American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has been called many names during his distinguished four-decade career, but the most disparaging was levelled at him earlier this month. Responding to suggestions by Hersh that US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had sanctioned abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, a spokesman accused the reporter of being 'one of history's greatest conspiracy theorists'. Hersh, who specialises in uncovering government wrongdoing, was not unfamiliar with the charge. Since revealing the massacre of civilians by American soldiers at My Lai in Vietnam in 1967, successive officials peeved by his allegations have made use of the term. Unusually, though, conspiracies rarely make the mainstream media in the US. Given that none of the promised lawsuits against the article in New Yorker magazine have been filed and the journalist's impartiality and accuracy is celebrated in Washington, the conspiracy claims have vanished. That is not the case for countless other theories about US President George W. Bush's administration and opposition presidential contender John Kerry. The internet is awash with claims and counter-claims posted by advocates whose political affiliations are obvious, but undeclared. Wherever in the world there is a government and opposition, employer and workers, or master and underdog, there are conspiracy theories. They are not confined to nationality, race, social class or economic status. Hong Kong proves the point. The resignation of three radio talk-show hosts because of alleged intimidation by Chinese officials will remain a conspiracy theory until proven otherwise by both sides. One of the trio, Allen Lee Peng-fei, on Thursday attempted to turn whispers into fact when he implied a retired mainland official had threatened his family over his democratic views in the lead up to September's elections. Conspiracies are usually the realm of people with extremist views, American historian and terrorism researcher Jeffrey Bale said this week. He believes those on the fringes of society and politics are most prone to subscribing to conspiracy theories. 'You've got to go looking for conspiracy theories,' said Dr Bale, who is with the weapons of mass destruction terrorism project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Centre for Non-proliferation Studies. 'If you have a conventional world view, you'll usually be consulting conventional news sources and will get the conventional take. If you're a person with a fringe world view or believe that there are sinister forces behind things, then you'll be seeking out the websites, newspapers and magazines which reinforce your views.' He determined that conspiracy theories simplified reality, making complex issues more easily understood. By putting names and faces to such matters, a point of view could be better expounded and a support base could then be built. Another reason for believing the theories was that people sometimes felt buffeted by forces that were beyond their control. 'Those who believe that sinister people are able to engineer the course of events by plotting and engaging in machinations of one type or another, can also organise by trying to promote their own agendas,' Dr Bale said. 'They believe that through their own activities, they can forestall the sinister plots of the conspirators.' While conspiracy theorists abounded in American society, possibly because of a tradition of anti-elitism, his work investigating clandestine extremist groups had led him to believe that they were most prevalent in Muslim and Arab countries. In the Muslim world, even government publications included hearsay and half-truths, mostly aimed at the US and Israel, he said. 'Everything that goes wrong in that part of the world is ascribed to devious, sinister foreign forces and Zionists,' he said. 'It's a steady diet in the Muslim world from school textbooks to government-sanctioned newspapers. No matter where you turn, you are immersed in the most insane and ridiculous conspiracy theories.' He and other analysts agreed that in western society, those who embraced conspiracy theories were generally on the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Large constituencies opposed to the policies of governments more readily believed the worst about the people who were setting agendas. Those politically opposed to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, would be less questioning about a conspiracy theory involving him than would be his supporters. Such theories in politics also tend to be cyclical and are more prevalent when elections loom. That is certainly the case in the US, where the contest for November's presidential elections has in recent months prompted a plethora of theories. Washington investigative journalist Wayne Madsen said that the former Democratic Party president Bill Clinton had had to contend with numerous allegations circulated by Republic Party officials who now held office. 'Mr Clinton's wife, Hillary, said he was subjected to a 'vast, right-wing, conspiracy',' Madsen said. 'The more that is written about that, it seems Mrs Clinton was correct - people who were doing everything in their power to have Clinton tripped up or investigated are now in the Bush administration. They're largely the neo-conservatives and the right-wing Republicans who are behind this Iraq adventure.' In response, a left-wing conspiracy now appeared to be under way against the Republicans, he suggested. Hersh's article added fuel to the fire raging over the US-led war in Iraq. In it, he alleged that Mr Rumsfeld had allowed a secretive military unit to take whatever action was necessary against suspected terrorist detainees at Abu Ghraib - the prison where severe human rights abuses have been admitted by American soldiers. Pentagon and intelligence community officials denied the report on May 17. Defence Department adviser Richard Perle said he would sue Hersh, but the threat has not been followed up with any legal action. Perhaps more damaging to Mr Bush's re-election chances are the claims that the US went to war because of faulty intelligence. The reasons given when American troops moved into Iraq in March last year was that ousted president Saddam Hussein's regime was supporting the al-Qaeda terrorism network and had illegally developed biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. No evidence has been produced to back the claims. Conspiracy theories also making the mainstream media have involved the Vietnam war records of the two presidential candidates. Mr Kerry has yet to produce his military medical records to disprove allegations that he was not sufficiently wounded in action to deserve the two purple hearts and other bravery awards he received. But most pervasive of all the theories involve the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. A Hong Kong academic recently expounded a self-deduced theory that evolved from information on a website, letsroll911.org. The site claims that its pictures and videos prove the Bush administration was behind the attacks. According to the academic, far-right officials in the administration, popularly known as neo-conservatives, are steeped in fascist philosophy and are waiting for the moment to seize power by declaring a state of emergency. The neo-conservatives, who include Mr Perle, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and the editor of the Washington-based magazine The Weekly Standard, William Kristol, are the subject of numerous websites maintained by conspiracy theorists. Maverick perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRoche, widely proclaimed as America's 'king of conspiracy theories', took the neo-conservatives into public attention in an interview in which he declared that they had fascist leanings. He said their godfather was University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss, who was a proponent of the three most important shapers of Nazi philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. Strauss was once deemed the most powerful and influential person in Washington, even years after his death in 1973. Strauss' alter-ego and fellow University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom trained Mr Wolfowitz. Madsen said theories were also rampant about an Israeli connection to September 11 and terrorism. Israeli art students and moving van drivers featured prominently in claims that the nation's intelligence officers were better informed than their American counterparts. Five moving van drivers had been arrested taking photographs of the World Trade Centre towers collapsing and their company manager was named by a Jewish newspaper in New York as being the head of a US branch of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Art students had been reported to be living near the September 11 hijackers in Florida, Texas and northern New Jersey. Recently, there had been a spate of news reports about Israeli moving van drivers being arrested near nuclear and military facilities. One case involved a nuclear plant in Tennessee and earlier this week, two men were detained after trying to gain access to a nuclear submarine base in Georgia. While the cases do not have the notoriety of those surrounding the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, they are continuing a long tradition in American society. Conspiracy theories come and go, but they will forever be present, the experts agree. Whether they will bring down the government or damage the political chances of the opposition, was a matter of how widely accepted they become. Only time will tell.