The body of Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher has been discovered in a grave in a remote part of Anbar province, the area where his jet went down in January 1991 at the onset of the Persian Gulf War. The story of his disappearance and the nearly two-decades long search for him captures the enduring myth of conspiracy and cover-up in this country, keeping false hope alive about his fate and -- in this case -- apparently serving the interest of a military eager to stoke enthusiasm for the second Iraq war.

In late 2002, military officials announced that Speicher, who had been listed as a fatality in 1991, was actually “missing / captured.”

”Some speculated that it was part of a broader campaign inside the Pentagon to drum up support for the war,” wrote Greg Jaffe in The Washington Post.

When I was in college, I wrote for a Washington City Paper editor named Jack Shafer, who is now a Slate columnist, and he told me that the world could use more conspiracy theories. Years later, he said that I had been taking him too seriously, but I think what he meant back then was that the world should be more skeptical. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are founded on faith, not skepticism, and rely on a deep-seated belief that what the government says is wrong, no matter what the facts are. The notion of conspiracy theory and cover-up is so ingrained in the public that journalists may not write stories unless there is one.

During the Vietnam era, as Deborah Nelson reported in her book The War Behind Me
, military officials would conduct an investigation into an alleged criminal act as a way to keep journalists away. Once an investigation was announced, it was no longer a so-called cover-up, and the journalists dropped the story. There are plenty of things hidden in the government, and 2.4 million officials now have security clearances that allow them access to classified information, as Secrecy News reports, but nevertheless it is awfully hard to keep a secret in the Army, an institution filled with tens of thousands of paranoid men and women.

One of the biggest cover-ups in recent years -- the death of Pat Tillman, which was first described in a heroic manner and then revealed to be a case of friendly fire -- was exposed within weeks. The idea that the Army could hide something for months or years is a powerful one, though, and fuels rumor and reporting. Meanwhile, actual crimes have been committed at U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ensuing military investigations have resulted in only a handful of prosecutions, but have ensured that journalists do little to pursue the stories or shed light on the truth of what is happening in the military.

--Tara McKelvey