In 1980, Albus, who has the defeat of Grindelwald under his belt, has been trying, unsuccessfully, to bring down Voldemort. Obviously, he's not getting much help from the bungling Ministry of Magic, and after all these years of terror, he's ready to do whatever it takes to finish the Dark Lord off and stop him killing all these innocent people.
On the night he visited Trelawney to interview her for the Divination position, he hears the prophecy - and sees in that prophecy an opportunity to bait Voldemort, force him to make a big mistake, maybe draw him out, and destroy him - or at least create the weapon who can. To that end, Dumbledore himself leaks the first part of the prophecy, most likely through Snape, who was already on Dumbledore's side, working as double agent, at the time. We can obviously establish his presence that night with both Albus and Sybill as witnesses. But there is that kind of funny glitch in the two stories about how much Snape heard. And Aberforth's being the bartender and all makes the scene a little suspect.
Now that Albus has been presented this opportunity, perhaps he can make the prophecy happen, i.e., have a hand in creating the "one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord." Or maybe he thought he could keep a close watch on the Potters and Longbottoms, draw Voldemort out at the births of Harry or Neville, and ambush him in his attempt to kill the baby.
There are a lot of strengths to this theory. In the first place, it gives us a much more palatable view of Dumbledore than "Evil" or inherently "Manipulative," one that might even fit Rowling's description of him as the "epitome of goodness." He's still a great man; but he made a gigantic mistake out of desperation that led to a long series of necessary actions that Dumbledore otherwise would never have taken. Or, as Joyce Odell puts it:
Turning loose a Prophecy was one of the biggest mistakes that Dumbldore ever made in his life. It locked him into a course of action which was out of character, and at which he did not excell. The gamble seems to be paying off, but the price has been way too high. He trapped himself every bit as much as he trapped Tom Riddle. (Loyaulte Me Lie)
[Note: Rowling has recently abolished any possibility of what constitutes a significant portion of Joyce Odell's theory, namely, that Dumbledore faked his death, and is still alive. This does not automatically negate the "prophecy plan" portion of the theory, which is able to stand without the "faked death" theory, in my opinion.]
This theory has a lot of strengths as well as some canon evidence. Let's take a look at just some of the mysteries it makes sense of, in no particular order:
Dumbledore's trust in Snape: If you're not a "Good Snape" advocate, you hate this theory. But if Snape were in league with Dumbledore, this explains, far better than the "remorse over the Potters' death" story, why Dumbledore trusts him - in fact, in adds to the "remorse" story, by making it the biggest regret of their whole plan that the Potters ended up dead.
It also explains how Snape got a teaching job so soon after his repentance. It seems even Albus should know better than that.
Dumbledore's "plan" talk in Order (ch. 37): Just what was that all about, anyway? And linked to this, don't we learn in that very same chapter ("The Lost Prophecy") that Dumbledore would be willing to sacrifice lots of nameless and faceless people in order to protect Harry's happiness? And isn't that exactly what he did if he took a chance on the prophecy - put lots of nameless and faceless people at risk?
Dumbledore's favoritism of Harry: Nothing like the guilt of orchestrating the death of a kid's parents to make you want to treat the kid extra special.
Dumbledore's reluctance to tell Harry the whole story: If this is the real story, who can blame Albus for not being all too quick to spill it to Harry?
Dumbledore's lie: The man who claims not to lie (PS/SS), and that "the truth is generally preferable to lies" (GOF), most definitely lied to the Ministry about "Dumbledore's Army" (OP). Maybe the "old coot" isn't as honest as we thought, and maybe he is capable of lying when he thinks the cause worthy enough.
The Prophecy Problem: It is, indeed, one potential solution for the two odd accounts of the prophecy overheard.
There are more, but let's move on for now; you get the idea that some interesting and important plot points can be tied together with this theory.
There's a lot that needs to be explained. The "Prophecy Plan" (I'll call it that for the remainder of the essay) fills in a lot of holes, and it may be a fairly good explanation. After all, there are a lot of links to Greek mythology in these novels, and Greek tragedies almost always centered around somebody fumbling a prophecy.
Before we get all breathless with excitement about this theory, though, we need to take a serious - I mean good, hard, serious - look at the conclusions to which it leads. Follow me now on a trip through Hogwarts history, 1992-1997. Let's assume the Prophecy Plan; Dumbledore let loose the prophecy in order to orchestrate the downfall of Voldemort. Temporarily, it worked better than he possibly could have imagined; Voldemort was defeated. But, of course, Dumbledore would agree with Hagrid - it was "cadswallop," the idea the Voldemort wasn't still out there, trying to regain his power. And Dumbledore would have to be ready with his "chosen one" for the time when the Dark Lord succeeded in returning. So, invoking the ancient blood magic (Narnia, anyone?) over the Dursley house to keep Harry safe, let's fast-forward to 1992.
Little Harry Potter has just managed his second defeat of the Dark Lord, and he has some questions. Dumbledore explains the wonderful and dangerous nature of truth, that it must be treated with caution, and then tells Harry there may be some questions he cannot answer. But he finishes it with this statement: "I shall not, of course, lie." Harry's first question, "Why does Voldemort want to kill me?", alas, cannot be answered. But Dumbledore, who has confessed the importance of the truth and his unwillingness to lie to Harry, has promised a full explanation in the future.
Now let's fast-forward again. Four years later, same time of year, Harry still has not gotten his answer. Now, after having been through so much, Dumbledore is finally prepared to tell Harry everything he knows, everything he withheld from him all those years. Assuming the Prophecy Plan to be true, let's evaluate Dumbledore over the course of the conversation, and recall that Albus was quite clear: "I shall not, of course, lie."
Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37: The Lost Prophecy
After a long discussion about Kreacher, Sirius's death, and the debacle at the Ministry, Dumbledore decides it is finally time (long past time, in fact) to answer Harry's question from five years ago: "I shall tell you everything," he assures Harry.
Dumbledore most certainly does not tell "everything." "Everything" would include the fact that he himself had let the prophecy loose, but as we shall see, he entirely avoids this. It also means that he radically trivializes his "mistake" (see immediately below).
As the conversaton progresses, Dumbledore, much to Harry's frustration, gives a general overview of Harry's first four years at Hogwarts, and explains his bad reasoning for not telling Harry the whole truth prior to that very moment. In short, his reason for not telling him - indeed, the great flaw in his "plan" - is as follows: "I cared about you too much."
Now, even with the prophecy plan in place, and the great flaw being his not telling Harry the truth early enough, this would be a manipulative cover on Dumbledore's part. Deflecting his own culpability in the deaths of Harry's parents by not telling him everything, as he promised, and talking instead about his great love for Harry - well, that's really calculating and cold, especially from a man who has taught Harry so much about the "truth" and "love."
From here, Dumbledore explains the prophecy to Harry, and how the first part of the prophecy is leaked to Voldemort: a snoop overheard the first part, but was apprehended before being able to hear the second. The snoop went and told the Dark Lord.
This, of course, is a flat-out lie if the prophecy plan is true. If Snape was listening in, and then leaked the first part of the prophecy on Dumbledore's orders, the whole "thrown from the building" part is a lie, and Dumbledore lies quite baldly when he calls the catching of the eavesdropper "My...one stroke of good fortune." It wouldn't have been a "stroke of good fortune," but a calculated plan.
Chapter 10: The House of Gaunt
Just a brief stop here to note that Harry presses Dumbledore on the question of whether or not he told him "everything," and Albus strongly affirms that he did. A second lie on the same subject, if the prophecy plan is true.
Chapter 23: Horcruxes
Things get really, really ugly for Dumbledore's character in this chapter, if the prophecy plan is true. After the discussion on horcruxes, the conversation turns to the prophecy, and Dumbledore is to the point of agitation at trying to convince Harry of one point in particular: "...what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so."
He simply will not let Harry get away without understanding this properly. He tells Harry, "You are setting too much store by the prophecy!" This is the height of hypocrisy if Dumbledore was the one who initially set too much store by the prophecy, and his accusation that it was Voldemort's "grave error" to act on it, causing this whole chain of events, is a lie and more hypocrisy. This is more than manipulative; it's flat-out evil, in my opinion. The whole discussion is rubbish, if Dumbledore was the architect behind the whole plan.
Sorting it All Out
It does not seem reasonable to me, in light of all of this, to believe the Manipulative!Dumbledore theories, because, ultimately, they result in an evil, lying Dumbledore. Not evil as in "on Voldemort's side." But evil in a different way, nonetheless. To be caught in so many lies while proclaiming the importance of truth, love, and loyalty is the worst kind of hypocrisy imaginable. Albus Dumbledore, quite frankly, would have to be an unfeeling monster for this to be true.
If you're committing to a Manipulative!Dumbledore theory, then this is what you've got to sign onto. He may have meant well at the time the prophecy was "set loose," but he's become downright awful ever since. The little house cup trick at the end of Book 1 isn't enough to merit "evil monster" status, or even indicate that potential in someone, is it?
Rowling simply has not written Dumbledore as an unfeeling monster. Re-read his conversations with Harry, his actions towards him and for him. I know...we've been fooled by Rowling too many times on whether or not a person is good or bad. We're all determined not to get fooled again. But Manipulative!Dumbledore theorists are reading far too much into certain details. This is not a man who is cold and calculating.
What about the identity of the eavesdropper?
This is an important question, of course. I've just complained that Dumbledore becomes a liar if he didn't tell Harry "everything" at the end of Order, but we know for a fact that he held back information about the identity of the eavesdropper - Severus Snape. But I think we can understand this in another way. Consider the following points:
(1) The identity of the eavesdropper was not crucial to understanding "everything," nor did neglecting to reveal Snape as the snoop result in a long chain of lies like everything else about the prophecy plan does. Dumbledore told the truth about what happened that night; he didn't reveal the snoop's identity for good reasons. If the prophecy plan is true, our whole list of manipulations, deceptions, and hypocrisies remains.
(2) There are at least two good reasons for Dumbledore's not revealing Snape. (a) Dumbledore quite obviously loves and protects Severus Snape; it is in Snape's best interest that Harry not know, especially since Dumbledore believes wholeheartedly in Snape's repentance. Indeed, to re-open that wound, especially at this time, would be a dishonor to Snape's repentance and Dumbledore's forgiveness. (b) Dumbledore thinks it of the utmost importance that Harry learn to trust and respect Snape as well, because Snape is so valuable to the war against Voldemort, as is Harry. They need to be on the same side. But this is already an uphill battle. If Harry needs to know the identity of the eavesdropper - and eventually, he does - one can't blame Dumbledore for thinking it best to delay that revelation until the war is over, and Voldemort defeated.
Dumbledore's lie to the Ministry
Of course, we did catch Dumbledore in a lie, didn't we? When the Ministry asked him about "Dumbledore's Army," he baldly lied, did he not? Isn't this the man who said he wouldn't lie?
Well, no, not really. He said he wouldn't lie to Harry, and he believes the truth is "generally preferable to lies." But he's not a moral absolutist on the question of lying (on some questions, he is). Set the lie in context. The clueless, bungling Ministry is not only not helping, they're hurting themselves and the entire wizarding world by their actions. One small group of students at Hogwarts, led by the "chosen one," is preparing themselves for a war that they and Dumbledore know is coming, but to which the Ministry has turned a blind eye. The Ministry's action is the height of irresponsible use of power, and Dumbledore's lie is protecting the good side.
You're hiding an innocent person, or a good person who has broken an unjust law. The inquisition comes to your door to ask if you've seen the person; you know these folks will kill him unjustly. What do you do? You tell the lie, and it's the right thing to do. Even the Judeo-Christian God is fine with this, by the way; there's that whole issue of the prostitute Rahab being justified by faith because she hid some spies and lied about their location. So let's not get all in a tizzy about the evil of all lying. This one lie in no way proves that Dumbledore frequently lies or thinks that deception is a good idea.
Put simply, Manipulative!Dumbledore theories prove too much. You can't really have it both ways. Theories that posit a well-meaning Manipulative!Dumbledore are a fantasy, because they inevitably result in a deceptive, unfeeling, arrogant, hypocritical old man who cares nothing about anything but his own plans while pretending to love.
Certainly Dumbledore has his faults, and certainly he's good at getting his way. But his position toward Harry has been loving, gracious, and kind, and he is a worthy mentor for our hero. Thank goodness Harry is "Dumbledore's man through and through." I don't know who would be better to emulate than Albus Dumbledore.