How The CIA Once Used Psychics To Spy On The Soviet Union

If you happened to be reading The New York Times on January 10, 1984, and turned to the science pages for your daily dose of rationality, you certainly would have been surprised by the headline, which may have had you double-checking whether it wasn't actually April 1.

"Pentagon is said to focus on ESP for wartime use," shouted the header. The article itself outlined how the United States Department of Defense was believed to have spent millions upon millions of dollars on the testing and development of so-called "esoteric arts" — more commonly known as psychic abilities. Extrasensory perception (ESP), telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis were all, claimed The Times, being studied as part of a Cold War "mind race" in competition with the USSR, who were similarly interested in harnessing such abilities for use in warfare and espionage.

The Pentagon officially denied the reports, but as The Times makes clear, this was not their own story, but rather a clear picture given by three contemporaneous books on the subject, which included accounts written by those involved in the projects. Strange? Certainly. But the fact is that allowing American tax dollars to be sent on such research isn't as ridiculous as it first sounds.

Project Star Gate: the irrational limits of Cold War weaponry

Thirty-three years after those first revelations of the Department of Defense's interest in psychic abilities, the full extent of the research conducted into the paranormal became clear when the CIA declassified some 12 million documents related to the project, according to History. What emerged was a portrait of a fully-realized program, known as Project Star Gate, which ran from 1972 until 1995 and which came about as a result of U.S. intelligence warning that the USSR was already looking into the possibility of recruiting psychics to aid in espionage. Per the same source, the "psychic" and television personality Uri Geller (pictured) was among the recruits whose abilities were tested.

Project Star Gate was preoccupied mostly with developing a program of "remote viewing," by which psychics would be able to gain information on secret Soviet activities. Psychics were employed in hundreds of missions, in which they were tasked with helping the CIA locate hostages and fugitives, per the same source; at the time, Rep. Charlie Rose (D-NC) described the project as a "hell of a cheap radar system."

However, whether you are a skeptic or a believer, experts have defended the necessity of the research. "The Defense Department would be derelict in its duty if it didn't pay attention to the long shots," said Dr. Marcello Truzzi (via The New York Times). "But it's paradoxical, since the fact that they're looking into it doesn't make it real."