Not only that, but they lie to us about what they are keeping from us. Through bitter experience, we have learned that, even if our leaders go on TV and emphatically deny that they are doing something, there's a very good chance that we'll discover that yes, they are in fact doing that exact thing. They prosecute and persecute journalists and whistle-blowers in record numbers, as a matter of standard policy. Some of the world's most famous fugitives and prisoners are guilty primarily (or exclusively) of revealing these secrets, kept from the public for decades or more, many of which reveal the aforementioned bald-faced lies.
And yet, if you've ever looked into government secrecy, deep politics, or those big political events which inspire so much conspiratorial theorizing, you've likely heard -- possibly employed -- the argument that "people can't keep secrets." Especially not big ones, say for instance, vast conspiracies and cover-ups. It's a classic, used far and wide among people who are, quite naturally, skeptical of wild tales about vast shadowy plots unfolding under their very noses.
People are terrible at keeping secrets, the argument goes ... and so "large conspiracies" are doomed from the get-go by a profusion of loose lips. Someone would inevitably talk, and once the cat was out of the bag, the gig would be up -- the conspirators would all go to jail, and that would be that. All neatly wrapped up before the end credits roll.
Thus, any theory which posits the existence of some of kind "vast shadowy plot" must necessarily be false, because the core premise is so obviously absurd -- all of those hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands!) of people needed to pull off something so big couldn't possibly keep quiet forever!
The problem is that reality contradicts this truism almost everywhere we look. If it were true that people couldn't keep secrets, there would be no point to all that classification ... the very concept of "Security Clearances" and "Non-Disclosure Agreements" rely upon some confidence that a person can go for more than 47 hours without drunkenly blurting out every detail at the corner bar. The very fact that the government is able to issue Top Secret clearances and expect any national security secrets to be kept shows that quite a few people can, indeed, keep secrets -- big ones, in fact.
Likewise, business trade secrets and corporate espionage simply wouldn't exist if people were so tragically bad at keeping secrets as "conventional wisdom" would have us believe. There would be no reason to have anyone sign an NDA if there was no expectation that they would honor it. And of course, organized crime relies strongly on large groups of people being able to keep big and important secrets, often in spite of the Authorities pressuring them to "squeal" -- a big part of why we have "conspiracy laws" to begin with, the FBI couldn't get anyone to squeal on the mob bosses. We've had some success in prosecuting individual mobsters and even breaking up select operations, but the phenomenon continues -- because people can keep big secrets, especially when their life literally depends on it.
And at risk of belaboring the point, it's worth pointing out that individuals can keep their own personal secrets as well. Some people can conceal their sexual identity to the point that close friends and family are surprised when they "come out" as having a different orientation than they have affected for years. Is this because they kept the secret so amazingly well, that no one in their life had any idea? As we will see, it's nowhere near that simple.
The Secret's Out ... But Who Gives a Shit?Alright, so like most truisms, "people can't keep big secrets" sounds good as a pithy aphorism or meme, but really doesn't go very far in explaining how the world actually works. If nothing else, it oversimplifies the issue to the point of meaninglessness ... yes, many (but not all) people are bad at keeping secrets ... and yes, many (but not all) otherwise sound conspiracies are blown by the indiscretion of would-be conspirators. Yet somehow, some things -- even important things -- remain secret.
Which brings us to the next property of secrets that makes them deceptively easy to keep ... like any other piece of information, secrets can be denied, ignored, marginalized, falsely "debunked," or otherwise obfuscated, even if they aren't perfectly "kept" by those who know them. Public apathy, media bias, partisan ideology, and other obstructions to information can keep a secret as effectively as locking it away in an underground vault.
One needn't look far for examples. Unless or until a particular "secret" catches the attention of some form of media with great reach (usually broadcast or social), it will languish in obscurity, often in spite of the efforts of some to spread it.
Did you know that Donald Trump is being sued for raping a 12-year-old girl in a case that's palpably linked to a known pedophile ring? Or that Hillary Clinton used her power at the State Department to set up shady arms deals with Clinton Foundation donors? Or that the CIA has admitted that they lied to the Warren Commission to cover-up their relationship with JFK's assassin? Or that a CIA agent gave a deathbed confession (taped by his son) about his part in the assassination? Or that the FBI had foreknowledge of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center? Or that the 9/11 Commission was so convinced that the Pentagon was lying to them that they considered asking the DOJ to open an investigation?
Don't those things all seem important, like they should be part of the discussion when we talk about those people and events? But are they trending on Twitter, or filling up the news chimeras on the 24-hour Blather Networks? Are they even part of the "conventional wisdom" about those topics? No they are not.
Most people are blissfully unaware of the above information -- and vastly more to boot! -- because information doesn't travel perfectly throughout a society, even once it's been "revealed" (i.e. no longer secret). Even with broadcast media and the internet distributing it around the globe instantaneously upon publication ... even with automatic translation services theoretically making it available across language barriers. Between the studious avoidance and/or successful stigmatization of those topics by the mainstream media, the raw deluge of information (including heaping helpings of mis- and disinformation) now available on the Internet, and the general unwillingness of large portions of the public to accept them, they are effectively secret to most people, even though they are reliably documented facts in the public/historical record.
In short, a "secret" must be believed by the hearer in order to be spread, and various forms of information bias make that far from a sure thing. Especially when it comes to controversial secrets, there's a very good chance that, even if "someone talks," many people simply won't hear it.
Moon-Bats and Tinfoil HatsOn top of the tendency for a lot of information to slip between the cracks or get lost in the deluge, because it doesn't hit the zeitgeist in just the right way to make the Evening News or Top Twitter Trends, there is another factor that helps keep spilled secrets from spreading. Most people have the pronounced and demonstrated tendency (which I have bemoaned before) to dismiss out-of-hand things that they don't want to hear, and denounce those who speak of these things as idiots, lunatics, or heretics. (The last not usually literally anymore, but the usage is the same: "Someone who doesn't believe as I do, and whose ideas are therefor dangerous.")
Or, of course, Conspiracy Theorists.
This epistemic gag reflex operates on the same kind of truthiness that the basic premise ("people can't keep secrets") does -- not on rationality or critical analysis, but on intuition and gut reaction. It doesn't feel right that such important things were unknown to you; if they were so important, you should have heard something about them from an authoritative source. Therefor, they must not be true, and anyone asserting them must therefor be lying, misinformed, or crazy. Probably all three, the stupid wingnut.
"Serious Thinkers" lecture us about the mental illnesses and fallacies of thought that cause "otherwise rational people" to "buy into conspiracy theories." It's useless to try and talk to them about their insane beliefs, because they have a deep-seated psychological need to believe in these things. There is no reason to even consider the possibility that anything they say is valid, or even coherent. The only possible answers are condescension, ridicule, shouting them down, having them removed from your presence, or failing all of those, plugging your ears and repeating, "LALALALALALALALA!! I'M NOT LISTENING TO YOU!! LALALALALALALALAA!!"
Longtime "conspiracy researchers" such as myself have learned to accept that most people will respond this way about virtually anything they don't already believe or want to believe, right up until it comes to them from a source that they already like and trust. I've written a little about this point in the context of some well-documented (if not well-known) government cover-ups; such moments of dissonance reduction among the general populace tend to present the best opportunity for real movement forward on government transparency (the one and only real cure for conspiracy theories, as well as for the incidental corruption and odd actual conspiracy that might be uncovered), and are coming more and more frequently in the age of the Internet.
And yet, there are still matters of great importance, that come as a surprise to a great many people. Not because they are kept under such tight wraps that not a trace leaks out, but because they are kept quiet enough -- by denial, ridicule, and smug silence -- that they are lost in the din.
Drinking From the Fire-Hose"The din" being our next important point about the nature of secrets, and the keeping thereof. Information overload: it's such a common understanding these days that it almost goes without saying. So we won't spend too much time on it here -- but it does bear mentioning in this context.
There is such a cacophony of voices, from "sober news outlets" to nakedly partisan echo chambers to fringe ideologues of every stripe. A "secret revelation" that doesn't manage to crack the mainstream media, or blow up on social media, is very likely to go unheard by the majority of people. Even those who might be receptive to it, either because it fits neatly into their pre-existing belief system, or because they're genuinely curious souls, might never chance to come across it in the wilderness of the web.
Take the 28 pages redacted from the Joint Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks. Until they hit the mainstream media a few days ago, the main advocate for their release -- U.S. Senator Bob Graham, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001, and co-chair of the Joint Congressional investigation which produced the partially-redacted report -- was relegated largely to alternative media. Even with an eminently qualified advocate, these classified pages (and thousands more, according to Sen. Graham) have escaped the attention of the mainstream for a decade and a half.
If you're still curious to test this theory, see how many of the following U.S. government whistle-blowers of the last decade and a half you have heard of (and what they revealed), and how many you have to Google (assuming you're curious enough to do so): Sibel Edmonds, Joe Darby, Russel Tice, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling. This list isn't anywhere near exhaustive, but it's illustrative ... just because someone "blows the whistles" doesn't mean that anyone hears them. Incidental polling demonstrates that many people don't even know who the most famous whistle-blower of modern times is.
So, between public apathy, orthodox thinking, and information overload, it's not hard to understand how it is that "exposed secrets" languish in obscurity, even when someone "blows the whistle." And of course, it's no help that a healthy chunk of "conspiracy theories" are paranoid bunk -- reductionist, reactionary, and/or ideologically-driven excuses to blame the problems of the world on your favorite Bad Guy. Far from justifying or even excusing a hand-wave dismissal of any and all "conspiratorial thinking," however, this makes sorting out the verifiable facts both more difficult, and more important.
Whistle-Blower's RewardAnother important question to consider: what incentives does an individual member of a "vast conspiracy" have to spill the secret, and what incentives does he have to keep it? People respond to individual motivations, not general truisms, so what could motivate someone who was part of a conspiracy? Can they expect to blow the whistle and suddenly be treated as heroes?
To answer these questions realistically, rather than in the abstract, let's examine a few recent cases where a whistle-blower has revealed verifiable wrongdoing that was being kept secret under the auspices of National Security. Edward Snowden is a fugitive; Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning is in prison, under conditions described by the U.N. as torture; Jeffrey Sterling was prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and had his life destroyed; Sibel Edmonds was slapped with multiple gag orders, fired from the FBI, and threatened. Even Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame) was charged under the Espionage Act, wiretapped, and allegedly even targeted for "neutralization" (almost certainly assassination) by "former" CIA agents E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. It was the over-reach of those very agents, breaking into his psychiatrist's office to get dirt with which to discredit him, that eventually turned the trial (and history) in his favor.
So as it turns out, no, whistle-blowers are not treated as heroes -- at least, not for a few decades, and then only if they chanced into incontrovertible evidence of their righteousness. They are persecuted, prosecuted, gagged, and locked up. And that's assuming that they aren't simply ignored, dismissed, and/or ferociously attacked as "conspiracy nuts."
Smoke, Mirrors, and Tradecraft
Back to those 560 million pages of classified material per year, and the annual $11-13 billion spent on keeping their contents secret.We know that the seal isn't perfect, simply from the fact that we are talking about whistle-blowers and what they have revealed. At the same time, we know that the estimated 15,000 documents leaked by Edward Snowden is a tiny drop in that vast ocean of secrets -- less than 0.0001% of just a single year's worth of classified documents. So clearly, the leak is a pinhole, not a gushing torrent, and many, many millions of pages of secrets remain.
In fact, it's the job of counter-intelligence (i.e. "National Security") organizations to do just that: keep secrets. And while they are far from perfect, they have vast resources at their disposal. They have the cover and authority of the government, and indeed use that cover to keep secrets from (and spy on) even the elements of the government who are tasked with overseeing their operations.
A few of the simpler techniques are referred to as Compartmentalization (or Compartmentation), Useful Idiots, and Plausible Deniability. Playing into the natural obstructions to information flow discussed above, counter-intelligence operations use those and other "tradecraft" to make big secrets harder to learn or reveal.
Compartmentalization is basically the old "Need to Know Basis." Each department, agent, or cell knows only what they need in order to accomplish their part of the job, and specifically don't know about the whole plan, who the ringleaders are, etc. This keeps them from asking too many questions, and if they get compromised, they genuinely don't know enough to ruin the rest of the operation or turn in the core conspirators.
It's also quite common for many otherwise honest people to simply fail to see or acknowledge crimes and wrongdoing within their organization or group. They aren't conspirators, per se, because they were never "in on it" ... they're not even consciously participating in the cover-up. They're what are called "Useful Idiots," who simply keep their "institutional blinders" on and repeat the lies that they were told, because they genuinely believe them. The term was originally used (first by Soviet propagandists, and then by Americans and others) to refer to the people who blindly defend their leaders, while refusing to see the atrocities that they commit, but can just as easily be applied to those who uncritically endorse and repeat cover stories, "official accounts," and propaganda.
And Plausible Deniability, well, we've all seen that in action. At its most infantile, is sounds like, "I don't recall," "That's not my department," "It wasn't my fault," "We can neither confirm nor deny," and so on ... but it also encompasses more sophisticated dodges such as arranging "cover stories" (or "intelligence legends" in the parlance of the trade) for what operatives must do, whether that includes false identities, excuses for international travel, alibis, red herrings, or just good ol' fashioned smoke-and-mirrors misdirection.
We should not be surprised, then, when we find that the organizations whose job it is to lie and keep secrets, have lied to us, and kept secrets from us.
Origin StoryWhich brings us to the delightfully ironic cherry perched atop our Kafkaesque sundae of secrecy. If you've heard this argument before, "people can't keep big secrets, so large conspiracies are impossible," it shouldn't surprise you. Again, it's a classic, a common Truism among Conspiracy Debunkers and supporters of the various "official stories."
Even if you've used the argument, you can be forgiven for believing it ... but before you use it again, you should know a little something about its history. In one of those classic twists that Real Life likes to throw at us, the common usage of this argument -- and indeed of the term "conspiracy theorist" as a dismissal of a certain viewpoint -- is apparently the result of a CIA media manipulation (i.e. propaganda) campaign. CIA Document #1035-960, "RE: Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report," was an internal memo (the original was allegedly marked "DESTROY WHEN NO LONGER NEEDED" ...oops...), circulated in 1967 and declassified in 1977, which contains the following directive:
"To employ propaganda assets to [negate] and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose. The unclassified attachments to this guidance should provide useful background material for passing to assets. Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories."
Later, it gives this talking point for those "propaganda assets" to use:
"Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States, esp. since informants could expect to receive large royalties, etc."
Let the irony soak in for a moment. Along with several other of the most common talking points used by Conspiracy Debunkers, the argument that "people can't keep big secrets, so conspiracies can't be real" was popularized as a CIA propaganda talking point ... and they've kept that fact largely secret (i.e. unknown to the public at large) for a pretty long time, even in spite of the proof being declassified 40 years ago.
Footnotes I tend to bring them up a lot, so theoretical regular readers would have heard of at least some of them.
 Okay, I will own it: I'm a conspiracy theorist. A "card-carrying conspiracy theorist," even.
|Oh wait, this is my Erisian Pope card.|
 On the other hand, it's notoriously easy to get people to believe what they already want to believe, often without any need for evidence.