Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown – CIA, MK-Ultra, and More (2)


Note from the editorial staff:
The term “conspiracy theory” is often used in a pejorative sense, so that the disclosures of criminal hidden facts and scenarios, which are as real as possible, would seem ridiculous. At the moment, there is an explosion of alternative versions that seek to explain tragic events with a major impact on society or the global situation. Although some of these are obviously fanciful or exaggerated, many of the versions that were initially cataloged to be so-called „conspiracy theories,” later turned out to be shattering realities. The article below insists on numerous attempts to provide explanations that remain in the category of conspiracy theories, without underlining the major importance of conspiracy reality. We have chosen to present it to you, however, as it contains a number of interesting aspects that we believe are worth knowing.

By Rebecca Moore

Read the first part of the article

Professional Conspiracists

Dualistic thinking certainly characterizes the writing of the professional conspiracists, whom I define as those writers who see all events through the hermeneutical lenses of conspiracy. They have developed a reputation among followers of knowing what is really happening. They interpret the daily news in the light of an over-arching story in which current events serve as plot developments in an on-going soap opera. Ultimately the drama depicts a battle between the forces of good and evil. The primary professional conspiracists who analyzed the Jonestown events include Mark Lane, John Judge, Jim Hougan, the Church of Scientology, and Dr. Peter Beter.

Dr. Beter is perhaps best-known for the 1973 bestseller The Conspiracy Against the Dollar. He saw three rival factions vying for world power: the Rockefeller Cartel, the Bolshevik-Zionist Axis, and the new Kremlin rulers. The summary to Dr. Beter’s collection of 80 audiotapes concludes admiringly that: “The most striking thing about this picture is that countless seemingly unrelated, chaotic-appearing news events turn out not to be chaotic at all. Instead they are all tied together by a limited number of forces at work behind the scenes. Once one knows these forces, one becomes far better able to sort out the true meaning of events.”

Dr. Beter’s Audioletter 40 for 30 of November 1978 explains that the events in Jonestown were staged to camouflage the United States’ destruction of a Soviet missile base located in Guyana. According to this account, U.S. intelligence agents infiltrated Peoples Temple in the early 1970s. These intelligence forces converted Jim Jones into a “semiconscious agent of death and intrigue.” Given the fact that Jones was “born a Jew,” it was only natural that he would organize his group along the style of a kibbutz. The U.S. State Department deliberately provoked Congressman Leo Ryan into going to Jonestown in order to hide the true nature of the upcoming military operation. The deaths at the Jonestown kibbutz served as the excuse for a massive influx of U.S. military personnel into Guyana, and concealed the casualties that resulted from the military operation, which involved both U.S. and Israeli forces. In other words, the U.S. government and military benefited from the deaths in Jonestown, because they disguised the real possibility of the upcoming “Nuclear War One.”

One might wonder what happened to Jim Jones in this scenario. According to Beter, the body identified as Jones was a double. The real “cult leader” fled to Israel to receive cobalt treatments for the cancer which had infected his head, his left lung, his stomach and his colon. Told that he would receive additional treatment elsewhere, Jones boarded a small airplane, “shortly after 5:00 P.M. Israeli time,” and headed for Turkey.

At about 35 miles east of the town of Jerablus on the Euphrates River, the plane crossed briefly to the Syrian side of the border. At that point the door of the plane was thrown open and three men grabbed Jones. In his weak condition and caught by surprise, he was thrown out of the plane with almost no struggle.

Dr. Laurence Schacht, the presiding doctor in Jonestown, had also flown to Israel, arriving in Jerusalem “at approximately 3:00 A.M. Israeli time December 11.” Dr. Schacht also had cancer, and like Jones, was thrown from an airplane along the Turkish-Syrian border.

I begin with Dr. Beter’s explanation of Jonestown because it is the most seamless of all conspiracy accounts of the tragedy, by which I mean that it fits into an on-going meta-narrative with little interest in, or even consideration of, the particulars of Jonestown. It really doesn’t matter what happens in history: Dr. Beter will weave it into his analysis. His depiction is rife with the kind of minute details that characterize celebrity interviews in Vanity Fair. The exact times of the flights, the geographical specifics, and other small points all create the impression that Dr. Beter knows what he’s talking about. The over-arching history is created in the details, which simultaneously defuse skeptics and disarm critics.

Much more convincing accounts by professional conspiracists come from John Judge, Jim Hougan, Mark Lane, and the Church of Scientology. After all, they generously footnote or cite their sources. While Dr. Beter seems to know a great deal, these others provide independent confirmation: “you don’t have to take my word for it”, they suggest, “here is the source”.

For example, John Judge has 291 endnotes for his 25-page essay The Black Hole of Guyana. Judge looks skeptically at the changing body counts and explains the growing numbers by suggesting that British Black Watch troops who were on “training exercises” with American Green Berets killed 700 Jonestown residents who had fled into the jungle. He asserts that they were all murdered after living a terrible existence in a CIA-sponsored program of mind control, known as MK-ULTRA. “The story of Jonestown is that of a gruesome experiment,” he says, “not a religious utopian society”. Indeed, Judge argues that Jim Jones had ties to the CIA, that other Temple members had ties to Nazi war criminals, and that still others had ties to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The ultimate victims of mind control at Jonestown are the American people,” he concludes.

“The real tragedy of Jonestown is not only that it occurred, but that so few chose to ask themselves why or how, so few sought to find out the facts behind the bizarre tale used to explain away the death of more than 900 people, and that so many will continue to be blind to the grim reality of our intelligence agencies”. In other words, Judge puts the tragedy at Jonestown into the context of his larger concern, which is the threat to democracy posed by U.S. intelligence agencies. This is a theme throughout his work, and in this sense the Jonestown piece fits well into his worldview.

Jim Hougan has only 68 footnotes for his 18-page article Jonestown. The secret life of Jim Jones: a parapolitical fugue. He is indebted to Judge, in part, and yet skillfully points out the problems in Judge’s account. Of all the conspiracy theories extant, Hougan’s is the best-researched and the most convincing. He concentrates on the mysterious character of Jim Jones, tracking down his connections to Dan Mitrione, an American intelligence agent who was ultimately killed by Uruguay’s Tupamaros. He traces Jones’ movements throughout the western hemisphere. Like Judge, Hougan asserts that the people in Jonestown were murdered, albeit for a different reason:

Jones initiated the Jonestown massacre because he feared that Congressman Leo Ryan’s investigation would disgrace him. Specifically, Jones feared that Ryan and the press would uncover evidence that the leftist founder of the Peoples Temple was for many years a witting stooge, or agent, of the FBI and the intelligence community, where it was feared that Ryan’s investigation would embarrass the CIA by linking Jones to some of the Agency’s most volatile programs and operations.

In his book The Strongest Poison, Mark Lane also argues that people in Jonestown were murdered. Hired by Peoples Temple to explore what the group believed was a government conspiracy against it, Lane accompanied Ryan to Guyana. He remained behind in Jonestown when the congressman left for the airstrip, and fled into the jungle with another Temple attorney, Charles Garry, as the deaths were beginning. He reported hearing automatic weapon fire, and presumes that U.S. forces killed Jonestown survivors. He believes that, given the radical politics and power of Peoples Temple, intelligence agencies regularly monitored the group in the U.S. and in Guyana. U.S. officials, particularly at the State Department, allowed Congressman Ryan to visit Jonestown knowing that it was a dangerous mission. Lane places blame for the murders of the Jonestown residents on Jim Jones and on armed security guards who forced people to take poison. But he also blames U.S. officials who knew that violence was a real possibility, and who in fact exacerbated the dangers with agents provocateur. By labelling the deaths suicide, rather than murder, both the government and the media covered up evidence of the existing conspiracy to destroy Jonestown as a progressive political organization – much as these same forces had destroyed Martin Luther King.

Like Lane, the Church of Scientology believes that government agents had penetrated Jonestown and Peoples Temple, although – unlike Lane and others – Scientology has been claiming this for years. In a 1997 article, the Scientology magazine Freedom depicts Jonestown as a mainstream, progressive organization with wide support, and reports that Ryan was pleased with what he saw in the community. But CIA operatives deliberately targeted Ryan for assassination because of his previous opposition to the agency’s activities, including his co-sponsorship of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment in Congress. The article mentions a lawsuit filed by the Ryan family which charged that the CIA had infiltrated Jonestown. The lawsuit was dismissed, “for reasons that have to date never been fully disclosed”.

According to Charles Huff, a former Green Beret who was one of the first at the scene, many in Jonestown had been forcibly injected with poison, or had been shot as they ran toward the jungle. U.S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty suggested that the deaths in Jonestown masked the real victim and target. Paraphrasing Prouty’s remarks, the authors write that: “Leo Ryan had moved in too close to certain skeletons that could never be safely disturbed. A relentless and uncompromising investigator, nothing could stop Ryan – short of violence. But how could such a high-profile personality be eliminated without bringing down upon the perpetrators an investigation to end all investigations?”.
The solution was to obscure the assassination by making it part of a larger catastrophe.

We see that the theme of the professional conspiracists is that people in Jonestown were murdered by U.S. government agents – either military or intelligence. These agents committed the murders to conceal some other, more damaging information: a military operation against the Soviet Union; the assassination of a member of Congress; the disclosure of the true identity of a radical leader; the revelation that the government was conducting mind control experiments. What is most striking is the conviction these writers hold that so many lives were deemed expendable for so little. This view reflects either the deepest cynicism, or the deepest fear, one can imagine: 900 lives sacrificed to get one individual? or to spare one individual humiliation? But that is the nature of conspiracism: with high stakes, the conspirators take big risks. And since conspirators by nature are depraved and indifferent, we should expect nothing less from them.

Internet Conspiracists

The Internet conspiracists form a sub-category of professional conspiracists, since they are exploiting rumors, innuendoes, and wild stories. There is frequently a sense of humor and fun in most of the conspiracy sites, best illustrated in the comments of Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, co-authors of The Seventy Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, a major source for the Jonestown Internet conspiracists: “Back in the good ol’ days when conspiracy theorists were still considered crackpots, it actually took some kind of evidence to get this kind of frenzy underway… Now anytime some poor sap dies every frat boy with an Internet account races to be the first in his quad to post the conspiracy of the moment”.

It is not clear, therefore, how deeply committed the Internet conspiracists are to their beliefs in various conspiracies.
A search of the word “Jonestown” on, came up with 55,400 hits on 22 of January 2002. After eliminating all of the hits for the Jonestown, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi Chambers of Commerce, and hotel-motel guides; and after eliminating all of the sites devoted to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a rock band; and after eliminating a number of anticult sites, that is sites devoted to alerting readers to the dangers of cults, and thus forming their own conspiracy category; there really are only a few conspiracy sites that continue to pop up under different headings or guises. These comprise a Crime Library article by Fiona Steel (number 12); Vankin and Whalen’s frequently reprinted article, The Jonestown Massacre: CIA Mind Control Run Amok (appearing as number 14, and as number 56 under former United Kingdom Green Party Leader David Icke’s “Mind Control Archives,” at; Scientology’s Freedom magazine site, with information noted above (number 25); and Ken McCarthy’s, which is devoted to exposing the “unholy alliance of media, government, and big business” (number 32).

Since Vankin and Whalen pop up across the Internet, it is appropriate to note their argument. They question the idea that Jim Jones was a “lone madman,” and challenge the plausibility that 900 people willingly took their own lives at his request. They claim that there are hints of human experiments in mind control, even genocide, “and the lurking presence of the CIA.” Vankin and Whalen cite sources which include books written within one or two years of the Jonestown deaths, as well as Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs’ Raven, an extensively researched account of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, and my own A Sympathetic History of Jonestown. Most illuminating, however, is the authors’ acknowledgement that “this chapter owes a debt to research assembled by John Judge.”

Judge’s influence seems evident in The Jonestown Genocide by Robert Sterling as well, with reports of British Black Watch troops and Green Beret involvement in the deaths, in addition to the Jim Jones-Dan Mitrione connection (developed by Jim Hougan, but first introduced by Judge). Sterling also quotes Michael Meiers, author of Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence, who answers his own question affirmatively. (Although I discuss Meiers below, it is important to point out here that he bases much of his book on Joe Holsinger’s charges.) Like Holsinger and Meiers, Sterling believes that the CIA’s secret program was about to be exposed by Leo Ryan, and thus Ryan had to be killed.

The twelfth site listed under Google’s hits on “Jonestown,” is Fiona Steel’s “Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die,” which appears as part of The Crime Library’s “Crime Stories.” The blurb which accompanies a glamour shot of Fiona Steel says that the author “is a former marketing and business administrator whose writing talents include writing top-selling marketing and training video scripts for international companies as well as writing training manuals on business skills and computer software.” The chapter titled “Sinister Connections?” repeats the theories of CIA involvement, the Jones-Mitrione connection, and the animus the CIA had toward Congressman Ryan because of his support for legislation restricting agency activities.

Ken McCarthy authored “Made in San Francisco. Jonestown and Official San Francisco: The Untold Story,” which appears on his site. McCarthy emphasizes the ties Jim Jones had with San Francisco’s political leaders, such as then-Assemblyman Willie Brown; former mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated along with Harvey Milk by ex-supervisor Dan White in November 1978; former county District Attorney Joseph Freitas; former governor Jerry Brown; former mayor Art Agnos; and former police chief Charles Gain. McCarthy describes himself as a defender of human rights who is fighting for the underdog. His site seems more focused on discrediting San Francisco’s liberal Democratic establishment, however, than on Peoples Temple.

Perhaps the most honest, and entertaining, of the Internet conspiracists is Matthew Farrell, who publishes the World Domination Update online. The December 2000 issue featured an article Farrell wrote on Jonestown: a skeptic’s perspective. The article asks what happened exactly, and replies that “There are no easy answers, unless you swallow the Brain Police’s placebo explanations.” Farrell examines the question of whether or not Jim Jones killed himself: “You’d think if Jones killed himself it’d be known anti-Jones propaganda. Likewise, if the whole thing was framed to look like a group suicide, why would ‘they’ be so sloppy about details: just shoot Jones and put the gun in his hand – that’s a no-brainer. The very absence of such important information makes me wonder – and starts my spidey senses tingling”.

Farrell considers the CIA to have been involved in some way, although he is not sure how. He finds the fact that the MK-ULTRA program officially ended in 1973, the year before Peoples Temple members began to settle in Guyana, significant. He rejects the idea of suicide, saying “it was not a Masada wet run’ or a Waco beta test’ which they want you to think it is.” He concludes: “Something bad happened in Guyana, and we will probably not find out exactly what it was”.

The evidence shows that Jonestown conspiracism is alive and well on the Internet. But rather than develop new sources, the Internet conspiracists have relied on print sources, primarily Judge, Hougan, and Scientology. At times these sources are mediated through the reading of Vankin and Whalen; at other times they seem to have been excerpted directly. Like their professional counter-parts working in print, the Internet conspiracists discount the suicide explanation as implausible and unlikely, preferring to see the deaths as murders conducted to protect CIA or other government interests.

Read the third part of the article


April 22, 2019


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