Enemies in the mind's eye
For more than 20 years, the CIA funded psychic experiments
His name would eventually be revealed as Joseph McMoneagle, but for the purposes of the Army's psychic intelligence unit, he was simply Remote Viewer No. 1. One fall day in 1979 he reclined in an easy chair in an office at Fort Meade, Md. The lights were dim. Sitting nearby was an interviewer, who gave him a series of geographical coordinates that were supposed to be his mind's destination. After about 20 minutes, McMoneagle brought himself out of a deep meditation and, as he describes it, "opened my mind." Gradually images began to appear: a low, windowless building; a smokestack. He smelled "a strange stink," a mixture of sulfur and natural gas. There was also a "smelting or melting activity." After an image came to mind, he drew it roughly on a piece of paper. Another viewer, No. 29, could "see" heavy metal equipment, including tubes conducting a "heat exchange." For him, the site emanated a "sense of power."
Far-fetched as it sounds, the remote viewers at Fort Meade were engaged in deadly serious work--an odd marriage of American intelligence-gathering and paranormal experimentation. Unbeknownst to themselves, viewers No. 1 and No. 29 seemed to be describing Lop Nor, a Chinese nuclear complex.
The experiment was only one episode in a remarkable research program run by the Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA from 1972 until 1996. The project, known variously as Grill Flame, Sun Streak, and finally Star Gate, explored a variety of parapsychological phenomena but especially one known as "remote viewing," the process by which someone in, say, Maryland visualizes an office in the Kremlin and describes it both in words and drawings. The viewers were shadowy and unacknowledged participants in the quest for intelligence about a range of security concerns: nuclear weapons sites, the Iranian hostage crisis, the kidnapping of Gen. James Dozier by the Red Brigades, the location of Col. Muammar Qadhafi during the raids on Tripoli in 1986, and the espionage case of Aldrich Ames.
The outlines of Star Gate have been sketched before, but new details of the project have come to light in 73,000 pages of previously classified records released by the CIA last November and made available just this month. (An additional 20,800 pages are undergoing review, and 17,700 pages were deemed too sensitive to release.) The documents illuminate a chapter of spying that bears closer resemblance to Miss Cleo than to James Bond.
In a sense, it was inevitable. From the early 1950s on, United States intelligence explored psychic research, hoping to use extrasensory perception (ESP) for intelligence operations. After all, the Soviets were doing it. Nonetheless, officials were torn between worries that the Soviets--and later the Chinese--were ahead of the United States in the psychic arms race and the skepticism of many American officials about spending money in the field seen as dominated by kooks.
Even such hardheaded operatives as Richard Helms, who later became the director of the CIA, were intrigued. The declassified documents reveal a memo written when Helms was deputy director for plans in 1963. For 10 years a small group in the Technical Services Division had been studying hypnosis and telepathy for use in clandestine operations but concluded that these fields were not ready for operational applications. Helms disagreed and sent a memo suggesting more research in "this somewhat esoteric (and perhaps scientifically disreputable) range of activities." He argued that given the Soviet preoccupation with "cybernetics, telepathy, hypnosis, and related subjects . . . recent reported advances . . . may indicate more potential than we believed existed."