Sunday, May 23, 2004

Terror, conspiracy and thoughtcrime

Recall, if you will, the great terrorist attacks in Russia in 1999.

Four apartment buildings were blown up, killing some 300 people. Citing no real evidence, Vladimir Putin announced that the atrocities were the work of Chechen rebels linked to Osama Bin Laden. Putin's popularity and stranglehold on power skyrocketed; the country plunged into a bloody war in Chechnya. Only a few people asked if the Chechens really did the deed.

Late in 1999, police in the town of Ryazan caught FSB agents in the act of planting a bomb in the basement of an apartment building. (The FSB is the spy agency formerly known as the KGB.) The official story -- which many don't believe -- holds that these FSB men were conducting a security exercise to test preparedness.

A former FSB agent turned lawyer, Mikhail Trepashkin, spent years investigating the apartment bombings, and was prepared to testify in court that the Russian government committed the crime. Not surprisingly, the government arrested Trepashkin, charging him with revealing state secrets to British intelligence and with carrying an unregistered weapon. (Trepashkin claims the gun in question was planted by the officers who pulled over his car.)

Trepashkin has now been sentenced to four years in a penal colony.

The FSB, for its part, claims that the Kremlin-did-it theory of the apartment bombings is nothing more than a disinformation scheme cobbled together by two anti-Putin Russian expatriates living in Britain: former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko and tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Trepashkin would pass information to Litvinenko and Berezovsky, who, in turn, had contacts with MI5; hence the charges of revealing state secrets.

This theory will probably find few converts outside Russia. Indeed, Trepashkin's arrest and conviction will only increase world attention on the lingering mysteries surrounding the bombings.

If the case against the Chechens is as clear-cut as Putin claims, then why did two members of a four-man investigative commission die mysteriously? Why has every independent attempt to settle the controversy been upended? Why did the Russian government put pressure on a key witness to change his testimony about the mystery man who rented a basement in one of the bombed apartments? And could Trepashkin be telling the truth when he identified a widely-circulated sketch of the mystery man as FSB agent Vladimir Romanovich?

Putin's denial of FSB responsibility included this memorable phrase: "It is immoral even to consider such a possibility."

That sentiment may seem oddly familiar. Don't think that way. Don't discuss the evidence. Even the most gingerly-phrased, carefully-couched speculation is odious..

Americans find conspiracy theories more credible when the action takes place overseas. Even Gerry Posner will contemplate the idea of a murder plot, as long as the alleged plotters are Saudi Arabian. Suggest that an odor of fish surrounds the Berg video, and many Americans will express their outrage in fustian shrieks. Suggest that the Russian espionage apparat concocted a bomb plot, and those same Americans will mutter "Well, yeah, sure; it's possible."

The flames of the Reichstag fire may touch other homes. Never ours.

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