Conspiracy is going mainstream. Paula Zahn of CNN went into wide-eyed mode as she parleyed with Richard Butler, former head of the UN inspection team in Iraq, latterly part of the wipe-out-Saddam lobby and now on the CNN payroll, coyly described by the lovely Paula as "ambassador in residence." On January 8 they were discussing the hot book of the hour, Ben Laden: la verité interdite ("Bin Laden, the Forbidden Truth''), by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, which has just appeared in France.
ZAHN: Start off with what your understanding is of what is in this book--the most explosive charge.
BUTLER: The most explosive charge, Paula, is that the Bush Administration--the present one, just shortly after assuming office, slowed down FBI investigations of Al Qaeda and terrorism in Afghanistan in order to do a deal with the Taliban on oil--an oil pipeline across Afghanistan.
ZAHN: And this book points out that the FBI's deputy director, John O'Neill, actually resigned because he felt the US Administration was obstructing...
BUTLER: A proper...
ZAHN: ...the prosecution of terrorism.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. From the American Patriots, through BuzzFlash (which seems to have an umbilical cord to the Democratic National Committee) to ultraleft sites, there's a menu of conspiracy charges that would sate the most indefatigable gourmand. To cite a by-no-means-complete list, we have the charges noted above; we also have foreknowledge by the Bush Administration of the 9/11 attacks, with a deliberate decision to do nothing to thwart the onslaughts.
What else? We have the accusation that members of the US intelligence community, possibly in league with Bush-related business operatives, used their foreknowledge of the attacks to invest large sums in "put options," gambling on the likelihood that the stock value of United Airlines and American Airlines would plummet in the wake of the suicide attacks.
Don't stop there! The Internet boils with accusations that US fighter planes were ordered to stand down on September 11, although there was a possibility these planes could have intercepted and downed the suicide planes. Then there's the role of oil. Innumerable columns begin with the news that the war in Afghanistan is "all about oil." From this premise flow torrents of speculation of the sort made by the two Frenchmen cited above.
Advanced conspiracy theory suggests that the attacks on the trade center were actually designed to silence FBI agent John O'Neill, who had quit the bureau on the grounds that his pursuit of the Taliban and bin Laden had been obstructed by the oil lobby, now controlling the White House through its designated operatives in the form of Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. O'Neill quit the FBI and became head of security at the towers, and thus a loose cannon to be silenced by the White House/Al Qaeda networks, with the 3,000 other victims thrown in as collateral damage.
The trouble with many conspiracy theories is that they strain excessively to avoid the obvious:
Both under Bush's and Clinton's presidencies the United States has been eager since the fall of the Soviet Union to find some way to assist the hopes of US oil and pipeline companies to exploit the oil resources of the Asian republics, most notably reserves in western Kazakhstan. Similarly consistent has been the US desire not to have oil from Kazakhstan pass through Russia. Until US-Iranian relations are restored, that has left the option of a pipeline from Kazakhstan westward to Baku, Azerbaijan, then to Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, or a pipeline south through Afghanistan to a Pakistani port.
In tandem with these hopes to ship out Kazakh oil was the desire for a regime in Afghanistan sufficiently stable to allow Unocal to build its line, and sufficiently deferential to the United States to arrest or at least boot out bin Laden. American relations with the Saudis were, as always, predicated on insuring the stability of the regime without burdening it with unpalatable demands. If history is any guide, a lot of this diplomacy was probably clumsily done.
But does this mean that the United States went to war in Afghanistan "for oil"? Surely not. If stability was the goal, then war was a foolish option. The Bush regime hastened into war because America had sustained the greatest massacre on its soil since Pearl Harbor and faced the political imperative of finding an enemy at top speed on which to exact vengeance. This isn't to say there weren't hawks inside the Bush Administration who were lobbying for plans to overthrow the Taliban in early summer, plans of which the Taliban became aware, possibly conniving in the September 11 attacks in consequence.
As for all those mad theories about permitting the September 11 attacks to occur, or about remote-controlled planes: They seem to add up to the notion that America's foes are too incompetent to mount operations unaided by US agencies, or that US agencies aren't vast, bumbling bureaucracies quite capable of discounting warnings of attack.
But there is wheat among the chaff. It's true that someone gambled on those put options, that the profits have remained uncollected and that Buzzy Krongard is an interesting character who did go from the post of vice chairman of Banker's Trust/AB Brown (now owned by Deutsche Bank, which handled many of the put-option bets) to the CIA, where he's now number three. It is true that the anthrax disseminated through the mails almost certainly came at some recent point in its journeys from a US agency.
It is also true that the CIA ushered bin Laden into Afghanistan, and it is true that the CIA was complicit in Afghanistan's emergence in the 1980s as the West's leading supplier of opium and morphine, just as it helped construct the caves of Tora Bora. The US taxpayers underwrote that construction, just as they're underwriting the destruction.
That's not conspiracy-mongering. That's true.