On some level, in order to understand the society they live in, most people have to be conspiracy theorists. Forming correct conspiracy theories is a critical and essential part of understanding politics, international relations, and the justice system. Genuine conspiracies between people are a fact of living in an industrialized, highly populated globe. There are actual intelligence organizations, law enforcement agencies, insurrectionist militias, and organized criminal enterprises which by their nature create secrets, and clandestinely plan murders and arrests. We don't generally regard them as spectacular, because you can read about most of the important (and publicly disclosed) ones on Wikipedia.
Clearly, then, there are key differences between the regular conspiracy theorist, which almost all of us are, and the cultural conception of a "conspiracy theorist". One common difference is an implausible level of sophistication and ability assigned to the schemers. When working in their near lives, people have an intuition about how many people can be told about something salacious without it becoming public knowledge. Even in circumstances where everyone is properly motivated and there are low rewards for becoming an informant, like a middle school classroom, we understand intuitively how hard it is to keep everyone from leaking information to the teacher. The airquoted "conspiracy theorist" first and foremost rejects their internal social navigation sensors. Instead, in order to make their ideas plausible, they tend to see intelligence officers who are really just bigger LARPers than the "conspiracy theorist" as supernaturally competent and cooperative within their in-group.
A second thing the "conspiracy theorist" will do is assign demonic or otherworldly values to large groups of people, lacking any backstory for why they seem to have these strange motivations. Now, in real life, people can have very strange reasons for their actions. I find it hard to imagine that it'd be possible to successfully gather nineteen people for the 9/11 terror attacks, and end up without a single person who'd object and alert the FBI. But that's just a failure of my own imagination. There is a huge amount of indoctrination, socialization, and child rearing before someone is entrusted with a task like driving a plane into the pentagon - and on top of it the 9/11 hijackers were born into almost as different a culture from mine as you could find. Sacrificing yourself and thousands of others in the name of God is not an implausible story, given the enormous amount of brainwashing that goes into preparing someone for the role. It's just hard for me to empathize as some atheist American.
On the other hand, the "conspiracy theorist" will just call all government and business leaders pedophiles. They will usually not go far enough to suppose an actual source for these wildly dissimilar and almost universally abhorred preferences. They don't claim (usually) that elites grew up in a different culture where pedophilia is promoted and instilled as a norm in youth. They'll just claim that - for some reason - those are the people we tend to elect, and they also tend to be inhumanly good at trusting the right people and at prisoners' dilemmas.
A third, and perhaps the primary, social signal that we use to label someone a conspiracy theorist is that they are simply making outrageous seeming claims about powerful (or imagined powerful) entities like the U.S. federal government. Most people, probably quite reasonably, just take what they have been told about their institutions their entire life as a baseline. If you ask them as they're walking down the street, they probably won't be able to come up with principled objections to 9/11 truthers. They will reject it (rightly or wrongly) because they need to go to work, and it's simply not in the category of things they're willing to believe.
It's of course still easy to make fun of the Alex Jones tier conspiracy theories. But if we're being honest, it's still really hard for any regular person to model opaque organizations like their local police department, their district attorney's office, the FBI, the NSA, the state department, or Congress. Most people believe silly things about one or more of the above institutions, and I think they believe them simply because they do not have the tools equipped to understand those organizations. Some of this is due to a lack of knowledge about what these organizations do and what their internal politics are. Some of this is due to the fact it's socially encouraged to have a non-sensibly cynical attitude when it comes to clandestine organizations, lest we be accused of being too naive by our wizened and grizzled friends. But a lot of it is just because, by default, we no longer get to use the operationally important reasoning for understanding the behavior of people we actually know when trying to understand the behavior of clandestine organizations. Instead we feel free to shift into far-mode thinking, and posit relationships and arrangements that do not actually occur in the wild. The things our theories say about us and let us get to believe become more important than their predictive value. We don't actually see any of these grand coverups happen, but it's cool to imagine they do, especially when we get to imagine our political enemies doing it. Sometimes the long downtime between regime changes are so boring that it's easier and more exciting to just assume it's happening all the time, everywhere, right out of sight.
How can rationalists prevent themselves from making these mistakes? There is one strong trick I know of and it's actually quite powerful, if you have the intellectual honesty for it. First, learn how your local criminal organizations, justice system, political organs, and intelligence agencies work, so that you have a solid understanding of the institutions you're trying to model. Easier said than done, I know, but that's the first part of modeling any institution or population well. You don't need to know everything, just enough to understand where risks to parties involved actually come from.
Let's take the business of drug dealing for example, where due to your research you find the vast majority of people are caught via compelled police informants. Now imagine you're the founder of the conspiracy to sell drugs. How would you attempt to make money selling drugs, if you actually didn't want to be looking at 30 to life after five years of median income? What risks would you be willing to take and why? How would you gather the introductions necessary to order large quantities of drugs without running into a police officer or informant first? How would you distribute them? Would you try to sell them yourself? Via other dealers who you'd have to recruit? Would you try to just mule the drugs and not distribute? Is it really a good idea to try to bribe a powerful state senator with no incentive to keep quiet if caught, and little reason to risk his position for drug money anyways?
This hypothetical planning technique doesn't just work because it prevents you from assigning implausible motives or actions to these shadowy people. It also works because these shadowy people, themselves, are often professional LARPers. The stupid mistakes you make coming up with a plan to sell drugs are going to be very far from the stupidest mistakes drug dealers have ever made, because there are no apprenticeships for drug dealers. Most of their tradecraft is just made up on the fly, not an insignificant amount gathered from impressions gained in TV shows and movies. In fact, when media depictions of criminal organizations like the movie The Godfather become extremely popular, a half a decade later there are often accounts from informants about how kingpins began to adopt the mannerisms and speech patterns of the characters they saw in the movie theater.
To a lesser extent, this also applies to longstanding government bureaucracies like the FBI and CIA - which are, in fact, bumbling government bureaucracies, and, for the most part, are not nearly as effective at espionage or crime deterrence as Google is at search. These political organs act the way they act because of political and historical happenstance, not because they out-competed their peers. It is understandably more difficult to model them correctly, because they hold private information, are sometimes staffed by smart people, and are much more complicated entities than a typical drug cartel. However, this works both ways - the more organized and well-documented the institution, the more you can benefit by reading about their history from insiders and historians.
The CIA has some terminology it uses to explain why people give state secrets to an enemy government, called MICE. It happens to be broadly applicable to a lot of conspiratorial motivation, and not just the motivations of spies. The acronym stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. Those first two reasons for a conspiracy are self explanatory - they make money, or they believe in what their doing for political or religious reasons. In espionage, the 'C' usually refers to blackmail (often by threatening to expose the information the agent has already passed on to their home government). In cases of criminal informants, it's threats of jail time for charges the prosecutor is willing to drop if the criminal helps arrest co-conspirators. The fourth is perhaps the most obvious to people who are thinking clearly, and yet one the "conspiracy theorist" will seldom acknowledge at all. Can you guess it? Have you really attempted to put yourself honestly in the shoes of a conspirator?
It's because conspiracy is cool! On some level, getting away with crimes or plots makes the average conspirator feel good about themselves, and not just because they've made money or advanced their political ambitions. They feel powerful, intelligent, and sophisticated. This is why would-be serial killers feel embarrassed if they get caught after a single murder, and would rather attempt to falsely claim dozens of other murders to look accomplished than leave a possibility of parole. Sure, the [CIA officer] might be [interned at ADX Florence for the rest of their life over some money they can't even really use without looking incredibly suspicious]. In the meantime though, the conspirator get to experience the thrill of being an actual spy/drug dealer/corrupt cop! The conspirator is a real person - just as incapable of keeping a secret as the rest of us - and also capable of doing something like take bribes mostly because he is bored and wants his life to be more cinematic.
Jeffrey Epstein is not Neo from the Matrix, or John Wick from John Wick. He did not live in an alternate shadow universe where logic and reason do not apply. He was a rich and a prolific sex offender. Everything that happened to and around him has a real and consistent mechanical explanation, whether we are capable of understanding the details or not.
There are basically two mysteries regarding Jeffrey Epstein - the first is how he died, and the second is how he managed to get the plea bargain wherein he served twelve months in para-prison for creating a network of dozens of underage prostitutes.
I have little insight to give on the first mystery, which I think is actually the less enlightening one. Jeffrey Epstein probably killed himself.
Every opinion (I can find) given by people with actual private knowledge of or investigating his death, from correctional officers, law enforcement, to neighboring inmates, says he killed himself. The FBI and the Office of the Inspector General both extensively investigated his death, up to producing a 15-page psychological report reconstructing the motives for his suicide.
You are probably aware of the details of his death that make it seem suspicious, such as the camera malfunction in front of his cell, the guards not following protocol, and the very few suicides at the prison prior to his death (not one for 21 years). Here I'll make some points you may not have heard:
- The base rate of cameras in government buildings not working is high.
- The cameras in front of his cell were torn apart by the FBI for analysis and apparently, there was no evidence of tampering.
- Epstein had his lawyers draft his will two days before he died.
- The other cameras adjacent to his cell were working. No one entered the area he was housed the night he died. The Attorney General, the highest ranking law enforcement official in the country, personally reviewed the footage surrounding Epstein's prison block to confirm this for himself. This is probably the most damning evidence because it means one of the other seven inmates in Epsteins' prison tier may have basically had to escape their cell during night hours and murder him, without being noticed by any other inmates.
- Fundamentally, lots of people who are arrested have dirt on other criminals. Some 10-15% of our prison population is comprised of drug traffickers, who almost always possess the opportunity to lower their sentence by becoming an informant. It is suspicious that Epstein died the way he did at all, but not particularly suspicious that he was also a well connected criminal. The MCC itself has housed El Chapo, Paul Manafort, John Gotti, Michael D'Amico, Bernie Madoff, and several Al Qaeda operatives while they awaited trial. All of these people were either capable of, or currently in the middle of, providing incriminating information against people significantly more well-equipped to murder inmates than Alan Dershowitz. None of them were prophylactically murdered, probably because our maximum security jails are designed to prevent that sort of thing from happening.
So here is the most plausible murder scenario I can come up with:
- A co-conspirator finds out the tier of the prison in which Epstein was housed, and compiles information on the other 7 cellmates, and selects someone willing to murder him.
- They then take the extraordinary risk of approaching that person and giving them the means and motive to go along with this murder plot. I want to underscore how hard this is. Prison calls/visits are heavily monitored, and so you might have to not only trust that this person won't immediately rat you out to get out of the MCC, but also trust that a correctional officer or lawyer you're using to deliver the message will go along with the plot. And few rational people are willing to risk life in prison for murder conspiracy so they don't have to do what would maybe be seven years after a plea bargain for statuatory rape.
- That inmate or maybe the second recruited correctional officer disables the cameras in front of Epstein's cell without leaving any indication of tampering.
- The prisoner-ninja then breaks out of their cell at 3:00 AM, then breaks into Epstein's cell without alerting him or causing him to scream for help, chokes him to death neatly enough for a medical examiner to pronounce him dead by suicide (no thrashing around by Epstein in a way that would leave bruises or undeniable evidence), then re-lock both cells and return by morning, all without leaving any evidence of this assassination for the FBI or correctional officers, or getting witnessed by the other inmates in the same tier, or getting caught on the adjacent cameras.
Now, I'm only 75% certain he wasn't killed. Maybe there's some other scenario I'm not thinking of that fits the crime. Maybe I underestimate the ruthlessness and sophistication of the parties that Epstein was affiliated with. Maybe the FBI has uncovered evidence of a murder and is being unusually good at practicing discrete investigation. I will say this - in the 25% scenario he was killed, I think we'll have a 75% chance of learning how in the future. I seem to be the only person on the planet who believes a murder plot this complicated can't go uncovered for long.
But from the facts I have in front of me today, organizing his death and getting away with it really does sound basically impossible. At least it sounds like a lot of work. Real sex offenders or turned LEO just take their retirement savings and fuck off to Guam at some point, or do nothing and pray to God that he doesn't mention anything.
That leaves the second mystery. How did Jeffrey Epstein get 12 months in prison along with 12 hours a day of "work release" for raping dozens of underage girls?
He was probably a CIA agent.
Of course, a CIA agent isn't (usually) someone who works at the CIA. In espionage they use really confusing terminology, wherein an "officer" is someone who works for an intelligence agency and an "agent" is someone who passes along information. If you talk to someone who works for the CIA and refer to them as an "intelligence agent", they might nervously smile before correcting you that an intelligence agent would be someone who spied on the CIA for a foreign government. A "double-agent", then, is a "fake" spy, someone who is believed to be a spy for Agency A in Agency B, but is actually feeding Agency A misinformation on Agency B operations on behalf of Agency B. Much of the time double agents are regular agents who were caught, tortured or threatened with jailtime, and then forced by their home countries to act as double agents.
Contrary to popular belief, attempting to cultivate genuine "agents" and process their information is 97.5% of what the Central Intelligence Agency does. They're also the designated clandestine services arm of the U.S. government, so it's not all they do, but what they and other intelligence agencies around the world primarily do is play rat handler. Their job is to cultivate and analyze the reports of people with privileged information about the plans and military operations of other governments, and then they sit there looking over those reports a hundred times to see if they spot any terrorists within the margins. When analysts find something interesting, they pass it up to the White House and the State Department decides if/how SEALs need to be deployed. But aside from a hundred or two hundred members of its Special Activities Center, the CIA's job is to collect information.
Epstein was an intelligence agent because as a founder of the consulting firm Intercontinental Assets Group, which assisted clients such as Adnan Khashoggi in recovering stolen money from fraudulent brokers and lawyers, he represented an almost perfect source of intelligence. One could not imagine a better opportunity for an intelligence officer, in the abstract. Unlike most spies, he was already an American. The people around him (aside from the ones he raped) uniformly described him as charismatic and sociable - Epstein practically got off on being well connected. And his actual job was to travel all over the world and track down the assets of scores of powerful people, whose connections he had a habit of maintaining for the rest of his life. There is no reason one can find without the benefit of hindsight why American intelligence services would refuse to accept his help, and they certainly accept help from people worse than Epstein in the course of doing their job.
That's not why I claim he was an intelligence agent. The first reason I know that he was an intelligence agent is because, at least according to Evening Standard, Epstein literally bragged about being an intelligence agent to his friends while he was spying on behalf of the United States. Not something you'd typically expect someone committing capital crimes in foreign countries to do, unless you remembered that spies are sometimes, like Epstein, actual megalomaniacs who can't wait to tell acquaintances about the whole spy thing. The second reason I know this is because the prosecutor in Epstein's first trial seems to have definitively stated during his Trump transition interviews that the reason he gave Epstein such a nice plea deal was because the Department of Defense interceded on his behalf. He was later offered a chance to rebut this in front of reporters and instead stated an extraordinary non-denial denial:
Reporter from AP: "Were you ever made aware that Jeffrey Epstein was an intelligence asset of some sort?"
Acosta: "So there has been reporting to that effect and let me say, there’s been reporting to a lot of effects in this case, not just now but over the years and, again, I would hesitant to take this reporting as fact. This was a case that was brought by our office, it was brought based on the facts and I look at the reporting and others, I can’t address it directly because of our guidelines, but I can tell you that a lot of reporting is going down rabbit holes."
Perhaps there is some sort of guideline preventing him from speaking about this, but I have not heard of it. District Attorneys and the FBI publicly announce people were informants all of the time, as long as the people they're prosecuting are already prosecuted. They certainly don't swear an oath not to comment on the subject even in the event of the persons' death.
While it's uncommon for a career criminal like Epstein to give information to an intelligence agency rather than law enforcement, it's standard enough procedure. Acosta was probably not fazed by the ask to drop charges in response to claims that Epstein had been a high-level informant. Why?
Cop shows are filled with wild chess matches between criminal masterminds heading vast conspiracies and (basically lone) law enforcement officials. Unfortunately in real life there are only two surefire ways to prove criminal conspiracies and attack criminal organizations that have already begun to sprawl. The first is to listen to the conspirators talk to each other as they plan out the conspiracy. Any conspiracy, whether its a terrorist network, drug cartel, or burglary ring, needs its members to coordinate with one another. Otherwise, its regular boring crime.
Sometimes bugs and communication intercepts are impossible. It's relatively easy for a competent group of U.S. citizens to talk to each other without U.S. law enforcement listening, allowing for some simple but aggravating precautions. If everyone involved agrees never to talk indoors or near a phone, and instead walk two miles in a random direction from whatever building's nearby while they discuss their criminal activity, that's enough for 99% of U.S. organized crime to communicate without worry.
The second surefire way to attack conspiracies is by performing a memory dump on the people involved in them. Now, (thankfully) world governments haven't invented the brain scanner. This means that lots of conspiracies must be dismantled by accepting the testimony or leads to incriminating information from a defecting member. And so the only way a government can continue to exist and prevent insurrections, sans torture, is if it maintains a credible pledge to give leniency to criminals in exchange for cooperating. Under extreme circumstances, this leniency covers serial murder. Exerting powerful coercive pressure on insurrectionists, in some form or fashion, to inform on their co-conspirators, is a requirement if you want your government to last more than twelve months. It's only by this system that governments can prevent most wannabe kingpins from coordinating with more than three or four serious felons before running an unacceptable risk of someone getting caught for a "side hustle" and then snitching.
People with worse crimes than Epstein are regularly given immunity or greatly reduced sentences for this. Samuel Gravano admitted to killing or being directly involved in the deaths of nearly twenty people - more than most serial killers - and he currently makes candid podcasts on YouTube about his time as a mafioso, because he was critical witness against a large ongoing criminal organization. You can complain that giving amnesty is immoral or that it creates "bad incentives" or that it encourages corruption, and attempt to vote politicians in to dismantle it, but your elected officials are highly incentivized to dismantle plots to murder elected officials. A stable world power like the United States has to be able to, on occasion, turn people that are literally willing to die in the process of accomplishing their goals.
I don't know what information Jeffrey Epstein gave the U.S. government in exchange for an intelligence officer interceding on his behalf, but since all that his handler did was tell Acosta to "leave him alone", I don't think it needed to be much.
Does that mean Epstein didn't or wouldn't try to lever his wealth and influence? Not at all! He certainly poured an enormous amount of money on an army of lawyers for the case, so that he'd be in the strongest possible position to negotiate his fake sentence. He hired Alan Dershowitz, someone he'd previously trafficked underage women to, as part of his defense team (and therefore, by implication, blackmail him into doing a swell job on the charges). He sent private investigators to regularly harass and intimidate potential witnesses during and after the trial. If you were a psychopath facing thirty years in prison, would you let the one reference from CIA John be the only thing keeping you free?
I think speculating like this about world events and opaque organizations is healthy and practical. Taken at face value, one of the most famous findings of the Good Judgement project is that regular people have enough information to do it. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that for a lot of you, making bets or pseudo-bets like I just gave above probably represents a pretty well fun+learning optimized method to test your rationality:
- Predicting conspiracies and future evidence requires you to estimate probabilities for discrete events and in low-information settings, much more analogous to the scenarios you might run into in real life than predicting someone's net worth.
- Doing necessary research about tradecraft or international relations, for many, is much more interesting than the other things that aren't that.
- A lot of people on this website are under the age of thirty. If you expect to live to 70-80 years, that means you're going to be alive in 2080. It is difficult to know what the political situation of your country is going to look like in forty or fifty years. Sometimes conspirators win, and it tends to catch people off guard. It always sounds extreme to people living in currently peaceful nations, but understanding how and why countries undergo large-scale political change may save your life, or the lives of your family members.
- If you vote for someone in local or national government, you should probably know what it is that person does and what their motivations are.
If it gets enough interest, I'll make this post the first in a sequence about the push and pull between law enforcement and organized criminal conspiracies. As a pedagogical tool (and for fun) we'll design a generic paramilitary organization for subverting U.S. government laws, and perhaps overthrowing the U.S. Hopefully, the sequence will improve your ability to accurately predict the actions and scope of our public safety institutions - not just by following the broad strokes of some ideology, but by mechanically understanding their behaviors.
2022-01-01: Most of the above analysis I still consider correct, but I've realized an alternate murder scenario is possible. I now think there's a 40% chance he was killed. At some point I may write a shortform explaining how.