by Stephen Kinzer
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson
Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown
University. Follow him on Twitter
A Syrian girl holds an oxygen mask over the face of an infant
makeshift hospital following a reported
gas attack on Douma,
besieged rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus.
HASAN MOHAMED/AFP/Getty Images
Brave Guatemalan air force pilots rebelled against a leftist regime
in 1954 and used their planes to bomb the regime's bases.
Army commanders also
rebelled; Guatemalans could hear them directing troop movements over
the radio. Finally these patriots won their revolution. The United
States trumpeted their victory around the world.
This was a "false flag" operation - staged by one force but made to
look as if someone else did it.
Planes that bombed targets in
Guatemala were painted with Guatemalan air force insignia, but the
pilots were CIA contractors. Radio messages about
troop movements had been pre-recorded at a CIA base in Florida. A
revolution that seemed to be emerging from one country, Guatemala,
was actually the project of another, the United States.
False flag operations are a well-established tactic.
agencies have staged them. Often they are successful. They lead the
world to blame a crime or atrocity on an innocent party while the
true culprit remains obscure.
Computer technology has brought a host
of new "false flag" possibilities, as hackers and counter-hackers
compete to leave misleading electronic trails.
Some critics of
American involvement in Syria's civil war doubt that
the recent poison gas attacks near Damascus were launched on orders
from President Bashar al-Assad, as the United States and its
allies have asserted.
The last such attack came
just days after President Trump vowed to pull American troops out of
Syria. It led Trump to reverse
course, denounce "animal Assad," and order bombing instead.
brought cheers from those who wish for an open-ended American
presence in Syria, including,
Syria's government again
These events - along with the fact that intelligence agencies
operating in the Middle East are highly sophisticated - raise the
question of whether some other force could have staged gas attacks
in order to cast blame on Assad.
The French government
produced an intelligence report concluding that,
"there is no
plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed
One day, more information
may emerge. More than a few false flag operations have become public
after they were botched, or after researchers discovered evidence
that perpetrators tried to hide.
Throughout history, false flag operations have been used to provide
casus belli - a justification for war:
In 1788 a squad
of Swedish soldiers dressed in Russian uniforms attacked a
Swedish military outpost, giving King Gustav III grounds to
Manchuria in 1931 after its forces bombed its own rail line
there and blamed the Chinese.
In 1939 the Nazi
leader Reinhard Heydrich dressed concentration camp inmates
in Nazi uniforms, had them shot, and then, seeking to win
sympathy for the Nazi occupation of Poland, claimed that
Polish partisans had killed them.
That same year,
Soviet forces bombarded a Russian village near the border
with Finland, blamed it on the Finns, and four days later
Some false flag
operations require committing murder and other crimes that can be
blamed on the enemy.
The effect is greatest
when the crime is especially horrific.
During the 1970s,
Africans working for an elite Rhodesian force called the
Selous Scouts killed hundreds of civilians while disguised
as Mozambican soldiers.
in Turkey staged attacks and blamed them on Kurdish
commandos disguised as terrorists carried out killings that
were used to justify police repression.
in Russia have been accused of staging bombings that they
blamed on Chechen rebels.
Not all false flag
operations come to fruition.
In 1954, as the
British were preparing to withdraw troops from Egypt, Israel
tried to scare them into staying as protection against Arab
operatives recruited agents to set off bombs at American and
British cinemas, libraries and schools.
The bombings were
to be blamed on Communists and the
Muslim Brotherhood, but
the plan was discovered. Israel's defense minister was
forced to resign.
In 1962, senior
American officers proposed a large-scale false flag
operation aimed at providing what one memo called
"justification for US military intervention in Cuba."
stages, it involved plans for sinking a boat full of Cuban
refugees, shooting down a civilian airliner, and
assassinating Cuban exile leaders in Florida - all to be
blamed on Cuba.
proposal urged that if the launch of astronaut John Glenn
failed, the United States should blame it on Cuba.
a military attack on a Latin American country staged to look
as if Cuba had ordered it.
proposed organizing an assault on the US base at Guantanamo
so they could use it as proof of Cuba's hostility.
these plans to President Kennedy at an Oval Office meeting,
but he rejected them.
In the cyber age,
intelligence services have become adept at staging attacks on
computer systems that can be attributed to others.
This is a modern
permutation of an age-old technique.
False flag operations succeed
because many people reflexively jump to accept official narratives.
Conveniently timed attacks that give pretexts for war, however, are
not always what they seem.
History suggests that we
should await clear evidence before falling into well-laid traps...