With murky foreign affairs much in the news, it’s worth trying to figure out how to think about the notion of “false flag” operations—would, say, a counterterrorism agency stage an act of terrorism to make its political enemies look bad or perhaps just to drum up support for preserving its budget? This possibility is attractive to some personalities and deeply irritating to others because it is close to the ne plus ultra of conspiracy theorizing.
I tend toward the latter prejudice against believing in false flag operations because it’s easy to disappear down the rabbit hole as soon as you start to say, “Well, maybe it was all just a hoax to make us blame somebody 180 degrees in the wrong direction.” Popperian falsification becomes practically impossible as we allow ourselves to consider Mission: Impossible-style layers of deception.
Yet that doesn’t mean they never happen. False flag hoaxes were a regular aspect of World War II’s launching. On August 31, 1939, the Nazis implemented Operation Himmler, a series of bogus attacks on German border sites intended to justify invading Poland. But it didn’t do much to persuade international opinion, since Hitler had publicly signed a deal with Stalin a week before. Three months later, the Soviets shelled their own village of Mainila to rationalize invading Finland, which apparently reassured communists.
In 1954, the US tried to implicate leftward-drifting Guatemala by planting a cache of Soviet weapons on the beach in neighboring Nicaragua, but few observers found Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s act credible. In the Lavon Affair that same year, Israeli intelligence bombed US Information Agency offices in Egypt to make Cairo strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser look bad.
Of course, you’re probably saying to yourself we only know about poorly done false flag attacks. Bulletproof conspiracies are, by definition, undetectable.
Or perhaps seemingly failed conspiracies are actually brilliant inversions. The most postmodern false flag incident was the 1983 Manila airport assassination that brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos three years later. The regime’s supporters argued that the blatantly incompetent execution logically implied that it had to be a false false flag operation, since no self-respecting dictatorship would implicate itself so maladroitly.
The leading dissident, Benigno Aquino, had announced he would return from exile in America to challenge Marcos. A thousand soldiers were dispatched to the airport to arrest him. Seconds after troops escorted him off the plane, Aquino was dead. The Philippines’ government quickly announced a communist assassin had somehow penetrated the hyper-security to murder Marcos’s archrival, apparently to make the poor, innocent president look bad. After all, would an astute politician such as Marcos do something so obvious? If this were a movie, wouldn’t you assume some better plot twists were still to come?
A recent false flag operation appears to have been staged in May 2008 by Georgia’s NATO-allied government by opening fire on their countrymen arriving to vote and then blaming the attack on the Russian-backed breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. The giveaway was that the Georgian operatives had meticulously set up their TV camera in the perfect spot to record the upcoming terrorist attack.
Perhaps in the future, the ubiquity of video surveillance cameras will revivify what appears to be a flagging genre by making claims of found footage of atrocities more credible. For example, the Russians have apparently leaked a wiretapped conversation between two Western diplomats discussing Moscow’s favorite rumor that the final gun battle in Kiev was actually a false flag shooting with pro-Western snipers gunning down pro-Western street fighters to make Ukraine’s pro-Russian elected president look nasty.
Maybe, but the endless cellphone video of the events in Maidan Square ought to mean that accurate conspiracy theories could be backed up by plenty of footage. Hopefully, the new omnipresence of digital images will allow the public to reach more evidence-based conclusions about false flag operations, although people are likely to continue to interpret imagery, no matter how lavish, to support their preconceptions.
On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for those arrested for politics-related crimes to have been egged on by agents provocateurs on the government payroll. Here in America, for instance, Hal Turner, arrested for making far-right threats against federal judges, turned out to have been a paid FBI informant.
In 2008, Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein called for the government to implement “cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories,” because what could go wrong when the taxpayers subsidize crackpottery? In 2009, Mr. Sunstein was made White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Mrs. Sunstein, Samantha Power, is the current UN Ambassador.
Russian history is full of antigovernment protestors and rebels who were also collecting a stipend from the secret police, such as Georgy Gapon, who led the tragic Bloody Sunday march of 1905. In 1911, the statesman Pyotr Stolypin, who as prime minister had worked to build a landowning conservative peasantry, was assassinated by a revolutionary who was also an agent of the Czar’s Okhrana.
Late Czarist Russia was a perplexing fun house of government-subsidized revolutionaries. For example, the head of the Social Revolutionary party’s Terrorist Brigade, Yevno Azef, is believed to have ordered the murder of his own paymaster, the minister of the interior, and later the Czar’s uncle.
In 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing religious extremist named Yigal Amir.
That’s all I remembered of the story, but a reader points out that the assassin had been befriended and encouraged by Avishai Raviv, who had made himself into the face of rightist extremism in Israel. However, Raviv was actually an informant employed by Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service. Raviv had a long history of mediagenic religious extremist acts that we know now were false flag operations paid for by Labor-run Shin Bet.
When Likud got back into power, they put Raviv on trial. The New York Times headlined in 1999, “Ex-Undercover Agent Charged as a Link in Rabin Killing”:
Israel charged a former undercover agent and right-wing radical today with failing to prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish hard-liner. The former agent, Avishai Raviv, who had been an informer in the ranks of the militant right for the Shin Bet security service, was also charged with conspiracy and ‘‘support for a terrorist organization,’’ the right-wing group Eyal, which he founded and led.…Mr. Raviv was present at the peace rally in Tel Aviv where Mr. Amir shot Mr. Rabin twice in the back at point-blank range.…Stung by allegations that they had fostered an air of incitement that led to the killing, some rightists have accused the Shin Bet of having orchestrated the assassination and the Government of whitewashing a link between Mr. Raviv and Mr. Amir’s actions.
Raviv was eventually acquitted on the grounds that, well, sure, he had told his bosses at Shin Bet that he had known that Amir was going to murder the prime minister, but how can you believe some treacherous agent provocateur whose entire public life is a lie when he privately admits culpability? Or, as Haaretz more elegantly explained the judicial reasoning behind Raviv’s 2003 acquittal:
Judges Amnon Cohen, Aryeh Romanov and Orit Efal-Gabai said their decision was partly based on testimony given by Raviv, whom they referred to as “a weak person…who wanted to be liked” by his Shin Bet controllers, and therefore told them after the assassination that he had heard Amir bragging about his plans to kill Rabin.
Some on the Zionist right continue to view Rabin’s assassination as more or less of a false flag operation mounted by another element within the Labor Party. But that’s way out of my realm.
Another reader writes with a mind-warping suggestion: Have you noticed that the leader of Ukraine’s Right Sector, Russian-speaking Dmitro Yarosh, who became ever more prominent as the battle in Kiev progressed and has loomed ever larger in Vladimir Putin’s fearmongering among Russians about the Ukrainian revolution being taken over by the far right, hasn’t had a job since he was a private in the Soviet Army in 1991? “He is so extreme, he is comical,” my reader argues. “Is the whole thing a con?”
That seems like implausible conspiracy theorizing. Yarosh himself says he gets money from the Ukrainian diaspora in the US.
That sounds like a tough way to make a living, so I’m not surprised that Yarosh is currently running for president of Ukraine. You can’t blame him. The truth is that in these hard times, government jobs aren’t bad.
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