Glenn Greenwald: Sunstein proposes to stamp out “conspiracy theories,” by taxing them


Obama Confidant’s Spine-Chilling Proposal to ‘Cognitively Infiltrate’ Conspiracy Theorist Groups  by Glenn Greenwald

Recent paper by Obama adviser Cass Sunstein proposes bizarre methods to stamp out “false conspiracy theories,” including taxing the people who engage in them.


Published on Friday, January 15, 2010 by Salon.com

Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama’s closest confidants.  Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama’s head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for “overseeing policies relating toprivacy, information quality, and statistical programs.”  In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-“independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the government.  This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists.  The paper’s abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.

Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.”  He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government).   This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”  Sunstein’s 2008 paper was flagged by this blogger, and then amplified in an excellent report by Raw Story‘s Daniel Tencer.

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.  Additionally, the government-controlled messaging that Sunstein desires has been a prominent feature of U.S. Government actions over the last decade, including in some recently revealed practices of the current administration, and the mindset in which it is grounded explains a great deal about our political class.  All of that makes Sunstein’s paper worth examining in greater detail.

Initially, note how similar Sunstein’s proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates.  The Bush Pentagon employed teams of former Generals to pose as “independent analysts” in the media whilesecretly coordinating their talking points and messaging about wars and detention policies with the Pentagon.  Bush officials secretly paid supposedly “independent” voices, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to advocate pro-Bush policies while failing to disclose their contracts.  In Iraq, the Bush Pentagon hired a company, Lincoln Park, which paid newspapers to plant pro-U.S. articles while pretending it came from Iraqi citizens.  In response to all of this, Democrats typically accused the Bush administration of engaging in government-sponsored propaganda — and when it was done domestically, suggested this was illegal propaganda.  Indeed, there is a very strong case to make that what Sunstein is advocating is itself illegal under long-standing statutes prohibiting government “propaganda” within the U.S., aimed at American citizens:

As explained in a March 21, 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, “publicity or propaganda” is defined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to mean either (1) self-aggrandizement by public officials, (2) purely partisan activity, or (3) “covert propaganda.”  By covert propaganda, GAO means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.

Covert government propaganda is exactly what Sunstein craves.  His mentality is indistinguishable from the Bush mindset that led to these abuses, and he hardly tries to claim otherwise.  Indeed, he favorablycites both the covert Lincoln Park program as well as Paul Bremer’s closing of Iraqi newspapers which published stories the U.S. Government disliked, and justifies them as arguably necessary to combat “false conspiracy theories” in Iraq — the same goal Sunstein has for the U.S.

Sunstein’s response to these criticisms is easy to find in what he writes, and is as telling as the proposal itself.  He acknowledges that some “conspiracy theories” previously dismissed as insane and fringe have turned out to be entirely true (his examples:  the CIA really did secretly administer LSD in “mind control” experiments; the DOD really did plot the commission of terrorist acts inside the U.S. with the intent to blame Castro; the Nixon White House really did bug the DNC headquarters).  Given that history, how could it possibly be justified for the U.S. Government to institute covert programs designed to undermine anti-government “conspiracy theories,” discredit government critics, and increase faith and trust in government pronouncements?  Because, says Sunstein, such powers are warranted only when wielded by truly well-intentioned government officials who want to spread The Truth and Do Good — i.e., when used by people like Cass Sunstein and Barack Obama:

Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.

But it’s precisely because the Government is so often not “well-motivated” that such powers are so dangerous.  Advocating them on the ground that “we will use them well” is every authoritarian’s claim.  More than anything else, this is the toxic mentality that consumes our political culture:  when our side does X, X is Good, because we’re Good and are working for Good outcomes. That was what led hordes of Bush followers to endorse the same large-government surveillance programs they long claimed to oppose, and what leads so many Obama supporters now to justify actions that they spent the last eight years opposing.

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Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.

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