THIRTEEN

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CRITICS, ALARMISTS AND CONSPIRACY THEORISTS

WHEN DOES PARANOIA MAKE SENSE?

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF EXTREME FUNDAMENTALIST RELI-gious sects, most people assume a laissez-faire attitude towards neighbors and co-workers who profess a belief in fairies, ufos, personal angels or similar entities. As long as the acceptance or skepticism has no impact on our lives, we feel free to harbor our own convictions and tolerate those of others.

Should our response to a neighbor's belief in secret societies be different? Since most organizations qualifying as secret societies—with the exception of Cosa Nostra, Triads and Yakuza—are for the most part benign fraternal groups, how seriously should we take claims that they are manipulating our lives without either our knowledge or our approval? And how far should we go in investigating the agenda of these groups?

The latter question is a practical one, with practical limitations.

Anyone with an Internet connection and a search engine can summon up dozens of societies whose stated beliefs and agenda range from promoting alchemy (Central Ohio Temple of Hermetic Science) and “Benevolent Satanism” (United Luciferan Church of France) to conducting telepathic relations with Mars (Aetherius Society). Many such organizations are, in reality, variations on long-established societies such as Masons and Gnostics, or alternative religions pursuing a belief in karma and reincarnation. Their activities, no matter how much or how little we subscribe to their tenets, should remain entirely their concern.

From time to time, however, the curtain is drawn back to reveal disturbing, often tragic, activities stemming from a clandestine group. Among these was the Order of the Solar Temple. Its impact may have been minimal and limited, but the lesson of its birth and demise is important if only because it determines the transition point between a cult and a secret society. Solar Temple began as the former, and almost morphed into the latter.

Solar Temple consisted of several dozen trusting members and their children under the command of two charismatic leaders: Joseph Di Mambro, a French citizen born in Zaire, who became something of an expert in audio-video effects; and Luc Jouret, a Belgian physician who reportedly drew strength to conduct the group's ceremonies from having sex with one of the female members of the congregation. The Order of the Solar Temple was founded by Jouret and Di Mambro in 1984; its formal name, revealed only to the highest qualified members, was International Chivalric Organization of the Solar Tradition. Di Mambro had abandoned his trade as a jeweler after becoming a member of amorc, the dominant Rosicrucian group. He left amorc under circumstances involving a charge of swindling, and in 1970 moved to a region of France near the Swiss border where he posed for several years as a psychologist.

In 1978, Di Mambro met Luc Jouret, and together they joined the Renewed Order of the Temple, dedicated to Templar and Rosicrucian themes. Jouret became the Grand Master, but within a year he was forced out for, rumor has it, misappropriation of the order's funds. Di Mambro and many other followers left with him, and the ragtag group eventually formed the Order of the Solar Temple with Jouret filling the post of Grand Master.

Originally a licensed physician, Jouret proved to be a charismatic leader who attracted a number of recruits to the organization during a lecture tour of Switzerland, France, and Quebec, Canada. As the organization grew, Jouret and Di Mambro established three levels of membership. The entry level, Amanta, was for new initiates attracted by Jouret's lectures and seminars. The next level, Archedia Clubs, was reserved for members who wished to further explore the ideas and teachings of the order. The most highly qualified members were added to the International Chivalric Organization of the Solar Tradition.

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The Order of the Solar Temple, founded by Luc Jouret, might have achieved secret society status.

Jouret continued on the lecture circuit, promoting himself as “Luc Jouret, Physician, Revealing Secrets of Love and Biology.” The sessions segued from “love and biology” to a hectoring message of spirituality and apocalypse, with Jouret warning of volcano eruptions, vanishing forests and other environmental disasters. Only a small core of people physically and intellectually strong enough would survive the catastrophe, Jouret cautioned his audiences. The Solar Tradition was seeking those who qualified, preparing them to inherit the earth when all others were gone.

In his lectures, Jouret claimed he had been a Knight Templar in a previous life, and asserted he would lead the most loyal of his followers to a planet orbiting Sirius. He also claimed to be a third reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that his daughter had been immaculately conceived. Over time, he and Di Mambro crystallized the Solar Temple's philosophy into a blend of neoTemplarism, New Age philosophy, Christianity and survivalist paranoia. Life was an illusion, members were taught. “Liberation is not where human beings think it is,” Jouret warned. “Death can represent an essential stage of life.” The end was nigh, the world would end by fire, and only the most trusted members of the Solar Temple would escape the flames. Meanwhile, Jouret pledged to lead the group towards a number of vaunted objectives reminiscent of Templar goals, including the following:

1. Re-establishing the correct notions of authority and power in the world.

2. Affirming the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal.

3. Giving back to man the conscience of his dignity.

4. Helping humanity through its transition.

5. Participating in the Assumption of the Earth in its three frameworks: body, soul, and spirit.

6. Contributing to the union of the Churches and working towards the meeting of Christianity and Islam.

Each ceremony began with a confession of sins. Instead of the privacy accorded to this process in Roman Catholicism, this confession was conducted as guided group meditation, the effect enhanced by luminous particles that appeared to materialize from the participants’ bodies courtesy of video tricks performed by Di Mambro.

Things grew more bizarre. Before conducting ceremonies, Jouret sought a female member to provide the strength he needed to deliver his lectures by having sex with him. During many of his ceremonies, spiritual beings seemed to appear at Jouret's command, thanks not to Jouret's spiritual powers but to expensive electronic projection devices operated by Di Mambro. While Di Mambro's primary duties occurred backstage, he also was fond of engaging in sexual liaisons with female members of the order, presumably to give him strength to operate the projector.

Membership grew to about 500 in the early 1990s, which is when trouble arrived. Jouret had advised members to stockpile weapons in preparation for the end of the world, which led to Jouret being charged with illegal gun possession in Canada. Shortly after a member of the order named Tony Dutoit publicly spoke out against the Solar Temple he, his wife Nicky and their child were murdered in their home in Morin Heights, Quebec, killed with shocking savagery—Dutoit suffered more than fifty stab wounds, his wife was stabbed four times in the throat and eight times in the back and once in each breast, and their infant child had been stabbed six times before his body was wrapped in a black plastic bag suspended from a wooden stake. An investigation discovered that Dutoit had told other members that the apparition illusions used in the order's ceremonies were a sham.

The order began to crumble, with Jouret and Di Mambro subjected to humiliation by defecting members. It was too much for their egos to accept. On the night of October 4, 1994, residents of Chiery, Switzerland, reported fires raging in the area of the Solar Temple quarters. The remains of fifty-three members, including Jouret and Di Mambro, were found the next morning in the building's ruins. Autopsy reports showed that two victims died of suffocation and twenty-one had been administered sleeping pills before being shot in the head. Others were found with plastic bags over their heads, and many showed signs of struggle, indicating that the deaths were not part of a mass suicide pact.

A year later, the charred bodies of another sixteen members, arranged in a star pattern with their feet towards the source of the fire, were found in a burned-out chalet in the Swiss Alps. The dead included both the wife and son of Jean Vuarnet, who had made a fortune in ski wear and sunglasses. All the victims had been shot, stabbed, suffocated or poisoned. Two years later, a final five lives were taken in St. Casimir, Quebec, in the burned home of Didier Queze, a member of the order. Four bodies in an upstairs bedroom had been arranged in the shape of a cross; the fifth, Didier's mother, was on a sofa in the living room with a bag over her head.

A total of seventy-four members died at the hands of this neo-Templar order. Charges of murder were brought against a Solar Temple member and former symphony conductor named Michel Tabachnik, but he was found not guilty and released. No one was ever convicted, nor were the weapons used to murder the victims located.

Enough was revealed about the order, however, to generate wild speculation based on minimal facts. Stories began circulating among newsletters and Internet sites that Solar Temple financing had been achieved by running weapons between Europe and South America, leading to claims of a “military-occult complex,” all to achieve goals of “the fascist-Masonic lodge.” Unless, of course, the reader subscribed instead to allegations that Radio Canada reporters discovered the organization actually earned its money by laundering hundreds of millions of dollars through the infamous Bank of Credit & Commerce International (bcci). Closed in 1991, bcci indulged in fraudulent record-keeping, rogue trading, flouting of bank ownership regulations and money laundering within a structure so complex that a complete picture of its activities is still not available. (For the record, no legitimate news source, including Radio Canada, has ever published stories about either activity by the Solar Temple beyond identifying them as “rumors.”)

Di Mambro and Jouret were disturbed and dangerous men cut from the same warped fabric as was James Jones, who led hundreds to their deaths in the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana, and David Koresh, whose Branch Davidians died in a fiery standoff with the fbi in 1993.

What are we to make of leaders who hold life-and-death control over their adherents, and what happens if these leaders choose to exert their powers on a global stage? The line between cult and secret society grows blurry and indistinct when the organization grows in scope and power.

Any search for serious threats from secret societies on a wider range could begin, perhaps, with a snatch of dialogue from a 1948 Hollywood western movie entitled Ft. Apache between Owen Thursday, a newly arrived Lieutenant Colonel played by Henry Fonda, and the crusty captain of Fort Apache played, of course, by John Wayne.

Lt. Col. Thursday: I suggest the Apache have deteriorated, judging by a few of the specimens I have seen on the way out here. Captain Yorke: If you saw them, sir, they weren't Apaches.

Like the Apaches referred to by Wayne's character, any clandestine group posing a threat to broad sectors of the public will seek to either conceal or camouflage its true motives. Thus, the most dangerous organizations are either unknown or have achieved success at the practice of “hiding in plain sight.” On that basis, “recognizable secret societies” is both an oxymoron and a clue that the danger they represent, if any, is minimal.

Assessing the risk that each known group represents could begin by categorizing them according to four classifications:

1. fictional or historical societies that may be operating in a clandestine manner,

2. organizations whose stated premise is demonstrably benign or non-threatening,

3. groups whose conspiratorial relationship has yet to be revealed, and

4. government departments exerting power beyond their formal mandate.

FICTIONAL AND HISTORICAL GROUPS. Of this grouping, the Bavarian Illuminati draws the most persistent attention from conspiracy advocates, as it has for 200 years. Its founder Adam Weishaupt, an ex-Jesuit who nevertheless is labeled a Jew by some members of the right-wing conspiracy crowd, managed to attract a few prominent individuals to his society before it collapsed, first from suppression by the Bavarian government and later by Weishaupt's own rejection of his philosophy.

Coincidental with the expansion of the Illuminati came the radical upheavals of the French Revolution, an event so apocalyptic in nature that many conservative observers insist on viewing it as the product of a vast conspiracy. They refuse to accept that common French citizens, outraged at the antics of the ruling class for so many years, could succeed without the aid of powerful assistance from various clandestine organizations. Surely the overthrow of the French throne, they argue, could never spring from the minds and intentions of a mass of near-illiterates, echoing skeptics who reject the notion that William Shakespeare could be so erudite and prolific. The revolutionists, they propose, must have been manipulated by a secret society, and the Number One culprit is the Illuminati.

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Critics of the Illuminati acknowledge that Adam Weishaupt founded the movement, but few know he repudiated it.

Established as a secret group concealed beneath the skirts of the Masons, and with the success of the French Revolution as assumed proof of its power, the Illuminati became a fixation among conspiracy theorists. No group was more industrious in promoting this idea, nor as classic in its use of the paranoia that secret societies can generate, than the John Birch Society, founded in 1958. Birchers joined the blatantly anti-Semitic Nesta H. Webster in the contention that the Illuminati had masterminded the French Revolution for its own ends. Interestingly, both ignored the fact that the French monarchy was reinstated after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.

Birch Society founder Robert Welch went on to assert that the Illuminati's agenda had been hijacked in the early 1800s by the Rothschild banking family as a means of controlling U.S. foreign policy. The family's banking success and closed structure provided all the raw material Welch needed. Established in the late eighteenth century by Mayer Rothschild, the financial house owed its success to Rothschild's tactic of installing each of his five sons in various centers across Europe, including Frankfurt, Vienna, London, Naples and Paris. He set up marriages for his sons to various closely related family members, keeping the bank's operations entirely within the family and operating it in a closed, clandestine manner. This latter aspect enabled the company to maintain total discretion about the size of its wealth as well as its multiple business connections and achievements, providing a fertile ground for people like Welch. Meanwhile, the family shield, a clenched fist gripping five arrows, suggested a belligerent attitude not normally associated with bankers.

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Robert Welch lectured John Birch Society members to achieve their goals by operating as a secret society.

The Rothschild connection, according to Welch and others, also explained how an organization as large and powerful as the Illuminati managed to escape detection for 200 years. Obviously, the wealth of the Rothschilds had been employed, but the group's association with Masonry was at the heart of the cover-up, Welch declared. Various other commentators, from the inexorable Nesta H. Webster to Jacob Katz, author of Jews and Freemasonry in Europe, argued that the Illuminati had assumed control of German Freemasonry and relocated its headquarters to Frankfurt. There, it recruited a number of prominent Jewish leaders and financiers, including Rabbi Zvi Hirsch and Rothschild chief clerk Sigismund Geisenheimer, creating, as one observer described it, “a secret society within a secret society.” Welch put all the weight of his once influential power behind this idea, generating sufficient momentum to keep the speculation rolling fifty years later.

The importance we should place on the idea that a society managed to obscure proof of its existence over two centuries while manipulating global economics, politics and armed conflicts is minimal. How, for example, could the Illuminati maintain total secrecy among its members when various elements of the Mafia have divulged that organization's deepest secrets, defying in some cases even blood bonds? Have the lips of Illuminati supporters really been hermetically sealed for over 200 years?

Convinced that the U.S. was threatened by the Illuminati, whose goals of world domination included betraying U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations and running the world via a global socialist government, Welch began urging his followers in 1960 to support a “Get Us Out of the un!” campaign. They should, Welch advised, create influential cells of opposition and covert action by “joining your local pta at the beginning of the school year, get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over.” Perhaps only Welch failed to recognize that he was proposing the creation of a new secret society, masquerading as a public service organization to aid the education of children but actually dedicated to effecting its own international agenda.

Nothing exists to prove that the Illuminati did not die with its founder, who regretted and rejected the principles originally proposed by him. Until trustworthy evidence to the contrary appears, the Illuminati remains alive only in the fertile imaginations of computer game creators and their players, and in the minds of anyone who still believes wisdom may be found among the detritus of Robert Welch's cold war meanderings.

BENIGN OR NON-THREATENING ORGANIZATIONS. Employing a “hide in plain sight” strategy, these may openly declare their membership, announce their intentions, and declare that they function on behalf of the greater good. They may also avoid the trappings associated with “traditional” secret societies, including initiation rites, mystical ceremonies and vows of silence.

With so much latitude, every group from the Salvation Army to a neighborhood investment club could qualify as a dangerous secret society in the minds of the incessantly paranoid, but one organization in recent years has led all the rest as a candidate for evil intentions: The Bilderberg Group.

Bilderberg is often associated with the Trilateral Commission, founded in 1973 to promote closer cooperation between Europe, Japan and North America; and the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank dedicated to increasing America's understanding of the world. These associations leave the group open to accusations that it is actively involved in various schemes to exert global control of financial, military and diplomatic activities. Those concerned about Bilderberg's objectives note that it is not merely a question of how this control is applied; it's also a question of by whom. Heads of state in democratic monarchies such as Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands and others are prevented from playing an active role in the political process, they claim, but Bilderberg provides precisely this arena, subverting the will of democratic nations and recalling hints of the Divine Right of Kings.

Decisions made during Bilderberg conferences supposedly include the selection and approval of candidates to run for top political office in all of the world's great democracies; without Bilderberg approval, the argument contends, presidential candidates in the U.S. and potential prime ministerial leaders in Britain, Australia, Canada and other parliamentary countries cannot achieve power.

Other condemnations include wide-ranging but nonspecific claims that Bilderberg members pull the world's strings either in concert with each other or in conjunction with the Illuminati, Masons and the rest of the usual suspects. On a bizarre note, the group has been accused of eliminating warfare as a means of controlling and directing nationalistic goals and ideas among European nations, as though substituting warfare with diplomacy were a dangerous activity.

Curiously for a society with such alleged power and influence, its members and the locations of its gatherings, where upcoming agendas regarding world domination are submitted and approved, are proclaimed in advance.

The Bilderberg Group owes its existence and notoriety to the skill, connections and vision of one man who, almost fifty years after his death, is still referred to as l’éminence grise. Joseph H. Retinger, raised by Jesuits, possessed enormous political instincts, incisive intelligence and much charm, all of which enabled him to influence the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church to the point where he became the key linkage between the pope and the father-general of the Jesuit Order. At Retinger's funeral in 1960, one of the eulogizers recalled: “I remember Retinger in the United States picking up the telephone and immediately making an appointment with the President, and in Europe he had complete entrée in every political circle as a kind of right acquired through [the] trust, devotion and loyalty he inspired.”

Retinger's original goals in life attest to a socially conscious system of values. He spent some time in Mexico as a youth, supporting efforts to launch an effective trade union movement there during the 1920s, and convincing the Mexican government to nationalize U.S.-controlled oil interests. If the scant biographical information available on Retinger is true, he was the stuff of legends. During World War ii, he acted as a political aide to Polish general Sikorski, and in 1943, at age fifty-eight, he parachuted into Nazi-occupied territory near Warsaw to direct sabotage missions.

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Joseph H. Retinger (right): The pope and the U.S. president always took his calls.

Retinger's interests and achievements encompassed the revival of devastated postwar Europe, and in 1949 he was instrumental in launching the Council of Europe, headquartered in Strasbourg. As a member of the council's executive committee, Retinger began fulfilling his dream of avoiding conflicts similar to the world wars that engulfed Europe in 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 by creating a European economic, political and military union. One way to achieve this was via international organizations whose long-term commitment to progress would neutralize the short-term ideological conflicts that continually erupted between governments. The benefits, to anyone with the slightest understanding of the morass that sucked nations into World War i, would prove inestimable. A neutral multinational group expressing the will of powerful interests within a multitude of countries could defuse the kinds of outbursts, strung in a chain of explosive treaties and obligations, that detonated war in 1914.

Having secured left-wing support from his work in Europe, and employing right-wing connections resulting from his Vatican ties, Retinger was the best man to serve as a catalyst for such an organization. He proved it in May 1954 when he persuaded Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands to host a secret conference for representatives of nato countries. The prince, a major investor in Royal Dutch Petroleum, now Shell Oil, chose the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland, as the site. Attendees at the first conference included U.S. general Walter Bedell Smith, director of the cia, and representatives of the Rockefeller family, who controlled Standard Oil, Shell's largest competitor.

The group has met almost annually over the fifty-plus years since, their meetings sending conspiracy buffs into a frenzy of speculation with Chicken Little concerns about the sky, and virtually everything else, falling to the ground. Powerful men (and increasingly numbers of women) meeting in luxurious surroundings while engaged in private discussions inspire dark speculation.

American critics on the right suspect that Bilderberg attendees are plotting a world government to override hard-earned rights and freedoms. Should the Bilderbergers have their way, they argue, the U.S. would be burdened with a national health-care system and disarmed by draconian gun laws. Meanwhile, the left wing sees Bilderberg representatives manipulating currencies, negotiating resource rights and eviscerating trade unions as a means of tightening their grip on global economics. A few broad-minded (or perhaps merely confused) Web sites support both interpretations of the group's motives.

On a more realistic basis, serious criticism of the Bilderberg Group tends to address four specific concerns:

They are a supragovernmental organization. All nongovernmental organizations representing international interests deserve monitoring. Other groups in this category might range from opec to university research scientists delving into munitions development and genetic manipulation. A dash of practicality and trust is surely prescribed, however. Given the disdain by democratic governments to recognize long-term global concerns and deal with them in an appropriately expeditious manner, is it surprising that a group such as the Bilderbergers would gather to discuss priorities and exert influence in implementing them?

They manipulate currencies and set global monetary rates. Currency manipulation and its impact on markets and individuals may indeed be a legitimate concern. But is it reasonable to expect that discussions on this matter would involve presidents and prime ministers agreeing to any plan that would negatively affect their constituents and thus damage their prospects for re-election? It is more logical—and potentially dangerous to the public—for central banks and others to carry out this manipulation in private than in a session whose location, timing and participants are widely known. Conspiracy buffs counter this notion by suggesting that the election prospects of democratic leaders are tightly controlled by Bilderbergers, eliminating any serious objection the leaders may have to decisions made at the conferences. Perhaps, but a large segment of the world population familiar with machinations conducted during the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 are convinced that, if election manipulation exists, its perpetrators likely reside closer to home than among Bilderbergers.

They select political figures to become future rulers and target current rulers to be removed from power. A few dozen men and women gathering to name and approve the next president of the United States, the next prime minister of Great Britain, and the next sheikh of Qatar is indeed a chilling prospect. If that's the case, however, the rejected leaders tend to accept their fate with remarkable grace and silence. The Bilderberg gathering that took place in Stresa, Italy, from June 3 to 6, 2004, reportedly included U.S. president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and—surprise, surprise—U.S. vice-presidential candidate John Edwards who, along with running mate John Kerry, lost the U.S. election to Bush five months later. Was the decision awarding Bush his re-election actually made on a June day in Italy? Did Edwards meekly accept the ruling, perhaps with the promise of being elevated to U.S. presidential status in 2008? Was Steven Spielberg directing?

They decide which countries will wage war on others. The extended period of peace enjoyed by Europe since 1945 is unprecedented given the potential for conflict over those sixty-plus years, and much of the harmony can be directly ascribed to Retinger's vision. Conspiracy advocates may argue that the Bilderberg Group controls the peace as well as the war, but most conflicts since the group's inception have involved nations and communities beyond the group's membership, including Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and other jurisdictions. This does not eliminate the Bilderbergers’ thumbs from these particular pies, but…

Some criticisms remain valid, however, and the roots of most can be laid at the feet of Bilderberg participants. Bilderberg founder Prince Bernhard himself identified the source of these concerns when he said, “It is difficult to reeducate people who have been brought up on nationalism to the idea of relinquishing part of their sovereignty to a supranational body.”

This attitude, coupled with the scope of the discussions conducted at Bilderberg sessions and the influence of its participants, fosters concern among normally unruffled folk. The Bilderberg Group's agenda, according to available evidence, appears to focus more on the propagation of its own power and the enrichment of its members than on concerns about global health, energy supply, environmental crises and widespread hunger.

Supporters of the Bilderberg Group will argue that free-ranging discussions between people of widely disparate views must be held in confidence to encourage openness and honesty. They also point out that all political and business decisions, made in both corporate board rooms and political cabinet rooms, are subject to various levels of secrecy. True enough. It is the international aspect of Bilderberg that disturbs most people. The crux of concern over Bilderberg is this: We like to think that, as members of a pseudo-democratic society, we exert at least periodic control over events within our own state, provincial and national borders, and we are reluctant to relinquish that control to foreigners.

GROUPS WITHOUT APPARENT CONSPIRATORIAL ACTIVITIES. The members of Skull & Bones have no influence on matters beyond the campus of Yale while they remain students there. But what of the relationship among members after they enter the business and political world?

The concept of networking has existed since humans first organized themselves into tribes. It would be fruitless to monitor and attempt to control activities between fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, lodges, service clubs, Scout troops and similar associations. What happens, however, when members of these organizations operate in collusion, extending the secrecy vows that appeared innocent within a campus environment onto the world stage?

Consider a group of bright, privileged men actively seeking high positions of power in order to pursue goals that reflect the values of the closed society to which they once swore eternal allegiance. Then recall the activities of the Bundy brothers, the lineage of the Bush family, and the questionable antics of the Russell Trust and Union Banking Corporation, among various Skull & Bones escapades.

It is highly unlikely that middle-aged Skull & Bones members still lie naked in coffins while reciting their sexual exploits to each other (especially now that it is a coed organization), or that they exchange some secret ritual upon meeting without grinning in embarrassment. The idea, however, that men of this high caliber, ambition and focus could easily discard their association when planning international financial and political strategies in concert with each other is equally difficult to accept.

OFFICIAL GOVERNMENTAL ASSOCIATIONS EXERTING POWER BEYOND THEIR MANDATE. If covert decisions are made that adversely affect democratic societies, the source may prove to be not secret organizations with centuries-old traditions but powerful interests functioning within government apparatus, their actions concealed beneath the impenetrable cloak of national security.

While it may be true that these organizations do not follow practices associated with secret societies, such as elaborate initiation ceremonies, in a world where computer recognition of palm prints and iris patterns instantly identifies a friend or foe, who really needs code words and gestures to confirm identities?

The idea that an acknowledged federal government organization such as the U.S. National Security Council (nsc) is subject to assessment in the same context as the Assassins and Cosa Nostra may be offensive to some, and if this were the only point of comparison the criticism would be justified. But on a broader scale, evidence exists that secret decisions made by this organization have greater negative impact than any confirmable act committed by Masons, Templars, Rosicrucians, Kabbalah, the Illuminati and other favorite targets of conspiracy buffs.

The NSC has been described as “the ultimate Washington insider's club, a who's who of those with the power to shape history.” Created by President Harry Truman in 1947 as a means of keeping himself informed of international events, the nsc grants membership to a select group of people whose careers have intertwined throughout years of involvement in matters of defense policy, intelligence gathering and diplomatic relations.

Dominating the nsc from the first day of his entry into the group during the Nixon administration is Henry Kissinger, a man who has never been elected to public office yet whose forty-odd years of activity in clandestine international affairs qualifies him as the most influential figure of our time.

Unlike other U.S. federal organizations, the nsc functions according to an open-ended mandate, its vague purpose supposedly limited to helping the president decide and coordinate military and foreign policy. This intentional haziness permits personalities such as Kissinger and his various sycophants to exert a disturbing level of control over U.S. affairs which, by definition, involve international activities.

The pinnacle of Kissinger's power in this regard occurred in the latter days of Richard Nixon's presidency. Crippled by revelations of Watergate and tumbling towards his inevitable doom, Nixon abdicated management of the nsc. Into the vacuum stepped Kissinger, seizing the group's direction and, immediately prior to Nixon's resignation, placing U.S. armed forces on a high defcon (DEFense CONdition) alert status, an act that constitutionally belongs exclusively to the president.

This might be considered an aberration, a rare response to an unprecedented situation, but two factors are worthy of concern here. One is Kissinger's widely acknowledged role in illegal international activities including the bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile. Both are disturbing examples of the power granted to members of the nsc, who lack both the official authority and direct accounting under the country's constitution.

The other is the matter of openness and transparency. Supporters of the nsc and Kissinger will argue, with great conviction, that the pursuit of national security demands certain decisions be conducted in secrecy without prior consultation or later confirmation that the decisions were made at all. The same assertion may be submitted by corporate chiefs justifying board room secrecy from shareholders. nsc decisions, however, are often global in impact and influence, well beyond the scope of the largest corporations. Clearly, it would be a more effective application of energies if rabid concerns about supposed power exercised by groups such as Templars, Masons, Illuminati, Priory of Sion and others were applied instead to existing and acknowledged organizations, including the nsc, whose power and potential for abuse are both evident and extensive.

The world wobbles. Its lack of perfect balance should alert us to the realization that nothing is as stable and predictable as our senses tell us and our preferences desire. Orbital aberrations and tidal forces occur beyond not only our ability to alter them, but also our means to sense them. We acknowledge their existence and the dangers they represent when catastrophe strikes in the form of an oncoming ice age or a cataclysmic earthquake. Otherwise, we treat such possibilities the same way we treat our own mortality: as a rumor that can only be confirmed when fulfilled.

Rather than deal with cosmic risks, many of us prefer to worry about other dangers, including the threat posed by shadowy groups whose existence may be limited to the speculations and imaginations of overly imaginative authors and Web site owners. We can never, it seems, have too many secret societies on which to project our fears, whether justified or not. Nor, it appears, are we prepared to retire shadowy groups whose last acknowledged act occurred hundreds of years ago.

New secret organizations germinate each year. Most wither under the glare of study and scorn, but others manage to blossom and survive long enough for ancestors a century or two in the future to name them as sources of evils we cannot imagine today. One near-contemporary example illustrates the origins of secret societies, the events that fertilize their growth, and the individuals who cultivate their ground.

The discovery of wreckage on an open ranch near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 proved to be a seminal incident among those suspicious of government conspiracies and the secret societies that foster them. More than half a century after the event, millions of American citizens still believe the detritus was the remains of either a spaceship from another planet or a top-secret military aircraft capable of exceptional flight performance. Both theories, their adherents propose, explain their government's steadfast refusal to reveal details. The actual truth, as available evidence and logic contend, is that a military weather balloon, designed to sample temperature, wind force and other meteorological factors, descended to the ground, as all such equipment will. The military's haste in recovering the material and equipment before a curious heifer stomped it into the soil, or a ranch hand gathered it to display his treasure back in the bunkhouse, is understandable. Military minds are superb at constructing cover fiction in the name of security but this tale had the ring of truth for most people.

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July 4, 1947: flying saucers are spotted and new conspiracies are born.

But not everyone. Legends have been constructed around this otherwise mundane event, and outlandish tales suggest how and why nothing more of substance has been revealed. This has led to the supposition that a secret organization monitors the public's curiosity, maintains necessary secrecy, protects evidence, and deflects any public investigation that comes too close to “the truth.” In this case, the clandestine group is known as the jason Society, supposedly established to conceal evidence of alien entry into the U.S., including the “flying saucer” crash at Roswell.

Created by President Eisenhower, the fable goes, jason consists of thirty-two prominent men, many with cia connections, responsible for keeping U.S. citizens and the world at large from discovering the true facts about Roswell, including the “fact” that the bodies of two alien creatures were found among the wreckage. Twelve members of jason, identified by the code mj-12, direct the group's income, which is earned by running most of the world's illegal drug traffic; in this manner, jason is concealed from members of Congress who might be alerted to its existence through budget appropriations. As a byproduct of generating its funds through narcotics, the organization is able to identify and eliminate, if necessary, weak elements of U.S. society.

The rest of the alleged actions and attributes of jason provide a clinic in tying together elements of multiple conspiracy theories to create a conclusion that is not only larger than the sum of its parts, but distinctly different.

President John Kennedy's discovery of jason, its believers claim, prompted his assassination by mj-12 members within the cia. These cia operatives disagreed with his plans to reveal the presence of aliens, along with samples of their weapons and materials, to the American public, a move that would cut off the group's funding. jason determined that the president of the United States must be killed, and hidden in the jason vaults is a film showing the driver of Kennedy's limousine turning in his seat with a pistol in his hand to deliver the coup de grace while guiding the limo through Dallas streets. Bizarre? Of course. But how much more weird than the idea of descendants of Jesus Christ manipulating world events for 2000 years while managing to conceal their existence? Weirdness is relative, after all.

Secret societies prosper when their believers can coalesce around some individual whose unique powers of perception serve as a beacon to his followers. When that leader becomes a martyr, whose violent death serves as proof that he possessed information that cost him his life, so much the better. In the case of jason, this role was played with great effect by Milton William Cooper, who alleged that he owned an immense trove of government secrets regarding the events at Roswell and other actions, including John F. Kennedy being shot by his own chauffeur. Cooper had examined evidence of these events while serving as a U.S. navy intelligence officer with access to top secret files.

Believers on the far right fringe of U.S. society, especially those who tuned to Cooper's daily radio show or plodded through his 1991 book Behold a Pale Horse ( Light Technology Publications, 1991), called him “America's greatest patriot,” an accolade awarded even after he claimed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were authentic (although he suggested to his listeners that they replace “Jews” with “Illuminati”). Cooper supported many of his claims by saying he had once been a member of the Order of de Molay, providing him with insight into the secret powers of Freemasonry.

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Milton William Cooper claimed flying saucers exist, aliens had landed, and he would be killed by the government. Only the last has proved true.

Cooper constantly railed against a litany of secret societies, always boasting that he possessed hard evidence of their existence and evil influence. Too bad he didn't possess a world atlas. In attacking the Bilderberg Group, he claimed their headquarters was located in “The Hague, in Switzerland” and pointed out that Switzerland was the only European country that avoided invasion and bombing during World War ii, attributing this fact (which is not entirely true) to the influence of Bilderberg participants. Perhaps he should have acquired a calendar as well, since the Bilderberg Group was not formed until nearly ten years after World War ii ended.

Whatever his Masonic credentials, Cooper was no naval intelligence expert. According to official U.S. military records, he rose no higher than a second-class petty officer in the navy before being discharged in 1975. Twenty-five years later, living as a recluse in a remote corner of Arizona, Cooper was killed during a shoot-out with several sheriff's deputies attempting to serve him with a warrant for, among other charges, tax evasion and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Since that day in November 2000, legends have crystalized around Cooper and his revelations. He was killed, the stories say, because he knew too many government secrets. His military records, his followers contend, had been altered to remove any evidence of his intelligence work. The truth about Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, the jason Group, Richard Nixon's real reasons for resigning, and other events manipulated by secret societies were buried with him, they insist.

It is not difficult to imagine Cooper's “martyred” death and his claimed knowledge of dark secrets and dangerous conspiracies evolving over several generations into a foundation promulgating the existence of clandestine plans and treacherous activities, all based on “unassailable facts.” The legend will undoubtedly attract individuals who choose to believe that the failings of this world in general, and their fortunes in particular, are the result not of flaws in our economic system or their own lack of initiative, but the realized goals of covens and committees employing secret oaths and rituals. They will rely upon unproven activities of secret societies that they wish, or even need, to believe in. And they will take comfort in a certainty that exists purely, exclusively, in their own imaginations.

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