Waving the False Flag

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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.

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