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A reader asked me to check out a story on the internet about the possible connection between the El Paso shootings and the CIA’s notorious MKULTRA mind control program. So I did.

El Paso shooter
El Paso shooter

I doubted there was any connection between MKULTRA (which was shut down in 1971) and the El Paso shootings 48 years later. But my email correspondent is an intelligent, well-read college graduate in his 30s. I wanted to allay his fears while pursuing my own interest in the dialectical relationship between bogus conspiracy theories and real government coverups.

The dialectic works like this: the existence of real government-sponsored conspiracies (eg. the Tuskegee Syphillis Study ) serve to encourage bogus conspiracy theories (eg. AIDS was spread by the U.S. government). At the same time, bogus conspiracy theories (eg. the moon landing hoax) feed the media’s appetite for stories that deflect skepticism about real government coverups (eg. JFK assassination.)

The classic text of the conspiracy/coverup dialectic is the 1967 CIA memo, “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report.” The memo, sent secretly to every CIA station in the world, sought to enlist “elite media contacts” in discouraging widespread skepticism about the official and implausible story that one man killed JFK “alone and unaided” for no reason. The CIA recommended maligning the JFK skeptics as irrational, anti-American conspiracy theorists, and virtually all U.S. news organizations went along.

In fact, as CIA historian David Robarge has admitted in print, the agency concealed its sponsorship of multiple assassination conspiracies from the Warren Commission while a (ominous phrase) “benign coverup” of the full story of JFK’s death. In short, the CIA used the “conspiracy theorist” epithet to hide its own conspiracies.

Now the conspiracy/cover-up dialectic exercises a powerful and malign influence on public opinion. Believers in conspiracy theories can cite the irrefutable duplicity of the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird or the Bush White House’s lies about Iraqi WMD to insulate their beliefs from factual interrogation. And because there are so many ill-informed conspiracy theorists, defenders of the government still feel free to impugn well-informed critics of government coverups as lunatics.

For example, last month this NBC opinion piece argued that people who dispute the official story of JFK’s murder are comparable to people who reject the reality of a moon landing. In fact, most Americans believe the moon landing was real and most Americans the Warren Commission wrong. In the case of JFK, it’s the anti-conspiracy theorists who have the credibility problem, so they resort to a smear.

One challenge facing contemporary journalism is to defuse and expose this dialectic, which both justifies delusional conspiracy theories and excuses real government coverups.

So while debunking internet conspiracy theories may seem like shooting fish in the barrel — or debating a drunk — millions of people believe this stuff. Which is why I checked out “Follow the Dots: MKULTRA and the El Paso Shootings.”

Outside the Walmart in El Paso (Credit: KETK-TV)

The Dots

The El Paso-MKULTRA theory is constructed from a set of facts:

Therefore, the theory concludes, mass shootings are orchestrated by the government in service of suspending the 2nd Amendment and demonizing white people. The government must be behind it.

“Patrick Crusius is three degrees removed from the CIA and its mind control program. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so.”

The story gets even more fevered treatment at Government Slaves , which says, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”

The Facts

In fact, these factoids are coincidental. As I pointed out to my correspondent, there is no evidence of a causal connection between any of these events.

Collin Ross was a critic of, not a participant in, the MKULTRA program. His book, “The CIA Doctors” alleges “extensive violations of human rights funded by the CIA and the military and conducted by American psychiatrists in North America.”

The sworn allegations against him in the 1980s and 1990s were serious, but the case was dismissed by the Canadian courts. Others have depicted Ross as a charlatan. Ross has claimed that he can send a beam of energy from his eyes that will make a tone sound in a stereo speaker. For this claim, Ross won a Pigasus award in 2009 given to “the scientist or academic who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult.”

In any case, there is no evidence Ross had anything to do with MKULTRA or the CIA; that he knew Patrick Crusius’ father, much less influenced him, much less influenced his son to carry out a heinous crime.

“But isn’t it possible that MKULTRA is still going on in some form,” my correspondent asked? I replied that it’s quite possible that the CIA still conducts mind-control research. But that possibility isn’t a piece of evidence about El Paso, anymore than the possibility that I will win the lottery tomorrow is evidence that I am millionaire today.

At the Bottom

The Crusius family has issued a statement lamenting and repudiating Patrick Crusius’s actions:

“Patrick’s actions were apparently influenced and informed by people we do not know, and from ideas and beliefs that we do not accept or condone, in any way,” they said. “He was raised in a family that taught love, kindness, respect, and tolerance — rejecting all forms of racism, prejudice, hatred, and violence. There will never be a moment for the rest of our lives when we will forget each and every victim of this senseless tragedy,”

I hoped to allay my reader’s fear that there was a conspiracy behind El Paso, but I doubt I succeeded. He has too many examples of governmental lies and misconduct to feed his doubts and too many logically-challenged web sites to nurture his suspicions.

I hope that the Crusius family will be spared the cruel and vicious attention visited upon the families of Seth Rich and the Sandy Hook families. But who would bet on decency prevailing in America today?

The reader replied to my fact check with these words that I found sad.

“I agree that the causal connection isn’t there yet. I would just argue that it is more of an information-disinformation dialectic. Certain factions of the government engage in criminal conspiracies, then spread disinformation to prevent people from finding the truth about them, like the examples you cite about the Warren commission. The enemy is not the people who are trying to find genuine information about conspiracies but are duped by disinformation. They are just helplessly ignorant. The enemy is those who promote the disinformation versus genuine information. This is what could be going on with Colin A. Ross and MKUltra.”

Could be. That’s what we find at bottom of this theory: a handy turn of phrase that serves as an enabler, a substitute for evidence, a symptom of the belief that causality is a liberal ruse. Only a sucker, my reader said, would believe the government that gave us MKULTRA and Operation Mockingbird. The legacy of “national security” is fuel for paranoia and apologetics.

So goes the conspiracy/coverup dialectic. It is a plague on a democracy.

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