Did The CIA Invent the Term "Conspiracy Theory" [Trenchant Edges]

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 37 seconds. Contains 1525 words

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter about fringe ideas and the people who promote them.

After a reckless, self-indulgent post about an obscure piece on writing advice by Jordan Peterson, I wanted to get back to basics today.

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Spend some time around fringe folks and dare to express some skepticism and you’ll find someone telling you that the term conspiracy theory is itself a conspiracy; A phrase drummed up by the CIA in the wake of JFK’s assassination.

But was it?

Nobody Reads The Primary Sources

There are generally two forms of blaming the CIA for this idea. The more extreme version, that the CIA coined the phrase itself in 1967 in a document called “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report”. Or check out the full scan here

A lesser version suggests that while they may not have coined it, they certainly popularized it.


I’ve taken a look at a few different fact-checkers’ reports on this question and am somewhat unsatisfied.

So I did what I always do: Hunt down the primary source.

The fact-checkers seem to be doing a lot of missing the forest for the trees here.

They appear quite correct that the term far predates the CIA and that this document is far from any kind of smoking gun about weaponizing the term “Conspiracy Theory”.

But that’s not all it says.

And some of them make contradictory claims themselves about when “Conspiracy Theorist” became pejorative.

The fact-checkers use a variety of sources to disprove the notion the term came about in 1967, from Google Ngram:

Etymology.com traces the term back to the 19th century, with more modern and more pejorative uses starting in the late 1930s in the works

I think that’s enough to show, broadly, that there were conspiracy theories long predating the JFK assassination.

The Nay-Sayers

OK, so I want to spotlight some of the people who argue for it.

Here’s a guy on Quora:

First, CIA Document 1035.960 is the warren commission report we mentioned earlier.

This last paragraph appears to be a quote where the CIA claims the document they’re just writing played a definitive role in weaponizing conspiracy theories.

Which is… just fucking wild. A hell of an aspirational mission statement.

Maybe this isn’t supposed to be a quote, but it definitely looks like it’s supposed to be.

I do not understand this train of thought.

This repeats the general myth.

We should be clear here: there are plenty of examples of “Conspiracy Theory” being used to gatekeep or ridicule.

Here’s the problem: The stereotype of the conspiracy theorist is frequently correct.

There really are irrational people free-associating around a narrative they’ve prejudged as correct for ego or profit.

There are also courageous truth-seekers trying to find evidence of real crimes hidden by the powerful.

Sometimes they’re the same person.

Motivation is complex. And someone recognizing a flaw in one narrative correctly doesn’t guarantee that they won’t tilt at a windmill somewhere else.

Finding hidden secrets is hard, actually.

Worse, because it’s much easier to be passionately wrong than carefully right, it’s easy to stumble on right conclusions through wrong methods.

And we haven’t discussed how muddying the waters with disinformation makes assembling an actually correct picture of anything immeasurably harder.

As a rule, I don’t trust people who have found THE TRUTH. I trust the search. Or, at least, I trust looking at how someone searches to reveal their intentions and biases.

Back to that Smoking Gun

Let’s start with some basics about Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report or CIA Document #1035-960.

First, it’s kinda valid that the government in general and CIA particularly would be concerned about people accusing them of murdering the president.

That’s kind of a problem even if you didn’t do it.

Maybe especially if you didn’t do it.

It’s not unreasonable that an organization might want to have a coordinated response to such an accusation.

But the devil here is in some of the details.

Let’s just zoom in on section 3, shall we?

3. Action. We do not recommend that discussion of the assassination question be initiated where it is not already taking place. Where discussion is active [business] addresses are requested:

a. To discuss the publicity problem with [?] and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out that the Warren Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible, that the charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further speculative discussion only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.

b. 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, (I) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories. In the course of discussions of the whole phenomenon of criticism, a useful strategy may be to single out Epstein's theory for attack, using the attached Fletcher [?] article and Spectator piece for background. (Although Mark Lane's book is much less convincing that Epstein's and comes off badly where confronted by knowledgeable critics, it is also much more difficult to answer as a whole, as one becomes lost in a morass of unrelated details.)

So the real issue here has nothing to do with the phrase Conspiracy Theory.

It’s about the secret influence on the media by the national security state.

Because while the fact-checkers are right that this document does not actually explain a secret plan to invent or change the meaning of the term conspiracy theory, it *does* explain how they plan to gatekeep away criticism with both smear and argument.

And to do it without being obviously responsible.

It’s the kind of thing that makes people paranoid about the CIA.

Now, it’s important to remember that prior to the 1970s, the CIA was seen as a mostly respectable institution. It was entirely normal for professionals to collaborate with them. Their excesses, like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, were seen as exceptions and not a sign of a terminally colonialist organization doing whatever it can to impose global US capitalist hegemony on the world.

It was respectable.

So this isn’t a smoking gun exactly.

What it does say is:

  1. The CIA did have some kind of influence network set up around journalism.

  2. They would deploy that network as a defense.

This brings us to a very complex question: Exactly how much influence on the media does the CIA have? Is that influence at odds with, say, the influence the Pentagon has on the media?

I again recommend Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent as an overall guide here.

There’s also the issue of Operation Mockingbird, an alleged CIA operation to control public opinion operating from the 1950s to the 1970s when it was outed by the Church committee.

And, of course, the rehabilitation of the CIA in the eyes of liberals after the Bush years and demonization of them in the eyes of conservatives in the Trump Years. With many more former CIA employees getting open positions in the media

It’s, uh, not encouraging.

Anyway, this has been another issue of, “Stephen tries to write a short piece so he can focus on other work and ends researching and writing for two hours.”

Wrapping Up

The bottom line here is that the CIA didn’t invent the term Conspiracy Theorist. It did suggest a low-key propaganda campaign be used to discredit JFK Truthers.

And if you wanna be real paranoid, the upswing in uses of the term does more or less correlate with the 1947 founding of the CIA. But since both of those things were really about the escalating paranoia and tension between the USA and USSR, I don’t think there’s anything that needs some kind of explaining.

The CIA has a long history of investigating and supporting a wide range of cultural activities it thinks would be beneficial to promote. And that influence undoubtedly continues today in some form.

You can still book a time to talk with me via zoom.

Here’s next week’s publication schedule:

  • Monday: The Positive Disintegration Theory of Kazimierz Dabrowski (The only personality development theory that maps to my experience)

  • Tuesday: The Rebrand Announcement!

  • Friday (Subscriber Only): Reflections on Interviews about the development of the New Age.

  • Sunday: American Alternative Religious Movements

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  1. What’s your favorite CIA crime?

  2. Should I try to untangle all that Operation Mockingbird shit?

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