Gathering intelligence through the crystal ball

 The Central Intelligence Agency (Photo: AP Graphics)
The Central Intelligence Agency (Photo: AP Graphics)

Matters of state are too important to be left to chance, which is why every government around the world invests in experts, advisers, research and espionage to provide those who steer the ship of state with as much information as possible so as to help them make the right decisions.

In less enlightened times, soothsayers and sorcerers were among this coterie of advisers, and were valued for their supposed ability to commune with the unseen world and determine the hidden currents of the future. This skill set was invaluable to the kings and queens of yore, who needed to know about upcoming assassination attempts, expected crop yields and, of course, the likely outcomes of wars.

The most famous of the ancient soothsayers, the Greek Oracle of Delphi, was courted by heroes, princes and kings alike. Sadly, the business of prediction is an inexact science and the oracle’s notoriously vague advice often resulted in disaster, as King Croesus discovered to his everlasting regret. Having consulted the oracle about whether or not he should make war on Persia, he was told that if he did he would “destroy a mighty empire”. Buoyed by this prophecy, he marched off to war, only to discover that the doomed empire was none other than his own.

Nevertheless, the tradition of seeking occult advice persisted throughout history: The pharaohs had their priests, the Mongol Khans had their shamans and the Mughals had their astrologers. Humayun divided all government departments according to the four elements. He even dedicated each day of the week to a particular planet and the activity it ruled over, changing the colour of his garments to match the day.

Queen Elizabeth I had her court magician John Dee, who claimed to speak to angels and the “mad monk” Rasputin had the ear of the Russian Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, acting as their “mystical adviser”. Even Hitler is said to have consulted a clairvoyant.

What changed in the modern era is that “the magical practices of ancient shamans entered the scientific level of research, which immediately fell into the intelligence services’ field of vision”. This quote comes from none other than retired KGB major general Boris Ratnikov, whose duty during the Cold War was to harness the potential of telepaths, telekinetics, clairvoyants and psychics to aid the interests of the USSR. Following its break-up, he continued to serve in various capacities, and claims that his department was also concerned with shielding former Russian President Boris Yeltsin from “psychic attack”.

The USSR was and its successor state is notoriously enamoured of secrecy and so it is difficult to prove whether such research and resources ever existed but luckily we do have millions of pages of recently declassified CIA documents that provide evidence of how the US attempted to use psychic power to further its national interests.

Known collectively as the Stargate Project, this initiative was launched in the early 1970s in response to intelligence reports that the USSR was engaging in psychic research — a telepathic arms race, if you will. And among the major weapons in this arsenal were a select team of “remote viewers” — people who supposedly possess the ability to “choose a location on the planet and visualise the exact location and what is happening in that spot at that time”. Even the possibility of such an ability existing was impossible to resist and the CIA used viewers to seek information on Soviet military facilities, training camps in Libya and even the location of US hostages held in Iran.

The famous spoon-bending psychic entertainer Uri Geller also featured in this programme, with the CIA conducting weeklong tests to determine whether he did in fact possess paranormal abilities, following which CIA documents claim he proved his abilities “in a convincing and unambiguous manner”. Geller also claims the CIA tested whether he was able to remotely detonate a nuclear bomb and stop the heart of a pig, but these details are not included in the files.

If that latter part sounds like the plot of the George Clooney film Men who Stare at Goats, that’s because that film is in fact based on the Stargate Project itself, with the standard Hollywoodisation thrown in.

After continuing with the project for decades, the US government claims to have pulled the plug in 1995, after the CIA concluded the project never provided any clear intelligence or results. Regardless, not only does this show that despite the technological miracles that surround us, the unseen will always intrigue us, but also that security agencies will explore any means to gain an advantage, even if those means seem a little … mental.

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