Oklahoman review: Inside the government’s investigations into ESP and telekinesis


Uri Geller, the Israeli telepath who rose to fame in the 1960s and ’70s, claimed to be able to bend cutlery using only his mind. Amazed participants marveled at his ability to read their thoughts or implant ideas in their heads. His reputation grew after he accurately predicted the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, during a show in 1970.

Beginning in late 1972, the Stanford Research Institute, funded by the CIA, subjected Geller to a series of tests to see if he was truly psychic. One test involved dice. A single die was placed in a box by a researcher in another room. The box was sealed, shaken and placed in front of Geller. Each time he correctly determined which number was on top. The odds of that happening were about a million to one.

Another test involved 10 film canisters. Some were empty. Others contained a ball bearing, magnet or water. Geller was to determine what was inside without touching the canisters. Twelve times in a row Geller logged a perfect score. A CIA report estimated the odds at one in a trillion.

Geller’s success came during a crucial time for paranormal research in the U.S. and abroad. The SRI/CIA group declared in writing in 1972 that extrasensory perception is a “real phenomenon.”

After that, writes Annie Jacobsen, everyone wanted a piece of the paranormal pie, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs Service, Secret Service and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Jacobsen’s book, “Phenomena,” doesn’t set out to prove or disprove that psychic abilities exist. Instead, it’s a comprehensive history of government investigations into the paranormal, ranging from the Nazis through the present day. This sort of subject is ideal for Jacobsen, a New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer finalist whose previous work includes “Operation Paperclip,” about the scheme that brought German scientists to America after World War II, and “The Pentagon’s Brain,” a history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

She excels at obtaining previously classified documents and fleshing them out with extensive interviews. For “Phenomena,” Jacobsen interviewed 55 people, including folks from the SRI/CIA project and “defense scientists, former military intelligence officers and government psychics, physicists, biologists, neurophysiologists, cyberneticists, astrophysicists, a general, an admiral, a Noble Laureate, and an Apollo astronaut.”

The result is an effortless nonfiction book with a surprise on nearly every page.

Government interest in the paranormal — from UFOs to telekinesis — makes sense. If such things are proven to be true and reliable, then they have obvious military importance. Someone who can move objects without touching them could deactivate missile guidance systems, for example. A remote viewer could spy on enemies from the safety of an armchair in America, while a telepath could discern someone’s true intentions or help break codes.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia escalated their involvement in paranormal research, just as they escalated everything else, constantly seeking to gain an advantage. The book details one Russian operation that beamed microwaves at the American embassy in an attempt to damage or kill diplomats.

Earlier, intelligence services used paid psychics to spread disinformation, even among allies. One popular theory about Geller is that he worked (or works for) Israel’s Mossad, either as a plant or as a legitimate asset.

(Geller’s abilities are much in doubt, as stage magicians can pull off the same tricks; critics say the SRI testing was unscientific and poorly designed. His significance to government scientists and the continuation of funding for paranormal research cannot be overstated, however.)

In any event, Geller is one of a broad cast of characters, all of them interesting, detailed in Jacobsen’s sprawling book. “Phenomena” should appeal to anyone with an interest in secret government programs or the paranormal, and to anyone who likes to read.

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