A conspiracy proven true: Snowdon blows global surveillance wide open

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? It’s not paranoia. You are…

Edward Snowden, formerly a systems administrator for America’s National Security Agency (NSA), has been called hero, patriot, and traitor. In 2013, he leaked classified government information about multiple global surveillance programmes operated by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance. The documents revealed that the NSA and Five Eyes—which consisted of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand—were spying on their own and each other’s citizens and sharing the information.

Big Brother is real

The novel 1984 by George Orwell introduced us to the character and concept of Big Brother. In the novel, Big Brother is the purported leader of a totalitarian state whose citizens are under constant surveillance by the authorities. The book gave us the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”, which has come to be associated with prying by authority figures, and in particular, illicit mass surveillance by government. The reality TV franchise Big Brother is based on the novel’s concept of being watched constantly, going about your day-to-day life.

Conspiracy theories about mass surveillance have been commonplace since the novel’s publication in 1949. But the idea that we’re being watched by the elusive ‘They’ has long been shrugged off as the fancy of the paranoid.

Not anymore. Mass surveillance really happens, and it’s worse than we think.

Shock state snooping

When Edward Snowden joined the NSA, he learned about their colossal surveillance capabilities, including their ability to map the movement of everyone in a city using a unique identifier in their electronic devices. They also logged nearly every telephone call made by Americans, and bugged European Union offices in Washington and Brussels.

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Abuse and conspiracy: the truth about the Catholic Church

Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, a central figure in the Boston scandal

Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, a central figure in the Boston scandal

The Roman Catholic Church calls itself “the universal sacrament of salvation for the human race” and “the one true religion”. It also says that its teachings on faith and morals are incapable of being wrong. It’s totally ridiculous that an institution making such claims would enable and cover up the sexual abuse of children. Ridiculous… and true.

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian church and one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. Funnily enough, for all its sanctimonious claims about its infallibility and having a direct line to God, it’s been in hot water before. In the 16th century, its extravagant wealth, corrupt popes, warmongering and sale of indulgences (i.e. church leaders extorting money from people, claiming it could reduce their punishment for sins) is what sparked the Reformation. The Reformation was basically huge swathes of people telling the Catholic Church to sod off and forming their own churches.

The Catholic Church would say it’s come a long way since then. The recent worldwide sexual abuse scandal proves that it flagrantly hasn’t.

Allegations came to light in the late 1980s involving priests who’d been abusing underage parishioners for decades. However, the revelation of a global horde of paedophile priests (estimated in 2002 to be around 6% of all priests) is one thing. The fact that church leaders were deliberately covering up this abuse and protecting these priests is something else entirely.

Instead of expelling them and handing them over to the authorities, bishops and archbishops were moving abusive priests from parish to parish and destroying evidence of their wrongdoing. In some cases, they were quietly settling cases with victims to avoid police involvement. And in many cases, moving the priests to different churches allowed them to continue abusing children for decades.

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Operation Northwoods – a real government conspiracy exposed

Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the lunatic who approved Operation Northwoods

Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the lunatic who approved Operation Northwoods

“We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.” Yes, these are the actual words of the US Department of Defence (DoD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff, part of a corrupt plan to start a phony war with Cuba.

The villain of a story is often its driving force and most interesting character. I think that’s why I’m drawn to conspiracy theories and conspiracy fiction. An unseen collective menace manipulating events and controlling people from behind the scenes is the most compelling, multifaceted and downright frightening villain in literature, TV and film.

However, while I love taking advantage of conspiracy theories for the purposes of writing Million Eyes and its linked short stories, I’ve always said that I don’t actually believe in many of them. Rather, I don’t have enough information to take up a position either way (well, apart from the totally whackadoodle ones like Flat Earth Theory and the Royal Family being lizards — if you read my blogs, you’ll know my position on those is pretty clear).

In short, I’m sceptical of conspiracy theories.

But then I come across Operation Northwoods, which takes the edge off my scepticism. Proves to me that government conspiracies can happen, do happen and probably are happening right now. Makes me look again at some of the claims made by conspiracy theorists, and wonder if they’re really as crazy as they sound.

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Does Watergate reveal that Nixon was involved in JFK’s assassination?

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

Not all conspiracy theories are bonkers. Watergate is one that actually turned out to be true. But is it possible that Watergate holds the key to another hotly debated conspiracy theory — the assassination of JFK?

Watergate is the reason we attach “–gate” to anything remotely scandalous. There was “Piggate” last year, when rumours spread that Prime Minister David Cameron had done naughty things with a pig when he was a student. “Nipplegate” saw Janet Jackson exposing her boob during the half-time show of the Superbowl in 2004. I remember Eastenders’ now famous love triangle between Sharon, Grant and Phil being dubbed “Sharongate”. We even use it our daily lives — a former boss of mine blew a gasket over my colleague’s failure to use a tray when carrying tea, which we dubbed “Traygate”.

The original “gate” is the conspiracy by the administration of President Richard Nixon to cover up the Watergate burglary. On 17th June 1972, five burglars in the process of wiretapping phones were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.. Initially the break-in was thought to be of minor importance, but two reporters for The Washington Post — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — suspected that there was more going on.

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Assassination by tea! Putin and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko

Wow. It turns out state-sponsored murder isn’t always just a paranoid conspiracy theory…

On 1st November 2006, at the Millennium Hotel in London, ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko – who fled to London in 2000 – took tea with fellow former agents Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.

It’s said that Lugovoi and Kovtun were helping Litvinenko investigate the presence of Russian gangsters in Spain. Litvinenko allegedly had knowledge of links between those gangsters and the Russian government. Lugovoi and Kovtun met with Litvinenko several times in October, and Lugovoi was due to fly to Spain with him in November.

But at their November 1st meeting, Lugovoi and Kovtun double-agented Litvinenko and put a radioactive poison called polonium in his tea. Litvinenko was taken ill and hospitalised that day, dying pretty slowly and horribly over the course of 3 weeks.

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David Manning, the invisible film critic


Between 2000 and 2001, several movies were released by Columbia Pictures that were not very well received by film critics. Well, apart from one. Journalist David Manning heaped high praise Hollow Man (2000) and The Animal (2001) even though no one else did. Did he just have bad taste? No. David Manning wasn’t really there…

David Manning was a journalist for the Ridgefield Press, a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut. He called Hollow Man “one hell of a scary ride!” He called The Forsaken (2001) “a sexy, scary thrill ride!” And he said this of The Animal: “The producing team of ‘Big Daddy’ has produced another winner!” This is while other critics were savaging them, particularly The Forsaken, which has a dismal 8% rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes.

Manning’s comments were used prominently in posters and advertisements for the films, and this is how they attracted the attention of Newsweek reporter John Horn. He was particularly suspicious of Manning’s comment about The Animal, because the film had not been screened for critics.

2001manning01He decided to investigate Manning and contacted the Ridgefield Press, at which point he learned the truth. The newspaper had never heard of him. No other reporters had heard of him either. In fact, David Manning was as invisible as Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man.

John Horn investigated further and discovered that David Manning was the product of a marketing conspiracy. Josh Goldstine and Matthew Cramer, two marketing executives at Sony Pictures (Columbia’s parent company), had invented David Manning and concocted all his ‘reviews’. It’s unclear whether anyone else at Sony knew about the deception. As soon as the truth was uncovered, Cramer and Goldstine were suspended and Sony pulled the ads.

2001manning03The story didn’t end there. Two moviegoers decided to bring a lawsuit against Sony, claiming that they went to see Heath Ledger movie A Knight’s Tale (2001) because of David Manning’s bogus review blurbs. (A Knight’s Tale was actually quite popular with audiences and critics, but these two moviegoers obviously weren’t fans.)

While Sony did not admit liability, an out-of-court settlement was reached. Sony agreed to pay $1.5m to dissatisfied moviegoers ($5 each) who had been to see the movies that were positively reviewed by Manning. It also agreed to pay fines of $326,000 to the state of Connecticut for the deception.

And so David Manning is now an embarrassing marketing misstep in Sony’s history books. But does he also indicate that we may be surrounded by deceptive marketing – flagrant lies about the products and services we use every day – that we just haven’t cottoned onto yet?

Next week: Was Pope John Paul I murdered?