Skip to content

An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory

In 2009 an article by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule appeared in the Journal of Political Philosophy (Volune 17, 2, pp. 202-227). Among other things, the authors argued that governments should engage in ‘cognitive infiltration of groups that produce conspiracy theories’. According to them, this involves governments developing and disseminating arguments against conspiracy theories, governments hiring others to develop and disseminate arguments against conspiracy theories and governments encouraging others informally to develop and disseminate arguments against conspiracy theories (2009, p. 218). In particular they suggest that government agents enter chat rooms and online social networks to raise doubts about conspiracy theories and generally introduce ‘cognitive diversity’ into those chat rooms and social networks.

This article has so outraged 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin that he has written an entire book attacking it. The book, Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory (Olive Branch Press, 2010) is so named because Cass Sunstein has recently been appointed as regulator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Griffin is a noted defender of one of several 9/11 conspiracy theories, the ‘controlled demolition’ theory. According to this theory the two planes that were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center were not the actual cause of the collapse of these buildings. Rather, these collapsed because they were pre-wired to be demolished. The planes that were flown into the buildings were, instead, part of an elaborate cover-up to mislead people as to the nature and purpose of the event of September 11th 2001. I’ve discussed this theory and what is wrong with it elsewhere:

David Ray Griffin appears to believe that what Sunstein and Vermeule are proposing is outrageous and is akin to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of the 1950s and 1960s, which involved the covert infiltration and active disruption of a wide variety of groups including the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan. This is a silly exaggeration. What Sunstein and Vermeule are proposing is that the government takes steps to ensure that people are exposed to a diversity of opinions. They are concerned about the lack of ‘cognitive diversity’ on the internet and believe that if people are exposed to a diversity of opinions then they will tend to develop more nuanced views and less extreme views. They are not proposing anything remotely as interventionist or clandestine as COINTELPRO.

I am skeptical about the extent to which the introduction of cognitive diversity actually will have the effects that Sunstein and Vermeule hope. Most hardened conspiracy theorists are aware of alternative viewpoints, even if these are promulgated on websites that they do not often visit, and are able to explain away (to their own satisfaction at least) these alternative viewpoints. These are typically explained away as being part of the ‘cover story’ that the conspirators in question have developed. People can point out in internet chat rooms that it is implausible to think that the twin towers could have been pre-wired for a controlled demolition (a job that would take weeks and would be highly visible to workers) without anyone noticing and reporting this fact. To someone not committed to the controlled demolition theory this fact, as well as others, is likely to be seen as significant evidence against the controlled demolition theory, but to someone who is committed to the controlled demolition theory, the fact that others are arguing this way is liable to be seen as evidence that they are participating in the cover-up. If people are aware that their government is actually hiring or otherwise encouraging others to go into chat rooms and argue against conspiracy theories then this fact will be taken as additional evidence of the extent of the cover-up. At most the strategy will succeed in preventing some people who have open minds from becoming conspiracy theorists. It is unlikely to be effective in converting conspiracy theorists and may well backfire by strengthening the case for there being government cover-ups of conspiracies.

Share on

5 Comment on this post

  1. Steve,

    I think you’re right that this probably wouldn’t be effective; isn’t the important ethical question, though, whether it would be justified, even if effective? Think about it this way: if this kind of cognitive infiltration were justified, what else would be justified? Cognitively infiltrating the party out of power, for example?

    I say more about the question of justification here:

    Thanks for the interesting discussion; I think this is an important issue.

  2. Two points: first Cointelpro didn’t end in the 1970s. In my recent memoir THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE (, I describe my own close encounter with Cointelpro style covert harassment (owing to my political activities) between 1987 and 2002 – and my decision (in 2002) to emigrate to New Zealand. Second there is very careful, scholarly research documenting that the US government engages in heinous criminal activities (for example, CIA involvement in narcotics trafficking and the anal rape by US agents of teenage Iraqis at Abu Gharib prison). Journalists and academics who try to bring these crimes to public attention are immediately accused by the US government and the mainstream media of being “conspiracy theorists.” It is mainly for this reason that a group of American sociologists have coined the new term State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADS). There are a lot of unanswered questions about 9-11 and just because David Ray Griffin has – on the basis of the best publicly available information – tries to find answers for some of them doesn’t make him either an extremist or a kook.

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    Matt, you are right that there are tricky ethical issues here. Governments are entitled to put forward their points of view and introducing ‘cognitive diversity’ seems unobjectionable, but agreessive approaches to putting forward the government point of view may well be objectionable. Another issue that is relwvant here is deception.

    Stuart, you are also right that trying to find answers to unanswered questions about 9/11 doesn’t make David Ray Griffin a kook. What makes him a kook is advocacy of the implausible ‘controlled demolition’ theory, on the basis of little or no evidence of controlled demolition actually occurring.

  4. Interesting discussion. I agree with Matt’s suggestion to focus on the ethical issues rather than on the empirical question; I also agree with your answer to Stuart, Steve, and, broadly, with your initial comments on the ethical issue, especially with regard to deception – this also crossed my mind when I read your original post. I’d be interested in your further thoughts about this.

Comments are closed.