Brave Guatemalan air force pilots rebelled against a leftist regime in 1954 and used their planes to bomb the regime’s bases. Army commanders also rebelled; Guatemalans could hear them directing troop movements over the radio. Finally these patriots won their revolution. The United States trumpeted their victory around the world.
This was a "false flag" operation — staged by one force but made to look as if someone else did it. Planes that bombed targets in Guatemala were painted with Guatemalan air force insignia, but the pilots were CIA contractors. Radio messages about troop movements had been pre-recorded at a CIA base in Florida. A revolution that seemed to be emerging from one country, Guatemala, was actually the project of another, the United States.
False flag operations are a well-established tactic. Many intelligence agencies have staged them. Often they are successful. They lead the world to blame a crime or atrocity on an innocent party while the true culprit remains obscure. Computer technology has brought a host of new "false flag" possibilities, as hackers and counter-hackers compete to leave misleading electronic trails.
Some critics of American involvement in Syria's civil war doubt that the recent poison gas attacks near Damascus were launched on orders from President Bashar al-Assad, as the United States and its allies have asserted. The last such attack came just days after President Trump vowed to pull American troops out of Syria. It led Trump to reverse course, denounce "animal Assad," and order bombing instead. That brought cheers from those who wish for an open-ended American presence in Syria, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Syria's government again appeared demonic.
These events — along with the fact that intelligence agencies operating in the Middle East are highly sophisticated — raise the question of whether some other force could have staged gas attacks in order to cast blame on Assad. The French government produced an intelligence report concluding that "there is no plausible scenario other than that of an attack by Syrian armed forces." One day more information may emerge. More than a few false flag operations have become public after they were botched, or after researchers discovered evidence that perpetrators tried to hide.
Throughout history, false flag operations have been used to provide casus belli — a justification for war. In 1788 a squad of Swedish soldiers dressed in Russian uniforms attacked a Swedish military outpost, giving King Gustav III grounds to attack Russia. Japan seized Manchuria in 1931 after its forces bombed its own rail line there and blamed the Chinese. In 1939 the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich dressed concentration camp inmates in Nazi uniforms, had them shot, and then, seeking to win sympathy for the Nazi occupation of Poland, claimed that Polish partisans had killed them. That same year, Soviet forces bombarded a Russian village near the border with Finland, blamed it on the Finns, and four days later invaded Finland.
Some false flag operations require committing murder and other crimes that can be blamed on the enemy. The effect is greatest when the crime is especially horrific. During the 1970s, Africans working for an elite Rhodesian force called the Selous Scouts killed hundreds of civilians while disguised as Mozambican soldiers. Security forces in Turkey staged attacks and blamed them on Kurdish guerrillas. Algerian commandos disguised as terrorists carried out killings that were used to justify police repression. Security forces in Russia have been accused of staging bombings that they blamed on Chechen rebels.
Not all false flag operations come to fruition. In 1954, as the British were preparing to withdraw troops from Egypt, Israel tried to scare them into staying as protection against Arab nationalism. Israeli operatives recruited agents to set off bombs at American and British cinemas, libraries and schools. The bombings were to be blamed on Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the plan was discovered. Israel's defense minister was forced to resign.
In 1962, senior American officers proposed a large-scale false flag operation aimed at providing what one memo called "justification for US military intervention in Cuba." At various stages, it involved plans for sinking a boat full of Cuban refugees, shooting down a civilian airliner, and assassinating Cuban exile leaders in Florida — all to be blamed on Cuba. One related proposal urged that if the launch of astronaut John Glenn failed, the United States should blame it on Cuba. Another suggested a military attack on a Latin American country staged to look as if Cuba had ordered it. Officers even proposed organizing an assault on the US base at Guantanamo so they could use it as proof of Cuba's hostility. They presented these plans to President Kennedy at an Oval Office meeting, but he rejected them.
In the cyber age, intelligence services have become adept at staging attacks on computer systems that can be attributed to others. This is a modern permutation of an age-old technique. False flag operations succeed because many people reflexively jump to accept official narratives. Conveniently timed attacks that give pretexts for war, however, are not always what they seem. History suggests that we should await clear evidence before falling into well-laid traps.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer