I had great fun reading David Ray Griffin’s Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory. Brilliant and funny, this artful explication of Constitutional law scholar Cass Sunstein’s essay, “Conspiracy Theories,” conveys important legal points while treating readers to enjoyable satire. As several talented reviewers have noted, many public figures, including Associate Justice Elena Kagan and President Barack Obama, consider Cass Sunstein, the current Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to be the preeminent, most widely cited Constitutional law scholar in the country. Consequently, we who feel concern for civil rights naturally feel perplexed that the nation’s leading expert on the Constitution would propose such profoundly unconstitutional policy. That Sunstein appears intent on resurrecting COINTELPRO—the FBI’s counterintelligence program of the 60s and 70s that targeted citizens and activist groups—should concern everyone regardless of political ideology.
COINTELPRO mainly attempted to discredit antipoverty resistance movements such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam along with Vietnam War resistors and activists. Agents would routinely go undercover as “agents provocateurs” who would infiltrate groups, incite trouble, and then blame the groups. Naturally they got lots of help from the ever eager-to-please McMedia. COINTELPRO was an illegitimate method of discrediting legitimate political and social activities. Activists who were harassed, surveilled, or killed because of FBI COINTELPRO activities include antiwar activist Father Phillip Berrigan, John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (shot and killed about 4:40 AM in the presence of their lawyer, Charles Garry), and others we will never hear about.
Griffin cites former ABC correspondent, John Stossel, who brilliantly criticized Sunstein’s plan in a FOX business blog entitled, “Stealth Propaganda.” Stossel commented, “This reads like an Onion article: Powerful government official proposes to combat paranoid conspiracy groups that believe the government is out to get them…by proving that they really are out to get them.” Yet this is what Sunstein wants to reestablish in America. “Conspiracy Theories,” which appeared on January 15, 2008 (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday), makes it clear that he specifically intends to discredit the “9/11 Truth Movement,” which appears to be quickly growing in popularity as did COINTELPRO ‘s original targets.
Sunstein proposes several ideas for dealing with such organizations although he never really explains why these people are so threatening. The idea that “Truthers” as a group will become violent is a figment of creative imaginations. He’s evidently given this issue a lot of thought, yet he seems to resist facts that threaten the inflexible paradigm he’s chosen to adopt. Sunstein operates from the notion that nearly everyone suffers from a “crippled epistemology,” which apparently means that anyone who suggests there are problems with the official government version of 9/11 events simply lacks good information, while the Sunsteins and similar elitists possess it. If that’s true, they should disclose it. The 9/11 Commission thought so too. Commission vice-chair Lee Hamilton and senior counsel John Farmer both admitted the Bush Administration had delayed, stymied, and underfunded their investigation. Apparently, many of the government officials with the epistemologically superior knowledge weren’t all that willing to share it.
Griffin’s refined humor had me for a few brief moments hoping that Sunstein really is a clever ally of civil rights and the truth. Using political philosopher Leo Strauss as his model, Griffin proposes that Sunstein’s writing, like that of Strauss, can be interpreted on two levels—a more obvious exoteric level meant for a broad general audience and an esoteric one meant only for those few sufficiently astute or connected to accurately interpret the clues. As Griffin presents Sunstein’s esoteric message, it sounds a lot like the claims of the 9/11 Truth Movement. He portrays the Bush Administration’s version of 9/11 events as too ridiculous to be true and suggests, comically, that Sunstein is only pretending to agree with the official conspiracy theory involving 19 Arabs, a few of whom turned up alive. As Griffin demonstrates, the accusations Sunstein levels at the Truth Movement more easily and convincingly apply to the official conspiracy theory, which is largely nonsense. Sunstein’s esoteric message then, Griffin tells us, confirms that the Truth Movement is right.
In order to better understand Strauss and the idea of an esoteric dimension in literary interpretation, I interviewed political philosopher, Dr. Robert Abele, whose book, The Anatomy of a Deception: A Reconstruction and Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq, addresses Strauss’ role in neoconservative thought. Abele told me that Strauss never explicitly claimed to be writing anything at an esoteric level but rather maintained that the best philosophy is philosophy like Plato’s: always concealing something ‘between the lines’ to make readers carefully contemplate the meaning.
“This emphasis Strauss placed on ‘true’ philosophy has resulted in his being taken by many to be a writer who was attempting to emulate the best philosophy of esoterica. In short, where other interpreters of the great philosophers saw them contradicting themselves, Strauss saw them as saying something more profound, ‘beneath’ the contradiction that mundane philosophers read,” Abele explained. As an example he cited John Locke who, in his Two Treatises of Government, unequivocally asserts his Christianity and his concern that government take into account Christian virtues. “Because Locke is inconsistent in his argument concerning this use of religion in politics, Strauss takes him to be an atheist, concealing that atheism,” Abele said, adding, “One thing is quite clear in Strauss—and this motivates the likes of the Bush gang: Strauss was no friend of liberalism.”
Abele’s depiction of Strauss helped me to more fully appreciate Cognitive Infiltration since it explains the contradiction of a Constitutional scholar’s willingness to subvert the Constitution. “Strauss emphasizes Plato’s concept of the ‘noble lie’ in The Republic, where the leader must do what is necessary for the proper functioning and the preservation of the state. The Bush neocon Straussians see themselves as the elite enlightened that they ‘read’ in Strauss.” Abele added that whether or not Strauss himself wrote in such a style is open to some debate, but that he recognized it in the great philosophers is beyond question. “It is perhaps this method of seeing the esoteric in the great thinkers that his followers, such as [Paul] Wolfowitz, see in Strauss the hidden message of neoconservative thought,” Abele said.
This explains a lot—about Sunstein particularly and the governing elite generally. Sunstein knows he’s lying, but he’s doing it for our own good.
The neocons’ greatest impediment is the Constitution; it keeps getting in their way. Who is better-suited than a Constitutional scholar to dance around it? Griffin notes, “The FBI’s COINTELPRO was eventually declared illegal because it violated the rights of free speech and association. Given its strong similarities to that program, Sunstein’s proposal would seem to be equally illegal.” Griffin cites Glenn Greenwald who suggested that another reason for such a program’s illegality is “that it appears to violate ‘long-standing statutes prohibiting government propaganda’ within the U.S. aimed at American citizens.”
Media Studies professor Mark Crispin Miller has argued, Griffin tells us, that if Sunstein and his allies cared about the truth, “they’d try to test those dreaded ‘theories’ in the most effective way—not by setting up a covert force of cyber-moles, but by joining all the rest of us in calling for a new commission to look into 9/11, airing all of the evidence that’s been so long ignored and/or suppressed, and entertaining all those questions that the first commission either answered laughably or just shrugged off. That would be the democratic way to deal with it,” Miller said.
Griffin points out that if Sunstein’s goal is to arrest the spread of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s pernicious theory, and if that theory is “demonstrably false” as Sunstein claims, then why would he feel the need to silence 9/11 conspiracy theorists? “The government would only need to discredit their theory so publically and severely that it would win no more converts and would even lose many of its previous converts,” Griffin declares, saying that the government should rely on the power of truth rather than COINTELPRO-like tactics. “An excellent way to do this would be through a new investigation, carried out by credible, independent people, and mandated to answer all the questions that have been raised by the 9/11 Truth Movement,” Griffin says. “If Sunstein is right in saying that this movement’s theories are ‘demonstrably false, then the questions raised by this movement will be easily answered, and the investigation will demonstrate to the American people, and also people around the world, the falsity of the claim that 9/11 was an inside job.”
It makes one wonder what they’re so afraid of.