Global viral pandemics, insane right-wing dictator-wannabes trying to set fire to the planet, and climate change aside, I'm officially declaring 2020 to be the Year of the Conspiracy Theory.
This was the year when QAnon, a frankly puerile rehashing of antisemitic conspiracy theories going back to the infamous Tsarist secret police fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, went viral: its true number of followers is unclear but in the tens of thousands, and they've begun showing up in US politics as Republican candidates capable of displacing the merely crazy, such as Tea Partiers, who at least were identifiably a political movement (backed by Koch brothers lobbying money).
Nothing about the toxic farrago of memes stewing in the Qanon midden should come as a surprise to anyone who read the Illuminatus! trilogy back in the 1970s, except possibly the fact that this craziness has leached into mainstream politics. But I think it's worrying indicative of the way our post-1995, internet-enabled media environment is messing with the collective subconscious: conspiratorial thinking is now mainstream.
Anyway. When life hands you lemons its time to make lemonade. How could I (if I had more energy and fewer plans) monetize this trend, without sacrificing my dignity, sanity, and sense of integrity along the way?
I'm calling it time for the revival of the big fat 1960s-1980s cold war spy/conspiracy thriller. A doozy of a plot downloaded itself into my head yesterday, and I have neither the time nor the marketing stance to write it, so here it is. (Marketing: I'm positioned as an SF author, not a thriller/mens adventure author, so I'd be selling to a different editorial and marketing department and the book advances for starting out again wouldn't be great.)
So, some background for a Richard Condon style comedy spy/conspiracy thriller:
The USA is an Imperial hegemonic power, and is structured as such internally (even though its foundational myth--plucky colonials rebelling against an empire--is problematically at odds with the reality of what it has become nearly 250 years later). In particular, it has an imperial-scale bureaucracy with an annual budget measured in the trillions of dollars, and baroque excrescences everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in the intelligence sector.
The USA has spies and analysts and cryptographers and spooks coming out of its metaphorical ears. For example, the CIA, the best-known US espionage agency, is a sprawling bureaucracy with an estimated 21,000 employees and a budget of $15Bn/year. But it's by no means the largest or most expensive agency: the NRO (the folks who run spy satellites) used to have a bigger budget than NASA. And the mere existence and name of the National Reconnaissance Office were classified secrets until 1992.
It has come to light that about 80% of the people who work in the intelligence sector in the US are not actual government officials or civil servants, but private sector contractors, mostly employed by service corporations who are cleared to handle state secrets. By some estimates there are two million security-cleared civilians working in the United States--more than the number of uniformed service personnel.
Keeping track of this baroque empire of espionage is such a headache that there's an entire government agency devoted to it: the United States Intelligence Community, established in 1981 by an executive order issued by Ronald Reagan. Per wikipedia:
The Washington Post reported in 2010 that there were 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies in 10,000 locations in the United States that were working on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, and that the intelligence community as a whole includes 854,000 people holding top-secret clearances. According to a 2008 study by the ODNI, private contractors make up 29% of the workforce in the U.S. intelligence community and account for 49% of their personnel budgets.
USIC has 17 declared member agencies and a budget that hit $53.9Bn in 2012, up from $40.9Bn in 2006. Obviously this is a growth industry.
Furthermore, I find it hard to believe--even bearing in mind that this decade's normalization of conspiratorial thinking predisposes one towards such an attitude--that there aren't even more agencies out there which, like the NRO prior to 1992, remain under cover of a top secret classification. I'd expect some such agencies to focus on obvious tasks such as deniable electronic espionage (like the Russian government's APT29/Cozy Bear hacking group), weaponization of memes in pursuit of national strategic objectives (the British Army's 77th Brigade media influencers)), forensic analysis of offshore money laundering paper trails--the importance of which should be glaringly obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in world politics over the past two decades, or trying to identify foreign assets by analyzing the cornucopia of social data available from the likes of Facebook and Twitter's social graphs. (For example: it used to be the case that applicants for security clearance jobs with federal agencies were required not to have Facebook, Twitter, or similar social media accounts. They were also required not to have travelled overseas, with very limited exceptions, not to have criminal records, and so on. Bear in mind that Facebook maintains "ghost" accounts for everyone who doesn't already have a Facebook account, populated with data derived from their contacts who do. If you have access to FB's social graph you can in principle filter out all ghost accounts of the correct age and demographic (educational background, etc), cross-reference against twitter and other social media, and with a bit more effort find out if they've ever travelled abroad or had a criminal conviction. The result doesn't confirm that they're a security-cleared government employee but it's highly suggestive.)
But I digress.
The 1271 government organizations and 1931 private companies in 2010 have almost certainly mushroomed since then, during the global war on terror. Per Snowden, the proportion who are private contractors rather than civil servants, has also exploded. And, due to regulatory capture, it has become the norm for outsourcing contracts to be administered by former employees in the industries to which the contracts are awarded. There's a revolving door between civil service management and senior management in the contractor companies, simply because you need to understand the workload in order to allocate it to contractors, and because if you're a contractor knowing how the bidding process works from the inside gives you a huge advantage.
Let us posit a small group of golfing buddies in DC in the 2000s who are deeply disillusioned and cynical about the way things are developing, and conspire to milk the system. (They don't think of themselves as a conspiracy: they're golfing buddies, what could be more natural than helping your mates out?) They've all got a background in intelligence, either working in middle-to-senior management as government agency officers, or in senior management in a corporate contractor. They know the ropes: they know how the game is played.
Two of them take early retirement and invest their pensions in a pair of new startups: one of them--call them "A"--remains in place in, say, whatever department of the Defense Clandestine Service is the successor to the Counterintelligence Field Activity. They raise a slightly sketchy proposal for a domestic operation targeting proxies for Advanced Persistent Threats operating on US soil. For example: imagine QAnon is a fabrication of APT29. We know QAnon followers have carried out domestic terrorism attacks; if Q is actually a foreign intelligence service, is it plausible that they might also be using it to radicalize and recruit agents within other US intelligence services?
One of our retirees, "B", has established a small corporation that just happens to specialize in searching for signs of radicalization at home and by some magical coincidence fits the exact bill of requirements that our insider is looking for in a contractor.
Our other retiree, "C", has established a small corporation that produces Artificial Reality Games. As has been noted elsewhere Qanon bears a striking resemblance to a huge Artificial Reality Game. One of their products is not unlike "Spooks", from my 2007 novel Halting State; it's a game that encourages the players to carry out real world tasks on behalf of a shadowy national counter-espionage agency. In the novel, the players are unaware that they're working for a real national counter-espionage agency. In this scenario, the game is just a game ... but it's designed to make the players look plausibly similar to actual HUMINT assets working in a climate of surveillance capitalism and so reverting to classic tradecraft techniques in order to avoid being located by their dead letter drop's bluetooth pairing ID. But because they're actually gamers, on close examination they prove to not be actual spies. In other words, C generates lots of interesting false leads for B to explore and A to report on, but they never quite pan out.
So far, so plausible. But where's the story?
The clockwork powering the novel is simple: A runs his own pet counter-espionage project within the bigger agency and arranges to outsource the leg work to B's contractors on a cost-plus basis. Meanwhile, C's ARG designers create a perfectly balanced honeypot for B's agents. (The boots on the ground are all ignorant of the true relationship.) B is a major investor in C via a couple of offshore trusts and cut-outs: B also funnels money into A's offshore retirement fund. It's a nice little earner for everybody, bilking the federal government out of a few million bucks a year on an activity nobody expects to succeed but which might bear fruit one day and which meanwhile burnishes the status of the parent organization because it's clearly conducting innovative and proactive counter-espionage activity.
Then the wheels fall off.
C's team are running a handful of ARGs (because to run only one would be kind of suspicious). They are approached by the FBI to set up a honeypot for whichever radical group is the target of the day, be it Boogaloo Boys, Antifa, Al Qaida, Y'all Qaida, or whoever. And it turns out the FBI expect them to do something with the half-ton of ANFO they've conveniently provided (as an arrest pretext),
B's team meanwhile discover a scarily real-looking conspiracy who are planning to start some sort of war over the purity of their precious bodily fluids. A countdown is running and A's expected to actually make progress and arrest a ring of radicals before they blow anything up.
And A gradually comes to the realization that he and his golfing buddies are not the first people to have had this idea: they're not even the biggest. In fact, it begins to come to light that an entire top level division of the Department of Homeland Security (founded 2003! 240,000 employees! budget $51.67Bn!) is running plan B and funneling money to prop up various adversarial sock-puppets, one of which appears to have accidentally stolen half a dozen W76 physics packages (which, just like the good ole' days with the Minuteman III stockpile, have a permissive action lock code of "00000000"). The nukes are now in the possession of a bunch of nutters led by a preacher man who insists Jesus is coming, and his return will be heralded by a nuclear attack on the USA. But the folks behind the DHS grift can't do anything about it for obvious reasons (involving orange jumpsuits and long jail terms, or maybe actual risk of execution).
A can't expose this grift without attracting unwelcome attention, and a likely lifetime vacation in Club Fed along with his buddies B and C. But he doesn't want to be anywhere close to DC when the nukes go off. So what's a grifter to do?
C gets to give his ARG designers a new task: to set up a game targeting a very specific set of customers--conspiratorially-minded millenarian believers who are already up to their eyes in one plot and who need to be gently weaned onto a more potent brew of lies, right under the nose of the rival APT agents who have radicalized them ...
Climax: the nukes are defused, the idiot conspiracy believers are arrested, then the FBI turn up and arrest A, B, and C. On their way out the door it becomes apparent that they've been set up: they, themselves, were suckered into setting up their scam via another conspiracy ring to generate arrests for the FBI ...
(Fade to black.)