Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we plumb the depths of the fringe for insight worth having.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 14 seconds. Contains 2049 words
Today I want to zero in on one of my favorite arguments against conspiracies: Project Management.
And I want to shred some of its assumptions.
Not because I think it’s generally wrong, but because I think a lot of the people I’ve seen smugly deploying it haven’t really thought about how a criminal cabal might have more options for project management than their
What is Project Management?
It’s the art, science, and skill of defining, planning, executing, and troubleshooting any kind of plan from making sure your meeting at 2 pm today has snacks and is in a room with a whiteboard that has working dry erase markers all the way up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is the largest public works project I’m aware of.
This matters because plans widely vary in their requirements and any kind of secret plan is going to be more complex than something you’re just doing.
We can go back to the Manhattan Project to get a good idea of what a secret plot can do and who it can and can’t fool.
Of the 130,000 people who were involved in the Manhattan Project, from janitors and laborers up to politicians, generals, and top scientists at most a thousand had a broad idea of what they were doing and less than 100 supposedly knew the whole plan.
This was done through layering physical security with a system of need-to-know clearances. They built most of their bases away from other people and had multiple layers of checkpoints to increase the odds anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there could be identified.
Heavy censorship was applied to all communications, someone sharing unauthorized secrets faced harsh punishment, and so on.
Who did it fool? Well, most everyone until August 6th, 1945.
But it didn’t fool everyone. Soviet Spies had warned the leaders of the USSR that the bomb was in development and eventually smuggled enough technical knowledge out that it shaved years off the Soviet nuclear program.
So, secrecy and punishment were enough to keep most of the world fooled, but not a determined, knowledgable, and well-funded competitor.
I remember reading this gem and laughing out loud. A deep belly laugh.
Having worked with teams in many contexts, this tweet expresses something that’s deep and true in the human condition: We’re kind of a fucking mess when it comes to working together and it takes real effort to overcome that.
Now, Merlin Mann deletes their old tweets so I can’t be sure which 2017 shooting the quoted comment is discussing, but I’m going to assume it was the Jan 6th Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting.
(Gotta love America, right?)
And false flag operations quickly demonstrate how inadequate our secrecy paragon is as a model. The Manhattan Project’s success as a secret plot was based on avoiding people at all costs, even building a couple of wholly new cities to better control information.
But a false flag demands going where people are and making them think that either something happened for different reasons than it did or that something that didn’t happen did.
Which means telling a ton of people about it. It’s a different class of secret plot: Disinformation, as opposed to Hidden information.
More PR than loose lips sink ships.
Now, there are many false flag operations in history. The most famous are two of Hitler’s crimes: The Reichstag fire, which he blamed on communists, and the invasion of Poland, which he blamed on Polish aggression.
And the USA has no shortage of such moments.
The incident that allegedly provided a rationale for escalating our invasion of Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin, basically didn’t happen the way it was reported, which was used as an excuse to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which let LBJ do whatever he wanted in Vietnam.
And we can go further back to the birth of America’s overseas empire to the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, which precipitated the Spanish-American War and “won” us the Philippines and Cuba.
Here’s the thing though: Most of these took place far away from many prying eyes of their intended audience, allowing rumors and lies to grow without much regard for the truth. Once you get a media frenzy going you don’t really need to stop it.
The exception, the Reichstag fire’s narrative was based on Hitler’s longstanding narrative about the communists and a recent bust where they allegedly found evidence of a plot to destroy a national monument.
But in any case, false flags are rarely invented out of nothing Wag the Dog style.
This fine movie opens with the question, “Why does a dog wag its tail? Answer: a dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then it would wag the dog. “
And the movie is about a failing president hiring a Hollywood producer to fake the gulf war to boost his sagging poll numbers before an election.
It’s great and you should watch it.
Especially since a lot of it touches on the issues of how hard it is keeping a secret.
What Smug Project Managers Get Wrong
Let’s go back to our friend the project manager.
Haha, people don’t show up to meetings on time and always talk about stuff.
While these tendencies are true they aren’t monolithic or impossible to address.
In practice, secret cabals have many tools to ensure secrecy and keep everyone on track.
At this point, we’re going to have a content warning. One of the things we kind of have to discuss here includes sexual violence. Maybe stop reading here if that’s going to mess with your day.
One of the ways a group of amoral people who need to trust each other can simulate trust is through shared blackmail. If everyone has the same leverage on everyone and one of them going down means they all go down, suddenly it’s very much like everyone’s in it together.
Mutually Assured Destruction isn’t a nice policy, but it has kept us from blowing up the planet so far and it applies as well to secret groups. Look up Skull and Bones initiation ceremonies if you want an example of this in practice. Then look up a list of Bonesmen. It’s fun!
The idea works well enough to create a level playing field so you can again have collaborators. But there probably won’t be many of those.
Old fashioned leverage or blackmail will work for many other people, as will threats of death or family accidents. Americans seem to kind of imagine this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, but that’s more being sheltered and having a bad news media.
And it’s at this point where we have to bring up the likes of infamous billionaire, rapist, human trafficker, and probable blackmailer Jeffery Epstein.
The global ruling class is a complex network of powerful interests who don’t really like each other. Think Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg (or any other NYC aristocrats). But they share more than they don’t and so they need to be able to work together when needed. Say, to stamp out yet another left-wing protest movement.
One of the mechanisms for this is simple blackmail, which Epstein was likely quite good at acquiring. See, class solidarity doesn’t just happen. Even billionaires have attacks of sympathy now and then.
Epstein’s case is especially interesting because of his short connections to US, UK, and Israeli intelligence through both his now arrested longtime girlfriend and human trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, her father Robert Maxwell, and Epstein’s longtime friend and client, L brands founder Len Wexner. Oh, and Prince Andrew. Can’t forget the royals.
We don’t know all the details here, but many of Epstien’s homes had sophisticated and invasive surveillance systems installed, where he’d woo powerful people, and sometimes rape children with or around them.
What happened to the tapes? Well, if they survived, they’re probably either in the hands of Maxwell or the FBI. Speaking of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover was also a man who appreciated a detailed blackmail file.
It’s how he made sure the bureau didn’t run into any funding issues. He’d find some scandalous detail, invite a congressman over, and say, “Hey, buddy, we heard about this thing that might embarrass you. Wouldn’t want it to get out, would we? That’s what friends are for. We’re friends, right?”
Hoover was a trash person, but an excellent spymaster.
So, let’s continue with options regular project managers don’t have.
I’ve been burying the lede here because the obvious difference between some software team and a criminal cabal is the latter is more than willing to murder to get what they want to be done.
That’s *highly* motivating for many people.
I’ve focused more on the blackmail level because I think it’s more common. I think it was the BBC’s original House of Cards miniseries, about a Chief Whip in parliament, which commented that it’s preferable to have people with secret vices in politics because they’re easier to predict and control than honest people.
The logic at least checks out. Which may account for the staggering numbers of, say, Republican sex criminals over the years. Or how many Congressmen have been caught sleeping with other men.
Why Project Management Matters Anyway
So far I’ve been kinda hard on the notion that it’d be difficult to plan and execute a secret plot, given that it does kinda regularly happen and criminal cabals have serious ways of motivating people.
But that’s no reason to throw project management as a lens to apply to conspiracy theories.
Let’s take two 9/11 conspiracies
Bush did 9/11 and the towers were a controlled demolition.
Bush knew 9/11 was coming and didn’t act to prevent it.
Set aside all the details and let’s focus on these two scenarios.
In #1, Bush would have had to organize thousands of people in secret to plan, organize, conceal, distract, and execute everything that happened on 9/11. And the risk of exposure would be pretty high since so many people would be able to tell in retrospect how they participated in 9/11.
So you’d then have to do a second round of shady killings before any of them decided to snitch.
That’s…. quite a lot of work. Difficult, sophisticated, hard to hide. For starters, there just aren’t that many people with the knowledge and experience to demolish skyscrapers the size of the twin towers. And that’s just one level. What about all the people who supposedly died in the planes? etc.
In #2, the only thing Bush has to do is nothing. The only people who would know are already inside the national security state and thus easy to watch and probably even to discredit or kill if they seem like they’re really tense over some weighty choice.
You can promote them as bribes, threaten them, and all within your own already secret state system.
That’s got, for one thing, vastly fewer moving pieces. Because the intelligence community is already compartmentalized for security, you probably wouldn’t have more than 1-2 dozen people touching the pertinent intelligence and they probably wouldn’t have the whole picture.
Now we ask: Which of those is more likely?
Obviously the second one.
If the rest of the Bush administration is any indication, a Bush run 9/11 would have ended up with a Cessna crashing into some random building because Haliburton and blackwater repeatedly outsourced/subcontracted all the actual work to cronies who didn’t actually have the experience to do it and the whole thing was just an exercise in graft.
So, with a little knowledge of project management, we can get more of an idea of the kind of scale and risks a secret plot would have to address to have a chance of succeeding.
We can’t do this with any precision, of course, because in the abstract it’s hard to know capability details. But it’s definitely enough to prefer more likely hypotheses from multiple options.
This is why I put such an emphasis on looking at how time and resource bound a conspiracy is. If they’ve been around forever, are only looking to achieve vague goals, and can spend unlimited resources to achieve their results… well, they’re probably not real.
Reality is constraining. Learning how to deal with those constraints makes people more predictable.
Tomorrow, I think, we’ll apply this framework to Q and Qanon. Since they’re probably the most successful big tent conspiracies so far.
See you then.