April 25, 2015

Operation Northwoods and Mental Models

In 1962, the United States Government wanted to go to war with Cuba for a myriad of reasons.  The Central Intelligence Agency knew that the public would never support the aggression, having spent the prior three decades at war with Germany, Japan, and, later, what we now call North Korea.  To overcome this reluctance, the CIA drafted a proposal called Operation Northwoods.  The documents are now available because of the Freedom of Information Act, and you can download them here.

The plan was simple:

  • Set off a series of bombs in major American cities
  • Make attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees so that media coverage would show the graphic nature of their injuries
  • Stage the murder of innocent civilians
  • Stage the hijacking of civilian airplanes
  • Fill a jet with secret operatives posing as college students and then blow up a replica of the jet over the Atlantic ocean while the real plane landed at an airbase
  • Shoot down and murder astronaut John Glenn while in orbit and blame it on Cuba

All of these acts were to be committed by CIA operatives and blamed on Cuban terrorists to make the public willing to turn over more money, more freedom, and more control to the military-industrial complex.  Assuming the drafters of the proposal were acting in good faith, the theory was that a few hundred American murders would save millions in the event of a nuclear exchange with Cuba, which then seemed possible giving its close relationship with the Soviet Union.  (Most people are not monsters; they truly want to do the right thing.  This is what leads me to believe that it was a cost-benefit analysis that involved extra-Constitutional acts that were illegal, immoral, and grounds for execution were they to come to light at the time.)

Operation Northwoods Cover

Operation Northwoods – Click to Download the PDF of the Unclassified Original Documents

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the plan.

President John F. Kennedy, using his executive power, killed Operation Northwoods, forbidding the military from going through with the staged bombings, murders, and hijackings.

Some believe that this pattern of Kennedy acting as a constant check on the so-called “black ops” of the United States were among the reasons he was gunned down in the middle of Dallas.

Why does any of this matter?  History.  I imagine that the attacks in Boston were almost certainly the act of either a domestic or international terrorist or terrorist group, protesting some policy of the United States Government, either real or imagined.  However, the moment you hear someone accuse a journalist or news anchor of being a “crackpot” for suggesting that a faction within the government itself may have been involved – something I’ve seen at least a dozen times this morning by people with no knowledge of history – appreciate how truly and utterly naive they are and the depth of their ignorance of past events.

Is it unlikely?  Yes.  Extremely unlikely.  Is it possible?  Most certainly.  

Operation Northwoods was not an isolated incident.  This is the same government that had a rogue faction purposely murder poor black men by pretending to treat their syphilis infections in a program called The Tuskegee Experiment so the effects of the disease could be studied.  It went as high as the Surgeon General of the United States, who took part in actively encouraging the participants to remain in the experiment, even though they didn’t realize they were slowly being killed!

This is the same government that had a rogue faction that conducted illegal and non-consenting tests on countless American citizens, including dosing them with drugs in their food and water supply, hypnosis, sexual abuse, isolation, and torture, to study the response under varying conditions as part of something known as Project MKUltra.  They specifically targeted “people who could not fight back” including mental patients, prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts.  That way, no one would believe them when they told their stories.

It has been done before and it will be done again.  If you think this is something a small group within a larger government or corporation isn’t capable of doing, or that it wouldn’t even consider, you are living in a fantasy world of lollipops and gumdrops, deluded into a false sense of security as unicorns prance around you in meadows of cotton candy.  You vastly underestimate the corrupting influence of unchecked power, secrecy, unlimited funding, and lack of accountability.  As Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  Bad things grow, and terrible things happen, in the darkness.  That is why a free press, and a non-negotiable constitutional right to privacy, must be as fiercely defended as the freedom of speech.  That’s why checks and balances are so important.  That is why an educated citizenry is vital.

Whether you think it is the case or not, don’t just sit back and let someone denigrate a fellow citizen for even considering the possibility that a small group within government itself was behind the Boston attacks even though I sincerely, personally doubt that to be the case.  The odds are fairly overwhelming in the age of digital cell phone recordings and always-on Internet that it probably wasn’t.  (As I said, it was almost certainly the act of an ideological zealot who is trying to force some sort of change.)  But if you can’t even discuss the possibility in public, we’ve forgotten all of the lessons of the Cold War era, Watergate, and the Iran Contra Scandal.  Namely: Everything should be up for discussion; everything should be considered.

President Kennedy Operation Northwoods

President Kennedy stopped the United States military from going through with a plan called Operation Northwoods, which called for setting off bombs in cities on the East Coast, murdering American citizens, and blaming it on Cuban terrorists.  One year later, he was assassinated in Dallas.  One theory is that his constant thwarting of the black ops of the CIA were responsible for the agency wanting to have him killed.

I’m growing tired of this anti-intellectual, “zero tolerance”, do-as-your-told culture that has been trying to take hold these past few decades.  Guess what?  The Church is not beyond reproach – it was harboring the biggest pedophile ring in the world. The Government is not beyond reproach – it was willing to slaughter its own citizens to justify a war, blaming it on terrorist.  Your doctor is not beyond reproach – he was willing to let you die to provide data on a sexually transmitted disease, lying to your face about curing you.  There are no sacred cows.  There is nothing that is “poor taste” when talking about finding those responsible for such horrors.  You need to be rational, intellectually disciplined, and brutally logical.  It’s part of overcoming your bias and “authority respecting tendency” in mental model speak.  You need to trust your reason and judgment, not institutions or men.  Facts don’t lie but people do.

As Voltaire taught us centuries ago, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”  There is no official, nor office, that should be beyond scrutiny.  To consider the remote possibility that the United States Government was somehow involved, or at least aware, of the attacks given that they were straight out of the military playbook of the 1960’s is neither insensitive nor foolish.  It’s basics Civics 101.  If someone were to posit such involvement, a rational person never responds, “You are a crackpot”.  Instead, he or she says, “Based upon what evidence do you draw this conclusion?” and then examine it for himself or herself.

This particular area – government involvement in immoral activities – is nothing new.  President Eisenhower point blank warned the American people in his farewell speech less than a year before Operation Northwoods that the rise of corporations specifically built to profit from weapons was going to result in a conspiracy to constantly drive the American people to war and to grab more of their liberties and money.

Eisenhower implored the American people: “… we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.  We must never let the wake of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic process.  We should take nothing for granted.  Only an alert and knowledgable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”   He also warns against “mortgaging” the assets of future generations as it will inevitably result in a loss of their heritage and power.  This is one of the greatest speeches by any world leader in history.

I’m trying to teach you to become rationalists.  Rationalists weigh the evidence and look at the information.  No question is ever beyond asking, no matter how minute nor theoretical.  After all, if history has taught us anything, it is that the ideas which are heretical today are established dogma tomorrow.  Think about how radical it was to believe that the world was not, in fact, flat, and that the Earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe.

This post isn’t even about the attacks in Boston.  It is about a culture of complacency and intellectual laziness.  This is the end result of educational policies such as the one that is trying to be forced through in Texas right now.  It’s only possible if social studies and history are neglected in the education system.  You cannot outsource your thinking to your parents, your friends, your Church, your government, or your professional peers.  Think independently, and do not allow anything to be beyond scrutiny.  It’s this pitfall that causes the mothers of serial killers to sit in courtrooms, ignoring evidence, and wailing about how “good” their child is.

All possibilities must be considered; all evidence must be weighed.  Do not believe a conspiracy if the evidence is against it.  Do not discount a conspiracy if the evidence is for it.

  • Jacob

    Thank you for expressing my thoughts so well!!!
    Ever looked into the cause of the twin tower’s collapse? It definitely wasn’t because planes hit them!

  • James

    Asking questions is fine for most rational people, but when some people ask these questions (and come up with poor answers) it leads to them doing horrific things. Timothy McVeigh was very anti-government and very into conspiracy theories. Eric Rudolph also. Many people associate these conspiracy theories with people like Rudolph and McVeigh and their actions, hence the fairly rational backlash.

    It’s also just poor taste to cry false flag and push a personal political agenda after a tragedy. Josh, I’m absolutely not saying you are doing this, but others have in the last 24 hours, and did after Newtown as well.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

      You are absolutely correct.

      I recall reading a study once that showed certain types of brains are obsessed with, and prone to believe in, almost any conspiracy theory, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. (I’m of the school of Hanlon’s razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”) A person who falls into such a camp is not, by definition, a rationalist. That is one of the reasons the United States Government sometimes released secrets to comply with disclosure laws through papers like the National Enquirer – it reaches millions of people, but most folks won’t believe it because the conspiracy nuts latch onto it first.

      My problem is the counter-reaction – that we should somehow “not question” an institution or a government. It’s such a dangerous way to think.

      I understand what you are saying about the personal political agenda. The reaction to the Boston attacks has been deeply upsetting to me. Within a few hours of the details emerging, I saw people turning it into a political platform about whatever their personal pet issue is. I’ve heard people blame gun supporters, muslims, marriage equality, right-wing extremists, and liberals, without any evidence upon which to establish the assertion.

      I’ve only witnessed two events like this in my lifetime – the September 11th attacks when I was in college and the Oklahoma City bombing when I was in sixth grade. The non-censored photographs made me physically ill. I finally decided that the only thing I could do for now was turn off the news, put down the paper, and go to the kitchen. I ended up putting on French cafe music, getting out raw ingredients and spices, and making a giant pot of the chicken vegetable soup I perfected last year, letting the fragrance fill the house at 1 a.m. as I thought about the families and the injured. It made me realize why my grandparents’ generation baked during the wars. There is something healing, and productive, about it.

      • James

        I agree with you 100% on people assuming the person(s) behind Boston fit whatever their political pet peeve might be. Quite honestly, I did it myself in the first moments before mentally stepping back.

        Turning off the news is almost always the right thing to do in the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, in my opinion. Possibly longer even. I have two small children and so I still don’t know many of the details surrounding Newtown because I know I’m just not able to handle it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.pierson.54 Joe Pierson

    You don’t have to go back to 61 to look for complacency and intellectual laziness, just look at the Iraq war,the government didn’t need to hide anything to gain support for immoral activities.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

      I remember being in New Jersey on the phone with my best friend in New Mexico when the United States lined up at the border of Iraq before the invasion, both of us going, “What the hell is happening right now? How is this taking place? This has nothing to do with September 11th.”

      I can remember it as vividly. It made no sense.

      (My personal theory is that if there is even a remote possibility of peak oil theory being true, the ability to secure an energy source for national security reasons while we were out bombing Afghanistan, anyway, would have been rational, though immoral, under a cost-benefit analysis. Iraq’s oil is being pumped out of the ground and shipped back to the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, I have a stake in Royal Dutch Shell through my personal brokerage and retirement accounts, and it is about to start capturing gas in a $17 billion project known as Basra Gas Co. The biggest oil field, Rumaila, in Iraq is being co-managed by British Petroleum. The notion that we would invade a weak nation on the pretext of war to secure energy reserves for national security purposes is neither far fetched nor anywhere near the worst a powerful country has done. It makes no sense in the long-run; nuclear is a far more rational energy source but there aren’t vested interests that want to promote it on a scale anywhere near crude and natural gas.)

      • Matt N

        Minor point, but BP is just “BP plc” now, not British Petroleum. The name was changed, I think, after the Amoco merger in 98 to BP Amoco, and then to just BP in 2001. Doesn’t really matter (and I suspect you probably know this already), but as someone who works in the oil industry, it just sounds slightly strange to still call it British Petroleum – a bit like still calling Citi, Citicorp for example.

        • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

          Haha, I know. In my head, I still think of it as British Petroleum, just as I say Kentucky Fried Chicken when referring to KFC and Union Bank of Switzerland when talking about UBS. I’m not sure why, but I seem to reflexively ignore business names that used to represent acronyms. Maybe it seems lazy to me. I don’t have a clue.

          (On a naming side note, I think it’s kind of sad BP dropped the Amoco, which was originally called Standard Oil of Indiana. It was a piece of royalty in the oil hierarchy, coming from John D. Rockefeller’s empire.)

          I’ll try to stop doing it, but even in my portfolio spreadsheets, I write everything out fully. It would be a hard habit to break.

        • Matt N

          Haha – I used to work at UBS – it drove them mad when people called it Union Bank of Switzerland (particularly people on the Warburg side who came from Swiss Bank Corporation before the merger)!

          You go ahead and write it however you like though – it’s your blog!

          Agree about the Amoco name though – do they at least still have Amoco branded filling stations in the states though? I suspect there’s a chance the brand could make a bit of a comeback under Dudley (given his heritage)

        • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

          There has been some discussion about the benefits of using the Amoco name. Around the area where I live, they all switched over to BP branding several years ago, though Shell and QuickTrip are more popular.

          It may not be a bad idea for them to diversify the branding in the event of a major catastrophe. Rockefeller was smart about this – he would operate different businesses under different names with no visible link to each other so customers didn’t realize all of the money was going back to him. When the oil spill happened, revenues at BP stations dropped, whereas I doubt it would have affected Amoco branded stations nearly as much, if at all.

        • Ian Francis

          Heck, I work at PPL Corp, just PPL Corp. It used to be PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light), but about 10-15 years ago they changed to just PPL Corp. Those who worked here prior to the change STILL call it PP&L or Pennsylvania Power and Light. I understand they are just doing it out of habit, but after a decade you would think that would slowly transfer over to the new name. They have not.

      • Kenneth

        “Nuclear is a far more rational energy source” – totally disagree with this, you must think Chernobyl and Fukushima cannot happen again. On the other hand, I totally agree that government is capable of anything, including false flag pretenses. Not just our government of course. Instead of minding their own business and providing government services, they try to control EVERYTHING for their own purposes. The CPI is a joke. The unemployment data is a joke. Zerohedge last year said the payrolls report was revised downward over 90 percent of the time (initial report is always too optimistic). To keep the pretenses going that the economy is “growing”, we are deficit spending over a trillion dollars a year. The Federal Reserve is buying $85 billion a month, thats $1 trillion a year, of our own debt. Why? Because no one else will buy $1 trillion a year of treasuries at the artificially suppressed rates. And if rates came back to a normal level like 4 or 5 percent on the 10 year, we would be crushed with the interest costs alone. For all of these reasons and more, it’s hard to be fully invested in the stock market for me. We got crushed to 666 S&P not so long ago, and it could happen again. Things are not as rosy as we have been led to believe, that the US is experiencing “modest growth”.

        • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

          A Chernobyl and Fukushima every 30 years (forgetting the fact the former is less likely to happen due to massive improvements in processes, safety, and technology) is a fantastic trade-off relative to the benefits 1.) for the trade deficit, 2.) for carbon levels, 3.) for energy costs, 4.) for national security.

          All of life is an opportunity cost. The benefits far exceed the downside, even when things go wrong. France is a perfect example. Despite getting a lot of other things wrong, they have one of the best domestic energy policies of any nation on the planet.

          Opposition to nuclear is entirely superstitious pseudo-science that, in some quarters, approaches the realm of a secular religion for the ignorant. There is no rational objection to a highly regulated, intelligently designed nuclear energy policy.

          As for the economic data, you are correct that it is mixed. There are really “two economies” now in the United States – one for college graduates, who still have a barely 3% unemployment rate, and one for everyone else. The lower down the education scale you go, the more painful it becomes.

          The government CPI figures – they seem very keen on excluding energy and food as “non-core”, which strikes me as absurd – aren’t satisfactory to me so I substitute the higher historical rates in my own personal analysis. Even now, I never build in an inflation assumption these days of less than 4% going forward. This is predicated on the assumption that we will not slide back into deflation and, instead, the expansion in the monetary supply, which has now exceeded the black hole left by the collapse of the credit bubble, wil begin to exert significant pressure on prices.

          As for the S&P 500 falling to below 700: From your lips to God’s ears. What a wonderful turn of events that would be. Can you imagine buying Royal Dutch Shell at a 9% dividend yield? Or Coca-Cola at a 4% dividend yield? What a wonderful gift such an event would be to long-term investors.

      • VA

        I used to think it was a plausible theory also, and still don’t know if access to oil reserves was part of the initial consideration. But having looked at the situation there recently, it doesn’t seem to be the outcome. Today you’ve got large oil co’s based in US, UK, China, Russia, and other countries all producing oil in Iraq. Moreover, the revenue sharing contracts are very advantageous to Iraq by global industry standards.

        • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

          Very true.

      • Andrew


        I think I know why the 9/11 incident took place.

        They (CIA) were trying to pass The Patriot Act, along with other things. They were told it couldn’t have happened – unless people died. A lot of people. (This is how all tyrannical laws are passed).

        So they demo’d the towers.

        Bush came with a modified version of The Patriot Act, basically one NO ONE has read, completely reversing the constitution. And got it passed late at night.

        This happened (bombings. Along with the obvious school shootings and similar.) over and over and over again, to pass laws granting the CIA more power, and the citizens less.

        Please, if you’re interested in 9/11, there is MOUNTAINS of proof, from many sources, about the CIA’s involvement in so many things now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.zimmerman.92351 Jeff Zimmerman

    Joshua, we can be thankful President Kennedy saw the idiocy of the plan and sacked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who signed off on it. This also caused Kennedy to lose support of the military, but he knew how important it was to keep an even-tempered path through a crisis. It is similar to how much flak Everett Koop took when he stuck to his guns in the face of increasing lunacy.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon


  • lokgp

    This is quite shocking to read from Joshua’s post. I was reading the first 10 lines and thought to myself, “Since when, Joshua starts accepting that his government might have a conspiracy against the world?” Its unbelievable. Immediately I stopped reading and examined the article pdf for evidence before letting Joshua reach a conclusion for me.

    I’ve always suspected that there are indeed dark powers pulling strings in the shadows, which is self-interested, willing to spend human lives to obtain benefits. Whenever we do a cost benefit analysis like this, it simply means there are different price for different human beings depending on who you and where you are. But this idea is so insanely wicked, that it will be rejected by most people that I ever mention it to. Being knowledgeable produces its own set of problems. Ignorance can certainly bring peace. You and I understand that there is “consistency bias” in your opinion. You are not at fault. I would have done the same. Sometimes, “selective” acknowledgement keeps you sane.

    I can only hope for a better world.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.pierson.54 Joe Pierson

      In the grand scheme of things we all make decisions that price different humans lives differently. 25,000 die every day of hunger, mostly in Africa, that could be saved for a few bucks a day. So look at any Red Lobster Restaurant on Friday night, what you see are bunch of people who are doing a cost benefit analysis and decided that the pleasure of eating out is more important then saving a hundred lives in Africa. As you say selective ignorance brings peace and sanity.

    • Andrew

      I have to say, it turns my stomach everytime I see doubt to what has happened thousands or even millions of times in history, by the same sector of men and women (government).

      It really does…

      Please, I’m serious when I say this, but this “selective acknowledgement” has lead to hundreds of millions, if not billions of people dying terrible deaths. I know it’s comforting to ignore terrible things, but I don’t agree that it’s a good policy.

      If you have the time, I strongly suggest you read up on the CIA. Please? Maybe an hour or so that’s all. It’ll help understand sooo many things about our country, I promise.

  • Pax North

    To clarify though Joshua, the pdf you link to does state that all civilian deaths are to be ‘simulated’. Their is a part which reccomends that the US base at Guantanamo Bay would have mortar shells lobbed at it, and ammunition depots blown up, which would likely have resulted in the death or injury of US military personel mind you.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

      True, most would have been faked with the “real” deaths considered being shooting a boatful of Cuban refugees trying to make their way to Florida, the murder of astronaut John Glenn in orbit, attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees living in Florida, and carefully placed plastic explosives in Miami, other Florida cities, and Washington, D.C. Between those, you’d be looking at several hundred grotesque injuries and a few dozen deaths.

      Plus, if it was successful, it would have led to a global war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which probably would have killed hundreds of thousands of people, both military and civilian.

  • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

    There has been a lot written about it and more details released in the subsequent decades as it was a follow up to something called Operation Mongoose. Take an hour or so to research it as if you were a college paper; it’s interesting.

    Most of the deaths were going to be faked, with the horror being psychological. However, many weren’t. Page 8-9 calls for developing a terrorism campaign that targets Miami, other Florida cities, and Washington, D.C. It is to attack Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. This includes sinking a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated) – so they were perfectly willing to consider blowing up a boat filled with fleeing mothers and children trying to make it to a better life in the United States – as well as having attempts made on the lives of Cubans living in the United States, making sure their wounds were “widely publicized”.

    Also on page 9, “Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots …” I’m not sure how you’d detonate bombs in a major American city to the point they captivated the nation and expect no casualties or horrific injuries.

    Northwoods also called for the military to secretly shoot down and murder astronaut John Glenn while in orbit, blaming the Cubans as it would be a huge psychological blow to the United States at the time. I can’t recall if that is in the document I linked to or in the subsequent releases about the program. They ended up deciding against it and Glenn resigned to enter politics.

    There is also the fact that if the operation had been successful, it would have launched another global war that would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, both military and civilian, as the United States and Russia drew battlelines across the planet. That was the end game.

    (To be clear, I do not think the evidence supports the idea that some group within the government was behind the Boston bombings. Personally, I’m inclined to believe it was most likely a domestic terrorist like Timothy McVeigh. This post isn’t really about the Boston bombings at all. What I have a problem with is a significant percentage of the citizenry immediately rejecting the mere notion that it would be possible for an institution in power – in this case the government – to do something inherently evil despite the fact that we’ve shown a willingness to engage in actions far worse.)