From spycraft to tin-foil hats, a brief history of 'false flags'

It’s a term that’s become a common part of the reaction cycle after a mass shooting, right next to politicians tweeting “Thoughts and prayers.” Even before we know the identity of the killer or how many people have lost their lives, websites or social media accounts, often taking their cue from the conspiracy theory-pushing InfoWars, are quick to brand the tragedy a “false flag” attack.

The term refers to an attack carried out under false pretenses, with the intent of whipping up anger toward an enemy or establishing a pretext for retaliation.

The latest use of the term came after 58 people were killed in Las Vegas. InfoWars host Alex Jones laid out a complex theory, unsupported by even a modicum of evidence, that the attack was perpetrated by the U.S. government. His pet theory, dating back at least as far as the mass killings in Orlando and Newtown, Conn., is that the United States government stages such attacks to justify new restrictions on gun ownership. At times, Jones has suggested that the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown wasn’t just a “false flag” attack, but a staged event with child actors portraying the victims.

It is not just shootings that are labeled false flags. So-called 9/11 Truthers believe that the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were inside jobs by the U.S. government to justify war in the Middle East. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing inspired theories that tied together Russian oligarchs, stage blood and Michelle Obama, who was first lady at the time. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was asked at a press conference after the Boston bombing whether the attack was a “false flag.”

The variety of “false flag”-style deceptions has grown over the years. It originated as a naval term, referring to ships, including pirate ships, misidentifying themselves to escape capture or prepare for a surprise attack. The flags the ships flew would be, literally, false. As world leaders became more creative and duplicitous, the term evolved to cover a wider variety of schemes. In 1788, King Gustav III of Sweden commissioned the tailor of the Royal Opera in Stockholm to sew Russian uniforms, which were worn by Swedish soldiers in an attack on a Swedish border outpost to instigate a war with Russia. In 1870, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck edited a telegram in order to provoke the French government, helping to precipitate the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck achieved his goal by making a conversation between King William I of Prussia and a French diplomat seem far more contentious than it actually was.

Conspiracy theorist and radio talk show host Alex Jones addresses a rally in support of Donald Trump near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016. (Photo: Brooks Kraft/ Getty Images)

“False flag” also applies to deceptions used in spycraft.

“For intelligence historians, it usually refers to how intelligence services recruit people under false auspices,” said New York University historian and author Timothy Naftali. “In other words, an agent thinks he or she is being recruited to help an NGO [nongovernmental organization], the United Nations or country X, when, in fact, the operation is managed by and for the benefit of country Y.”

Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami who has written extensively about conspiracy theories, says that false flag conspiracy theories are nothing new in the United States. One such theory holds that the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba — which provided the pretext for the Spanish-American War — was not an accident but deliberate sabotage to inflame tensions between the United States and Spain.

Then there was Operation Northwoods, a proposed plan by the U.S. Department of Defense to stage attacks on American military or civilian targets and pin the blame on the Cuban government, thus allowing the U.S. military to engage with its leader, Fidel Castro. The Kennedy administration vetoed the plan, but audio available at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center records a 1962 conversation between President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in which they discuss potential options for triggering military engagement with Cuba.

“Well, I want to say — can I say that one other thing is whether we should also think of whether there is some other way we can get involved in this, through Guantánamo Bay or something,” said Robert Kennedy. “Or whether there’s some ship that … you know, sink the Maine again or something.”

The remains of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. The cause of the blast that sank the vessel was never determined, but the incident inflamed tensions between Spain and the United States, and led to the start of the Spanish-American War. “Remember the Maine!” became an American rallying cry. (Photo: Corbis via Getty Images)

But the question that Jones and other conspiracy theorists tend to ignore is that if the government has been staging mass shootings for years with the sole intent of pushing through strict gun control, why aren’t there stricter gun laws?

“The funny thing is you have these shootings,” said Uscinski, “you have the calls for gun legislation, gun legislation never passes, but for some reason everyone thinks these shootings are some trick to pass the legislation. One way to debunk that claim is that it never works. You would think that after the Sandy Hook or Aurora shootings, in those instances you’d have gun legislation passed because of how horrific they were. But no. So I don’t see a lot of reason for people to think this. If the government had the plan to, it’s an awful plan, and that plan continually fails.”

That’s the advantage a conspiracy theorist has: As Uscinski writes, conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable. The Alex Joneses of the world can dismiss any evidence that refutes them as disinformation, while they argue that the absence of any actual evidence for their imaginary conspiracies demonstrates how hard the government is working to cover it up.

“You have this government that’s on one hand all-powerful, and on the other hand completely inept,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News. “On the one hand, it’s pulling off mass shootings and blowing up buildings and doing all sorts of terrible stuff and never getting caught, never having to take responsibility for these terrible things they’re doing, but on the other hand, they’re unable to pass a freaking law.”

There’s no reason to expect the false-flag claims that roll out in the wake of tragedies to dissipate. Even with the candidate they supported in the White House, people like Jones need to position themselves as outsiders against a “deep state,” a government apparatus whose ramifications extend far beyond the current Oval Office occupant. That sort of paranoia sells with a segment of the population, and with conspiracy theories flourishing on both the right and left, shouting “false flag” is going to remain profitable.

In a protest on Oct. 4 in Newtown, Conn., responding to the Las Vegas shooting and calling for tighter gun control, Mark Barden holds up a picture of his son, Daniel, who was killed in the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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