How the CIA’s bid to turn Uri Geller into a psychic weapon backfired — because he was such a show-off
Uri Geller has told me this story several times, during the 20 years in which I have been investigating him and the inexplicable powers he appears to wield.
But the story’s full significance became apparent only this week, with the release of millions of pages of classified U.S. documents from the Seventies and Eighties. Among them were details of experiments long kept under wraps.
The way Uri tells it is this: for nearly a decade, he had been world-famous for his ability to read minds and bend metal with a touch, and in 1981 he was living in America with his young family in Connecticut.
One spring morning, his phone rang and a voice said: ‘This is William Casey, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, calling from Langley, Virginia.’ Uri was wary. He suspected a hoax, and asked for credentials.
Casey described details of research done when Uri first arrived in the States — tests that were ostensibly commissioned by physicists at Stanford Research Institute in California, but were in fact secretly backed by the CIA.
Satisfied the call was authentic, Uri asked what Casey wanted. He had never met the CIA chief but knew him by reputation — a hardline Republican who had been Ronald Reagan’s victorious campaign manager in the previous year’s presidential election.
‘Mr Geller,’ said Casey. ‘I’m sitting at my desk at CIA. Can you tell me what I’m holding in my hand right now?’ Uri paused for a long moment. ‘I can’t be sure, but my feeling is that it’s a dagger with a white, possibly ivory, handle.’
It was Casey’s turn to be silent now. ‘Well, I’ll be darned,’ he finally said.
In 1981, Uri Geller was one of the most famous people on the planet, a guest on TV’s biggest entertainment shows and a buddy of celebrities from the Bee Gees to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. But when he was first noticed by a freelance CIA agent named Andrija Puharich in the early Seventies, he was working in a seedy Tel Aviv nightclub.
He struck Puharich as an ordinary conjuror, and not a very good one — bending spoons, reading minds and stopping watches, all things that could be replicated by any half-decent magician.
But Uri Geller had been brought to the CIA’s attention by the Israeli military. Geller was born in Israel and joined up before the Six Day War of 1967.
During his service he had been observed producing curious effects on electronic devices. He appeared to be able to alter circuitry without touching it, and the Israeli army scientists were baffled. Naturally, the Americans were intrigued.
As Puharich, who as well as being a CIA agent was an eccentric Serbian-American inventor, got to know Uri better, he saw phenomena that convinced him the young ex-paratrooper had to be investigated further.
Intent on luring Geller to America to work for the CIA, he befriended him and they travelled to Germany together in 1972.
What Puharich didn’t realise was that the Israeli military were still in touch with their mystifying prodigy, and had asked him to report back on his impressions of Munich, in the weeks before the Olympic Games.
Uri felt uneasy there, and said so. He urged his contacts not to send Israeli athletes to the Games. They did anyway, and on September 5 the Palestinian terror group Black September in league with German neo-Nazis broke into the Olympic Village and murdered 11 Jewish competitors and a West German policeman.
Incensed, Uri vowed he would never work with Israeli intelligence again and said he wanted to go to the U.S. Puharich obliged, taking him to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), outside San Francisco, telling Uri it was for academic research.
Two physicists, Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff, began a barrage of experiments. One of the first, predicting the roll of dice, showed the psychic beating odds of a million to one. Within ten days, their results convinced them that the top-most CIA echelons were going to be very interested in what they were doing.
But there was a hitch: nobody, not even Puharich, had ever told Uri that he was under investigation by a spy agency. Their interest was supposed to be purely academic.
They persuaded Geller that he needed to convince ‘an East Coast colleague’ of his extraordinary powers. Then they phoned Kit Green, a high-ranking CIA official, and informed him that Uri had the gift of ‘remote viewing’ — seeing things that were hundreds of miles away, through his mind’s eye.
‘I said: “No he doesn’t!” ’ recalls Dr Green, now a distinguished professor of medicine in his 70s at Detroit Medical Centre. ‘They insisted he did, and he was standing right there beside them. So I picked up a book, a collection of medical illustrations of the nervous system, and I stared at a page.’
More than 2,400 miles away, Uri scribbled something, crumpled it up, tried again and said: ‘I don’t know what this is. It looks like a pan of scrambled eggs. Yet I have the word “architecture” coming in strong.’
Green was so astonished by this accurate reply that he went on to get authorisation for a $20 million (£16 million) ‘remote viewing’ program codenamed Stargate. The page he was looking at showed a drawing of a human brain — not unlike scrambled eggs, to the layman.
‘But what caught my attention was that I had written across the top of this drawing the words, “architecture of a viral infection”.’ Uri had never seen that book, nor been in that office. No other copy of the book had those words on it. Green was convinced.
But then, as so often happens when people are confronted with proof of the paranormal, he began to wonder if he could have been tricked. Uri and the scientists had initiated the test, after all, by calling him. What if it happened the other way round?
Green devised a fiendish test and sprang it on the SRI scientists unannounced. He called them from his home and challenged Uri to read the contents of a document in an envelope, sealed inside another envelope, which were balanced on a music stand in his den.
To make the test harder still, Green had not written the document himself — a colleague had done that.
While Uri was concentrating, Green picked up the envelopes, opened the outer one, and put the second one back on the stand, upside-down. ‘Uri became very upset,’ Green says. ‘He started to scream: “What happened? What did you just do? I’m getting nauseous, I want to vomit.”
‘I explained what I had done, and he said: “Please don’t, I was reading that when you rotated it.” ’ But Uri remained distraught. He began to talk of seeing a strange vision — a white dog with a square head and a bloody neck, and glass shards on a sea of green. The experiment continued for an hour, and when it was over Green was bewildered by how accurately Uri had deciphered the hidden document.
But what he saw when he rejoined his family shocked him much more — glass all over their green sitting-room carpet. While Green was on the phone, their English bull terrier, a white dog with a boxy head, had been wearing a scarlet ruff that the CIA man’s mother had made for its neck. This frilly collar had snagged on a lampstand with a glass shade and toppled it, showering the room with shards.
‘I did find it disturbing intellectually,’ Green says, ‘because there was no way I could explain it.’
He was not the only one. As tests began in earnest for the CIA, every scientist who encountered him was stunned by Uri.
Dr Wernher von Braun, NASA scientist and father of the U.S. space programme, met Uri and announced: ‘Geller has bent my ring in the palm of my hand without ever touching it. I have no scientific explanation for the phenomenon.’
Oxford neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick described how Uri bent a spoon for a colleague, rubbing it lightly before laying it on the man’s hand. ‘Nothing happened. We expressed some disappointment. He said: “Wait and watch.” Slowly, with Uri standing well away, the spoon started to curl in front of us, and within four minutes the tail of the spoon had risen up like a scorpion’s sting.’
Some of the phenomena looked like special effects from a movie. At the SRI, Russell Targ unwrapped pack of cards and asked if Uri could do magic tricks. Offended, the psychic dropped them, and they appeared momentarily to sink into the table.
When Targ picked them up, one corner of the pack appeared to have been sliced away, at an angle — removing exactly the portion that had vanished into the woodwork.
In the canteen, Uri met astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who had a spiritual epiphany in space and was now a keen student of the paranormal.
They were eating ice cream and talking, when Uri bit on something metallic. He spat it out and showed it to Mitchell, who was puzzled — it looked like half of a tie pin that he lost two years earlier.
Back in the lab that afternoon, they both witnessed a fragment of metal materialise in the air and drop onto the carpet. It was the other half of the tie pin.
These reports could not be ignored — especially as the CIA knew that Russian agencies were also working with psychics. Dr Green asked the agency’s naval weapons specialist, Eldon Byrd, to evaluate Uri. At their first meeting Byrd produced a piece of nitinol. ‘Bend that,’ he said.
What he didn’t explain was that nitinol was a secret alloy of nickel and titanium, with a unique property. It had a ‘mechanical memory’ and would always spring back into shape. It simply could not be bent permanently, except at volcanic temperatures.
But when Uri handed back the nitinol, it had a kink in it.
Here was a human being with powers that defied any novelist’s invention. America’s top scientists struggled to explain them, perhaps the most plausible explanation focusing on quantum physics and sub atomic particles.
His abilities had unlimited military applications. A spy that could visualise the objects at any map reference on Earth, and read the contents of sealed envelopes, was the most dangerous espionage weapon ever.
And while sceptics were dubious about his metal-bending abilities — ‘What is he going to do,’ scoffed one, ‘bend tank barrels?’ — the spymasters could see other, much more practical applications . . . such as scrambling the enemy’s computer networks.
Uri had already proved his power to destroy sensitive electronic equipment in the lab. During one test, he was challenged to deflect a laser beam. The recording needle leapt off the graph at the first attempt, and never worked again — the electric innards were fried.
But there were problems.
A compulsive showman and extrovert, Uri was unable to keep quiet about his powers. He showed them off at every opportunity, and within a year of arriving in the U.S. he was, as one friend put it, ‘like a freakin’ rock star’.
The CIA feared for his life. If their Russian counterparts in the KGB believed he was working for them, and verified what he could do, they might well decide to assassinate Uri.
He might also inadvertently tip off enemies to the existence of the entire remote viewing programme, involving other talented psychics who were more discreet about their gifts.
Their solution was comically effective. They encouraged sceptics to debunk him.
Many people, scientists or not, cannot abide the idea of the paranormal, of powers that science cannot explain. They needed no urging to seize on every conspiracy theory, however unlikely, that undermined the myth of Uri Geller. Some of these sceptics were probably paid to scoff by the CIA.
At one end of the scale, the debunkers could be reasonable and credible. They pointed to the occasions when a phenomenon failed. If Uri was the real deal, they argued, he ought to be able to get consistent results in all conditions.
Instead, his powers sometimes seemed to go flat, especially when sceptics were around. This proved Uri was a fake, they insisted — though it’s true that all sorts of people with temperamental abilities, from comedians to athletes, tend to underperform when faced with a hostile crowd.
On the other hand, some sceptical theories were even more outlandish than the notion of extra-sensory perception. New Scientist magazine, possibly peeved that SRI had given the scoop on Uri to the rival magazine Nature, suggested that the ‘rock star’ wasn’t psychic — he just had a radio implanted in one tooth.
As proof, they pointed to patents that Puharich had filed in the Sixties for tooth radios. With typical élan, Uri scotched the claims by visiting a celebrity dentist — Dr John K. Lind at Columbia University, who had looked after Marilyn Monroe’s and Errol Flynn’s teeth.
The sceptics might have helped to keep Uri alive, but for the spies there were bigger problems. Uri was quickly bored of all this testing.
‘I was really on an ego trip,’ he says, ‘and into making money and into showbusiness. I didn’t want to sit in a laboratory doing the same thing again and again, without getting paid.’
And he experienced something else that repelled him: at a government installation, he was taken to a white room with no windows, with just a chair and a table — and, in the middle of the room, a pig. Uri was asked to stop the animal’s heart, with concentrated thought waves alone.
‘I could not believe what I was hearing,’ Uri says. ‘Of course, it was a pig, because a pig has a very similar heart to a human being. But I am a vegetarian, and I love animals. I was shattered, actually, by this request. It felt like the destruction of everything I’d done so far.’
Convinced that the pig was just the first deadly request, and that human beings would be next — Uri believes the ultimate target was then KGB boss Yuri Andropov — he told the intelligence analysts he wasn’t prepared to carry on.
But he did work for the CIA again, in 1987, at arms talks with the Soviets in Geneva.
His mission was to use telepathic persuasion on the Russian delegation, specifically targeting chief negotiator Yuli Vorontsov, to make serious concessions over missile silos in Eastern Europe. The Russians were suspicious.
Yuli Vorontsov refused to hand over his watch, during a demonstration of metal-bending and other entertainments.
But all the delegates were astounded when Uri put grass seeds on the palm of his hand, gazed intently at them, and watched them sprout. The talks proved a success.
Since 9/11 Uri, who now lives with his family in Tel Aviv, admits he has been in contact again with U.S. intelligence. Naturally, details are scarce, and he dismisses the notion that he is any sort of ‘star spy’ — about 150 people around the world could be involved in the same work, he believes.
‘But I must tell you,’ he says earnestly, ‘if some people out there, especially the sceptics, think that there is no paranormal or psychical research, or there’s no remote-viewing programmes going on . . . they’re dead wrong!’
nThe Secret Life Of Uri Geller by Jonathan Margolis is published by Watkins, priced £8.99. To order a copy for £6.74 (a 25 per cent discount), visit mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until January 30.
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Motivational, inspirational, empowering compelling 'infotainment' which leaves the audience amazed, mesmerized, motivated, enthusiastic, revitalised and with a much improved positive mental attitude, state of mind & self-belief.
"Uri Geller gave an absolutely resonating talk on his life and career. He had every single magician in the room on the edge of their seats trying to digest as much information as they could. Uri emphasized that the path to frame is through uniqueness and charisma and that professional entertainers must be creative in their pursuits of success and never shy away from publicity."
Tannens Magic Blog
"There is no spoon!"
"The world needs your amazing talents. I need them"
"The man is a natural magician. He does everything with great care, meticulous misdirection and flawless instinct. The nails are real, the keys are really borrowed, the envelopes are actually sealed, there are no stooges, there are no secret radio devices and there are no props from the magic catalogues."
James Randi (In an open letter to Abracadabra Magazine)
Sir Elton John
"The Geller Effect is one of those "para" phenomena which changed the world of phusics. What the most outstanding physicists of the last decades of this country colud grasp only as theoretical implication, Uri brought as fact into everyday life.."
Dr. Walter A. Frank. Bonn University - Germany
"Eternity is down the hall And you sit there bending spoons In your mind, in your mind"
"I Have watched Uri Geller... I have seen that so I am a believer. It was my house key and the only way I would be able to use it is get a hammer and beat it out back flat again."
"Better than watching Geller bending silver spoons, better than witnessing new born nebulae's in bloom"