CIA files reveal how U.S. used psychics to spy on Iran

House in Fort Meade, Maryland, where psychics gathered to remotely spy on the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis. The house was razed when the psychic program ended in 1995. Courtesy/Edwin C. May
House in Fort Meade, Maryland, where psychics gathered to remotely spy on the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis. The house was razed when the psychic program ended in 1995. Courtesy/Edwin C. May

The dozens of American diplomats taken hostage by revolutionary students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 might have had some secret company during their 15-month captivity: U.S. intelligence agencies had a squad of military-trained psychics using ESP to watch them, according to declassified documents in a newly available CIA database.

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.

In a memo written on April 23, 1980, one day before the launch of the rescue mission, one of the chiefs of the psychic unit told a superior officer that a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had contacted the unit and “requested we intensify our efforts and that we attempt to set up a situation wherein the possibilities for aborting the mission would be sharply reduced.”

Whether the psychics provided any useful intelligence was the subject of a debate among intelligence officials as heated as it was secret. After the hostages were released in January 1981 and extensively questioned about the details of their experience, the Pentagon compared the information with 202 reports from the Grill Flame psychics. “Only seven reports” were proven correct, wrote an Air Force colonel on the staff of the Joint Chiefs, underlining the number for emphasis.

More than half, he added, were “entirely incorrect.” And although 59 contained information that was partly or possibly right, the colonel noted that “these same reports often included erroneous data.”

Army officers supervising Grill Flame hotly contested the Air Force colonel’s evaluation, claiming that 45 percent of the psychic reports contained some accurate information. And, they argued, “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.”

Randi’s skeptical perspective was shared by many inside the intelligence community. William J. Daugherty, a CIA case officer working in Iran who was captured when the embassy was seized by the radical students, told the Herald he learned of the psychic probing from colleagues after his release.

“It was at lunch, and they were laughing,” Daugherty said. “It was in the nature of, ‘Can you believe the crazy stuff we did?’ ”

Daugherty himself, while in captivity, had been wondering if the CIA might be monitoring the embassy with something else from its bag of odd tricks, the so-called ornithopter — a mechanical bird, wired with microphones to pick up nearby conversations as it perched on windowsills. The spymasters kept the ornithopter in its coop, but Daugherty was impressed with another CIA ploy he learned about.

“I guess, all these years later, they won’t shoot me for telling you this,” he said. “After we’d been captives for a while, one of the National Football League teams began sending us videocassettes of football games, and we got to watch them on the embassy TVs. We had no idea that the CIA had put little tracking devices inside them. When they were played, the devices activated and they beamed a signal that could be picked up by a satellite beacon, which relayed word that at least one hostage was at such and such a location.”

Operation Grill Flame was just one part of a broader U.S. intelligence project involving psychics and ESP that continued for 20 years. It went through as many as 10 different code names as its management shifted from agency to agency — though it was mostly supervised by Army intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency — and carried out 26,000 telepathic forays by 227 psychics before the government shut it down in 1995.

Scores of documents in the CIA database trace its history and its involvement in everything from searches for missing aircraft to tracking shipments of illegal drugs. Established in 1975 after a series of more fleeting encounters between the intelligence community and the parapsychological world, the program was originally more of a research project than a spy mission, one of the odder parts of the perpetual arms race of the Cold War.

“Mostly at the beginning, we were doing foreign assessment — that is, what the other side was doing,” said May, who joined the program nearly at its inception. “We’d get a report that China or Russia was experimenting with psychics who claimed to be able to do this or that, and our job was to judge whether this was possibly true and if so, what threat was it to us.”

The program also began working directly with psychics. At first it sought out people who publicly claimed extrasensory powers, but then began searching within the ranks of military intelligence officers who shared personality qualities with what it called “established psychics,” especially those with a talent for “remote viewing” — the mental ability to see across vast distances and through walls and other obstructions.

“Successful remote viewers tend to be confident, outgoing, adventurous, broadly successful individuals with some artistic bent,” an Army colonel who managed Grill Flame said in a briefing on the program’s history that was widely delivered to top echelons of the Pentagon and civilian intelligence agencies in 1982 and 1983. (A transcript is among the documents on the CIA database.)

From hundreds of candidates, project managers selected six for psychic training. And in the fall of 1979, Grill Flame abruptly went from theory to practice when the six were put to work looking for a missing U.S. Navy plane.

On Sept. 4, 1979, the psychics were able to pinpoint the location of the missing plane to within 15 miles. Other details of the search for the plane are blacked out in CIA documents, but Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, might have been alluding to it in an interview he gave 12 years ago.

“We had a plane go down in the Central African Republic — a twin-engine plane, small plane. And we couldn’t find it,” even with satellite photography, Carter said. “So the director of the CIA came and told me that he had contacted a woman in California that claimed to have supernatural capabilities. And she went in a trance, and she wrote down latitudes and longitudes, and we sent our satellite over that latitude and longitude, and there was the plane.”

That seemed to validate the ESP approach to intelligence, at least to some officials, and the psychics were put to work at other tasks — though Grill Flame overseers fretted that if news leaked out that the American government was using psychic spies, the program would be buried in ridicule. They were particularly worried about William Proxmire, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin, who each month issued a sarcastic (and highly publicized) Golden Fleece Award to government programs he regarded as boondoggles.

“I think the Golden Fleece Award comes from people being less than quiet in their profession,” said Eugene F. Tighe, the Army lieutenant general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a meeting Oct. 30, 1979, where he counseled colleagues on the need for profound secrecy. (He also mentioned that President Carter was aware of the program and “interested” in it.)

“We should try and keep Proxmire off our backs,” agreed Walter B. LaBerge, undersecretary of the Army, according to a transcript of the meeting.

But fears of renegade politicians were swept away when the students burst into the embassy in Tehran a week later and took more than 60 diplomats hostage. As American intelligence hit a stone wall in its efforts to find out exactly what was happening inside the embassy — the hostages included all the CIA officers in Iran — the military turned in frustration to the psychics.

On Nov. 21, the Joint Chiefs task force on the hostage crisis asked Grill Flame managers for help. Two days later, after looking at pictures of the hostages in Time magazine, two psychics went to work on a mental search of the embassy. Twelve more attempts would be made over the next three weeks.

The viewing sessions, as they were called, took place in a soundproof, windowless room in an old building in Fort Meade, about 30 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., the home of a number of intelligence agencies. “Everything inside the room was gray, very nondescript,” said McMoneagle, one of the six Grill Flame psychics.

Each session included only two people, a psychic and an intelligence officer, known as an interviewer. The interviewer gave the psychic a target: typically a photo of a person or place, a map, or a set of geographic coordinates. In the early days, the target information was usually placed in a sealed envelope so the psychic had no visible clue what he was looking for beyond what came into his mind. But as the hostage crisis dragged on, that rule was often disregarded.

Most sessions lasted around 30 minutes. They were tape-recorded, and sometimes the psychics sketched things they had seen.

“You have to open your mind to anything at all,” said McMoneagle, who except for a fairly typical near-death experience a decade earlier during a bout of food poisoning (“you know, a tunnel, a voice saying ‘move toward the light,’ you’ve heard it a thousand times”) had never had a psychic episode before his military training. “And then you describe it.”

A transcript of a viewing session Dec. 29, 1979, at least from a procedural perspective, shows the typical interplay between psychic and interviewer.

The psychic was shown a picture of one of the hostages: Tom Ahern, the embassy’s CIA station chief. “I want you to hold that image of that individual in your mind while you visualize the area where he is located,” the interviewer said. “Locate this individual and describe what he is doing. Describe his locations and his surroundings. Relax and concentrate, relax and concentrate …”

“I seemed to be in the midst of an explosion of activity,” replied the psychic. “[There] appeared to be a lot of people dressed in, of all things, flowing robes … [I] distinctly had the impression of a lot of white robes or smocks of people.”

Those people, he added, were running “helter-skelter all over the place.”

“As if there were a crowd of people suddenly somebody started shooting into the crowd,” he continued. “Some appeared to be falling and others just appeared to be scattering everywhere. Funny thing is, I didn’t hear any gun shots, or anything. … Maybe it was tear gas or something.”

From there the psychic’s vision abruptly flashed to a jail cell, looking out onto a courtyard, and finally to man in a light brown suit lying on a red oriental carpet (“that didn’t make any sense at all”). The psychic finished by making some crude sketches of the disturbance, the cell and the floorplan of the cellblock.

“Either that’s one of the worst sessions I’ve ever had or one of the best,” the psychic ruefully concluded.

The session was typical in at least one other way: It was mostly dead wrong. Aside from the day the embassy was actually seized, there was never a disturbance or a gunfight inside the compound in the entire time the hostages were held there.

“I never saw or heard anything like that during the time we were hostages,” said former captive Daugherty. “I never once smelled tear gas. Very occasionally you would hear a gunshot because the guards were mostly kids with no experience with firearms, and they’d forget to put the safety of their gun on, and then they’d drop it and it would go off. But it was always a single shot, never a prolonged burst.”

Even the description of flowing white robes seems quite unlikely to him. By Christmas of 1979, the students who took over the embassy were mostly alienated from the Muslim clergymen who were originally their allies.

“You never saw the clergymen anymore by that time, and the students were just young guys in jeans and sweaters, western clothing,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty likewise took issue with several other descriptions by the psychics. One of them described a huge, elaborate fireplace inside the U.S. ambassador’s residence in the embassy compound, with a set of crossed swords or scimitars and shields hanging above it. The psychic sketched it as well.

Daugherty, a frequent visitor to the residence for meetings before the embassy seizure and to use the showers there after he was a hostage, doesn’t recall ever seeing any kind of fireplace, and certainly not one with an elaborate display of ancient weaponry. “I certainly would remember something that looked like that,” he said.

He is likewise mystified by a psychic’s description of a building in the compound where a group of “approximately 30 hostages” who were “less important to the captors than the remaining hostages” were taken for exercise two or three times a week.

“I never took part in any group exercise, and I never heard any of the others mention it,” Daugherty said. “The guards didn’t care if we got any exercise. And they hardly ever permitted us together in large groups. Mostly we were broken into little groups of two or three, or even less, and any kind of communication was prohibited.”

The psychics’ work after the failed rescue mission was, if anything, even less accurate. Their student captors, realizing that keeping all the hostages inside the embassy grounds had been practically an invitation for an American military raid, began scattering them literally all over the country. The psychics were assigned to hunt them down. But many of their reports were wrong, sometimes by hundreds of miles.

On May 2, 1980, a psychic confidently declared that Lt. Col. David Roeder, the embassy’s Air Force attaché, was being held in a “very expensive” yellow stone house — “a really private, really expensive home” — just six or seven blocks away from the embassy. And “he is definitely with [CIA station chief] Ahern,” the psychic added. He drew several detailed pictures of the home and grounds.

Actually, Roeder was being detained in an abandoned art school in the city of Qom, several hundred miles away. And Ahern was locked up in a Tehran prison. Similarly, Bob Ode (a retired foreign service officer who had the bad luck to be on a temporary job in the consulate when the embassy was seized) was not in a multi-story, castle-like building outside the embassy, as a psychic reported June 3. Ode was one of a few hostages who never left the embassy.

Such mistakes don’t bother the psychics or their supporters. They argue that no method of collecting intelligence is anything close to foolproof, and nobody should expect psychic spying to be any better.

“The psychics were just as good as other human intelligence sources,” said May, the physicist who worked with Grill Flame. “And, unfortunately, they were just as bad. Human beings are notoriously horrible at World War II-type spying, standing out there with binoculars, counting tanks. There are all kinds of biases that can creep in.”

Just as aerial photos can sometimes mistake a crane for a missile, or deciphering codes can garble a message, or an ordinary human spy can misunderstand a conversation, psychics can misinterpret their remote visions, May said. What Grill Flame and the rest of the remote-viewing program lacked was a reliable filter to screen out the mistakes — a filter that might have been developed by now if the experiment had continued, he said.

“But let me tell you, the psychic program went on for 20 years, with every important intelligence agency in the United States making use of it at one time or another,” he added. “And they funded it for $20 million. You don’t get that kind of longevity or that kind of money if you’re striking out every time.” Many of the psychics’ success stories, he said, remain buried in the CIA’s classified files.

May, like McMoneagle, continues to work on privately funded parapsychological research. He acknowledges that some national-security decisions will probably always be too risky to rely solely on intelligence collected by a psychic.

“If you’re going to put a $25 million vehicle in harm’s way, you can’t do that solely on the basis of something a psychic says,” May said. “But if something is lost — say, a plane carrying a nuclear weapon — we can reduce the time it will take you to get to the thing by 10 or 15 percent, and save some money and lives along the way.”

Grill Flame, under different code names, continued for another 14 years after the Iranian hostage crisis ended. But in 1995, after an outside review commissioned by the CIA concluded that “remote viewing reports failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence reporting,” the program was shut down and has never resumed. Its epitaph, at least according to its critics, had been written eight years earlier, when The Washington Post got a vague whiff of intelligence money going to parapsychological projects.

Stansfield Turner, then the CIA’s director, told a reporter that the CIA had once worked with a man who claimed the capability of remote viewing. But the man had died two years earlier, Turner said with a straight face, “and we haven’t heard from him since.”

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