Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is a tax-collecting, enforcement, and regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It is the government agency with responsibility for administering America’s federal alcohol, tobacco, and firearms laws, as well as federal laws relating to commercial arson and explosives. It is because of its role in regulating these areas—especially the nation’s firearms laws—that the BATF has often been embroiled in allegations of conspiracy.

BATF headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but most of its personnel and many of its operations are decentralized in regional offices throughout the United States, and even a few stations overseas.

The bureau traces its roots back to the 1790s, but its earliest twentieth-century form is to be found in the Prohibition Unit established within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Treasury Department in 1920 to enforce the ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol enacted by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919. (The most famous member of the Prohibition Unit was Elliot Ness, the “T-man” who helped topple Chicago mobster Al Capone on tax-evasion charges.) The agency has undergone many changes of name and responsibilities since the 1920s, and it was given its present title in 1972.

Suspicions about the BATF’s alleged involvement in conspiratorial activities have been particularly pronounced since the passage of the Gun Control Act in 1968, which gave the agency extra responsibilities for enforcing the nation’s gun laws. Indeed, it is matters connected with gun regulation such as licensing, gun tracing, illegal firearms possession, and transportation rather than any of its other responsibilities that have provoked the most controversy and concern.

The BATF has often been attacked by gun rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and, since the mid-1990s, various parts of the militia movement, for example. Such groups routinely criticize the BATF as an “out-of-control,” “rogue agency” harassing innocent gun owners and dealers.

Nor are they alone in this. In 1995, Representative Harold Volkmer called the BATF “One of the most Rambo-rogue law enforcement agencies in the United States” (Spitzer, 128). Some gun rights advocates even go so far as to portray the bureau as an organization filled with agents whose real, if hidden, purpose is to disarm the United States.

During the 1990s, the BATF was subject to other conspiratorial accusations largely as a consequence of its involvement in the events at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1991 and Waco, Texas, in 1993. The BATF was the agency that entrapped Randy Weaver into selling an illegal sawn-off shotgun to one of its undercover informants in January 1991 in the hope of turning Weaver into an informer against the white-supremacist Aryan Nations group. It was also the agency responsible for the initial raid on the Mount Carmel complex on 28 February 1993 in an attempt to serve a search warrant on David Koresh, in which four BATF agents and five Branch Davidians were killed.

For much of the Patriot movement, the actions of the BATF (along with those of the FBI) at Ruby Ridge and Waco were evidence of the dangerous and threatening militarization of U.S. law enforcement. They were seen as pointing the way toward a planned crackdown on the rights of gun owners and of dissident voices in the United States in general.

In the spring of 1995 there were widespread rumors that BATF raids to arrest militia leaders and other prominent Patriots were being planned for 25 March. Although some Patriots such as Linda Thompson of the American Justice Federation and “Acting Adjunct General” of the Unorganized Militia of the United States dismissed the rumors as a hoax, others, including Jon Roland of the Texas Constitutional Militia, and the publications the Spotlight and the Resister, regarded the raids as the beginning of the federal government’s planned oppression and a possible prelude to a declaration of martial law throughout the United States.

Representative Steve Stockman wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno with his concerns on 22 March. No BATF raid occurred, but another person who responded to the rumors was Timothy McVeigh; they were instrumental in convincing McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April 1995.

There are other, more specific conspiracy theories surrounding the BATF’s involvement with the events at Waco. For example, Linda Thompson’s video Waco II: The Big Lie Continues alleges that three of the four BATF agents who died in the initial raid on Mount Carmel had been bodyguards to President Clinton, and that these agents had been shot “execution style” during the “cover” provided by the raid in order to stop them from revealing what they knew about his activities (Stern, 63).

Another conspiratorial explanation for the failure of the initial raid on the Branch Davidians has been posited by the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum. It regards the deaths of the four BATF agents as a pretext to justify the subsequent siege of the religious sect so that a national response plan for a future military and police occupation of U.S. society could be tested.

A Treasury Department report into the events at Waco was highly critical of the BATF’s mishandling of the initial raid and of misleading post-raid statements made by some of the bureau’s supervisors. An investigation by Special Counsel John C. Danforth issued in November 2000 concluded that government agents did not engage in a massive conspiracy and cover-up at Waco.

One of the reasons why Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was his hatred of the BATF, a hatred that stemmed both from the agency’s role in enforcing America’s firearms laws and its specific involvement with events at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

McVeigh’s criteria for a potential “attack site” required that it be a government building housing at least two of three federal law enforcement agencies from the BATF, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Murrah Building contained the regional offices of the BATF, the DEA, and—a “bonus” in McVeigh’s view—the Secret Service.

The BATF was one of the agencies responsible for investigating the Oklahoma City bombing and for securing the conviction of McVeigh and his coconspirator Terry Nichols. Yet for many members of the Patriot movement and other conspiracists the BATF is itself implicated in the bombing.

Conspiracy theories expressed by many Patriot groups contend that the BATF had prior warning of the bombing, but chose not to do anything about it, other than make sure that its own agents weren’t in their offices at the time when the bomb (or bombs) went off; that the bombing was a sting operation that went wrong and which has been subsequently covered up; and that McVeigh was a BATF “patsy” being used as part of a larger plan to use the bombing to oppress gun-owners, militia members, and other Patriots.

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

Since many of the conspirators burned much of the evidence before the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807, the Burr conspiracy has remained shrouded in mystery. Although it may never be known exactly what Burr was planning, or conspiring, in the West in the early 1800s, sufficient evidence still remains that supports the view that Burr, upset at the current demise of his political career, sought to instigate a rebellion in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory with the aim of setting up a new empire in which he could assume a leadership role.

Burr had a notable family history. His grandfather was Colonial America’s noted Great Awakening preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Burr’s father, Jonathan Edwards the younger, was president of Princeton University. Besides having an impressive lineage, Burr was intelligent, talented, and ambitious. During the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Army.

After the war, he studied law and then later practiced in New York. Entering politics in New York in 1789, he served in a variety of offices, including state assemblyman, state attorney general, and U.S. senator. Having assumed a position of political prominence, he threw his hat in the ring in the presidential election of 1800. The election resulted in a tie, with Burr and Thomas Jefferson winning seventy-three electoral votes each.

At that time, the United States Constitution stated that whoever won the election would become president and the candidate who came in second would become vice-president. After the election was deferred to the House of Representatives, Burr was extremely disappointed, because Thomas Jefferson won the race after Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who felt that Jefferson was the least of the two Republican evils, threw his support behind Jefferson.

Vice-President Burr, well aware that Hamilton’s political bargaining had been the deciding factor in his failed bid for the presidency, developed a deep resentment of Hamilton. In 1804, as Jefferson’s second presidential election was looming, Jefferson rejected Burr as a running mate. Burr, still hoping to stay in the political arena, ran for the governorship of New York.

However, after it became painfully apparent that Hamilton had once again foiled Burr’s political ambitions, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Most accounts say that Hamilton fired into the air while Burr fired directly at his target, fatally wounding Hamilton. Hamilton’s death signaled the end of Burr’s political career, and it also led to indictments for murder in New York and New Jersey.

Burr and Hamilton duel
Burr and Hamilton duel

To Burr, in great debt and wishing to put himself beyond the reach of the authorities, the recently acquired Louisiana Territory seemed like the logical place to run to. Burr was aware that many Federalists held the opinion that the Louisiana Territory had been an illegal purchase by the United States, because Napoleon Bonaparte, who had sold it, had no power to do so. At the time of the transaction, the territory was occupied by Spanish troops.

It was not until months after the sale that French troops briefly took possession of the land. What is more, Napoleon had acquired the land from Spain under an agreement that stated that, in return, he would give Tuscany to the son-in-law of Charles IV. Napoleon had, in fact, never fulfilled his side of the bargain. Furthermore, Charles IV had secured a signed pledge from Napoleon that the territory would never be peacefully handed over to a third nation.

Not only was the purchase on shaky ground according to many, but many Federalists also opposed it, because they feared that the new territory would add southwest agricultural states to the union, which could upset the political balance by diminishing political power in the northeast industrial and commercial states. Consequently, Burr felt that he could secure sufficient support in the United States to support a rebellion and ultimate separation of the Louisiana Territory from the Union.

Upon reaching the West, Burr shared his vision with an old friend, U.S. military commander General James Wilkinson. The meeting spurred Burr on, and he secured a loan from a trusting wealthy Irishman named Harman Blennerhassett, which he used to purchase the Bastrop grant on the Ouachita River in Louisiana, which he intended to use as a base of operations.

Once physical preparations had begun, Burr sought military support for his plan as well. He began by appealing to British agents to send the British Navy to help him blockade the port of New Orleans, but the British were not interested in supporting Burr’s plan. In the meantime, Burr was able to rally together a very well equipped local army of about sixty men. Furthermore, in 1806, Burr traveled through Lexington, Kentucky, recruiting even more soldiers for his army. Having secured a base and a small army, Burr attempted to gain political support in the United States.

As it turned out, Burr’s political connections paid off, and General Wilkinson was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. Encouraged by recent events, Burr intensified his appeals for support from Federalists and Republicans. Although many Federalists despised Jefferson’s administration and many Republicans regretted the Louisiana Purchase for political reasons, very few of them felt that treason was justified.

As word of Burr’s requests spread, therefore, some citizens sent letters to Jefferson accusing Burr of treason, but none of these letters caught Jefferson’s attention as much as the one sent by Governor Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a secret agent for Spain, it seems, had realized that Burr’s scheme was doomed, because it lacked enough popular support, and he attempted to turn Burr in as a way of separating himself from the conspiracy. Jefferson wasted no time and ordered Burr’s arrest.

After getting word that Wilkinson had doublecrossed him, Burr began to dabble with the idea of invading Mexico and creating a new republic, which he could rule over as emperor. But Burr was arrested as he attempted to flee to Florida. He was promptly charged with treason by the grand jury, and tried in Richmond, Virginia.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who was decidedly biased in Burr’s favor, served as the presiding judge in the trial. Marshall’s allegiance to Burr was made apparent when he attended a dinner given by the chief defense team at which Burr was present. On the other hand, Jefferson, who was adamantly in favor of Burr’s conviction, promised pardons to coconspirators willing to testify against Burr.

Marshall, in turn, made the conviction difficult by adopting a very rigid interpretation of treason, which required the testimony of two credible first-hand witnesses of Burr’s treasonous activities. In the end, Burr was acquitted of treason, because the prosecution was unable to supply two witnesses to the crime.

After the trial, still being sought for Hamilton’s murder, Burr borrowed some money from friends and sailed to Europe. During the next four years, he traveled through England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France seeking support for his new plan to conquer Florida. Unable to find willing partners or investors, Burr returned to New York in 1812 to practice law and remained a private citizen for the rest of his life.

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Throughout the body of his work, the experimental writer Burroughs presented conspiracies and conspiracy theories whose agents comprise right-wing governments, fascist police, repressive medical and psychiatric institutions, corporations and media conglomerates, parasitic mutants and aliens, and, perhaps most pervasive of all, language itself.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914, Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936, and briefly attended medical school in Vienna, Austria, and later the Harvard graduate school of anthropology. After a short service in the U.S. Army, Burroughs moved to New York City where he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Along with other figures such as Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this group would later be recognized— despite their divergent writing styles—as the core of the Beat literary movement. It was also in New York that Burroughs met his wife Joan Vollmer Adams, whom Burroughs later killed in an accidental shooting. It was this event, Burroughs would later say, that motivated him to become a writer.

Burroughs was the grandson of W. S. Burroughs, inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine and founder of what became the Burroughs Corporation. The Burroughs fortune provided the author with a small stipend that allowed him, from 1948 on, to live in Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, and London.

As much as Burroughs’s famous lifelong heroin use, this extensive travel provided the subject matter and inspiration for his work, which is characterized by a frenetic, fantastical, and picaresque style of diverse locations and time periods, along with science fiction–influenced reimaginings of the past and the present.

Burroughs’s first novel, Junky (1953), was published in his mid-thirties under the name of William Lee. It is a first-person reportorial account of his life as a junkie in New York, and displays little of the stylistic experimentation that Burroughs became famous for in Naked Lunch (1959).

It does, however, inaugurate his lifelong fascination with the criminal underworld and his often “hardboiled” writing style. Published by the notorious Olympia Press, Naked Lunch crystallized many of Burroughs’s surreal and sexually violent obsessions, such as young boys ejaculating while being hanged, secret agents and otherworldly organizations, and real and imagined drugs such as aquatic centipede meat and Mugwump jism.

It also introduced Burroughs’s use of “routines,” which were short, seemingly improvised stories of a satirical, often grotesque nature. The 1962 publication of Naked Lunch in the United States led to its being banned in Boston, Massachusetts, and a trial in which the novel was deemed obscene, a decision that was later repealed.

After Naked Lunch, Burroughs began composing novels using the cut-up method (also known as the cut-up and fold-in method). Similar to a technique proposed by the dadaist Tristan Tzara when he suggested he would write a poem by pulling words from a hat, and later by Burroughs’s friend Brion Gysin, the cut-up method involved splicing his own writing as well as that of others into fragments, and recombining the pieces to create a new text.

Burroughs constructed a trilogy of novels using this method, namely The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). Through the use of the cut-up method, the regular intermixing of generic styles and dislocations of time, space, and subject, and the satirical use of “routines,” Burroughs’s work was increasingly concerned with overcoming and sometimes redeploying various modes of power and control.

The cut-up method served not only to make random associations but to reveal hidden connections. Thus it was not so much an effort toward schizophrenic fragmentation but a surrealist and perhaps “paranoid” attempt to unmask the hidden meanings in language.

Critics have often read Burroughs’s work as an attempt to escape a language that had been taken over by corporate, governmental, and intergalactic forces. Drug addiction was reimagined as “the junk virus” and Burroughs began to explore the nature of addiction not merely to drugs, but to images, causality, language, and power.

Questions of agency are frequently refigured as narratives about “secret agents” in which characters are represented as agents of a particular organization or group, or simply as agents of the belief system that has imprinted itself on them.

These agents infiltrate each other’s organizations, take on disguises and then forget their original identities, work as double or triple agents, and become involved in conspiracies so obtuse that they are often unsure for whom they are working. Burroughs’s representation of conspiracy regularly extends to the phantasmagoric, in which the agents of conspiracy are presented in biological terms, as parasitic, viral, and insectile.

The effect of such conspiracies often involves the transformation of humans into mutated organisms defined by their particular addiction or group. The conflict between various “controllers” and those who would be controlled recurs throughout Burroughs’s novels, such as the alien conspiracy known as the Nova Mob, and the Nova Police who struggle against them.

In the 1980s, Burroughs published an apocalyptic trilogy, made up of Cities of the Red Night (1981), Place of Dead Roads (1984), and The Western Lands (1987). These utopian/dystopian fictions thread together various story lines of gay pirate utopias, Westerns, and Egyptian mythology.

In 1991, The Naked Lunch was made into a film by David Cronenberg, but as had become customary by this time, the film dealt as much with the biography and mythology of Burroughs’s life as it did the contents of his best-known novel. In a similar fashion, Gus Van Sant had used the mythology of Burroughs’s life in his film Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which Burroughs played a defrocked junkie priest with a paternal relationship to the lead protagonist.

Burroughs’s influence on the worlds of punk and underground music was apparent from the 1970s onward, with The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Patti Smith, among others, citing him as an important influence, and other bands taking on names inspired by his books such as Steely Dan and The Nova Conspiracy.

Even the genre of Heavy Metal was inspired by Burroughs’s literary appropriation of the scientific category. In the 1990s, numerous musical collaborations were released, further cementing his status as an underground icon and elder statesman of the counterculture.

These releases included Dead City Radio (1990), with collaborative tracks by John Cale and Sonic Youth, a collaborative album with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy called Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1993), and another with Kurt Cobain, entitled The “Priest” They Called Him (1992). In his final years, Burroughs wrote little, publishing My Education: A Book of Dreams and Ghost of Chance in 1995, but he continued to shotgun paint, exhibiting his works in the United States and across Europe.

George Bush

George Bush
George Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush served as the fortyfirst president of the United States from 1989 to 1993. Bush’s connections to groups ranging from the Skull and Bones Society to the CIA have made him a suspicious figure in the eyes of many conspiracy theorists, but it was his declaration of an imminent New World Order at the outset of the Gulf War that gave him a central position in quasi-apocalyptic theories of the coming one-world government.

At the forefront of anti-Bush literature is the Lyndon LaRouche group. LaRouche himself strongly attacked Bush during the 1980 presidential campaign (and thereafter), and two of LaRouche’s associates, Webster Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin, have written an unauthorized version of George Bush’s life that questions every aspect of the former president’s official biography—including his supposed status as a war hero (Tarpley and Chaitkin, 108ff).

They suggest that any biographical sketch of Bush that mentions his arriving in Texas in a red Studebaker—another story they deem apocryphal—is merely a regurgitation of the few authorized “facts” the Bush family has offered the public. For the LaRouche group, Bush’s true story involves connections to Nazi bankers, international cabals, the East Coast elite, and, generally, “insiders” of all varieties.

Bush’s connections to the networks of power in the United States are indeed stunning. He served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from 1971 to 1973, as the first chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China from 1974 to 1975, and as director of the CIA from 1975 to 1976.

By 1979, Bush had become a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Trilateral Commission, in both groups (as well as in his diplomatic capacity in China) dealing closely with Henry Kissinger, a black mark indeed as far as Bush’s so-called extremist critics are concerned.

To this list one could add two more connections that raise red flags for conspiracy theorists: Bush’s membership in the Skull and Bones Society while at Yale in the 1940s, and his membership (again along with Kissinger) in the Bohemian Grove group that meets annually to perform “pagan rituals” in the forest north of San Francisco.

In Bush’s first year as vice-president, John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan, and, as far as some Bush critics are concerned, the peculiar circumstances surrounding the assassination attempt seem to implicate Bush. In spite of the fact that Hinckley had not yet been properly questioned, officials almost immediately came to the conclusion that he had acted alone.

Furthermore, no one had yet investigated the fact that George Bush’s son Neil was planning to have dinner with John Hinckley Jr.’s brother Scott on the night following the assassination attempt. This fact was not so much covered up as it was completely ignored. Also ignored, according to the LaRouche group, is the fact that the Hinckley family were major contributors to George Bush’s presidential campaign.

These facts together are taken as evidence that Hinckley may well have been a Manchurian Candidate, a product of the MK-ULTRA program that was supposedly terminated by 1973, two years before Bush became CIA director (Tarpley and Chaitkin, 375ff). Hinckley’s parents recall notes their son wrote while in prison that describe an “imaginary conspiracy” to assassinate the president, but again the LaRouche group charges that these notes have been wrongly suppressed.

While Reagan was recovering in the hospital— and while Bush was in charge of the government— an attempt was made on Pope John Paul II’s life. Tarpley and Chaitkin imply that Bush may well have had something to do with this, or at least with a subsequent cover-up, writing: “It was as if a new and malignant evil had erupted onto the world stage, and was asserting its presence with an unprecedented violence and terror” (380).

Bush was elected president in 1988, and soon thereafter spoke the words that have made him the bĂȘte noire of all those who suspect the “insiders” of preparing to subject U.S. citizens to an evil one-world government. On 11 September 1990, George Bush addressed Congress and announced the coming of “a New World Order” that would guarantee unprecedented peace and prosperity through international cooperation.

The LaRouche group and others see this New World Order as nothing less than universal slavery—the complete subjugation of the rights of the individual (and of the individual nation) in the face of a totalitarian international government (the UN as presently constituted is merely the first step in this progression). More mainstream journalists, of course, would see this New World Order as a function of impersonal forces of globalization, rather than as the product of a conscious Masonic world-conspiracy.

Even after leaving office, Bush has not ceased to be the object of critique and speculation. Those who depict Bush as having political power that is all but supernatural in scope were offered another spectacle that seemed to prove their theories in the 2000 presidential election.

Bush’s son, George W. Bush, became the forty-third president (they now refer to each other in private as forty-one and fortythree) in spite of a noticeable lack of political savvy and a complete lack of the foreign policy knowledge that marked his father’s political career. Even mainstream journalists began to wonder whether or not a vast right-wing conspiracy involving the Supreme Court was behind the final result.

Central Intelligence Agency

Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) occupies a central place in U.S. conspiracy theory. In its efforts to acquire intelligence relevant to U.S strategic interests, the CIA has created a vast web of information sources, from foreign double agents to the most prestigious of U.S. universities, and this expansive network offers the innumerable connections, coincidences, and causal links upon which conspiracy theory thrives.

Furthermore, the CIA’s work has historically extended beyond mere intelligence gathering. In addition to espionage and counterespionage, the Agency undertook numerous covert actions around the world, researched drugs and behavioral modification (or “mind control”), and even planned (and perhaps executed) the assassinations of foreign operatives and heads of state.

As the government agency charged with the duty of secretly conspiring, the CIA has been involved in numerous well-publicized conspiracies, and, consequently, has opened the door for ever greater flights of fancy on the part of conspiracy theorists who see CIA involvement everywhere. For along with the many conspiracies with which the CIA has been incontrovertibly linked, there are many more such theories that are either fantasized or “not yet proven,” depending on one’s point of view.

To be sure, the CIA has not been merely the passive target of conspiracy theory. As an organization, the CIA seems to be constitutively structured by paranoia—one cannot be a good spy without being a little bit suspicious, after all. The cold war, in particular, produced a type of paranoia that seems different only in degree, rather than in kind, from that of the anti-CIA conspiracy theorists that the Agency routinely dismisses as crackpot extremists. The crucial difference between the CIA and the average conspiracy buff, however, is that the former has the power and the will to act on its theories.

The Beginning of the CIA and Cold War Paranoia

The CIA was established by the National Security Act of 1947. Very much a postwar operation, its creation and structure bear the traces of U.S. reaction to World War II and the new political realities generated by the war’s conclusion. Politicians were especially wary of creating a secret police force; with memories of the German Gestapo in mind, the division between foreign intelligence (the CIA) and domestic policing and investigation (the FBI) was believed to be crucial.

Furthermore, there were questions as to whether the CIA, a peacetime organization, should be granted the same authority as its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), when it came to subversive operations against foreign powers.

The ability to execute covert operations was effectively granted, however, in the Central Intelligence Act of 1949, which gave the director of Central Intelligence authority to finance operations he deemed necessary, without giving an account to Congress. In the end, of course, the CIA’s involvement in botched covert action abroad and surveillance at home was to cause it great grief, particularly in the 1970s.

It soon became evident that the CIA’s major antagonist was the Soviet Union, and the vast majority of the Agency’s activities during the cold war were linked to the Soviet threat in one way or another. The CIA had become a major player in America’s overall strategic posture during the cold war.

Since the United States could not compete with the Soviet Union when it came to conventional warfare—the Soviets’ advantage when it came to sheer manpower was insurmountable— U.S. defense strategy involved nuclear deterrence combined with covert action by the CIA. The CIA thus became a major player in global politics, and both the CIA and the KGB tended to see their adversary’s conspiring hands behind every event.

Sometimes, this was indeed the case, as when in elections such as Italy’s in 1948 the CIA and the Communists financed opposing candidates. The structure of this type of secret warfare lends itself to paranoia, and the CIA’s responses to the Soviet threat often seem to have been as infected with delusional paranoia as any of the conspiracy theories the CIA routinely dismisses as irrational or extremist.

Covert Operations

No doubt one of the reasons for the CIA’s prominence in so many conspiracy theories is the fact that conspiracy is one of the CIA’s key jobs— “covert action” is the term for this particular job, and, at times, the CIA has done it rather well. Though the Agency always ensures that it maintains “plausible deniability,” its actions are often discovered after the fact.

In August 1953, for example, the Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq was overthrown and an imperial government, led by the Shah, was set up. Former CIA agents claim that the coup was engineered by the small force of five Agency officers secretly ensconced in a Tehran basement with $1 million in funds as their sole weapon (used to organize paid street mobs among other things).

This particular CIA conspiracy managed to keep the vast oil resources of Iran from being nationalized, securing the strategically important energy for the West, and gaining U.S. oil companies (Gulf, Standard, Texaco, and Mobil) a healthy share of Iranian oil rights.

This pattern was to repeat itself elsewhere. In Guatemala in 1954, the CIA helped to overthrow a democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, replacing him with a dictator, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The CIA’s involvement in the coup helped the United Fruit Company immensely, as that company feared that the new government might cut down on their Guatemalan profits.

In 1970, the democratically elected leader of Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed and replaced with the pro-American Marshal Lon Nol. In September 1973, revolutionary forces assisted by the CIA overthrew the socialist government of Chile and killed the country’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende.

Of course, not all attempted covert operations were successful. Attempted coups in Indonesia in 1958 and North Vietnam in 1954 did not proceed as planned, and the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 was an utter failure. Most disastrously for the CIA, the Bay of Pigs fiasco gained much more press than any of the Agency’s successes (for obvious reasons).

This negative publicity led to an increase in CIA-related conspiracy theories and an overall depreciation in the Agency’s international prestige. Also diminishing the CIA’s international reputation were rumors of numerous assassination plots the Agency had hatched, if not actually executed, throughout the years.

Allegations that the CIA had a hand in Che Guevara’s death have never been proven beyond doubt, but the CIA’s explorations of plans to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo are now well known.

In time, critics began to charge that the CIA was expending too much of its resources on covert action at the expense of intelligence, which was, after all, its primary purpose. Furthermore, public distaste for the sorts of regimes the CIA tended to support created great controversy. Ultimately, President Gerald Ford claimed that the CIA should use covert action only to support well-established democracies and banned assassination completely.

Behavior Modification

One could argue that the CIA’s own “paranoia” lay behind the Agency’s extensive research into behavioral modification. Faced with phenomena such as the Communist show trials and the confessions signed by U.S. prisoners of war in Korea (in both cases individuals seemed brainwashed into confessing to crimes they did not commit), the CIA became convinced that the Soviets had developed mind-control techniques, and thus that the United States had better develop these same techniques as a matter of national security.

In Projects Artichoke, MK-ULTRA, and MKSEARCH, the latter two under the leadership of the now infamous Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA investigated the operational potential of marijuana, LSD, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, electroshock therapy, and even, more surprisingly, parapsychological possibilities such as telekinesis, precognition, and telepathy.

In one experiment, Project Artichoke head Morse Allen hypnotized two of his secretaries and commanded one to shoot the other with a nearby pistol. The secretary took the unloaded gun and pulled the trigger. These experiments within the Agency were quite common, with MK-ULTRA agents at one point agreeing to slip each other LSD at any time to observe its effects when administered by surprise.

Ultimately, however, it was obviously more desirable to get test-subjects from the outside world, particularly for those experiments that the CIA agents wouldn’t dare perform on themselves. On one front, the CIA began to fund research in universities and drug treatment programs.

In some such programs mental patients were kept on daily doses of LSD for up to seventy-seven consecutive days. On another front, the CIA continued itself to perform experiments on unwitting subjects, now luring prostitutes and small-time criminals back to apartments in which they would be slipped the drug and observed.

Ultimately, in Operation Midnight Climax, the prostitutes were recruited and offered cash to lure clients back to the apartments, where the CIA could perform drug experiments and also collect information on “perverse” sexual practices that might later have operational value.

The CIA was clearly exceeding its authority in performing these operations on domestic soil, and, as the facts of these experiments slowly leaked out, those who believed the CIA to be nothing but an insidious, control-oriented conspiracy of sorts were provided with ample proof of their theories.

From JFK to the Senate Inquiry—the Rising Tide of Public Suspicion

In 1967 Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, launched his own investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not satisfied with the Warren Commission’s inquiry two years earlier, Garrison was convinced that the assassination had been a conspiracy, that Oswald was not the lone gunman.

Garrison charged New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw with masterminding the plot, but as the investigation wore on, it became clear that Garrison believed more powerful forces lay behind the tragic series of events— specifically, the CIA and the “military-industrial complex.” Answering conspiracy theory with conspiracy theory, the CIA began to entertain the possibility that Garrison was in league with the KGB.

And even today, according to an extensive article published in its own intelligence journal, the Agency suspects that the supposed link between the CIA and the JFK assassination was itself the result of an extensive Communist disinformation operation involving socialist-leaning newspapers from Rome to Canada (see Holland).

Even if Garrison was merely, in the words of a pro-CIA historian, “a mendacious district attorney adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the late 60s” (Holland), it was a sign of things to come for the CIA. The 1970s saw a wave of stunning revelations concerning the CIA’s activities at home and abroad (including the covert operations and behavioral modification programs mentioned above).

A series of high-profile government inquiries kept the CIA on the front pages for years: the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States in 1975 (“The Rockefeller Commission”); the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (“The Church Commission”); the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s hearings on the MK-ULTRA program in 1977; and the 1979 report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

These hearings—the transcripts of which are publicly available—provided key information for historians and conspiracy buffs alike. Furthermore, the sheer strangeness of many of the stories contributed to the general belief that the CIA was capable of anything, and, thus, expanded the possible range of CIA-related conspiracy theory.

The public discovered that the CIA wanted to cause Castro’s beard to fall out, assuming that this would rob him of his powerful “machismo.” The Agency also considered soaking one of his cigars in LSD. They dreamed up schoolboy antics like stink bombs and diarrhea stimulation as ways of embarrassing foreign leaders.

Even animals were not safe—CIA-funded scientists performed lobotomies on apes and stuck them in sensory deprivation chambers; they cut the heads off of monkeys, attempting to surgically attach them to other monkeys; agents even trained dolphins to attack enemy divers with large hypodermic needles armed with compressed air containers. The hyperbolic strangeness of these activities seemed to invite the public to come up with ever wilder conspiracy theories.

Proliferating Conspiracy Theories

As CIA activities became more widely publicized, it became easier and easier for foreign politicians to accuse the CIA of meddling. CIA involvement in the deposition of Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, for instance, has been disputed, but the book Sihanouk wrote in exile, My War with the CIA, found a receptive audience because the CIA’s known activities made the Sihanouk scenario seem quite likely.

To be fair, the CIA has a difficult time defending itself, since most of its documents are classified; furthermore, even when it releases documents, large sections are invariably blacked out, leading to ever greater suspicion on the part of the reader.

As the keeper of the country’s deepest secrets, the CIA is inevitably implicated in a whole host of “unexplained” phenomena and wild suspicions. The CIA, founded the same year of the supposed alien landing in Roswell, New Mexico, has been accused both of covering up the existence of extraterrestrial life and of having manufactured UFO hysteria as a “tool for cold war psychological warfare” (Haines).

While MK-ULTRA as a project is in the past, theories about CIA mind control have reinvented themselves for the twenty-first century, with some arguing that the CIA is secretly implanting microchips inside human bodies (often in the skull) as a way of tracking and controlling individuals.

Both at home and abroad, the CIA has become a wonderfully useful subject for conspiracy theorists, capable of connecting what is seemingly unconnected, of explaining the unexplained (in Hollywood today its use as such is prevalent to the point of cliché). And with its increasing budget, power, and overall significance following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the proliferation of CIA-related conspiracy theories shows no signs of abating.

Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was one of the most important and controversial witnesses used by prosecutors in their postwar campaign to root out Communists and leftists suspected of infiltrating President Roosevelt’s New Deal government in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chambers’s single most significant act was to testify at length against his former friend, prominent State Department official Alger Hiss. He also appeared frequently before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to corroborate the accusations of fellow anticommunist witnesses such as Elizabeth Bentley, Benjamin Gitlow, Louis Budenz, and Hede Massing.

From Communist to Anticommunist

Chambers was born in Brooklyn in 1901. Chambers’s parents (a commercial artist and cartoonist) did not enjoy a happy marriage. Not long after his father’s early death (and his brother’s suicide), Chambers ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a laborer on the railways.

A gifted but erratic student, he would eventually enter Columbia University and study under the celebrated English instructor Mark Van Doren, but it was his experience during the earlier period, and his reading of Marx and Lenin, that brought Chambers into contact with several key members of the Communist Party (CPUSA), including future general secretary William Foster, James Cannon, and Joseph Freeman.

Looking back on his decision to join the party in 1925 from the perspective of his compelling 1953 autobiography, Witness, Chambers claimed that he had found in Marxism a “practical program, a vision, and a faith” with which to answer the “crises of history” unfolding around him. Throughout the “red decade” (late 1920s–1930s), Chambers enjoyed swift progress up the ranks first of the open party and then the underground Soviet espionage apparatus that coordinated and directed its actions.

In 1935, he was appointed to the prestigious position of chief editor of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker. Ironically, it was from this privileged perspective that Chambers began to discern the corruption of Communist ideals that would finally lead to his apostasy from the movement in 1937–1938.

In common with contemporaries and fellow McCarthyites like Gitlow, Bentley, and Austrian expatriate Arthur Koestler, Chambers’s faith in the Left was destroyed as a result of the Stalinist purges in the USSR, the Nazi–Soviet pact, and the resulting internecine warfare among members of the U.S. Left.

Whittaker Chambers sits during the HUAC investigation of Alger Hiss.
Whittaker Chambers sits during the HUAC investigation of Alger Hiss.

Although the exact date of his disengagement from the movement remains uncertain, it is clear that, from the late 1930s, Chambers had begun secreting microfilms and documents that he would eventually use to expose the treachery of former Communist comrades embedded within various branches of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

Throughout the 1940s, Chambers, as a former highly placed member of the Communist underground, was increasingly called on by the FBI to corroborate the charges of other defectors. As a result of this process, he came to believe that Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal program (and its successor, Truman’s “Fair Deal”) had been thoroughly compromised by the penetration of Communist ideas and personnel.

Like other proponents of McCarthyism such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, future president Richard Nixon, Senator Patrick McCarran, and McCarthy himself, Chambers viewed the New Deal as little more than a covert socialist revolution led by an elite of leftist intellectuals masquerading as liberals.

Together with the written and verbal pronouncements of these and other figures, Chambers’s testimony, in Witness and before numerous grand juries and congressional committees, and his many articles for magazines like Time, were instrumental in identifying the formative influence of Communist thought on the drift of pre-war public policy and the threat of Communist conspiracy in the cold war public consciousness.

The Hiss-Chambers Trials

Chambers’s single most crucial act, however, was to detail Alger Hiss’s activities on behalf of the Soviet intelligence apparatus during his appointment in the State Department and his participation at the pivotal superpower conference in Yalta at the end of World War II. From his first appearance before HUAC in August 1948 when Hiss was accused of membership in the CPUSA, Chambers maintained the pressure on his former friend.

From 1948–1950, he doggedly continued the campaign in spite of Hiss’s denial that he had ever known his accuser, and the charges of slander Hiss brought against him. Indeed, it was in his pretrial deposition during the latter case that Chambers unexpectedly broadened his allegations, accusing Hiss of stealing State Department documents and passing them to him for transmission to Moscow.

It was these documents, stored by Chambers among the produce at his Maryland farm, which became popularly known as the “Pumpkin Papers.” Although this first trial ended in a hung jury, a conviction was finally secured when professional ex-communist witness Hede Massing appeared at the retrial the following year to corroborate Chambers’s claim. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison.

Coinciding with the 1949 trial of the CPUSA leadership by HUAC, the Hiss–Chambers case captivated the public imagination and occupied far more column inches than any other in the years before the Rosenberg scandal (1952–1954).

This was undoubtedly due in part to the impressive and apparently unimpeachable record of the accused and the entire network of officials whom he seemed to represent—in the words of one contemporary commentator, the case effectively put the New Deal generation on trial. No less important was the fact that several of the key hearings were televised nationwide, something unprecedented in the 1950s.

For the most part, Chambers appeared temperamentally ill-suited to such widespread exposure, as his retreat to a solitary life on the remote Maryland farm proved. Nevertheless, after the furor died down, he continued to work as an editor and staff writer for Time and Life magazines and the National Review; examples of his provocative, always opinionated reflections on cold war politics were recently anthologized in Ghosts on the Roof (1996).

Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, having renewed his pledge to the Quaker faith of his childhood. As Witness makes clear, it was this return of the spiritual dimension to his life that offered a sustaining counterweight to the trauma of his apostasy from the Communist movement.

Continuing Controversy over Chambers’s Legacy

By the time of his death Chambers’s life and its legacy were already the subject of bitter debate. For the cold war conservative constituency, many of whom, like Philip Rahv and Leslie Fiedler, shared their hero’s leftist past, Chambers represented the acceptable, literate face of uncompromising anticommunism, without any of McCarthy’s demagoguery. (It is worth noting that Chambers privately condemned McCarthy’s bullying courtroom tactics.)

Richard Nixon, another powerful conservative supporter and key prosecutor in the Hiss trials, would later admit that his close involvement in the development of Chambers’s case helped secure the broad base of support for his presidential campaigns against John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

Indeed, the very principles of the so-called New Right that began to surface during the 1950s were premised on the same rejection of the reformist social agenda advocated by the liberal establishment under Roosevelt and Truman that had actuated Chambers’s assault on Hiss.

Another beneficiary of this growing tide of right-wing sentiment was Californian Republican Ronald Reagan, who, as president, awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1984, citing him as a bastion of “virtue and freedom” against the “brooding terrors of [the] age.” Both Reagan and Nixon, as well as National Review founder William Buckley, were all at one time members of the so-called Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, a group formed with the sole aim of maintaining Chambers’s esteemed reputation in conservative political and cultural circles.

No less significant in this regard was Allen Weinstein’s much-lauded (and recently republished) study of the case, Perjury (1978; 1997), in which, after a judicious inquiry into all available sources, and starting from his strong belief in Hiss’s innocence, the author concluded that the vast majority of Chambers’s accusations were true. The support of these prominent figures seemed justified when, in the late 1990s, Soviet archives were opened and many files from the Venona Project were declassified.

Suddenly, there was an abundance of evidence apparently proving that Chambers had been correct both in his assertion that Hiss was a Soviet agent and that a Communist conspiracy had successfully penetrated many departments of the Roosevelt administration and continued unimpeded during Truman’s presidency.

In the face of this torrent of hostility and accusation, Hiss continued to maintain his innocence. In this, he had many powerful supporters among liberals and former government officials who were not prepared to see the very real political and social gains made during the Roosevelt era tainted and compromised by the accusation of Communist infiltration.

In fact, the backlash against Chambers had already begun during the trials when Hiss and various sections of the media joined forces to portray Chambers as a psychopath and habitual liar. Whatever the truth of this diagnosis, for someone like future Kennedy special advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or a liberal commentator like Granville Hicks, Chambers’s rigid view of the irreconcilable conflict between left and right was far too absolute, leaving at the center a dangerous breeding ground for intolerance and extremism.

For those further to the left, including the CPUSA and the Socialist Workers’ Party, the growing convergence of interests among figures like Chambers, Nixon, and McCarthy began to resemble a neoconservative conspiracy whose aim was to discredit the New Deal establishment and those who came under the banner of its Popular Front during the 1930s. In their view, Hiss, like the Rosenbergs a few years later, came to represent a scapegoat used to legitimize the ascendancy of the New Right.

The validity of this argument seemed finally to have been borne out when Soviet intelligence archivist General Dmitri Volkogonov claimed in 1992 that he had found no evidence in the KGB’s cold war files to prove Chambers’s allegations against Hiss. However, more revelations from the archives and the Venona files have further complicated the issue and once again tipped the balance in favor of Chambers’s account.

In recent years, The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based right-wing think tank, celebrated the centenary of Chambers’s birth with a glowing tribute to a “man of courage and faith,” while the conservative-inclined Regnery Publishing house has continued its long-term project to bring his huge body of political and cultural journalism to a wider public.

What this proves is that Chambers’s contested legacy continues toof the significance of the threat of Communist subversion and conspiracy during the cold war. reflect the shifts of public and political estimation


On the night of 18 July 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne died when the car in which she was riding plunged off a low bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and landed on its roof in the water below. Senator Edward M. Kennedy reported to local police the following morning that he had been driving the car at the time of the accident.

Charged with leaving the scene of an accident, he pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence. A coroner’s inquest into Kopechne’s death held in January 1970 and a subsequent grand jury investigation held in March of that year produced no new legal developments.

The last official result of the case was the revocation of Kennedy’s driver’s license in May 1970 after a routine fatal-accident investigation by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The hearing examiner, like the judge who had sentenced Kennedy, concluded that he had been driving too fast.

Kennedy made no public statement until the week following the accident, when he spoke in a live television broadcast from his home. He stated in that broadcast, and has maintained ever since, that he was driving (but not intoxicated) on the night of the accident and that after the car went into the water he made vigorous (but unsuccessful) efforts to rescue Kopechne.

All conspiracy theories about the accident reject this version of events. The theories fall into three groups that allege, respectively, a conspiracy to place blame on Kennedy, a conspiracy to divert blame from Kennedy, and a conspiracy to cover up an earlier crime by staging the “accident.”

The Setting and the Accident

The island of Martha’s Vineyard lies seven miles off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. It is divided into six towns, of which Edgartown (at the far eastern end of the island) is the oldest, largest, and most visibly prosperous. Chappaquiddick, where the accident took place, is a political and cultural appendage of Edgartown.

Functionally an island itself, it is separated from Edgartown proper by a 500-foot-wide channel crossed by a small, bargelike car ferry. The eastern edge of Chappaquiddick is a long, straight ocean beach backed by a narrow body of water known as Poucha Pond.

Dyke Bridge, the site of the accident, arches over the pond, connecting Chappaquiddick’s small road system to the parking lot behind the beach. The bridge (since demolished and rebuilt) angled 27 degrees to the left of the road leading to it. It had, in 1969, only 4-inch strips of timber to mark the edges of its deck.

Kennedy and Kopechne—a former member of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s staff—arrived separately at a party held at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick on the night of 18 July. Leaving the cottage together shortly before 12:45 A.M., they drove north in a black 1967 Oldsmobile 88 toward Chappaquiddick’s main intersection. A left turn at the intersection, following Chappaquiddick’s sole paved road, would have taken them to the ferry landing— their intended destination, according to Kennedy.

Instead, upon reaching the intersection, they turned right onto the gravel road leading to Dyke Bridge and the beach beyond. Deputy Sheriff Christopher Look, a Chappaquiddick resident on his way home, reached the intersection at the same time and witnessed the turn. Moments later, the car carrying Kennedy and Kopechne reached the bridge and failed to negotiate it.

Traveling at 20–25 miles per hour, it jumped the low guard rails and ran off the right side of the bridge, hitting the water on its right side and rolling inverted as it sank into 8–10 feet of water. Kennedy, apparently washed out of the car by the in-rushing water, escaped. Kopechne, trapped as the car rolled over, drowned.

Conspiracy to Blame Kennedy

Heir to the greatest political dynasty in twentieth-century U.S. history, Edward Kennedy was considered a strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. The accident effectively ended his chances of winning the nomination, and he announced in 1970 that he would not run. Conspiracy theorists of the political Left speculated, as a result, that the “accident” had been staged by agents of the Right to achieve precisely that goal.

Kennedy, according to this theory, was kidnapped, drugged, placed in the car with Kopechne, and pushed off the bridge—leaving him (if he survived) to explain why he was headed for a deserted beach at midnight with a woman who was not his wife.

Allegations of rightwing involvement in the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and leading presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 lent a measure of plausibility to such theories. So, after 1973, did revelations that the Nixon administration had employed “dirty tricks,” some of them illegal, against its political enemies.

Few believers in a right-wing framing of Kennedy have developed the theory in depth. The principal exception is R. B. Cutler, 1973 whose self-published book You, The Jury outlines a complex scenario involving three separate groups of agents and a Kennedy look-alike used as a temporary decoy.

Cutler’s book blames the framing on unspecified individuals or organizations determined to bar Kennedy from the presidency. Richard Nixon, his aides, and his sympathizers are never named as coconspirators, but readers are left free to infer their involvement.

The limited popularity of frame-up theories about the accident is due in part to their fundamental implausibility. Why, critics reasonably ask, would Kennedy not protest that he was being framed? Why would he plead guilty before a local judge the week after the accident?

Why would he publicly admit guilt in his televised speech later the same day? Why, in other words, would Kennedy do the conspirators’ work for them by confessing to a reputation-damaging act that he knew he did not commit?

Conspiracy to Shield Kennedy

The most widely held conspiracy theories about the accident propose that Kennedy conspired with others to cover up the true extent of his guilt. Their popularity reflects the widespread sentiment that the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected can easily escape punishment for their crimes. The Kennedy family possessed wealth, power, and connections in abundance, and their willingness to use all three to their advantage is well established.

The perceived incongruity of crime and punishment in the Chappaquiddick case—a two-month suspended sentence for acts resulting in the death of a young woman—led many to conclude that wealth and privilege had triumphed again. These perceptions ran especially strong among longtime residents of Martha’s Vineyard, fueled by suspicion of wealthy, privileged vacationers from the mainland.

One variation of this theory has Kennedy conspiring with associates to craft an “official” story about the accident that would minimize his guilt. Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson suggested in 1969, for example, that Kennedy asked Joseph Gargan and Hugh Markham—two longtime associates who were also at the party—to lie to police and say that Gargan or Kopechne herself had been at the wheel of the car. Leo Damore gave the theory new life in his 1988 book Senatorial Privilege.

Many residents of Martha’s Vineyard see evidence of a similar conspiracy in Kennedy’s claims that he turned toward the bridge without realizing it, dived on the wreck in an effort to save Kopechne, and later swam the channel separating Chappaquiddick from Edgartown.

They believe that the claims are patently absurd—a heroic fiction created by Kennedy and others to cover an uglier reality in which Kennedy, drunk, fled the scene of the accident and used his connections to slip back quietly to his Edgartown hotel without rousing the ferryman and attracting attention.

A second variation of the theory suggests that the Kennedy family used their wealth, power, or political connections to subvert, divert, or obstruct official investigations of the accident.

Commentators who believe in such a conspiracy argue that the postaccident investigations were inadequate at best and negligent at worst—failings best explained not by disinterest but by active tampering. Why, they ask, did the Edgartown police not thoroughly search the area around the accident scene for telltale physical evidence?

Why did the state police lieutenant who headed the investigation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fail to question key witnesses and discourage the district attorney from ordering an autopsy? Why did the judge in charge of the grand jury investigation set the ground rules in such ways that virtually guaranteed it would be ineffective?

The slipshod investigation and prosecution were, they argue, orchestrated by Kennedy and others in a series of phone calls made in the time between the accident and the first report of it to the police. The extent of the family’s power over Massachusetts politics made it possible for them to quickly and efficiently subvert the criminal justice system.

Theories about conspiracies to conceal the nature of Kennedy’s offense and deflect the full force of the law from him are the least spectacular of the three types. They are also the most plausible: the investigation was, in retrospect, seriously flawed.

Conspiracy-theory critics such as James Lange and Katherine DeWitt have noted, however, that the flaws are not in themselves proof of conspiracy. They can be explained equally well by more mundane causes: incompetence, laziness, the distraction of more pressing cases, or the biases of particular individuals.

Conspiracy to Stage the Incident

The third type of conspiracy theory combines elements of the first two types. Like the first type of theory, it proposes that the accident was staged; like the second, it accuses Kennedy of conspiring to cover up the true extent of his guilt. Specifically, the third type of theory suggests that Kennedy and several close friends engineered the “accident” in order to cover up other misdeeds.

Kenneth Kappel, in his 1989 book Chappaquiddick Revealed, begins with the premise that Kennedy must have been drunk by the time he and Kopechne got into the car. He suggests that an alcohol-impaired Kennedy ran the car off the road (not the bridge), causing it to roll over, leaving Kennedy hurt and Kopechne unconscious.

Kennedy and several friends, believing that Kopechne was already dead, righted the car and pushed it off the bridge into the pond in order to hide the evidence long enough for Kennedy to sober up. Kopechne regained consciousness after the car hit the pond and, unable to escape, drowned. Kappel’s theory thus has Kennedy and his coconspirators unintentionally committing manslaughter in the process of trying to hide the much less (legally) serious crime of drunken driving.

A second variation of this theory takes it significantly further, positing that Kennedy murdered Kopechne and then drove (or pushed) the car off the bridge to conceal the fact. Many commentators on the accident assume that (despite his denials) Kennedy had or sought sex with Kopechne.

Adherents of the murder-cover-up theory frequently expand that assumption into the speculation that the couple had a prior sexual encounter that left Kopechne pregnant. Pregnancy would, the adherents argue, provide Kennedy with a motive for the alleged murder and cover-up. Zad Rust’s 1971 book Teddy Bare strongly implies—but, presumably to avoid a libel suit, does not explicitly claim—both pregnancy and murder, covered up by a staged accident.

Neither Kappell, nor Rust, nor any of the less prominent advocates of such theories can adequately account for how Kennedy and a few friends could push the car into the water. The bridge’s 4-inch-high rails—though no barrier to a vehicle driven at 20 miles per hour—would be a substantial obstacle to a 2-ton vehicle being pushed uphill by three or four men struggling to find purchase on a dirt-and-gravel road in casual shoes.

Nor can such theories account for the dark tire marks that law enforcement officers observed on the bridge deck the morning after the accident. The marks suggest a car skidding with locked brakes—an image fully compatible with an accident, but virtually impossible to stage on the spur of the moment.

Allegations that Kopechne was strangled to death are equally difficult to reconcile with the failure of the local medical examiner to find any marks on her throat when he examined her body the morning after the accident. Allegations that she was pregnant by Kennedy are equally dubious, and equally inconsistent with established facts.