False (Freak) Flag Operation

There is an exclusive list of shocking events which subsequently become fodder for conspiracy theories. The bombing of Pearl Harbour. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The death of Princess Diana. 9/11. The Sandy Hook mass shooting. Each of those is claimed by the theorists to have been a “false flag” operation, in which a convenient villain is scapegoated for something clandestinely arranged by a bigger, hidden party for its own ulterior ends. Now the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 have joined that roster, in Tom O’Neill’s 2019 book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.

Across 500 pages and an admitted twenty years of obsessive research, the case made here is that Charles Manson and his followers were tools of the FBI and the CIA, cultivated in a long-term strategy to discredit or sow discord among both the sex-and-drug hippie underground and the Black militant groups of the late 1960s. O’Neill and co-author Dan Piepenbring don’t say that anyone besides the convicted killers were really guilty; they do imply that a range of shadowy forces, including national intelligence agencies, Hollywood elites, and local police and legal officials (including Manson prosecutor and Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi) knew more than they ever revealed about the crimes. That’s probably correct as far as it goes, but O’Neill goes way, way further.

Where to begin? As with other conspiracy theories, Chaos falls apart less on any particular unproven allegation as on its overall premise. The main logical fallacy committed throughout is the one that runs, “X is the accepted story; I’m the only one independent enough to say Y; therefore Y must be true.” But merely contradicting the canonic Helter Skelter account, for which O’Neill frequently congratulates himself, doesn’t necessarily make his version more credible. Other researchers – notably Jeff Guinn, in 2017’s The Life and Times of Charles Manson – have already cast doubts on Bugliosi’s line that Manson organized the killings of August 1969 to incite an apocalyptic race war, yet are scarcely mentioned here. Instead, O’Neill seems to believe his skepticism is a profound revelation.

Living up to its title, Chaos brings in verified CIA and FBI efforts to infiltrate and subvert various sects of the counterculture, like the Black Panthers and student agitators; Cold War-era psyops schemes devised deep within the US government, some involving the administration of powerful hallucinogens; and a sordid cast of retired cops, clinicians, lawyers, and showbiz types hanging around the periphery of the Manson story. In fairness, nothing in the book is definitely cited as indication of a big cover-up, but its distinction between investigative reporting and innuendo is pretty blurred, and the concluding chapter asks the portentous hanging question, “Where Does It All Go?” Here, too, O’Neill relies on the ex post facto reasoning of the classic conspiracy theory: take a widely known incident and retroactively compile all the connections, inconsistencies, and coincidences that surround it, in order to suggest the incident was the intentional, inevitable outcome of an elaborate plot. This is essentially the same logic that detects Satanic messages in popular rock songs or sexual imagery encrypted in cigarette ads, whereby the most compelling evidence of secret machinations they don’t want us to know about just happens to be the most accessible (popular rock songs and cigarette ads are, by definition, extensively publicized). Conspiracy theories like Chaos are built on the audience’s familiarity with the original episode, so that no amount of conjecture is too confusing and no trail of suspects is too convoluted, as long as it all somehow culminates in the same settled conclusion everyone recognizes.

How much more persuasive these theories would be, if they accurately predicted a future event rather than analyzed a past one: if someone had written in 1968, “Given that the US security apparatus will go to great lengths in battling perceived enemies, it might groom and manipulate an isolated figure (a seedy ex-convict, say) into forming some kind of radical cult-like organization that goes on to make the whole protest movement look really bad.” Such a forecast might have been fulfilled by Manson and his Family of homocidal flower children – although, even then, sex, drugs, and protest have never lost their appeal to generations of impressionable youth, and Manson himself became something of a folk hero. So the explanations floated in Chaos, drawing on fifty years of hindsight and second guesses, come down to a combination of cui bono (“Who benefits?”) and Manchurian Candidate hypotheses that history has long invalidated. After all this time, perhaps we should finally stop indulging in such aimless, exploitative speculation and let Manson’s victims – and the sailors at Pearl Harbour, JFK, MLK, RFK, Princess Diana, the casualties of 9/11, and the toddlers of Sandy Hook – rest in peace.