What Cass Sunstein and the New Yorker get wrong about conspiracy theories

Ezra Klein and Cass Sunstein have some sensible things to say about the disturbing prevalence and power of conspiracy theories  in this Vox video, especially about the toxic combination of conspiracy theories, ignorance, and extremism. So does the New Yorker. But these opinion-makers are wrong–or rather, underinformed–about the JFK story.

Sunstein, with his allusion to opening allusion to “assassination,” implies JFK skeptics belong in the same category as people who think Princess DIana was assassinated or that HIllary Clinton has Parkinson’s. This is intellectual laziness.

Like many people living in the power elite bubble, Sunstein would prefers to pooh pooh JFK “theories” rather than actually acknowledge the disturbing and unresolved JFK fact pattern. Its easy to denounce stupid JFK theories, harder to confront plain JFK facts.

At the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik thoughtfully separates JFK skeptics (and me) from Donald Trump’s baseless JFK smear. And he makes a timely and necessary argument about the fascistic precedents for the malicious theories propounded by Trump and the alt-right.

But. But. But.

Today’s discourse about the dangers of conspiracy theories would be more credible if it made some relevant distinctions. If you want your warnings about the real dangers of conspiratorial thinking to be heard and accepted, you should leave the JFK story out of your indictment.

Does it really make sense, a la Sunstein, to say that astute power players like LBJ, RFK, Jackie Kennedy, Charles DeGaulle, and Fidel Castro are “conspiracy theorists?” on par with those who say the 2016 election is already rigged? That’s more intellectual laziness.

It makes more sense to say political realists of all stripes did not–and do not– buy the unconvincing official theory of a “lone nut,” (which is most vocally propounded these days by John McAdams, a climate change denier who was fired from his academic job for unprofessional conduct.)

Today’s discourse about the dangers of conspiracy theories would be more credible if it made some relevant distinctions.

Is Gopnik believable when claims there is a “mountain of evidence” to convict one man for killing JFK? Only if you don’t climb the mountain. If you

–examine the evidence that was ignored or misrepresented by the Warren Commission;

–acknowledge the pervasive pattern of CIA deception and misconduct culminating in the brazen obstruction of Congress in 1978;

–add the wealth of information developed by civil society, like the lucid account of the doctor who examined JFK’s head wound;

–and read the documents declassified since the 1990s, which show that senior CIA operations officers were monitoring Oswald’s movements just six week before JFK was killed;

If you confront the facts, you wind up with something closer to a mountain of evidence for that we still, after 53 years, do not have the whole or true story.

A more convincing case against the malign conspiracy theories floated today would acknowledge the legitimacy of skepticism about secretive government agencies. It would discuss the policy conspiracies exposed by the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate and Iran-contra investigations, and it would show respect for the solid majority of Americans who agree the official theory of JFK’s assassination isn’t credible.



From a 5-Star Amazon review of Jefferson Morley’s CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files,

“Can’t imagine a more meticulous take down of the CIA’s decades-long subterfuge surrounding the assassination.”

Jefferson Morley’s new ebook, CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, available on Amazon, provides the fullest account of the role of CIA operations officers in the events leading to the death of JFK, with a guide to what will be declassified in October 2017.




24 thoughts on “What Cass Sunstein and the New Yorker get wrong about conspiracy theories”

  1. Bill Clarke is right that the JFK assassination was not unique in history. There have been many such conspiracies in U.S. history and also in world history.

    No doubt there are screwy conspiracy theories out there. But I find the official accounts of 9/11 and of Princess Diana’s death, for example, as implausible as the Warren Commission Report.

  2. Cass “Cognitive Infiltration” Sunstein is the husband of Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN and leading interventionist.

  3. The JFK assassination is not described as the “lone nut” theory and you suggest in your introductory post.

    The JFK assassination, at the time, was described as a “lone gunman” (Oswald) killed by a “lone nut” Jack Ruby. It has two “lone” actors which is a bit of an oxymoron. I have to keep bringing this up because you have displayed a consistent and stubborn pattern to leave Jack Ruby out of the equation, when, in fact, it is Jack Ruby who leads us to the truth of who was behind the assassination and, more importantly, why.

  4. Yes Sunstein is a government propagandist.

    It is as J. Morley says in the Podcast “dangerous” to the Truth in light of the Facts we do have at this point in the case.

    An unsolved murder of a President is different from all other conspiracies.

    A nation was robbed from a duly elected President.

    He was handsome and dazzling and spoke so eloquently too our highest aspirations,

    We now now many people benefited from his Murder.

    1. And we have a current POTUS who is a direct philosophical descendant of JFK who will only half heartedly take on the big issues like Gun Control, Climate Change, Economic Inequality, Health Care (ACA is long way from Single Payer)because he knows there is no groundswell of citizen support and to attempt to generate one will get him doing the Horizontal Mambo pronto- This is the legacy of the JFK Assassination-

  5. Completely segregating the JFK assassination from all other conspiracy theories is dishonest.
    Each theory should be assessed on it’s merits.

    Sunstein is a government propagandist himself.


  6. The basic construct of the conspiracy theory is what our country was founded upon. Free speech is needed to assure that the government does not limit the explanations for anything to its own, self-serving view. The founders feared big government and sought to rein in its power to control thought. Our freedom to consider all possibilities is essential to assuring a healthy democracy. And examples of cover-ups, lies, and distortions from above confirms to us that anyone with a theory that we’re not getting the entire truth is someone whose speech should be protect, if not believed.

  7. @ Jeff Morley

    Regarding the arguments and proposals of former US Minister of Propaganda, Cass Sunstein, you write:

    “Today’s discourse about the dangers of conspiracy theories would be more credible if it made some relevant distinctions. If you want your warnings about the real dangers of conspiratorial thinking to be heard and accepted, you should leave the JFK story out of your indictment.”

    No, you should leave out of your indictment any theory that is buttressed by empirical evidence, and subject those theories to the public scrutiny of all interested parties, not call for, as Sunstein as done, abrogating in varying degrees the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution.

    In addition to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent evisceration of Sunstein’s odiously authoritarian proposals, linked to by Clarence Carlson, above, see David Ray Griffin’s book, Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory (Olive Branch Press, 2011).

    For a good historical example of governmental cognitive infiltration regarding alternative JFK assassination theories, see the all-stations CIA memo, obtained via a FOIA request, outlining how to best undermine criticisms of the Warren Commission’s findings:

  8. Revised comment, reduced to 469 words:

    This column by Jefferson Morley, brief though it is, undercuts the site’s promotional slogan of “JFKFacts” or subtitle “memory/ truth/meaning.”

    Why? Beginning last May, this blog’s author has claimed: 1) that he had a secret source who knew that the figure next to Oswald in the photo was not Rafael Cruz; 2) that there is no evidence that the man was Cruz; and 3) that commentator Wayne Madsen, who originated the research, was essentially a conspiracy nut with no credibility.

    In fact, all three statements are at best highly dubious, and likely provably so. Jeff himself has conceded to me in private correspondence problems on the first point above, for example. Yet I have seen no public acknowledgment of it. (Did I miss it?) Regarding the “no evidence” second point, one need not be a legal scholar to know that “evidence” can be little or lots, and either unconvincing or compelling. For a researcher skeptical of Cruz’s presence with Oswald outside the International Trade Mart in 1963, a more straightforward description would be that the evidence is “scant” or “unconvincing” for certain reasons. There is evidence, in ways I plan to amplify in depth elsewhere.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jeff’s failure to publish Madsen’s repeated attempts to reply to slurs against him here seriously undermines this site’s credibility. Madsen is a former Navy intelligence officer, NSA analyst and defense contracting executive who has appeared as an national security analyst on almost every major broadcast and cable news network. That does not mean he is right on this issue, of course, but it illustrates that types of information gatekeeper role this site’s editor appears to embrace despite his repeated assurances beginning last May that he plans to print Madsen’s response. On a separate matter, that’s similar to the separate complaint that John McAdams broadcast to a JFK research group this week, which prompts my comment today on Cruz/Oswald/Trump controversy.

    The importance of all this is much wider than Jeff’s column since mainstream print and broadcast media are wont to cite him as one of the more aggressive investigators of flaws in the Warren Report when, in fact as here, this site seems to be suppressing or distorting relevant information. That pattern on this story surfaced again this week with the New Yorker’s biased treatment by longtime contributor Adam Gopnik. He published a distorted view of the Cruz matter, much like his pathetic 2013 New Yorker piece on JFK assassination anniversary, “Closer Than That: The assassination of J.F.K., fifty years later” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/04/closer-than-that).

    One of Gopnik’s rhetorical tricks is to make a flat statement that there is “no evidence” to support a JFK claim he doesn’t like, as here. Another is to call those with contrary opinions conspiracy “nuts” or “buffs,” as if only those in agreement with him are serious.

  9. For more on Sunstein see the excellent Salon article at http://www.salon.com/2010/01/15/sunstein_2/ It’s an older piece but still very cogent.

    Linking those who doubt the veracity of our governments explanation of the Kennedy assassination to other conspiracy theorists is clearly a disservice to former. There is no end of thoughtful, rational and intelligent people who, having examined the evidence, believe that Oswald could not have acted alone (if at all). Jeff is right, the assassination is an episode in history that stands alone. Apparently Sunstein, et al, think that we should all opt for governmentally sanctioned”groupthink”.

    1. Clarence Carlson
      September 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      “Jeff is right, the assassination is an episode in history that stands alone.”

      Horse apples. I realize many of you think the day Kennedy died was the day the music stopped. Hardly. It was one more page in a long American history. It wasn’t the most tragic, it wasn’t unique, it didn’t change America to any great measure.

      1. Bill, do you really believe JFK would have allowed 60,000 men to die in Vietnam as LBJ did?
        It wasn’t horse apples to those guys.

        1. ed connor
          September 20, 2016 at 10:01 am

          “Bill, do you really believe JFK would have allowed 60,000 men to die in Vietnam as LBJ did?”

          Ed, I don’t know what JFK would have done in Vietnam. Neither does anyone else. I think the most knowledgeable witness is the Martin interview with Bobby which one can find in the JFK Library. In this oral history Bobby said there were no plans for a total withdrawal from Vietnam.

          I believe NSAM 263, signed in October before the assassination, explains the latest Vietnam policy of JFK. Despite the BS of many, NSAM 263 does not call for a total withdraw.

          The JFK approved removal of Ngo Dinh Diem was a disaster and created a larger mess in Vietnam. It would have been interesting to see how JFK would have handled that.

      2. Hi Bill

        Sorry, but I have to disagree with you there. Without the assassination of JFK there would have been no Vietnam War.

        I know you disagree on this point but the evidence is very strong that JFK’s foreign policy was completely unique for the times.

        Unique in that, he was not in favour of using US troops in a combat role in other countries internal conflicts even if the result of non-intervention might be a Communist government viz Laos.

        The whole history of his foreign policy statements and actions goes to this point. From Africa to Asia to Cuba he was willing to supply every other kind of US support but not US troops in a combat role.

        That is an absolute game changer in my view.

        And, if JFK was removed from power partly because of his foreign policy then that raises serious questions about the nature of power and democracy in America and how (and why) that power is used overseas.

      3. Uhh, Bill, assuming Warren Commission skeptics are correct, the President of the United States was murdered by a cabal of people with links of one sort or another to various government agencies (some of them clandestine), and the more open part of our government constructed an implausible Official Version Of Events to hide that fact. If that doesn’t comprise “an episode in history that stands alone,” then nothing does.

      4. Horse crap. In my lifetime, those of my parents, and grandparents never was another President of the United States Assassinated in public. It has not happened since. It is an episode that stands alone in our time, in living history. So it was unique. And it was the most tragic page in US history of the 1900’s for what it was (not a WW or Korea, Vietnam) if you leave out racial murders. Yes, it did change America, significantly, in many ways. JFK’s planned withdrawal of advisers from Vietnam was immediately reversed, we went to war and 60,000 U S kids mostly were slaughtered for profit by those in power, in the name of Freedom.
        The music didn’t stop. It went from Penny Lane and I Want to Hold Your Hand to (I Can’t Gen No) Satisfaction and Street Fighting Man to Helter Skelter.


    1. He hasn’t submitted anything Jean. What I stated about him is factual, not personal. If there are any errors in what I said about John, please share.

  10. Cass Sunstein was director of information and regulatory affairs in the Obama administration, and was asked by researchers to speed up release of the still-secret JFK assassination records. He did not respond. A good argument can be made that excessive government secrecy causes conspiracy theories to flourish, in which case he should analyze his own role in encouraging conspiracy theories.

  11. So why can’t Julian Assange and Edward Snowden walk free??? The greatest internal enemies of the United States Government following 9/11 were Anti War groups and Peace Groups. William F. Buckley Jr. denounced his lifetime efforts as a complete failure on his death bed. Strom Thurman and his black daughter he keep secret from the public while he was alive.

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