On Stopping Conspiracy Theories

I am really surprised at how bad the Obama administration has been at stopping ridiculous conspiracy theories. I had higher hopes for this administration than what I’ve been seeing over the last 2 years.

On Friday President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. I thought that there was no such document, that Hawaii only had birth registration documents. Now, years later and it turns out there is a birth certificate. Seeing how the silly Birthers have been making fodder of this issue since before the election, why in the hell did it take this long to provide this document?

Then came the stunning news that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in the middle of Pakistan.

What could have been an amazing story in a year of stunning news – history being made – was soon sullied by a changing story that has cast doubt on the veracity of any part of the account.

The first reports on Operation Neptune Spear were that there was a gunfight throughout the compound, bin Laden “resisted the assault force” and used one of his wives as a shield, and both were “killed in the middle of an intense gun battle” (New York Times). It seemed cut-and-dry: bin Laden was actively resisting capture. There were rumours of a live video feed from the raid, directly to the White House Situation Room.

Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA (soon to take over at the Department of Defense) provided much of that story. For example, in a television interview on PBS, he said “There were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase of that compound.” The Pentagon claimed that bin Laden was shot while holding an AK-47.

Later, nearly all the details of the raid changed completely.

Now the story is that he gunfight only lasted a few minutes at the start of the operation, as only the courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire and was killed in the return fire from the American forces. No one else fired at the assault force, and no one else was even armed at the time. No one was being used as a human shield. Bin Laden did not have a gun or shoot. And there was no live video feed during the raid, as originally reported.

The easiest way to prevent changing stories in the fog of war is to wait until the full data is available before releasing the information to the press. There was no need to hurry on the story details – the operation was over and did not need to be timely (as it would for an on-going event). The administration cannot be changing the story. This is like catnip to people who believe conspiracy theories.

Finally, the administration has stated that they will not release any photos of bin Laden. This seems to leave a huge hole that can only be filled with more conspiracy theories.

I think the U.S. will have to release photos of bin Laden. Otherwise, it will blow up into another conspiracy theory. But to stop that from happening, they have to do it now. The longer they wait, the more likely that people will think that there is something they are covering up. For example, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay. They released photos in the days following their death in Mosul to prove to the Iraqi people that they really had killed them.

When the government, or members of the government, lie or exaggerate, it causes a loss of faith and trust. This is damaging to the country as a whole. I cannot believe how bad the US government is at understanding this. It seems so self-evident. They should provide the confirmed evidence as soon as possible and don’t change the story.

On a related topic, President Obama stated more clearly than I could what I was trying to say two months ago about terrorists not being Muslim. President Obama said, “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.

[Updated May 6, 2011: Al-Qaeda (القاعدة‎) has acknowledged that bin Laden was killed. Perhaps this will change the need to release photos after all]

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