Robert Conquest and the Canary Mission

Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics:
“The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.”


A group calling itself the “Canary Mission” set up a website, blog, Twitter feed, and YouTube account in May of last year, with the stated purpose of “documenting the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America.”  This group emerges in the context of the long conflict involving Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As this conflict has progressed, some advocates for the Palestinian cause have promoted a boycott of Israel, its products, and its people – a movement known as the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” or “BDS” movement. At the same time, members of the North American campus group Students for Justice in Palestine have become vocal in what they claim is support of the Palestinian cause, including support for the BDS movement. At nearby Tufts University, for example, members of SJP have recently begun disrupting Israel-related campus events.

Looking beyond Tufts University, recent evidence points to an uptick on college campuses of what by any reasonable standard would have to be considered anti-Semitic activity.  Whether or not or the extent to which BDS is intrinsically anti-Semitic has been a topic of debate, with the left-wing Jewish group Jewish Voice for Peace (which has also criticized the Canary Mission) supporting BDS and former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the United States State Department and others opposing Israel-focused boycott initiatives. For what it’s worth, my own views are close to those of my fellow economist Larry Summers, who is critical of BDS but who has also been critical of Israeli policy, particularly with respect to settlements in the West Bank.

The goal of the Canary Mission appears to be to raise the stakes for students or others who might consider becoming involved with SJP, BDS, or other groups that the Canary Mission ties to anti-Semitism. The organization’s staff members sift through Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and other media to find evidence of these connections, and then they document (or rather re-document) these links through their own website and other outlets. In that sense, the Canary Mission does not appear to be creating any new information; the group is just repackaging information that is already public or semi-public. As their YouTube video describes, the goal is to create a permanent and easily-searchable database that will follow students connected to SJP and BDS as they try to find jobs or get into graduate programs following college.

The concept of a website devoted to tracking the activity of political opponents is not new. A website called RightWeb lists people and organizations connected to what it describes as “militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.”  On the right, David Horowitz’ website Discover the Networks claims to trace out the agendas and connections of individuals and groups on the political left. In neither of these cases does there appear to be any secrecy about the groups and people behind the projects.

The new Canary Mission, however, has been described by both supporters and opponents as “secretive”, an assessment with which I would have to concur. The identities of employees and backers are shrouded; although the group claims to be a non-profit, there appears to be no record of a 501c(3) organization with the name “Canary Mission.”  The secrecy appears to me to remove a layer of public accountability from the project, and this is a particular concern because of the threats that people profiled on the Canary Mission website have received.  The very scariest in a country of 320 million people are extremely scary; being negatively profiled on any website – the Canary Mission or otherwise – can be a life-changing experience.

Another distinction of the Canary Mission versus, for example, Discover the Networks: Canary Mission’s focus on its youthful opponents. As a professor I come face to face every day with the reality that people who are 18 years old, though they have reached majority in the eyes of the law, have not yet necessarily become moral adults. This website appears to me to raise the stakes for what could in some cases be considered, with a certain amount of generosity, youthful experimentation with radicalism.

I have seen no coverage of the Canary Mission in the mainstream media, but its existence is becoming widely known through word of mouth and through stories about the group in media outlets outside of the NYT/CNN/MSNBC/Huffington Post media orbit. On the right, Daniel Pipes has written sympathetically about the project on his blog, as have William Jacobson in the conservative Legal Insurrection blog and Edwin Black in the Daily Caller.  Even the extreme right-wing (and occasionally anti-Semitic) Breitbart website ran a  favorable review of the Canary Mission project.

On the center, the Jewish-focused outlet Tablet was less sympathetic to the Canary Mission, describing it as “trayf”, a Hebrew word that means “not kosher.” Here is what they had to say about the project last year:

“…if anything, the site makes pro-Israel activism—or at least anti-anti-Israel activism—look ridiculous. And it’s not just because it capitalizes “Freedom,” as if it’s a sports drink.

For one thing, Canary Mission, whose basic accusation against many of its targets is that they have shadowy funding sources and suspect connections, has shadowy funding sources and connections itself, The Forward notes. It’s not even self-respecting McCarthyism: the good senator from Appleton, Wisc., was willing to show his face.

Second, the site’s list of suspect “organizations” lumps Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood together with lefty websites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada, which are sometimes scurrilous, sometimes helpful, but rarely murderous. Plenty of pro-Israel journalists have occasion to read Mondoweiss (they just do so in secret, and tell their spouses they’re looking at porn).”

The article in  the left-leaning Jewish-themed outlet Forward that is mentioned by Tablet in the text above was published in May of 2015; a subsequent article in Forward, published in September of 2015, offers a reasonably coherent and well-documented theory regarding the identity of at least one of the founders of the Canary Mission website.

Moving further to the left from Tablet and Forward, Max Blumenthal and Julia Carmel, in Alternet, engage in what I believe is minimally informed and irresponsible speculation about the identities of the backers of the Canary Mission project; their irresponsibility made me somewhat reluctant to mention their article in this blog post.  But their post does have at least one valuable contribution – it has links to examples of online harassment that UC-Santa Cruz graduate Rebecca Pierce received after the Canary Mission ran a story about her.

Having set this backdrop, I want to offer a handful of thoughts – some grounded in my understanding of economic theories of information and incentives – that have helped me frame my thinking about the goals and approach of the new Canary Mission organization. The first observation, which has also been made by Justin King (a blogger of whom I had never heard before) in the somewhat ominously named Fifth Column News, is that the overall feel of the Canary Mission website, to an outsider, is something like Facebook or a high school yearbook for potential radicals. Leave aside for the moment the question of whether the names listed on the Canary Mission website deserve to be listed there, and accept for the sake of argument their assertion that these people are potentially dangerous. Law enforcement officials are very concerned about social networks of potential terrorists; this new website seems like a great tool for these potential radicals – who may actually not be all that aware of each other – to use in order to learn each others’ identities and get in touch with each other.

Another observation: the project appears to exert two different effects on the groups that it opposes. On one hand, it may have a deterrent effect, perhaps discouraging some people from becoming involved at all with groups like BDS and SJP. On the other hand, the stated goal of the project is to hurt the students’ employment prospects after they graduate. I think that keeping a potential radical unemployed could actually backfire – unemployment may deepen their radicalization, with harmful effects.  If radicalism scares you, I believe that employment has an almost magical potential for turning young radicals into older people who are no longer radicals.

Putting these two effects together, the Canary Mission approach seems likely to create a smaller cohort of more deeply radicalized opponents. How someone – even someone potentially sympathetic to the Canary Mission’s stated aims – should feel about this outcome depends on how they weigh the risks of facing 10 less radical opponents versus 2 or 3 opponents who are more fully radicalized and now in touch with each other, thanks to the “Facebook” effect of the project described above.  Looking at these aspects of their strategy and methods, I almost suspect that the Canary Mission may be conforming to Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics.

My final point is similar to the one made in Tablet.  Even aside from the debate about whether BDS is intrinsically anti-Semitic, the website appears to have a very loose filter for identifying speech as unacceptable. In their note about CUNY professor Corey Robin, Canary Mission begins with a criticism of Robin’s defense, on free speech grounds, of the (more difficult to defend, in my view) professor Steven Salaita’s widely-publicized recent comments. Listing someone on the Canary Mission website for the offense of defending another professor’s right to free speech creates a very slippery slope.

If we continue down this slope, what if I now defend Corey Robin’s right to speak in defense of Salaita’s right to speak? Which, for the record, I do. Does that now make me an anti-Semite?  And what would then happen to someone who defended me? Given the consequences that can follow from being listed on the Canary Mission website, the group’s apparently loose filter for defining anti-Semitism is cause for concern.

I also worry that labeling this defense of free speech as intrinsically anti-Semitic will water down the meaning of the word “anti-Semitism” to the extent that it is useless when it is actually needed.

I reached out, via Twitter message, to representatives of the Canary Mission, and let them know that I was working on a blog post and had a handful of questions. Their representative very politely asked me to send the questions by email, which I did. My questions are below; I will update this post when the Canary Mission’s representatives answer these questions.

1) What was the impetus for the formation of the Canary Mission organization? Was there one particular event that drove the initiation of this project?

2) What is the rationale for keeping secret the identities of the people working on this project? Do you worry that keeping your identities secret reduces the impact of your organization? Might you have even more impact if your identities were known?

3) There appears to be a process that people can use to appeal being listed on your website. How often is this process used? How frequently is it successful? What would be an example (disguising identities, obviously) of a situation where someone successfully has their name removed from your list?

4) Would there be a circumstance where someone identified on your website could approach you, say to you with credibility “look, I did say what you claim. I was wrong and I regret it” – in other words, not contest your accusations but instead acknowledge and apologize for them – and be removed from your website?

5) The focus of the Canary Mission appears to be on what you describe as anti-Semitism on college campuses, which strikes me as a largely left-wing phenomenon. Do you worry that, in operating with this focus on college campuses, you are missing what also appears to be burgeoning anti-Semitism from sources on the populist right?

6) One goal of the Canary Mission appears to be to raise the stakes for affiliation with groups and causes that are identified as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Presumably there are employment consequences for a student or professor who gets identified on your site. Do you worry that identifying students who are connected to groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions” movement (BDS) may “harden” them, in the sense that making them less employable after graduation will deepen and reinforce their affiliation with the groups that you oppose? In other words, do you worry that the Canary Mission may accidentally turn what could (perhaps charitably) be viewed as youthful flirtation with radicalism into a permanent career, by foreclosing other options?

7) The noted historian Robert Conquest proposed three rules of politics. His third rule: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of people who oppose the stated mission of that organization.” Is The Canary Organization an exception to or an example of Conquest’s Third Rule?

8) If I can focus on a specific example – your website lists the Professor Corey Robin; the first of the charges against him is not anything anti-Semitic he has said himself, but his defense (as being protected under the First Amendment) of things that a different professor (Steve Salaita) has said. Not the content, necessarily, but just their status as speech that should be protected. To take it one step further, could somebody get listed on your website by doing nothing more than offering a public defense of Corey Robin’s right to assert that Steve Salaita’s comments enjoy First Amendment protection?

(Artwork: Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian, 1526/7-1593)  Air  1566)


  1. The American Anthropological Association, of which I am no longer a member, over the past years has had quite contentious debates over boycotting Israeli institutions culminating in a vote at the meetings last fall and followed by an online vote to enact a boycott. The first vote passed overwhelmingly, white the second failed narrowly.

    Despite the votes, the arguing continues.

    You can read about it here:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do believe that there’s quite a bit of anti-Semitism within the BDS movement. When the mere presence of an Israeli group at an event sparks protest, that’s a red flag right there. As a pretty left-leaning Jew, I can’t stand Netanyahu. I believe that His saber-rattling and war mongering are dangerous and immoral. But I also believe that many nations around the world have done dangerous, immoral things — and yet they don’t get called out nearly as much as Israel does. That’s where I believe the anti-Semitism lurks. Seriously, you’re going to boycott a product just because it’s made in Israel — and, chances are, made by people who have nothing to do with policies concerning Palestinians? I just don’t see how that makes any sense. But at the same time, groups like the Canary Mission are not the answer. I checked out their website after reading this. It seems an awful lot like they’re on a witch hunt, and witch hunts rarely lead to anything constructive.

    Liked by 1 person

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