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Tinfoil Hat Session

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I must admit – I often enjoy a good conspiracy theory.  That’s just one of the reasons why I wrote a posting back on January 28, 2010 entitled, “The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories”.  That particular piece concerned President Obama’s appointment of Cass Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  My beef about Sunstein was a reaction to an article written on January 12, 2010 by Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website.  Dan Tencer pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  In the published paper, Sunstein and Vermule advocated for a government program to target “conspiracy groups”.  I concluded my posting with this statement:

A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.

(As an aside, for a recent update on the antics of Cass Sunstein, read this essay by Dan Froomkin of the Huffington Post.  It exposes Sunstein’s true function as the Obama administration’s saboteur of financial and environmental regulations, which somehow made it through Congress, despite the boatloads of payoffs “campaign contributions” from lobbyists.  Obama’s use of Sunstein, as well as his appointment of Jacob “Jack” Lew, who replaced his fellow Citigroup tool, Peter Orszag, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget – the subject of this rant – will likely alienate a large number of former Obama supporters.)

The latest event, which has motivated me to don my tinfoil hat, concerned the mainstream news media silence concerning the Level 4 Emergency, which began on June 6, 2011 at the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor, located 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.  The situation resulted from the Missouri River flood. The event involved an electrical fire, requiring plant evacuation because the fire evaporated some of the cooling water from the reactor’s spent fuel pool.  As a result of the Fukushima disaster, most of us know what happens when the pool containing spent fuel rods loses its water.  On the other hand, most of us don’t know that this event happened at the Fort Calhoun reactor last week.  I found out about it when I read this piece at The Business Insider website.

As of this writing, the only “mainstream news” article I could find from a Google search on the subject was this item from The Washington Post.  The short, “nothing to see here – move along” article began with this statement:

A small fire briefly knocked out the cooling system for used fuel at a nuclear power plant in Nebraska, but temperatures never exceeded safe levels and power was quickly restored, federal officials said Wednesday.

To learn just how dangerous the Fort Calhoun situation really was, listen to this 40-minute, WBAI Radio interview with Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates.  (A review of the Fairewinds Associates website reveals that Mr. Gundersen is a respected authority in the field of nuclear power engineering, who is no stranger to CNN.)  During the WBAI Radio interview, Mr. Gundersen made a number of points, which made me wonder about the caliber of chuckleheads we have working at the NRC, who are supposed to be protecting us from radiation hazards.  Worse yet, I began to wonder what decision the NRC might reach in considering the Tennessee Valley Authority’s request to reactivate “the zombie reactor” – Bellefonte 1 – in Hollywood, Alabama.  Scary stuff!

Pondering the question of why the Fort Calhoun reactor incident was “spiked” by most mainstream news outlets might lead many to suspect that the “big media” are out to protect the nuclear power industry – a big advertiser.  My own theory is focused on the possibility that there is a good deal of “self-censorship” taking place with respect to the subject of nuclear power plant hazards, out of fear that terrorists might somehow attempt to exploit those vulnerabilities.  This would be yet another area where the reaction to the September 11 attacks could end up causing more harm to Americans.  The pretext of “not educating the terrorists” is used to keep the American public in the dark – about how regulatory capture can compromise public safety.  I was reminded of what Dan Rather said about media “self-censorship” in a BBC interview during the early days of the “war on terror”, back in May of 2002:

Rather says:  “It is an obscene comparison – you know I am not sure I like it – but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people’s necks if they dissented.  And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck.  Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often.  And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.”

Rather admits self-censorship:  “What we are talking about here – whether one wants to recognise it or not, or call it by its proper name or not – is a form of self-censorship.  It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself.  It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole – and for all the right reasons – felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves.  And one finds oneself saying:  ‘I know the right question, but you know what?  This is not exactly the right time to ask it’.”

For the mainstream media, it’s never the “right time” to ask the tough questions.  That’s why so many people primarily rely on internet-based sources for the news.

June 18 Update: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article on June 16 entitled, “Rising water, falling journalism”, which characterized the news coverage of the Fort Calhoun situation as a “failure of the fourth estate”:

Newspapers and websites all over the country have reported on the flooding and fire at Fort Calhoun, but most articles simply paraphrase and regurgitate information from the NRC and OPPD (Omaha Public Power District) press releases, which aggregators and bloggers then, in turn, simply cut and paste.

*   *   *

Admittedly, it’s not easy finding information about Fort Calhoun, even if you’re a local reporter without a tight deadline.  OPPD press releases and the company’s online newsroom do not provide details about the plant’s layout and components.  Some of that information was available before 9/11 but was removed because of concerns about terrorism.  In protecting ourselves from enemies, we have also hidden vital information from ourselves.

Meanwhile, Arnie Gundersen has disclosed some disturbing information about the ongoing Fukushima crisis.  Did an American news outlet run the story?  Nope.  You can read the bad news at Al Jazeera.  This raises the question of why the American news media might believe that they have the power to determine whether terrorists could gain access to this type of information


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The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories

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January 18, 2010

Cass Sunstein is a Harvard-educated legal scholar who began his career in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and moved on to become a Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  President Obama appointed Mr. Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  In case you’re wondering what that bureaucracy does, a visit to its website will reveal this:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is located within the Office of Management and Budget and was created by Congress with the enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA).  OIRA carries out several important functions, including reducing paperwork burdens, reviewing federal regulations, and overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.

On January 12, Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website, pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  Here is some of what Mr. Tencer had to say about that paper, while quoting fellow critic, Marc Estrin:

Sunstein argued that “government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories.”  He suggested that “government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”

“We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI,” Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that “a high-level presidential advisor” would support such a strategy.

Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of “extremist” groups so that it undermines the groups’ confidence to the extent that “new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.”

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald (an attorney who has litigated cases based on Constitutional law issues) expressed outrage that President Obama would be so closely tied to someone with such views:

There’s no evidence that the Obama administration has actually implemented a program exactly of the type advocated by Sunstein, though in light of this paper and the fact that Sunstein’s position would include exactly such policies, that question certainly ought to be asked.  Regardless, Sunstein’s closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote.  This isn’t an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein’s close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees.

*   *   *

What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein’s worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that “false conspiracy theories” are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world.  That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories — both domestically and in Muslim countries — as his prime example.

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders.  Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

Sunstein also advocated the use of  “credible independent experts” to be hired and paid by the government to add a veneer of credibility to government positions.  The relevance of this point to the controversy over Jonathan Gruber (the MIT professor who received undisclosed payments to promote the President’s healthcare plan) resulted in a situation where that issue became the most widely-discussed aspect of Greenwald’s piece.  By taking issue with Greenwald, Paul Krugman took advantage of the opportunity to get a little egg on his own face with a blog posting at his New York Times-based site.  Greenwald had no difficulty exposing the flawed rationale of Krugman’s retort on January 16.

I would like to see the debate refocus on the original point:  the idea that the government should get involved in debunking “conspiracy theories”.  That term is used by all types of pundits to invalidate any point of view contrary to their own.  As Daniel Tencer explained in his Raw Story piece, Sunstein used the term “crippled epistemology” to support the contention that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust.  I believe that Sunstein and his ilk have it backwards.  By their constant attempts to tar “the Internet” as the wellspring of so many “conspiracy theories” – they are acting to limit the number of trustworthy sources of information with their own counterintelligence tactics.

The greater question concerns why it would be so important for the government to get involved in this type of activity.  In the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, there is the obvious concern that Al Queda or some similarly-inclined group would want to cultivate an online network of kindred spirits who might potentially be of service to such an organization.  Does that mean that anyone who suspects some degree of cover-up concerning some aspect of that tragedy should be treated as a potential “enemy combatant”?  What other “conspiracy groups” would be targeted by such operations?  Who would determine whether a particular conspiracy theory becomes the focus of such an effort and what would be the criteria for making such a determination?  As Glenn Greenwald’s January 15 essay demonstrates, once the government embarks on such a course, there is unlimited potential for abuse.  Worse yet, the government’s use of such tactics should cause any such government “information control” efforts to self-destruct.  Greenwald put it this way:

The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements.  Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.  In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In other words, this is a battle the government has already lost.  A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.