It's easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists who claim that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the U.S. government or that Princess Diana was actually murdered. But just because some accusations are far-fetched, that doesn't mean that conspiracies don't ever happen.
To the contrary, history is filled with examples of real-life conspiracies. Recently, forensic scientists used a computerized tomography (CT) scan to examine the mummy of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III, who died in 1155 B.C., and spotted a wide, deep wound in his throat, probably caused by a sharp blade. That confirmed what Egyptologists already had discovered by perusing ancient papyrus scrolls — that Ramesses had been the victim of a conspiracy by members of his harem, who murdered him in an attempt to seize power [source: ScienceDaily].
But it's also revealing that the conspirators against Ramesses didn't get away with their deed, apparently because they were overheard discussing their plot. Before long, they were arrested and eventually executed [source: Records of the Harem Conspiracy].
As former Nixon White House aide G. Gordon Liddy — a key figure in the notorious Watergate scandal and cover-up — noted, the big problem with conspiracies is that people can't keep their mouths shut [source: Shermer]. That tendency to blab may stem from a desire to take credit for an ingenious plot, but it also may have something to do with the stress of duplicity. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that secret-keeping exacted a physical toll on subjects, increasing the effort needed to perform tasks, and even making hills that they had to climb feel steeper.
So it's no wonder that the bad stuff gets out, eventually. Here are 10 examples of cover-ups that backfired.
In 1894, France's government and army already were struggling with a series of damaging scandals when a janitor discovered papers in the wastebasket of a German military attaché indicating a traitorous French officer was spying for the Germans. French military leaders quickly found what seemed like a perfect way to weasel out of the mess. They framed an obscure army officer, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, as the traitor, possibly figuring that he made a good fall guy because he was Jewish. (Anti-Semitism, sadly, was rampant in 19th-century France). Despite his protestations of innocence, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil's Island in South America.
When the chief of military intelligence, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence that a Maj. Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy was the real spy, his superiors removed Picquart from his post. That's when Emile Zola, the famous French writer, published an expose, "J'Accuse," which irked the military so much, it had him indicted and convicted of libel, forcing him to flee the country.
But the public outcry stirred by Zola grew more intense after another army officer discovered that the conspirators had planted a forged document in the file with the authentic evidence to help convict Dreyfus. He finally got a new trial, and despite a confession from the forger, a military court convicted him again and sentenced him to 10 years' detention. The French premier finally stopped the absurdity by pardoning Dreyfus in 1899 [sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Jewish Virtual Library].
The Dreyfus affair didn't totally eradicate anti-Semitism, but it marked the beginning of a new, more egalitarian French society [source: BBC News].
If you think politics is dirty and corrupt today, it's a good thing you weren't around in the 1920s. That's when the White House was occupied by Warren G. Harding, a charming but dim-witted fellow who privately admitted to friends that the job was beyond his abilities. While not personally dishonest, Harding — who once gambled away the White House china set in a card game — filled his administration with poker and golf buddies, many of whom turned out to be crooks.
Take Harding's Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall. He secretly allowed oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in exchange for several hundred thousand dollars in bribes [source: Miller Center]. After the Wall Street Journal published a 1922 expose revealing that the oil had been sold without competitive bidding, a crusading senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, arranged for the Senate Committee on Public Lands to investigate [source: U.S. Senate].
Harding's attorney-general, Harry Daugherty, who was getting heat for failing to investigate corruption, turned to then-FBI director William J. Burns. Burns sent one of his agents to ransack La Follette's office, to search for anything that might be used to blackmail the senator into silence [source: Jeffreys-Jones]. But that only convinced La Follette that he was on to something, and the investigation pressed on, exposing Fall's shady dealings. Eventually, Fall became the first U.S. cabinet secretary in history to go to prison.
Of all of the breaches of medical ethics in history, it's hard to think of one more heinous than the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," which was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), working with the Tuskegee Institute, from 1932 to 1972. Researchers initially recruited 600 men, including 399 who tested positive for syphilis [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. This sexually transmitted bacterial disease can occur over decades and causes paralysis, blindness, dementia and damage to the brain, heart, bones and other organs and even death [source: CDC].
Researchers didn't tell the infected men that they had the disease or that the purpose of the study was to document how the disease destroyed their bodies. The men were only told they would receive free medical care for "bad blood," a vague term that didn't imply a specific medical condition. And even when penicillin, an effective treatment for syphilis, became available in 1947, the researchers didn't offer it to them [source: CDC]. Between 28 and 100 of the participants died from syphilis, but the death toll may have been higher, since they may have infected others unknowingly [source: Tuskegee Syphilis Legacy Committee].
In the mid-1960s, Pete Buxton, a government social worker came across internal government reports of the study, and protested to higher-ups that it was unethical. After several years of inaction, he handed over proof of the study's existence to a friend at the Associated Press. The resulting outcry forced PHS to shut down the study in 1972 [source: Beech].
But that wasn't the end of the repercussions. The following summer, the government settled a $10 million lawsuit brought by survivors and their families and provided them with lifetime medical care [source: CDC].
In 1950, a physician and epidemiologist, Dr. Ernst Wynder, published a landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pointing to cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer [source: Blakesbee]. In response, six major cigarette makers funded a massive research effort of their own — not so much to find out whether their product did indeed pose a risk, but to "blow smoke" in the public's face.
In January 1954, the Tobacco Institute Research Committee, which later changed its name to the Council for Tobacco Research, ran full-page ads in 400 newspapers claiming that "eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments" and asserting that although the industry believed that smoking wasn't hazardous to health, it pledged to assist "the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health" [source: Boyle et al.].
In truth, the industry's own scientists already knew there was a possible link to cancers; a 1953 survey of scientific literature by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco chemist Claude Teague, for example, concluded that "studies of clinical data tend to confirm" a link between heavy smoking and lung cancer. Yet they continued to try to cloud the issue. A 1972 industry memo described an ingenious strategy of "creating doubt about the health charge, without actually denying it" [source: Cummings, Brown and O'Connor].
Eventually, though, attorneys-general from 46 states in the U.S. joined in a massive lawsuit against the industry. The tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to pay out a staggering $10 billion annually – indefinitely – to make up for the damage they'd done, especially in health care costs [source: Public Health Law Center].
On Nov. 22, 1963, the nation was traumatized by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Two days later, a second shock followed, when suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was ambushed and shot to death by Jack Ruby while in police custody before he could be brought to trial. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, appointed a special commission, headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, to figure out what had happened. The Warren Commission's report, issued in September 1964, concluded that Oswald not only had fired the shot that killed Kennedy from a window in the Texas Book Depository, but also that he had acted alone — as had Ruby, his killer [source: Lewis].
But in the years that followed, skeptics attacked the massive Warren Commission report as an incomplete investigation. They were right. In 1967, an article by syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson posed the theory that Kennedy had been killed not by a lone gunman, but in retaliation for U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plot to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro [source: Select Committee]. The CIA somehow had neglected to inform the commission of those plots, even though both Oswald and his killer Ruby had a number of conspicuous links to Cuba. For example, Oswald had attempted to contact the Cuban embassy in Mexico City at one point [source: Warren Commission Report].
Those and other omissions led a House committee to conclude in 1979 that Kennedy "was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy," though it could not determine who was involved [source: Select Committee]. The mystery continues to this day.
Watergate is the gold standard of botched cover-ups with disastrous consequences. In June 1972, police arrested five burglars at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, where they were attempting to place listening bugs in the offices of the Democratic National Committee. It quickly became apparent that the burglars had links to President Richard Nixon — one of them, Bernard Barker, had a $25,000 check from Nixon's campaign in his bank account.
By October, an FBI investigation had determined that the break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of Nixon — who, somehow, still managed to win re-election in a landslide. But as Congressional investigators started digging into the case in 1973, Nixon and his aides dug in their heels —even after former White House counsel John Dean revealed that he'd had 35 discussions with the president about the cover-up.
Nixon resisted turning over secret tapes of White House meetings, and even fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor that his administration had appointed to at least give the appearance of trying to clean house. Eventually, when Nixon turned over a crucial tape, it had a mysterious 18-and-a-half minute gap in it. At that point, despite his earlier protestations of "I am not a crook," nobody believed him. In July 1974, after the House of Representatives passed the first of three articles of impeachment against him, Nixon finally quit. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him, ensuring that he would avoid being the first U.S. president to go to prison [source: Washington Post].
Except for cigarettes and thalidomide, it's hard to think of a product with a worse reputation for safety than the Ford Pinto, introduced in the 1971 model year [source: Motavalli]. But even though the car sold well, Ford knew that it carried inside it a serious design problem. When the car had been deep into its development cycle, low-speed rear-end crash testing had revealed that the fuel tank's filler neck had a tendency to tear away and spill gasoline under the car. Additionally, the tank itself was easily punctured by bolts protruding from the differential and nearby brackets.
It would have cost an additional $11 per car to fix the problems, but Ford management decided to do nothing, figuring that it cost less to pay off Pinto owners whose cars caught on fire [source: Wojdyla]. Unfortunately for them, a dogged investigative reporter, Mark Dowie of Mother Jones magazine, was willing to sift through the mountain of paperwork in the U.S. Department of Transportation's file cabinets where the company had buried the problem. He unearthed a memo in which the company calculated that settling burn victim lawsuits would save the company $70 million over installing the parts in the Pintos [source: Motavalli].
After Dowie's expose was published, a jury in Orange County, Calif. awarded $125 million in damages to a man who'd been injured in a burning Pinto. Though the penalty was later reduced to $3 million, it was the beginning of the end for the car and the start of a public-relations disaster that took Ford years to get past [source: Wojdyla].
In April 1986, a crew at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine —then part of the Soviet Union — ran a seemingly routine test to see how long a reactor's turbines would continue to supply power to its circulating pumps in the event of a loss of electrical power. The reactor malfunctioned due to an inopportune power surge, and the fuel rods got stuck, overheating the water inside the reactor and causing a buildup of steam. The resulting explosions caused massive amounts of radioactive gases and debris to spew into the atmosphere for 10 days — the biggest such uncontrolled release in history not from a nuclear bomb.
Two workers died immediately from the explosion. Twenty-eight more, including six firemen who struggled to put out fires on one of the plant's rooftops, died later from radiation exposure, and winds carried the radiation far and wide across the Soviet Union and even to other European countries [source: World Nuclear Association]. But despite the magnitude of the disaster, Soviet officials didn't publicly admit that the accident had occurred until two days later, when Swedish officials sounded the alarm about increased levels of radiation drifting westward.
Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waited an astonishing three weeks before even mentioning the accident publicly. He later claimed, somewhat implausibly, that the Kremlin had difficulty getting the full story, and "we realized the entire drama only later." But the rest of the world responded with such scathing criticism that Gorbachev felt compelled to lift information restrictions, not just about the disaster but other government misdeeds as well. That period of "glasnost," or openness, ultimately hastened the end of the Soviet regime itself a few years later [source: Associated Press].
In 1973, Massachusetts-based Roman Catholic priest James R. Porter, sent a disturbing letter to Pope Paul VI. Porter admitted that he had been sexually abusing children for years, and asked that he be relieved of his duties before he hurt anyone else. "I know in the past that I used to hide behind a Roman collar, thinking that it would be a shield for me," he said.
But Porter's personnel file, obtained in 1992 by the Boston Globe, revealed that Porter had considerable help covering up his crimes against roughly 100 young boys and girls. In the course of his 14-year career, Porter had been removed from his duties at least eight times by superiors because he had assaulted children, and sent to receive mental health treatment for pedophilia — only to be allowed to resume his work after they were satisfied that had been cured of his predatory predilections [source: Butterfield].
For decades, the Catholic hierachy — both in the U.S. and in other countries — engaged in a systematic effort to cover up crimes by its clergy. But when victims of priestly abuse finally began going public in the 1980s, widespread outrage led the truth to come out.
A study commissioned in the 2000s by church officials in the U.S. revealed that between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests had been accused of sexual abuse. Some, such as Porter, ultimately were convicted and sent to prison. But the church itself also paid dearly for the cover-up. By one estimate in the late 2000s, various U.S. archdioceses have paid out more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits by victims [sources: Chinnici, Boston Globe].
British tabloid journalists don't exactly have a sterling reputation for ethics. But even so, the scandal about their hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians, sports stars and crime victims was a shock. The first revelations emerged in November 2005, when Clive Goodman, royal editor at the tabloid News of the World, wrote a story about a previously unrevealed knee injury suffered by Prince William. The Royal family quickly guessed that someone had hacked into the prince's mobile phone voicemail to get the scoop. Scotland Yard arrested Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator employed by the paper [source: BBC News].
The pair was sentenced to jail in 2007 after revealing that they'd obtained back-door codes used by network operators and used them to listen in on several hundred messages [source: BBC News].
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2009, the Guardian, a rival newspaper, revealed that News of the World's parent company, News Group International, had paid out more than $1 million British pounds (about U.S. $1.5 million) to quietly settle lawsuits that might reveal the use of phone hacks and other data thefts to obtain inside information about important people [source: Davies]. In 2011, the Guardian further reported that police had discovered that the phones of more than 5,800 people — including celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant — had been hacked by Mulcaire [source: O'Carroll].
As a result of the scandal, international media baron Rupert Murdoch shut down News of the World in 2011 [source: Sky News] In 2012, he admitted that there had been a cover-up and publicly apologized, claiming that had he understood the depth of the misdeeds, he "would have torn the place apart" [source: Greene].
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Author's Note: 10 Attempted Cover-ups That Just Made Things Worse
I have a certain fondness for revelations about cover-ups, because in the 1980s, I worked as a newspaper reporter. One of my big stories was a Sunday Magazine piece on the leak of a toxic cloud from a chemical plant in West Virginia. The company that owned the plant insisted that local residents had no reason to fear harm from the release. But that assurance wasn't so comforting to the residents. I discovered that there had been a long history of leaks from plants in the area, and that many residents suffered from diseases that they blamed on them.
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