The term was originally used to describe pirates’ wielding of friendly (and false) flags to lure merchant ships close enough to attack. Nothing has changed, really.
Illustration: (US State Dept./M. Gregory)
18 February 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media
- A false flag operation is an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party. The term “false flag” originated in the 16th century as a purely figurative expression to mean “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives”. Wikipedia
- a hostile or harmful action (such as an attack) that is designed to look like it was perpetrated by someone other than the person or group responsible for itIn case you didn’t know, a false flag is an incident that is designed to deceive people into thinking it was actually carried out by someone else.— Nick Giambruno –Merriam-Webster
Only Russia takes part in ‘false flag operations.’
Only the USA takes part in ‘false flag operations.’
You see where we are going here.
False flags are often written off as the illegitimate sister of so-called ‘conspiracy theories,’ which means that there is also bound to be some truth in almost every ‘false flag’ proclamation.
But it quickly becomes a Catch-22. With the advent of social media and satelite photos, is it now possible to stage a ‘fake flag operation’ that may in itself be a ‘false flag operation.’? The party of the first part, as it were.
At the moment, the media would have us believe that only Russia is capable of a ‘false flag operation,’ but that does not mean it cannot also be a US-based obsession. It is not like each nation has to put up their hands and ask permission.
But they are both using the same playbook, which means that it is always possible that once one country starts a ‘false flag operation’ the other country is also putting into place their own ‘false flag operation’ to counteract the other one.
So who to believe? No one. All we can do it take each ‘incident’ on its own terms and carefully watch out for the next one, bearing in mind, of course, that the current ‘false flag,’ or the next one, may-well be a ‘false flag operation’ about a ‘false flag operation.’
In short, despite what you might read in social media, it is not always necessary to accept any ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘flase flag operation’ as 100% true or false.
(See also: False flags are real, but far less widespread than social media suggest for a typically earnest ‘black or white’ assesment and How Russia conducts false flag operations published by the US Embassy in Georgia. )
As Lenin suggested, perhaps it is better to ask yourself: tag cui prodest? or ‘who stands to gain?’
Is that too paronid? Of course it is.
But we didn’t make the rules, did we.
James Porteous / Clipper Media
17 February 2022 | Scott Radnitz | The Conversation
In the past few weeks, U.S. officials have warned several times that Russia plans to create the appearance of an attack on its own forces and broadcast those images to the world. Such a “false flag” operation, they alleged, would give Russia the pretext to invade Ukraine by provoking shock and outrage.
By exposing this plan, the Biden administration sought to undermine its emotional power and stop the Kremlin from manufacturing a casus belli, or justification for war.
But false flag attacks aren’t what they used to be. With satellite photos and live video on the ground shared widely and instantly on the internet – and with journalists and armchair sleuths joining intelligence professionals in analyzing the information – it’s difficult to get away with false flag attacks today. And with the prevalence of disinformation campaigns, manufacturing a justification for war doesn’t require the expense or risk of a false flag – let alone an actual attack.
The long history of false flag attacks
Both false flag attacks and allegations that states engage in them have a long history. The term originated to describe pirates’ wielding of friendly (and false) flags to lure merchant ships close enough to attack. It was later used as a label for any attack – real or simulated – that the instigators inflict against “friendly” forces to incriminate an adversary and create the basis for retaliation.
In the 20th century, there were several prominent episodes involving false flag operations. In 1939, agents from Nazi Germany broadcast anti-German messages from a German radio station near the Polish border. They also murdered several civilians whom they dressed in Polish military uniforms to create a pretext for Germany’s planned invasion of Poland.
That same year, the Soviet Union detonated shells in Soviet territory near the Finnish border and blamed Finland, which it then proceeded to invade.
The U.S. has also been implicated in similar plots. Operation Northwoods was a proposal to kill Americans and blame the attack on Castro, thereby granting the military the pretext to invade Cuba. The Kennedy administration ultimately rejected the plan.
In addition to these actual plots, there have been numerous alleged false flag attacks involving the U.S. government. The sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 – each of which was a critical part of a casus belli – have been claimed as possible false flag attacks, though the evidence supporting these allegations is weak.
Global visibility, disinformation and cynicism
More recent and even less fact-based is the “9/11 Truth” movement, which alleged that the Bush administration engineered the destruction of the twin towers to justify restrictions on civil liberties and lay the foundation for invading Iraq. Right-wing pundits and politicians have promoted the conspiracy theory that Democrats have staged mass shootings, such as the one at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, in order to push for gun control laws.
If people believe that false flag operations happen, it is not because they are common. Instead, they gain plausibility from the widespread perception that politicians are unscrupulous and take advantage of crises.
Furthermore, governments operate in relative secrecy and have recourse to tools of coercion such as intelligence, well-trained agents and weapons to implement their agenda.
It is not a huge leap to imagine that leaders deliberately cause the high-impact events that they later exploit for political gain, notwithstanding the logistical complexities, large number of people who would have to be involved and moral qualms leaders might have about murdering their own citizens.
For example, it is not controversial to note that the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to build support for its invasion of Iraq. Yet this led some people to conclude that, since the Bush administration benefited politically from 9/11, it therefore must have caused the attacks, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The challenge of credibility
The willingness to believe that leaders are capable of such atrocities reflects a broader trend of rising distrust toward governments worldwide, which, incidentally, complicates matters for leaders who intend to carry out false flag attacks. If the impact of such attacks has historically come from their ability to rally citizens around their leader, false flag attacks staged today may not only fail to provoke outrage against the purported aggressor, but they can also backfire by casting suspicion on the leaders who stand to benefit.
Furthermore, investigators using open source intelligence, such as the Bellingcat collective of citizen internet sleuths, make it more difficult for governments to get away with egregious violations of laws and international norms.
Even as the Biden administration attempts to blunt Russia’s ability to seize the initiative, it too faces credibility challenges. Reporters were justifiably skeptical of State Department spokesman Ned Price’s warning about Russia’s false flag plans, especially since he did not provide evidence for the claim.
Skeptics pointed to the August 2021 drone strike during the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, which the military initially asserted was a “righteous strike” to kill a suicide bomber but that later turned out to be a mistaken attack on an innocent man and his family. It took overwhelming and undeniable evidence from media investigations before the U.S. government admitted the mistake.
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Insofar as the Kremlin might expect to benefit from executing a false flag attack, it would be to manufacture a casus belli among Russian citizens rather than to persuade audiences abroad. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of Russians are opposed to invading Ukraine, yet they also harbor negative attitudes toward NATO.
The spectacle of a provocation aimed against Russia on state-run television might provide a jolt of support for an invasion, at least initially. At the same time, Russians are cynical about their own leaders and might harbor the suspicion that a purported attack was manufactured for political gain.
False flag alternatives
In any event, Russia has other options to facilitate an invasion. At the start of its incursion into Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin used “active measures,” including disinformation and deception, to prevent Ukrainian resistance and secure domestic approval. Russia and other post-Soviet states are also prone to claim a “provocation,” which frames any military action as a justified response rather than a first move.
By contrast, false flag operations are complex and perhaps overly theatrical in a way that invites unwanted scrutiny. Governments seeking to sway public opinion face far greater challenges today than they did in the 20th century. False flag attacks are risky, while leaders seeking to manufacture a casus belli can select from a range of subtler and less costly alternatives.