It was reported this week that, in response to Princess Diana’s 1997 car accident, the Queen’s first comment was that “someone must have greased the brakes.”
In a similar vein, at the start of August three members of the Bin Laden family died in a plane crash that was variously described as taking place under “perfect weather conditions” and “didn’t make sense.”
Such peculiar accidents of politically divisive figures in Western democracies can be found peppering news broadcasts in the West every year, leading to popular suspicions that powerful forces – usually tied to the CIA or MI6 – wanted them to be liquidated for reasons that need to be kept away from public scrutiny.
The most well-worn case is, of course, President John F. Kennedy, but the allegations keep flowing with regards to more contemporary figures like Dr. David Kelly (suicide), Michael Hastings (crashed into a tree), Yasser Arafat (stroke), Gareth Williams (suffocated to death in a holdall), and of course Princess Diana. These individuals variously expressed fear for their own lives and/or died in circumstances that a layman would consider freakish. In a quintessential example, journalist Gary Webb, who had exposed CIA involvement with drug trafficking, supposedly committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the head – apparently his hand shook so he blew off his jaw with the first shot.
One independent researcher, Joël van der Reijden from the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Covert Politics has catalogued several hundred deaths that have raised suspicions of covert involvement by powerful figures in the West.
And yet, despite the myriad rumours and conjecture, to this day, nobody in the US or UK governments has been charged with, let alone convicted of, wrongdoing in these cases. Reijden acknowledges that none of the cases he outlines qualifies as a five out of 5 definite government hit and cover up.
Does this mean that such perverse circumstances surrounding these deaths are simply the result of peculiar set of coincidences? Or does it sometimes mean that powerful people have readily available capabilities to enact and conceal their crimes?
Such questions are highly provocative, for obvious political reasons (broadly, those who buy into “the West” versus those who don’t) but also for scholarly reasons. To claim that secret political assassinations occur requires one to make judgments on the basis of evidence that is, by its very nature, incomplete, and also to draw on a range of technical competencies which few people legitimately possess.
So, if I was to say “Did the Royal Family murder Princess Diana?” you might well have an opinion one way or another. I know I do. Yet how many of us are qualified as accident reconstruction specialists sufficiently to make that judgment? Is there anyone in the world who is simultaneously sufficiently knowledgeable about the assassination techniques and capabilities of the specific organisation under suspicion? And is that researcher also equipped with the requisite knowledge of the historical context and psychological motivations for this alleged assassination? Really? So you have CCTV rigged up inside Buckingham Palace? It reminds me of Keith Richards’ rather appropriate response when asked about the Princess’ death: “I never knew the chick.”
The huge difficulties inherent in arriving at any definitive reckoning on such cases has led to two absurd tendencies in serious-sounding discourse. Most obviously, there are some conspiracy theorists who lump together any information that fits their paranoid world view. On the other hand, though, there is also a large and respected body of scholars who seek psychological explanations to account for a conspiratorial mind-set, the latest being two Cambridge academics who ask whether conspiracy theorists are “complete losers.”
Neither approach is holistic or satisfying, to my mind. In fact, the latter is an academic industry that, whilst not necessarily saying anything technically wrong, nonetheless feeds the narrow perception that “conspiracy” only matters because it tells us something about the weirdness of its proponents. And yet few of us question the judgment of people who allege that the radioactive death of Alexander Litvinenko can be traced back to Vladamir Putin, do we?
Why do we put such emphasis on examining people who believe in conspiracy theories but, with honourable exceptions like the great psychologists Stanley Millgram and Philip George Zimbardo, we are so much less likely to ask the obvious counter-questions like “Why don’t people believe in conspiracy theories?” and “Why do people trust the authorities?” Indeed, why aren’t scholars more assiduously examining the actual evidence of alleged high-level criminal activity instead of jumping off at these psychological and sociological tangents?
I spent over three years conducting empirical research into a case study that encapsulated these issues. Gary Devore was a Hollywood screenwriter who I suspected may have been murdered by the US government in 1997 because he was on the verge of publicising sensitive information about the US’ role in Central America during the 1980s. Devore had made CIA contacts throughout his entertainment career and then vanished without trace whilst driving home on a major Californian freeway around 1am in June 1997. A year later, an “amateur detective” and former armaments worker made a lucky guess that led police to Devore’s car and skeletonised body in just fifteen feet of water beneath an aqueduct bridge. The authorities concluded that Devore was driving the wrong way and fell into the water. In so doing, Devore would have needed to have ignored “Do Not Enter” signs and driven three miles the wrong direction without realising and without any witnesses.
Many believe that Devore’s accident was faked and that he was the victim of a “forced disappearance.” It was not just unlikely but physically impossible, they say, for Devore even to have driven the vehicle those final miles because his headlights were in the “off” position and therefore he would not have been able to see.
Still, cases of wrong-way driving kill dozens of people every year in California.
Plus, I also acquired specifications from Ford for Devore’s particular motor vehicle. These indicated that Devore may have had “automated headlights” which could have made his final maneuver technically more feasible. Despite a long string of emails, ultimately even the Ford company could not provide a clear answer as to whether this particular make and model of the car had these functions and, of course, no one could be sure exactly what Devore had either activated or deactivated.
In addition, of course, when an event starts seeming suspicious, it’s then hard to shake that suspicion. But ultimately, would the Devore case have been any less suspicious had the amateur detective simply been a dog-walker? Or if the aqueduct water had been much deeper? Probably not, because as soon as it was known that Gary had “CIA contacts” and “vanished without a trace,” the basis for a conspiracy theory was already firmly established.
In Devore’s case, though, I also discovered a set of information that supported the conspiracy explanation. Was it simply confirmation bias when a private autopsy report I exclusively acquired, which had never been reported in the press, called Devore’s death “Homicide by undetermined means”? Was it simply confirmation bias when I exclusively acquired photographic evidence that established the private coroners had been working on body parts - presumably supplied erroneously for some reason by the authorities - that were not those of Gary Devore? Was it simply confirmation bias when a senior figure from the Reagan/Bush White House who investigated the case behind the scenes at the time, exclusively told me that Gary had secretly traveled abroad with CIA contacts, and called his death a “cover-up”?
Where does this leave us regarding criminal activity and cover ups by powerful people? Well, for a start, it is clear that what really happens in these controversial “accidents” is extremely difficult to determine. In fact, it is worse than useless to assume much, if anything, about an alleged assassination, one way or another. To know what happened with any degree of certainty requires proper in-depth detective work and a working knowledge of a range of disciplinary fields. A cursory examination of the facts, let alone a snap judgment based on viewpoints of conspiracy, tells us more about the analyst than the incident itself.