Some of Chomsky's critics like to fantasize that they're taking a big risk by challenging him. He treats his critics with "contempt," it's said, which I guess is much worse than being blinded or concussed by a tear gas canister, let alone shredded by a Hellfire missile. But it's possible to disagree with Chomsky intelligently. The Lebanese writer Gilbert Achcar did it in his dialogue with Chomsky, as did the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in a joint project, and both emerged unscathed. If you come at him (or anyone, really) with prepackaged US or Israeli propaganda that has been refuted many times before, should you really expect to be taken seriously?
Where I fit into this picture isn't for me to say. But I was poking through the table of contents of Understanding Power, the 2002 compilation of transcripts of Chomsky's interactions with audiences, and noticed a section on conspiracy theories. Chomsky has often been accused of being a conspiracy theorist, so I decided to look at his discussion. Though it was published after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the material in Understanding Power dates from years earlier, so I knew Chomsky wouldn't be addressing the numerous 9/11 conspiracy theories here.
I soon found myself quibbling. It looked to me like Chomsky tried to solve the problem by definition, and I disagreed with his definition.
So the real question is, are there groupings well outside the structures of the major institutions of the society which go around them, hijack them, undermine them, pursue other courses without an institutional base, and so on and so forth? And that's a question of fact: do significant things happen because groups or subgroups are acting in secret outside the main structures of institutional power? The important words here are "acting in secret outside the main structures of institutional power." Chomsky concedes the case of "the Reaganites, with their off-the-shelf subversive and terrorist activities" but claims that "that was sort of a fringe operation -- and in fact, part of the reason why a lot of it got exposed so quickly is because the institutions are simply too powerful to tolerate very much of that stuff."
The 9/11 Truthers don't claim that the attacks were false-flag operations by "subgroups ... outside the main structures of institutional power"; they claim that that they were the work of the Bush-Cheney administration, who were inside the main structures of institutional power. One reason I don't take this claim seriously is Bush's reaction on the day of attacks: he went into hiding. If the attacks had been the work of his administration, I'd expect him to have given a vindictive press conference immediately to show his lack of fear and quick response to terrorism. When I've mentioned this to Truthers, they usually say that maybe Bush wasn't in the loop, but Cheney was. That should make no difference: if Bush was Cheney's pawn, as many people including liberals affect to believe, Bush would have played out his role. If I recall correctly, Laura Bush was in Washington DC that day and no one seemed to be worrying about her safety. But that's just proof that she was in on the plot, right?
Maybe the problem word is "secret." Chomsky and other critics of US foreign policy have pointed out that our government's supposedly secret actions, such as the "secret" bombing of Cambodia by Nixon in 1969-70, were secret only to most Americans, not to their victims or the rest of the world. I don't disagree with that, but it doesn't change the fact that the US government and media conspired (in any reasonable sense of the word) to hide their discreditable and often illegal activities from the US public. Chomsky has also said, as I recall, that when Reagan's announcement of a US-backed terror campaign in Latin America met public criticism and resistance, the campaign simply went covert. The Johnson administration lied about the Tonkin Gulf in order to justify its escalation of the US invasion of Vietnam; that means that people inside "the main structures of power" conspired to mislead the public and the world. Many criminal actions by the US government were secret until they were uncovered by the Church congressional committee investigations or journalists acquiring restricted documents through the Freedom of Information of Act.
I don't mean to make too much of this; I don't mean to imply that Chomsky is now irrelevant, or a paid agent of the CIA. I think his working definition of "conspiracy" is too narrow, and doesn't reflect the way the people he's criticizing actually use the word. They're talking about people in the main structures of power, not outside it. Whether they're wrong is another matter. I don't take the 9/11 Truthers seriously, because of their assumption that anyone who rejects their account must therefore support US foreign policy generally and the War on Terror in particular. It takes some serious, willed tunnel vision and an Orwellian control of memory to say that of Chomsky. But at the same time, I always get suspicious when anyone, including Chomsky, dismisses a claim as a "conspiracy theory." Conspiracies do happen. Because they are secret, it's hard to learn the truth about them. It's as much a mistake to dismiss any talk of conspiracy as it is to jump to manufacture fantasies of conspiracy about an event. This is one of those areas where the truth isn't Out There but somewhere in between.