Sabotage! Conspiracy! And Other Ways to Spin the Oil Spill

While crude oil surges into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of thousands of barrels per day, there are many and varied interpretations of what that oil is telling us--what political and policy significance it carries, and what meaning, along with the floating skids of orange-brown muck, BP's man-made hole is injecting into the Gulf waters.

There's an important debate going on about its lessons. There's also some overt tooling out of this disaster to support preexisting stances on energy policies. Groups and politicians are seeing what they want in the spill.

In with that discussion, some accusations of sabotage and conspiracy have been aired.

Late last week and over the weekend, as the disaster's massive scale sank in, conservative voices began coyly suggesting that BP's oil rig may have been attacked by environmentalists, or that President Obama may have allowed the leak to continue unabated, in the hopes of ginning up an environmental disaster that would mean the end of offshore oil drilling.

It began with Rush Limbaugh, who surmised a motive: "[W]hat better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here," Limbaugh said, vaguely suggesting that supporters of cap-and-trade, or maybe the Obama administration, had been responsible.

It continued with former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, who mentioned on Fox & Friends Monday that "I'm not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory, but was this deliberate? You know you have to wonder...yeah, if there was sabotage involved..." and with Fox's Eric Bolling, who raised the question, on the same show, of whether Obama had maybe "let it leak for a while and then they addressed the issue." 

"We're seeing the Rahm Emanuel rule number one taking effect"--never wasting a crisis--suggested former FEMA Director Michael Brown, a man of irreproachable credibility on the matter of disasters in the Gulf. The administration is exploiting the spill as an opportunity to "shut down offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," Brown told, Chris Matthews, who in turn told Brown he sounded "crazy."

With the exception of Brown, these remarks fall short of true conspiracy theories. They're not really offering answers, just questions and insinuations, some of them (Limbaugh's most notably) meant to impugn Obama's response to the crisis and make him look like a bad leader--which happens to be a political goal of the right.

The real conspiracy theories are far more specific.

The most popular involves President Obama seizing control of the oil-drilling industry to nationalize it.

Such belief stems from Obama's announcement, in his first public remarks on the spill on April 29 in the Rose Garden, that the Interior Department is "sending SWAT teams to the Gulf to inspect all platforms and rigs." Confusion over this appears rampant.

It "sound[s] like Hugo Chavez," asserted conservative radio host and frequent National Review contributor Mark Levin, a former solicitor general of the Department of Interior under Ronald Reagan.

"I think this is a precursor to another form of government nationalization," Levin suggested in a diatribe on his show. "I think those SWAT teams are there in coordination with the attorney general's office, and the Interior Department, Homeland Security, maybe the EPA, to gather records--to seize records at these sites--and to lay the foundation for more government takeovers." SWAT skepticism has gained some traction in corners of the Internet (see this post on a Politico forum).

One problem: there are no cops in riot gear headed to the rigs, according to the Interior Department. Obama's "SWAT teams" were a figure of speech.

"The 'SWAT team' is just a turn of phrase," Interior Dept. spokesman Matt Lee Ashley said. "[The teams] are composed of highly qualified inspectors from the Minerals Management Service."

An even better theory holds that the rig was torpedoed by a North Korean mini-submarine manned by sniper troops, deployed from a North Korean cargo vessel just departed from Cuba. They attacked the rig because it was built by Hyundai Heavy Industries, a South Korean company (which is true, according to news reports), the theory holds. The Obama administration, allegedly, is covering this up.

But that's a bit afield of the political realm.

The Fox News and Rush Limbaugh speculations were compiled and reproduced by Media Matters, the liberal group whose mission it is to expose all the ostensibly crazy things conservatives say--and to make conservatives look like jerks, essentially degrading the credibility of the Right in America.

Mainstream politicians are seeing what they want in the oil spill, too. John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, said Monday that it proves a need to implement the GOP's "all of the above" energy strategy. Democrats, meanwhile, have sounded notes of caution over more oil drilling, saying an energy bill that involves new offshore drilling will be dead on arrival. 

Greenpeace called it a "failure of the United States' energy policy." used images of the oil spill in a TV ad, which is currently airing on cable TV nationwide, calling for Obama to reinstate a ban on offshore oil drilling. The liberal blog/action network Firedoglake has followed suit: it is now raising money to air an ad that splices oil-spill images with audio of Obama's 2010 announcement that more drilling would be allowed.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee got in touch with its supporters over the spill, in an e-mail asking them to sign a petition "to stand with President Obama to hold BP accountable"...which, upon signing, gives signatories the opportunity to contribute to the DSCC (as do most of the DSCC's web pages, to be fair). Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in turn, accused the DSCC of politicizing the oil spill with its e-mail.

There are shades of politicization, shades of grandstanding. Not everything is an attempt to gain political advantage from an oil spill. It is right that policymakers--and, yes, advocacy organizations--should try to assess what this oil spill means for U.S. energy policy, and whether we should change how we approach offshore drilling in light of the disaster.

But the responses show that everyone sees something different in the spill--and, often, politicians and groups have interpreted it to back up positions they already held, long before the rig exploded and we all realized just how significant the catastrophe was going to be.