Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 13, 2009)
If you read my review of JFK, you’ll probably know that I tend to be on the side of those who don’t believe in conspiracies. I feel convinced Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK on his own, and I doubt that there’s much substance to most conspiracies. Too many of them are so far-fetched that they become absurd.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. Indeed, conspiracy theories can be absolutely fascinating, even if they do stretch credulity most of the time. In that vein, I decided to check out this collection of episodes from Conspiracy?, a series on the History Channel. The set spans three discs and includes 12 shows. I’ll quote the episode synopses from the packaging and throw in some of my thoughts on the conspiracies discussed.
TWA Flight 800: “The official reports maintain that a malfunction in the fuel tank brought down TWA Flight 800, but eyewitnesses insist that lights streaking toward the plane just before the crash point to the real reason.” Comments come from Associated Retired Aviation Professionals’ Bob Donaldson, NTSB Director of Aviation Safety (Ret.) Bernard Loeb, First Strike co-author Jack Cashill, FBI Associate Director (Ret.) James Kallstrom, In the Blink of an Eye author Pat Milton, former NTSB board member Vernon Grose, TWA pilot (ret.) Captain Al Mundo, and witnesses Paul Angelides, Mike Wire, and Major Fritz Meyer.
Of all the “conspiracies” investigated here, “Flight 800” represents possibly the best case made by theorists. As shown here, both sides make good arguments, and the official explanation doesn’t seem as convincing as I’d like.
However, I think the theories of a terrorist attack make little sense because apparently no one ever took credit for it. Why would terrorists enact such cruelty and then never let us know? That defeats the whole purpose of terrorism. If the world believes the explosion to be an accident, then the enterprise was a waste of time for the terrorists. That makes no sense.
Also, as pointed out by Milton, it seems illogical that the government would go through such an exhaustive investigation of the accident if they planned to cover up the results. Granted, one could argue that the government didn’t know that they needed to hide the facts until after the completion of the investigation, but I don’t buy it.
Majestic 12: UFO Coverup: “If a flying saucer did not land in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, why did President Harry Truman bring together, as some say, an elite group of scientists, military and intelligence officials to deal with the incident?” We hear from Top Secret/Majic author Stanton Friedman, UFOs and the National Security State author Richard Dolan, UFO investigator Ryan Wood, CSICOP chairman Paul Kurtz, CSICOP senior research fellow Joe Nickell, The Roswell Report author USAF Col. Richard Weaver (ret.), and Center for UFO Studies director Mark Rodeghier.
From real-world tragedy, we head to science-fiction fantasy. Ironically, it would make more sense for the government to cover up the existence of aliens than for them to hide a terrorist attack. That doesn’t mean that the “conspiracy” involved here seems more convincing than its predecessor, though.
Indeed, the absurdity of the concept makes it more difficult to swallow a conspiracy here. Folks who think that the government hid the Roswell crash believe in a government with much greater power than the one we have – or ever had. These people believe in super-secret shadow societies that can obscure world-changing issues without a trace.
Hogwash. I believe that the US government worked hard to keep whatever happened at Roswell a secret, as they were super-paranoid in the late Forties through much of the 1950s. That doesn’t mean that the “conspiracy” went as deep as this program alleges, or that they hid the existence of aliens.
Does life exist on other planets? Almost certainly. Have those space monkeys visited the Earth? Could be, but I doubt it. These critters possess the technology to travel unimaginable distances and yet they do little more than play peek-a-boo with us? C’mon – why are these aliens so darned secretive? It’s all silly, and nothing here changes my mind. I think the government put the lid on Roswell but not that there was a secret society behind it or aliens on the ground.
FDR and Pearl Harbor: “Did President Roosevelt know the attack was about to take place but withhold evidence in order to convince a reluctant nation to enter WWII?” This program includes Days of Deceit author Robert Stinnett, historian Richard Hill, Freedom From Fear author David Kennedy, Rutgers University History Professor Warren Kimball, The Codebreakers author David Kahn, Battle of Wits author Stephen Budiansky, Enemies Within author Robert Goldberg, and A Time for War author Robert Smith Thompson.
Of all the “conspiracies” here, this one offends me the most. Do people really think that FDR and all the other leaders who would’ve been involved in this plot were so cynical and callous that they’d happily allow defenseless sailors to be slaughtered just to accelerate America’s inevitable entry into war? Yes, governments trump up charges to go to war – “WMDs”, my butt – but I simply refuse to believe FDR gladly would’ve thrown thousands of sailors to the lions in such a cheap manner.
If FDR, et al, allowed the attack just to get the US into war, couldn’t they still have notified the sailors on Pearl Harbor? The Japanese attack would’ve prompted us to go to war in any circumstance; it didn’t have to be a shocking slaughter. If the sailors had notice and could fight back, we’d still have a war with the Japanese. Why wouldn’t FDR and his people give the guys a fighting chance?
Because they didn’t know an attack was coming. A lot of the “conspiracies” in this set are a crock, but the claims that FDR willingly allowed defenseless sailors to be murdered is perhaps the most ludicrous and offensive.
Area 51: “Most people have never heard about Nevada’s Area 51, a base that officially doesn’t exist, but nevertheless is linked to top-secret plans, mysterious ‘black projects’, unexplained deaths, and hush-hush missions.” The show offers notes from aviation expert Jim Goodall, Dreamland author Phil Patton, Area 51 witness Bob Lazar, Aviation Week senior managing editor Michael Dornheim, Center for UFO Studies director Mark Rodeghier, dreamlandresort.com webmaster Joerg Arnu, physicist/UFO researcher Stanton Friedman, former Area 51 test pilot Frank Murray, former Area 51 radar specialist TD Barnes, Popular Mechanics science editor Jim Wilson, and Nevada resident Pat Travis.
“Most people have never heard of Area 51”? That’s an odd assertion for the DVD’s packaging to make, as the location has been featured in many films; Independence Day and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are just two of the most popular to do so.
While it’s clear that the government indulges in secret goings-on at Area 51, this show argues its case in a weak manner. Essentially it rests all of its claims on the exceedingly slim shoulders of Lazar. He’s easily debunked as a fraud and offers no credibility.
Heck, he undermines himself with some of his statements. If the government will do anything to stop Lazar from telling his story, why is he still alive 20 years later? And if he signed an agreement that he’d go to jail if he divulged his knowledge, why is he still free? Why is a secret government agency issuing W-2 forms? Neither the program nor Lazar explain any of this, of course, because he’s a kook. It seems clear that Area 51 is a government test site and no more.
Who Killed Martin Luther King, Jr.?: “James Earl Ray received a 99-year prison sentence for killing Reverend Martin Luther King, but even the King family believes him to be innocent. Many believe conspiracy was involved, perhaps reaching to the CIA, FBI and beyond.” This program offers thoughts from Ray (in archival interviews), House Select Committee on Assassinations chief counsel G. Robert Blakey, civil rights activist D’Army Bailey, The Murkin Conspiracy author Philip Melanson, Ray’s attorney William Pepper, alleged potential conspirator Loyd Jowers (via archival footage), former Army Intelligence Officer Christopher Pyle, and Killing the Dream author Gerald Posner.
Of all the alleged conspiracies presented in this set, the MLK assassination offers one of the most open for debate. Plenty of the topics discussed here are just absurd, but this one remains tough – if not impossible – to settle. I think Ray shot King, and I certainly don’t believe in the “grand conspiracy” evoked by Pepper, but the possibility that Ray wasn’t a Lee Harvey Oswald-style “lone gunman” clearly exists. That factor makes this one of the more thought-provoking episodes of the series, especially after the silliness of the Area 51 discussion.
Princess Diana: “Was Princess Diana’s death simply a tragic accident, as official investigations assert, or could it have been a political assassination?” We hear from former Al Fayed spokesman Michael Cole, Newsweek Paris bureau chief Christopher Dickey, Diana: The Last Days author Martyn Gregory, Executive Intelligence Review senior editor Jeffrey Steinberg, Jean-Claude Mules, Diana’a former bodyguard Ken Wharfe, and Diana’s confidante Simone Simmons.
After the intriguing ideas of the prior episode, Conspiracy? loses points with the general absurdity of this show. On the side of those who claim assassination, we get an Al Fayed ally with an axe to grind and a writer for a magazine headed by longtime political loon Lyndon LaRouche. Seriously – that’s the best the conspiracy theorists can do?
Amusingly, Cole undercuts himself even further when he mocks those who believe an accident killed Diana are the same ones who think a lone gunman shot JFK. Yes, we are; we’re called people who believe the truth.
Too many flaws occur for a Diana assassination plot to make sense. Motive remains a tough one to swallow, and also the method of killing seems like a clumsy one. Not only does it require a lot of elements to perfectly fall into place, but also it essentially counts on a kamikaze chauffeur! Before I got this DVD, I don’t think I’d ever heard of a theoretical conspiracy involved in Diana’s death. There’s a reason this alleged conspiracy gets little press: it’s ridiculous, and nothing in this episode makes it seem particularly plausible.
Lincoln Assassination: “Even today some believe there were many more people involved in the assassination of the 16th president than John Wilkes Booth and his eight co-conspirators. The most famous of the suspects: Confederate President Jefferson Davis.” The show features Lincoln Bicentennial Commission co-chair Harold Holzer, Blood on the Moon author Edward Steers, Jr., Murdering Mr. Lincoln author Charles Higham, Huntington Library curator John Rhodehamel, Abraham Lincoln Bookshop proprietor Dan Weinberg, Civil War historian John Taylor, Bridgewater State College history professor Thomas Turner, and Jefferson Davis biographer William Davis.
Unlike the “lone gunman” arguments about the assassinations of JFK and MLK, there’s never been any question that John Wilkes Booth didn’t act alone. Oh, he clearly killed Lincoln on his own, but it’s always been abundantly obvious that he conspired with others. The stretches of fact occur when theorists attempt to draw in broader forces than the small band assembled by Booth.
In reality, Booth wanted to keep alive the Confederacy as well as bring glory on himself. He was convinced that those in Confederate territory would embrace him as a hero, though the opposite occurred; Lincoln’s assassination provoked almost uniform outrage in all parts of the US. The whole thing really was Booth’s baby, and attempts to convince us otherwise fail to go anywhere.
Oklahoma City Bombing: “Has the federal government covered up evidence that Neo-Nazi and Middle Eastern terrorist groups helped Timothy McVeigh bomb the Federal Building in Oklahoma City?” We get notes from former CIA director R. James Woolsey, New American senior editor William Jasper, FBI special agents (ret.) Dan Vogel and Rick Ojeda, Others Unknown author Stephen Jones, reporter JD Cash, In Bad Company author Mark Hamm, lead FBI investigator Danny Defenbaugh, prosecutor Larry Mackey, private investigator Cate McCauley, and an eyewitness who chooses to remain anonymous.
Like the MLK and TWA Flight 800 episodes, “Bombing” actually offers some intriguing arguments of a greater conspiracy. Does it provide enough to convince that the “official story” isn’t correct? No, and that factor is complicated by the fact that McVeigh himself accepted full responsibility; unlike Oswald or Ray, he never declared himself to be an innocent patsy. The show creates suspicion that perhaps he doesn’t offer the whole tale, though.
The CIA and the Nazis: “The CIA in league with the Nazis? Unthinkable. But without the public’s knowledge, the US hired more than 4000 former Nazis, including war criminals, to work in the intelligence, science and engineering communities.” It involves US Intelligence and the Nazis co-author Timothy Naftali, General Reinhard Gehlen: The CIA Connection author Mary Ellen Reese, Blowback author Christopher Simpson, The Beast Reawakens author Martin Lee, former US intelligence agent Robert Livingston, Secret Agenda author Linda Hunt, OSI director Eli Rosenbaum, former CIA operations officer James Critchfield (via archival elements), former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
Of all 12 episodes found in this package, “CIA” provides the least provocative simply because I didn’t realize it was a secret. I thought it was common knowledge that the US government used Nazis for a variety of reasons; I didn’t think any controversy existed in that regard. “CIA” offers an interesting examination of how this occurred, but I don’t think it’s as stimulating as many of the other shows; it’s more of a traditional documentary than an examination of potential conspiracy theories.
Jack Ruby: “Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, but did he act alone or were the Mafia, anti-Castro Cubans or even the CIA involved?” During this piece, we find info from former president/Warren Commission member Gerald Ford, Fatal Hour author G. Robert Blakey, Case Closed author Gerald Posner, Contract on America author David Scheim, Ruby’s defense attorney Joe Tonahill, and Rush to Judgment author Mark Lane.
To answer the question in the episode’s synopsis: Ruby acted alone. Any claims otherwise are simply absurd for a number of reasons. For one, Ruby was too flaky to be someone relied upon to take care of an assassination. He was a hotheaded kook; is that the sort of guy you’d trust to pull off such an important killing?
If I doubted that thought, you want to know why I’m 100 percent convinced that Ruby did shoot Oswald as an impulsive act? Because he left his dog in his car while he did it. Ruby was a super-devoted dog lover, and he took his favorite pooch with him much of the time. He left this pet in his car while he murdered Oswald. While a flake, Ruby clearly knew he’d be arrested immediately; after all, he committed the crime in the midst of tons of cops! I’m a serious dog-lover, and I know I wouldn’t do anything that might potentially put my pups at risk. Would I leave one of them – much less my most beloved – in a vulnerable position when I know I’ll never see her again? Not a chance. If Ruby executed Oswald as part of a pre-meditated plan, that dog would’ve been in a secure spot, not abandoned in a car.
Do you want more reasons why it’s obvious Ruby shot Oswald as an impulsive act? Oswald’s transfer from the Dallas jail was delayed by more than an hour, but Ruby didn’t arrive there until very close to the actual time of the movement. If Ruby was going to kill Oswald as part of a plot, why wasn’t he there earlier?
Because he wasn’t a planted assassin. This episode digs into all sorts of crackpot theories, virtually all of which have been discredited. For instance, we’re told about the recording of the “fourth shot”; that was shown to be incorrect years ago.
Blakey’s Mafia theory is utterly preposterous, especially when he thinks there was a second shooter there to take out Oswald as he fled the Book Depository. So in the middle of all the panic after the President’s assassination, some dude is just going to stand around on the grassy knoll with rifle pointed at the Depository as he waits for Oswald to saunter out the front door? Crazy! The “Ruby” episode stirs up the same old nonsense, and none of it is remotely convincing.
The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination: “Sirhan Sirhan is serving a life sentence for the 1968 killing of Robert Kennedy, but do extra bullets, bullet holes and destroyed evidence point to a coverup?” In this program, we hear from Boston University history professor Julian Zelizer, The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination author Philip Melanson, former Kennedy campaign aide Paul Schrade, former FBI agent William Bailey, Sirhan’s appellate attorney Lawrence Teeter, The Killing of Robert Kennedy author Dan Moldea, and former LAPD chief Daryl Gates.
As the saying goes, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. What makes more sense: that a lone gunman apprehended immediately after the shooting killed RFK all on his own, or that the shooter was a hypnotized “Manchurian Candidate”? And if there were other shooters, why would they shout “we shot him” as they fled the scene? Who runs around and proclaims their own guilt as they escape?
Is it possible there’s more to the RFK assassination than the commonly accepted notion that Sirhan did it on his own? Sure, it’s within the realm of possibility. However, you’ll find little compelling evidence of it here. The theories advanced in this episode create minor suspicions at best and don’t lead me to suspect any conspiracy existed.
Kecksburg UFO: “What came down in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania in December 1965? Was there a government coverup, and does the coverup continue to today?” This episode features former WHJB radio office manager Mabel Mazza, former WHJB disc jockey Stan Wall, journalist Bob Gatty, UFO researcher Stan Gordon, journalist John Murphy’s ex-wife Bonnie Millslagle, space consultant James Oberg, investigative journalist Leslie Kean, amateur astronomer Robert Young, astronomer Von Del Chamberlain, and witnesses Bill Bulebush, Robert Blystone, and Bill Weaver.
Back when I discussed the Roswell episode, I addressed my thoughts on the existence of UFOs, at least as interpreted by folks who claim that they’re among us. “Kinda doubt it” remains my belief, largely because the coy peek-a-boo games played by the aliens don’t make much sense.
That said, the Kecksburg incident creates a more compelling potential UFO landing than Roswell does. As discussed here, too much of the event remains unexplained in a concise manner. I seriously doubt ET plopped down in PA, but the show opens up questions in an interesting way.