Maryland National Guard’s the FBI, the ATF, the Capitol police, the Metro Police, and they’re going to do a door by door search of the brain laser because the brain laser according to all independent technical analysis, for that microwave weapons to work, it effectively has to be the size of a semi truck, or at least a large van, I think was the sort of general consensus even among those who believed it. So if there’s a semi-truck-size microwave weapon, in DC, there’s a finite amount of places it could be. This isn’t like you’re looking for a pocket watch, right? It’s a very large thing. So I’m thinking okay, Washington Post editorial in September 2021 comes out and says, ‘We have to do something about Havana syndrome attacks,’ and it’s all serious and talks about more money, but their call to action is to just give more money to investigate, they don’t say we need to do a block by block sweep of DC because it has to happen that there’s limited range, right? There’s a finite space it can be.
Nima: Yeah, find the brain laser weapon.
Adam: Yeah. Wouldn’t that be the top priority to, you know, if you see something, say something campaign, have you seen a semi truck sized brain laser? Is there a suspicious large semi truck in your neighborhood? I mean, I’m not even being facetious here, this is what they would have done if they believed this was real. I mean, because again, there’s a finite set of things, it could be in a finite set of places it could be, and look at what happens in Vietnam or Moscow or whatever I get it, you know, there’s limited capacity there, but Washington DC is the most militarized place on earth other than maybe in New York City, right? It is the heart of our national security state, and yet, no one did anything. They didn’t even, as far as I understand, and I think it would have been pretty demonstrative if they had done something like that, some kind of door-to-door sweep, but they didn’t even send police to go look for it, no one seemed to really believe their own bullshit.
Branko Marcetic: Yeah, absolutely, and the other thing that I would point out that has made me extra skeptical of this being even remotely real, is, I mean, right now, we’re in the middle of over a year into what is, among other things, a proxy war between the United States and Russia, relations are probably the worst they’ve been in, you know, since maybe, right when Reagan came in, in the ’80s, the two countries are edging closer and closer to war, there’s a report that the CIA has been helping some other spy agency and NATO carry out infrastructure attacks and sabotage within Russia. Of course, there was a Nord Stream pipeline attack, which I think whatever you feel about that, I think Russia certainly suspects that it was the United States or at least a NATO power or powers. So in the context of all that, would you not, if Russia really does have or some shadowy cabal of US adversaries has some supervillain brain weapon that they were deploying regularly before that, would there not be a spate of these attacks not just in the United States, but all over the world happening over the last year? Would there not be not just the United States, but would there not be things happening to other NATO government diplomats and spies or to Ukraine’s diplomats and spies who are also located all over the world? So that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, surely now in the sort of civilizational conflict with the hardliners in both the United States and Russia, they’ve been kind of rubbing their hands about this, they’re finally here, would you not now pull out all the stops and start using this? Or are they consuming it for some other later war?
Nima: They’re still running tests on low level State Department employees and various embassies around the world.
Adam: Yeah, because Julia Ioffe has pretty much said it was Russia. I mean, that was the subtext, I mean, pretty explicitly, they say it’s Russia, and then I think for a while they moved on to China, as you note, and then there was what happened in August of 2021, Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas and GOP lawmakers on the foreign affairs committee wanted to pass a law that sanctioned the country responsible for the Havana attacks, put it in the budget, required Biden to sanction them within 60 days of discovering who the country is. So they did a Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, where they gave the verdict before they had a trial, right? We don’t even know who the country is, but they like, they don’t really have a lot they can do on the foreign affairs committee or in Congress, so all you can do is just sanction, dut there was no baddie so they just literally passed a sanctions bill with a blank TBD line. I mean, that doesn’t, that’s just madness, and this is all, of course, based on mainstream reporting. So it’s like, they didn’t really know who it was, because again, if somebody was attacking dozens, if not hundreds of diplomats with a heretofore undisclosed technology involving microwave lasers directed towards people’s heads, that would be an extraordinary act of war. I mean, that would be similar to the Iran hostage situation. I mean, it would be a diplomatic violation of grave import. But like, nobody did anything about it.
Nima: But that’s why this gets to Adam, to kind of the utility of this story.
Adam: But their heart, they never put their shoulder into the pitch. They never sort of gave it the umph it needed.
Nima: Yeah. Which kind of takes me to this next question that I have, which is the real diplomatic stakes here and Branko, you kind of had already been putting the Havana syndrome story in a geopolitical and also historical context kind of when the story broke, how it was then leveraged, but let’s get more into that, the idea that, you know, these stories then serve to further kind of bloat Pentagon budgets, to push, as Adam has been saying, sanctions, to justify this in not only the political but also potentially the public mind. What do you think the real harms are for these narratives beyond just the kind of political utility of them, but how do they then infect discourse moving forward?
Branko Marcetic: Well, every government with an aggressive foreign policy and military policy, always feels under attack and its population has always made to feel as if they’re under attack. And you’re right, I mean, you know, I think ultimately, you look at polling, most Americans don’t want the United States to be involved militarily in every single problem in the world. But nevertheless, you still have to try and prime the population to some extent, at least sort of willingly, or, you know, apathetically acquiesce to just the constant money being shoved into the military, and I think all of this, you know, I don’t think there’s any one particular Havana syndrome story that maybe was more impactful than the rest. My sense is that this is a constant drumbeat, and the fact that it was able to kind of switch from an early point of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy, we make it Cuba, then later as tensions with Russia start to ramp up, we kind of switch it to Russia, then China too, because now that’s also a country that we want to go to war with. I’m sure if you’ve asked most people, the details of Havana syndrome and who was meant to be doing what and where and so on, they would probably not be able to tell you, but what they will probably tell you is that ‘Yeah, yeah, no, I remember reading about it, I remember hearing something about this. Yeah, it was Cuba or Russia or China or something and they were attacking diplomats? Yeah, it sounds pretty bad.’
Nima: Boom. Success. Yeah.
Branko Marcetic: Yeah. That’s how most people experience it and, you know, I mean, again, we talked about the difference between focus and volume on certain facts, you know, I mean, go into Google News look up Havana syndrome or, you know, whatever, anomalous health incidents whatever, trying to look up news articles about this, and the reporting like the stuff that BuzzFeed did about the State Department actually thinks that as far back as 2018, this was just crickets and other stuff that goes against the prevailing narrative, yeah, sure, it exists among fairly prominent news outlets, but it’s dwarfed by the amount of articles and most importantly, headlines. There’s another thing that you guys correctly, always stress. The headlines constantly say, this is a real thing, it has been done by Russia, China, whatever, with no real nuance or hedging. I mean, people were just told outright, this is the thing, and so people are just left with a subconscious impression that ‘Well, I’m not really sure what exactly what’s going on, but yeah, I’m pretty sure that this was, you know, one of the one of the bad people that we’re always hearing about that was doing this to us.’
Nima: Right. It was a bad thing that definitely happened, I mean, 60 Minutes just had the headline, like, “Havana syndrome, high-level national security officials stricken with unexplained illness on White House grounds.” Boom, nothing else, that’s the line that people take away.
Branko Marcetic: And, I mean, 60 Minutes, as all media is, especially kind of, you know, establishment media, official media, it’s very theatrical in a way that people probably are not totally conscious of when they watch it, but you know, it’s everything is draped in shadow, and it’s very serious people speaking, very serious ways in hushed tones, you know, everything is very official, and then, you know, I mean, compare that to say, somebody reads that BuzzFeed piece, they go, ‘BuzzFeed, isn’t that the website that that gives us the 25 gifs of cats or something?’ ‘Oh, well, clearly, clearly, 60 Minutes would know better what they’re talking about than Buzzfeed.’ So I think, you know, there’s a lot going on here, I mean, beyond just some of the stuff we discussed, I think people just sort of led into, you know, just kind of believing whatever officials say, however outlandish it may be.
Adam: Yeah, I think the, you know, for the limited scope of a media criticism podcast, one thing on this episode we’re not doing necessarily, trying to litigate what conspiracies are valid, and which aren’t, which I think is certainly well beyond the epistemological scope of a media criticism podcast, except to say that Havana syndrome is obviously a bullshit conspiracy theory, right? So there are ones that we think are fairly obvious. But one point I’ve been trying to make sense since this thing popped off initially, five, six years ago, is that at the very least, we can all agree that if China or Russia or Iran or some official enemy, or what have you, made similar claims about suffering brain lasers, we would have mocked them to no end. These officials would have been, you know, on The Daily Beast would have been like, ‘Russia says they,’ and we all would make fun of them. Kimmel would have gotten their jokes in, it would have been dismissive and the New York Times would have run a thousand snarky articles about the crazy paranoid fever dream of the Chinese diplomats overseas, whatever. That, I think, every rational person can agree with, that seems sort of intuitively correct. I feel. Maybe I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments section. Sound off in the comments section. The double standard here seems rather obvious. The reason why we did this episode on Havana syndrome aside from the fact that we really wanted to sort of review this weird psychological episode over the last few years, was really it sort of exposes that double standard, that double evidentiary standard that journalism in the West versus sort of, you know, official claims of official enemies, et cetera. Can you comment on that evidentiary double standard and what it would look like to maybe — I don’t know — try to apply it somewhat evenly?
Branko Marcetic: Well, this often drives me crazy because I write a lot about the Ukraine war happening and, you know, someone who’s followed it very closely I just see how much lies or misleading or, you know, non contextual information is given to people, often information that’s completely contradictory. I see how much stuff is just kind of laundered through the press, anonymous officials will tell them the press will just report it, then, you know, a week a month later, they’ll say, ‘Oh, by the way, the US government is openly telling us that they’re feeding us information isn’t true,’ and it really frustrates me that we quite correctly skeptical about, as you say, adversarial governance, whatever you want to say, China, Russia, so on, Iran, and we say, ‘Well, you know, that’s the Russian, Chinese, Iranian government, of course,’ we can’t we have to take whatever they say with a grain of salt, but then entirely disappears completely when it comes to US officials, and you know, I mean, I think we should be skeptical of what these other governments say, obviously, because people in power always have agendas, and often lie.
Adam: Yeah, to be clear, we’re not advocating for lowering standards of other countries, as much as we’re asking to increase standards of skepticism for the US. Yeah, right.
Branko Marcetic: Yeah. I tell people this all the time, I say think of US officials, treat US officials the exact same way that you treat pronouncements from Russian officials, sometimes they’re true, sometimes often they’re not, especially when the, you know, public facing. So just apply that same standard. I mean, it’s, we’re not far removed from the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, which still gets talked about as this massive failure of reporting, as this massive failure of public skepticism to some extent, of what the people in power was saying and doing, and we seem to understand that when we look back at that event, we seem to be cognizant of the fact that that we were lied to and that people, officials were very deliberately feeding us false information that the press didn’t do its job properly to vet this, and yet, we just keep repeating the same mistakes. We keep treating every single anonymous intelligence or other official saying something as if it’s gospel as if they don’t have some sort of ulterior motives, if the CIA and ex-CIA people haven’t said outright for decades that ‘Yeah, of course, we feed reporters false information so that we can wage information warfare,’ it’s very frustrating. So I mean, I don’t know what to do beyond just to continue to highlight that fact, and do the job you guys are doing. But, you know, I mean, I would hope anyone who listens to this podcast is aware of some of these points already. But you know, hopefully, people can become a little more, I would say, a little more skeptical and not to the point, I think there’s a lot of now just completely, let’s throw the baby out the bathwater, and let’s never engage with anything that’s happening in the news, because it’s all bullshit. I think that’s not the smartest way to go about it.
Adam: Yeah, no, it’s definitely about calibrating your cynicism, not just throwing your hands up and saying, ‘Oh, the mainstream corporate media lies all the time.’ Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they don’t. And you have to be discerning, you have to know what —
Nima: Yeah, that’s why it’s clever.
Adam: Yeah, you have to understand where the motivated reasoning comes from, and also, just like I said, to sort of compare what’s being said with what’s being done, seems like and this was, I think, where Havana syndrome really pushed the extremes of cynicism, where it was like, they were saying one thing and doing basically nothing, and I think like using your common sense skepticism in those scenarios can be valuable.
Nima: We’ve been speaking with Branko Marcetic, staff writer for Jacobin and author of the book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. Branko, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Branko Marcetic: Cheers, guys. I appreciate what you do.
Adam: Yeah, I think again, this was the one that was testing my limits where I was like, this can’t be something people really think because it just doesn’t make basic sense, and again, like I talked about with Branko, there was such a divorce between what people were saying and what they were doing. Anyone who’s ever feigned concern for something else, so that’s like to say, oh, yeah, you know, I’m really concerned about putting these dishes away and then like, you come back and the dishes are still there, and it’s like well, clearly you don’t really care.
Nima: The recommended response did not match the alleged reality.
Adam: No, which strikes me as a bit of a maybe perhaps an ulterior motive.
Nima: It’s a tell.
Adam: It’s a tell. But in such a blatant, and such a low-effort way. But again, it served the right people, sort of feel the right narratives, it pleased people, you know, in the foreign affairs committee on both parties, and so that becomes okay, you know, it’s funny, like every few months, some zombie at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies or the Heritage Foundation free floats the Iran 9/11 conspiracy theory and no one in mainstream media sort of buys it, but they’re still referred to as credible experts in the New York Times, right?
Nima: Oh, yeah. No, and those are incidentally, the very same people that continue to try and paint the 1953 CIA and MI-6 led coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh as a conspiracy theory saying, what has been revealed about that, about the coup is actually the conspiracy, and the reality is that the CIA had nothing to do with it.
Adam: But the CIA itself says they were involved.
Nima: Exactly, exactly.
Adam: If you go to the cia.gov/Iran, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we totally did that.’ You’re getting outflanked from the left by the CIA.
Nima: They’re like, ‘Yeah, no, we did that. That was like, the first time we did that, and then we did Guatemala.’
Adam: Yeah, I mean, it was like, it doesn’t matter, though, right? When you have enough money and enough donors to fund your own think tank, you can really create your own truth, you know, you can sort of police the bounds of acceptable discourse in a way that, again, if it’s about the right enemy, you can pretty much say anything, and if it’s about the US, you need smoking gun, Edward Snowden documents, you need whistleblowers really, and that’s why the Church Committee in the mid to late ’70s was created, because they had, there had been leaks and actual documents and break-ins that had revealed things that were so appalling, and then therefore that which was in 1970 a conspiracy theory, by 1976–1977 became like, ‘Oh, yeah, obviously.’ Which is not to say that every single idle speculation about what the CIA does is correct, obviously not. But some of them are, and, you know, litigating that and figuring out what that is strikes me as a worthy enterprise rather than just doing the sort of lazy, you know, Ezra Klein thing and being like, ‘Oh, look at those Kooks. Let’s all move on and figure out ways we can infiltrate online forums to prevent — ’ Yeah, it’s like, I don’t know, shouldn’t you be a little curious about what that is?
Nima: Well right. Well, as we were saying earlier, it’s the idea of flattening all of the kind of dissent or questioning of official government narratives into the same conspiratorial box, right? Like saying, ‘Well, if you believe this, and you believe that, and then you must believe that, and you must believe this other thing, and you’re like a kook and a crank, and so whatever, without ever differentiating between kind of like, the reasonable theories about how power structures work, about what forces are actually operating to do certain things, right? Like there are networks of organizations and activists pumping in a lot of money and a lot of effort to make sure that in every single state house there are anti trans bills. But similarly, using political lobbying to ensure that boycott and protest is outlawed. Those are actually concerted efforts that aren’t all above board that you actually kind of have to look at where funding is going, look at what organizations, look at who’s popping up in the news, who gets quoted on what, right? All of these things. But to say that that’s a conspiracy, even though it literally meets the definition of what a conspiracy is, it’s not necessarily deemed that way. Whereas if you question other official government narratives, those could be flattened with lizard people shit, and therefore just kind of discredit what needs to be discredited, while maintaining what needs to be maintained.
Adam: You can just be a lazy pejorative, and of course, the limited point we’re making in this episode is that that standard just simply does not apply to certain mainstream conspiracy theories, and it’s a standard that, you know, I think, to some extent, can be healthy. It just simply doesn’t apply to those that serve, and to serve those in power, and put more money into the war machine,, and so we sort of see that time and time again, and the double standard is, I think, very revealing.
Nima: Well, I guess it’s time for me to take off my tinfoil hat Adam, I’m disappointed we didn’t get into the full on, four quadrant matrix of which conspiracy theories are real or not, but maybe that will be a different episode. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are so inclined, conspiratorially, join up through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support is so appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.