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NORTHWEST NEWS

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McMenamins
Lateef Mungin and Michael Pearson CNN

(CNN) -- Praise the Internet and pass the ammunition: the blogosphere is roiling with conspiracy theories over a Social Security Administration shopping list for 174,000 hollow-point bullets.

Depending on whom you believe, police who protect Social Security Administration officers are either preparing for impending financial doom by purchasing lethal ammo to put down rioting citizens, or they're just making a standard purchase of ammunition for a federal police agency.

It all began last month when the agency, which is primarily responsible for distributing benefits to the disabled and retired people, posted an announcement seeking bids for 174,000 hollow-point bullets.

Why? cried some bloggers.

Infowars, a website operated by right-wing talk show host Alex Jones, wanted to know if the agency was preparing for "civil unrest."

"Social Security welfare is estimated to keep around 40 per cent of senior citizens out of poverty. Should the tap run dry in the aftermath of an economic collapse which the Federal Reserve has already told top banks to prepare for, domestic disorder could ensue if people are refused their benefits," it said in a post.

Each bullet potentially "represents a dead American," wrote retired Maj. Gen. Jerry Curry, an Army vet.

"If so, why would the U.S. government want the SSA to kill 174,000 of our citizens, even during a time of civil unrest?" Curry wrote on the conservative website The Daily Caller, founded by commentator Tucker Carlson.

Conspiracy theorists had previously speculated that a purchase of hollow-point bullets by the Department of Homeland Security was similarly meant to quell impending riots. A few years ago, theorists similarly questioned why the Federal Emergency Management Agency was stockpiling body bags and other supplies, suggesting the agency was preparing for civil collapse.

In the face of the furor, the Social Security Administration's public affairs shop -- which spends most of its time issuing releases about speeding disability decisions or looking up benefits information -- issued a statement explaining that its 295 agents need the bullets for target practice and to protect the agency's 66 offices across the nation.

"These investigators have full law enforcement authority, including executing search warrants and making arrests," the agency said in an August post. "Our investigators are similar to your state or local police officers. They use traditional investigative techniques, and they are armed when on official duty."

Hollow point bullets are standard-issue items for many police agencies, the Social Security Administration said. The bullets expand when they hit a target and can help prevent injuries to bystanders from bullets passing through a body, according to police.

Investigators "use this ammunition during their mandatory quarterly firearms qualifications and other training sessions, to ensure agent and public safety," the administration added.

This is just the latest in a long history of uniquely American anti-government conspiracy theories, said Kathryn Olmsted, a University of California at Davis history professor and author of "Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories in American Democracy."

That another one would surface in the midst of a contentious election cycle and continued unease over the nation's financial future is not all that surprising, Olmsted said Tuesday.

But this one, she said, seems particularly tenuous.

"It strikes me as one of the more extreme conspiracy theories," Olmsted said. "I'm surprised it has any traction."

Yet it does.

"You don't use hollow point bullets for target practice," one Twitter user posted Tuesday. "Sorry we're not buying it social security agency. #youarefullofit."

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