In January, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) bowed to public pressure and published millions of once-classified documents online, so people could browse them “from the comfort of your own home.” On the face of it, this is a win for transparency, but in classic bureaucratic fashion, the documents say a lot without really telling us anything useful.

They are more like an amusing trip through the eccentricities and failures of a spy agency that gained immense power after WWII through virtually unlimited funding and little oversight. Assassinations, coups, drug running, torture, and economic sabotage are not the subject of these documents, but there is plenty about UFOs, a Penthouse interview that never happened, various banal diagrams, and psychics.

That last subject is interesting in light of America’s tumultuous history with Iran, beginning in 1953 when the US and UK overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government, installing a puppet dictator to serve western interests.

US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon got their first chance to use the psychic program, initiated in 1975, after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy and took 52 US personnel hostage.

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According to the Miami Herald:

“In an operation code-named Grill Flame, half a dozen psychics working inside a dimly lit room in an ancient building in Fort Meade, Maryland, on more than 200 occasions tried to peer through the ether to see where the hostages were being held, how closely they were guarded and the state of their health.

 

Officially, the psychics worked for U.S. Army intelligence. But the documents in the CIA database make it clear their efforts were monitored — and supported — by a wide array of government intelligence agencies as well as top commanders at the Pentagon.

 

They were even consulted before the super-secret U.S. military raid that attempted to free the hostages in April 1980, which ended in disaster when a plane and a helicopter collided at a desert staging area.”

Apparently, the CIA was not dissuaded of its fascination with extrasensory mind abilities after Project Mk Ultra – which engaged in illegal human experimentation – was allegedly shut down in 1973.

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The psychic program was initiated in 1975 as a “foreign assessment” when the CIA heard rumors that China and Russia were experimenting with psychics. The program continued for 20 years under 10 different code names — ‘Grill Flame’ ws one of them.

psychics

It continued despite that fact the psychics had, at best, a questionable rate of success when officials were able to compare psychic reports with information from the freed hostages in 1981. According to an Air Force colonel, only seven of the 202 psychic reports were proven correct, while 59 reports were partly or possibly correct.

The degree to which this was ‘dumb luck’ is unknown, but Army officers contested the pessimistic view. They said 45 percent of the reports were partially accurate, and “that was information that could not be obtained through normal intelligence collection channels. The degree of success appears to at least equal, if not surpass, other collection methods.”

“The debate continues today. “The stuff that the CIA has declassified is garbage,” one of the Grill Flame psychics, Joseph McMoneagle, told the Miami Herald. “They haven’t declassified any of the stuff that worked.” Agreed Edwin May, a physicist who oversaw parapsychology research for government intelligence agencies for 20 years: “The psychics were able to tell, in some cases, where the hostages were moved to. They were able to see the degree of their health. … If you can sit in Fort Meade and describe the health of hostages who are going to be released, so that the right doctors can be on hand, that’s very helpful.”

 

Others are more skeptical, to put it mildly. “The intelligence agencies might as well get a crystal ball out and stare into space and hope they see something,” said James Randi, a former professional magician who turned his career into debunking ESP and psychics. “It’s a huge waste of time and money and it doesn’t help the hostages one bit.”

Directors of the psychic program scoured outside and inside the ranks of military intelligence officers to find people with a talent for “remote viewing,” or “the mental ability to see across vast distances and through walls and other obstructions.”

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An early success of the psychic program, prior to the 1979 hostage crisis, was being able to locate a downed plane in the Central African Republic to within 15 miles. The CIA recruited a self-proclaimed psychic from California who went into a trance and wrote down latitudes and longitudes, allowing them to find the plane.

But during the hostage crisis, the ‘remote viewing’ of psychics was often completely wrong, as the Miami Herald further details. Nevertheless, the program continued until 1995, employing 227 psychics and carrying out 26,000 telepathic forays.

The program was shut down after an outside review found that “remote viewing reports failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence reporting.”

Intelligence agencies certainly use a great deal of ‘remote sensing’ today, but this refers to satellites or high-flying aircraft scanning the earth in ever-more detailed and diverse ways. With what we know – and don’t know – about the technological capabilities of US spy agencies, psychic powers, even if they have any merit, may not even measure up today.

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Justin Gardner is a peaceful free-thinker with a background in the biological sciences. He is interested in bringing rationality back into the national discourse, and independent journalism as a challenge to the status quo.