The terms “conspiracy theorist” and “conspiracy nut” are used frequently to discredit a perceived adversary using emotional rather than logical appeals. It’s important for the sake of true argument that we define the term “conspiracy” and use it appropriately, not as an ad hominem attack on someone whose point of view we don’t share.

According to my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the word “conspiracy” derives from the Latin “conspirare,” which means literally “to breathe together” in the sense of agreeing to commit a crime. The primary definition is “planning and acting together secretly, especially for a harmful or unlawful purpose, such as murder or treason.”

It was in this sense that Mark Twain astutely observed, “A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public.”

Conspiracies are common. If they weren’t, police stations would not need conspiracy units to investigate and prosecute crimes such as “conspiracy to import cocaine” or any other collusion on the part of two or more people to subvert the law.

Unfortunately, too many people smugly chide “conspiracy theories” as if they imagine that such a derisive characterization reflects superior intellect—whether or not they know anything about the issue in question. It’s a pitiful display of ego inflation and intellectual dishonesty, yet it appears to be a common approach preferred by those either short on information and critical thinking skills or harboring a hidden agenda.

Here are a few examples of past “conspiracy theories” that have been commonly derided but were later determined to be credible:

1933 Business Plot:  Smedley Butler, a decorated United States Marine Corps major general, who wrote a book called War is a Racket, testified before a congressional committee that a group of powerful industrialists, who had tried to recruit him, were planning to form a fascist veterans’ group that intended to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt and overthrow the government in a coup. While news media at the time belittled Butler and called the affair a hoax, the congressional committee determined that Butler’s allegations were credible, although no-one was prosecuted.

Project Paperclip:  After “winning” World War II, the US imported hundreds of Nazis and their families through “Project Paperclip,” so-named because ID photos were clipped to paper dossiers. It was set up by an agency within the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. Along with creating false identities and political biographies, Paperclip operatives expunged or altered Nazi records and other criminal histories in order to illegally circumvent President Truman’s edict that prohibited Nazis from obtaining security clearances. Thus, high-level Nazis waltzed into sensitive positions of authority and secrecy in the US military-industrial establishment, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), major corporations, and universities. These Germans were conveniently referred to as “former Nazis,” but “former” was commonly just a euphemism for “active” and “ardent.”

Consider the irony of the United States’ moon mission. In order to successfully land men on the lunar surface and return them to Earth, the US depended almost exclusively on Nazis. A notable example was rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, a member of the Allgemeine SS, who would eventually lead the US space program. Von Braun had exploited concentration camp labor in Germany to build V-2 rockets at Peenemünde, and German aviation doctors’ gruesome and often fatal experiments at Dachau and other prisons afforded information that would help keep American astronauts alive in space.

While many Americans would prefer to call it a conspiracy theory, the United States defeated the Nazi organization in Germany only to transplant that ideology directly into the US after the war, and not just among members of the lay population but, more significantly, among members of the very “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower (a five-star general during WWII) had presciently warned the nation about in his 1961 message of leave-taking and farewell.

Operation Northwoods:  Declassified documents revealed that in 1962 the CIA was planning to execute false flag terrorist attacks, such as killing random American citizens and blowing up civilian targets, including a US airliner and ship, in order to blame Castro and justify invading Cuba.

Gulf of Tonkin:  President Lyndon Johnson used a contrived version of this 1964 event to justify escalation of the Vietnam War. It was claimed that Vietnamese gunboats had fired on the USS Maddox. It never happened—or at best was grossly distorted and overblown—yet the story served to prompt Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which provided the public justification Johnson needed to attack North Vietnam. This led to the deaths of about two million Vietnamese people and fifty thousand Americans.

MK-ULTRA:  As its code name suggests, MK-ULTRA was a mind control program run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence for the ostensible purpose of discovering ways to glean information from Communist spies although its applications were undoubtedly more far-reaching. It employed various methodologies including sensory deprivation and isolation, sexual abuse, and the administration of powerful psychotropic drugs such as LSD to unwitting subjects, including military personnel, prisoners, and college students. Many of them suffered serious consequences. One biochemist, Frank Olson, who was secretly slipped a strong dose of LSD at a CIA meeting, suffered a severe psychotic break and died when, for whatever reason, he plummeted from his apartment window to the pavement below. Such revelations came to light in 1975 during hearings by the congressional Church Committee (Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) and the presidential Rockefeller Commission. These investigations were hindered by CIA Director Richard Helms who in 1973 had ordered the MK-ULTRA files destroyed.

Operation Mockingbird: This was a CIA media control program exposed by the Church Committee in 1975. It revealed the CIA’s efforts from the 1950s through the 1970s to pay well-known foreign and domestic journalists from “reputable” media agencies such as the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, Miami News, and CBS, among others, to publish CIA propaganda, manipulating the news by planting stories in domestic and foreign news outlets. During the hearings, Senator Church asked an agency representative, “Do you have any people paid by the CIA who are working for television networks?” The speaker eyed his lawyer then replied, “This I think gets into the details, Mr. Chairman, that I’d like to get into in executive session.” In other words, he didn’t want to admit the truth publicly. He gave the same response when asked if the CIA planted stories with the major wire services United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP). In his 1997 book, Virtual Government — in the chapter “’And Now a Word from Our Sponsor – The CIA’: The Birth of Operation Mockingbird, the Takeover of the Corporate Press & the Programming of Public Opinion” — Alex Constantine claims that during the 1950s “some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts.” I’m curious to know what the estimate would be today.

CIA Drug Smuggling: It’s no longer a secret that clandestine arms of US Intelligence have profited from running drugs for many years. I first became aware of the issue when a Vietnam veteran claimed he had helped load opium cultivated in Laos onto military transport planes. The opium was turned into heroin and shipped around the world, sometimes in the visceral cavities of dead soldiers. A Hollywood version of these events is portrayed in the film Air America, but the movie is based on historical truth. When the US military presence in Southeast Asia declined and the focus shifted to Central America, cocaine became the new revenue source. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb ran a well-documented three-part series in the San Jose Mercury News called “Dark Alliance” alleging that traffickers with US intelligence ties had marketed the cocaine in Los Angeles and other cities where it was turned into the new and highly addictive form known as “crack,” inflicting a scourge that claimed the lives and freedom of thousands. One guy I met in Compton who had been arrested for crack possession described the drug this way: “It doesn’t really get you high,” he said. “You just want more.” Webb’s allegations were confirmed by an LAPD Narcotics Officer and whistleblower, Michael Ruppert, and the story received additional confirmation from CIA contract pilot Terry Reed, whose story is revealed in his 1994 book Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA. According to Reed, the sale of cocaine was used to finance the Contras in Central America when congressional funding was blocked by the Boland Amendment. He claimed the operation was run out of Mena, Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor. Military cargo planes were flown to Central America with military hardware, he said, and then returned to Mena loaded with coke.

I could add to the list, and it would be a long one. The Iran-Contra scandal, Watergate, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the Tuskegee syphilis experiment—there is no shortage of crimes that were planned and committed by two or more people and thus constituted conspiracy. Conspiracies happen, and before any crime is solved it spawns theories. There are people who look at these theories rationally using logic and discernment, and there are others who are illogical, engaging in fallacious, emotion-based thinking and jumping to unjustified conclusions based on little or no evidence. The term “conspiracy theorist,” however, has been manipulated to suggest only those in the latter category.

The John F. Kennedy assassination provides a good example of how the term “conspiracy” has been misapplied to disparage people who find fault with official versions of major events. After Kennedy was murdered, very few people questioned the Warren Commission’s verdict that Lee Oswald had shot the president unassisted, and anyone who challenged that belief was branded a “conspiracy nut” (or buff) unworthy of respect or consideration. Forty years later, a 2003 Gallup poll revealed that 75% of the US population believed there had been a conspiracy to kill JFK.

Apparently some people have a psychological need to protect themselves from unpleasant realities, so it’s easier for them to label others as conspiracy nuts than to assimilate hard but discomforting facts. In the case of the John Kennedy assassination, even a congressional committee, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, concluded in 1979 that there had been a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. They tried to soften that reality by calling it a “limited conspiracy” as if Oswald’s drunken cousin had helped him and not elements of US Intelligence, but the fact remains that the US government has officially admitted there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. “Conspiracy theorists” were finally vindicated, but I’ve never heard anyone apologize for disparaging their names and questioning their sanity.

“9/11,” of course, is the current topic that yields the most accusations of conspiracy nuttiness. Anyone who challenges the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions are branded “conspiracy theorists” (or nuts, wackos or kooks) as were their predecessors when JFK was killed.

History repeats itself.

One of the strange truths about the 9/11 affair is that members of the 9/11 Commission also called the event a conspiracy. That alone shows the term is being intentionally manipulated. In the Commission’s view, the conspirators were exclusively fanatical Muslims, but somehow that investigative body has been exempt from accusations of conspiracy theorizing even though they called the event a conspiracy. Apparently one must challenge the official version of events to qualify as a “conspiracy theorist.”

I asked Jim Marrs, the popular author and critic of various official versions of history, what he considered to be the origin of “conspiracy” as a derogatory term and how it has been manipulated: “The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was consciously submitted to assets of the CIA back in a document from the 1960s to be used to counter factual information that was continually being made public regarding the Kennedy assassination. From there, these assets, including media personalities, pundits, academics and government officials, expanded the term to become a pejorative for any statements not complying with the Establishment line,” Marrs said. “However, its repetitive overuse, plus the fact that the 9/11 attacks obviously involved a conspiracy, today has lessened the impact of the term.”

Many critics of the 9/11 Commission report make some valid points, and it’s not fair to simply dismiss them as conspiracy theorists when the very people they’re countering also claim there was a conspiracy. The question is simply: whose conspiracy was it?

Even officials tasked with investigating 9/11 knew there was plenty of deception involved. Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission, John Farmer, said on page four of his book The Ground Truth, “At some level of government, at some point in time, there was an agreement not to tell the people the truth about what happened.” In their book Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, the two co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, outlined reasons they believe the government established the Commission in a manner that ensured its failure. These reasons included delay in initiating the proceedings, too short a deadline for the scope of the work, insufficient funding, and lack of cooperation by politicians and key government agencies including the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NORAD. “So there were all kinds of reasons we thought we were set up to fail,” the chairmen said.

How much clearer can they be?

Conspiracies exist. They have always existed, and not wanting them to be true does not invalidate their existence. I think it’s time we reject the intentional misappropriation of the term “conspiracy” by forces attempting to manipulate public opinion and restore the term to its original and proper meaning. As long as we observe logic and reason, there is no intellectual dishonor in contemplating and discussing conspiracies, and doing so is imperative if we wish to retain what’s left of our liberties.

A version of this article was originally published at

[Correction, Oct. 28, 2014: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that a chapter title of Alex Constantine’s 1997 book Virtual Government is “Mockingbird: The Subversion of The Free Press by the CIA”. The chapter is titled “‘And Now a Word from Our Sponsor – The CIA’: The Birth of Operation Mockingbird, the Takeover of the Corporate Press & the Programming of Public Opinion.” The text has been revised to correct the error.]