Shortly after the White House announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid conducted by the U.S. military inside of Pakistan, conspiracy theories trickled their way through online communities, forums and blogs. They eventually found their way into the mainstream and were debated on the pages of publications like Slate, the Washington Post and ABC News.
Was Osama really killed? If so, where are the pictures? And why the hasty burial at sea? The Obama administration’s refusal to release photographic evidence of bin Laden’s demise and the changing narrative of how the raid played out only fueled the conspiracy theorists, eventually dubbed “Deathers”.
But no matter how crazy they may seem, conspiracy theories will always be around. Why? Because once in a blue moon, they actually turn out to be true.
Below are five times in history where the “alternate storylines,” so to speak, turned out to be correct.
1. The Glomar Explorer and Project Azorian
In the summer of 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched a mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific Ocean. The resulting project became one of the most well-known classified CIA operations during the Cold War.
It began in 1968 when the Soviet Union sent a submarine carrying three nuclear armed ballistic missiles to its Pacific station, northeast of Hawaii. The submarine never made it, however, as it and its crew sunk to the bottom of the ocean more than 1,500 miles from America’s 50th state. In 1969, President Richard Nixon gave the approval for the CIA to recover the submarine. The mission became known as “Project Azorian,” and it was made possible by the Glomar Explorer.
To keep the mission hidden from the public, however, the CIA needed a cover. So they turned to billionaire Howard Hughes, who agreed to lend his name and his company — Global Marine Inc — to the project. In public, Hughes said his ship was being built to mine manganese nodules from the ocean floor.
In the years that followed, the CIA repeatedly denied the mission ever took place. In February of 1975, New York Times investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had planned to publish an expose on the mission, though the federal government convinced the paper not to publish the story. It didn’t matter, however, because a month later, the LA Times published their own version of the story. Still, the CIA denied the project ever took place — that is, until in 2010 when the agency finally declassified a 1985 internal-only article detailing the mission.
It turned out those who suspected and wrote about the federal government using a business mogul as the cover for a secret Cold War reconnaissance mission were right.
2. The Reichstag Fire
In February of 1933, the Reichstag building in Berlin — which housed the German parliament — caught fire. The act was subsequently blamed on Dutch insurrectionist Marinus van der Lubbe, who was later executed for the crime.
The fire, however, was used as a pretext by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to seize emergency powers. The newly sworn-in Chancellor of Germany argued that the fire was evidence that communists were planning to take over the German government. After convincing the German president to issue an emergency decree suspending civil liberties and granting Hitler special powers to confront the communists, Hitler had communist parliamentarians arrested, resulting in the rise of the Nazis to a parliamentary majority. From there, Hitler was able to move ahead and establish a dictatorship. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the decades following van der Lubbe’s execution, however, many publicly questioned whether he had actually been responsible for the fire, and suggested that the fire had instead been the work of the Nazis, who were eager to take control of the country. Several courts posthumously lessened van der Lubbe’s sentence and in 2008 he was officially pardoned of the crime. The pardon was made possible by a 1998 law that pardoned people convicted of crimes under the Nazis because Nazi laws “went against the basic ideas of justice.”