Once again one of those stories has come round which you have to comment on, whatever you were intending to write about. On the face of it, the story is old news. When you dig deeper however you discover it is very much in line with what is going on right now, and none of us will be able to avoid the consequences.
Last month the CIA released millions of once classified documents online . They can be found here. Most of these documents were declassified long ago, and were available on the CIA’s computers for those who had the time and money to look, but releasing them now is supposed to be a victory for transparency, even though the sheer volume of the material makes finding specifics like looking for a needle in a haystack, quite deliberately.
One item in particular has been picked up on. In 1975 a new programme was initiated, in which the CIA decided to get its information from unconventional sources. Tired of having to check and control sources, it began employing psychics, dozens of them, to visualise what was going on in places they couldn’t access.
This created the ultimate win-win situation for the agency: if this information proved accurate, it was a CIA win, if it didn’t, it only came from a psychic, thus confirming the value of the agency’s traditional sources. But it also created a disturbing precedent, which the new US Administration seems only too keen to follow itself.
The CIA acts with little oversight at the best of times. If you don’t want to have to justify your actions, who better to employ than psychics? The only justification for any statement or action is “because the psychic said so”. If you don’t agree with it, that’s because your not a psychic and don’t have the vision of one. No oversight is possible, but nevertheless unlimited sums are spent on operations whose terms depend on the word of a psychic.
Sound familiar? The new President of the United States has already raised the hackles of many by spouting blatant lies at his press conferences, such as claiming he had the biggest Electoral College victory by a Republican since Reagan and that there had been a terrorist attack in Sweden when there had not. Maybe he simply misunderstood the information he had received. But throughout his campaign he took the same tack: “I say I’m wonderful, so it must be true because I’m saying it”, just as he did when he founded Trump University, made the same claims and defrauded thousands of people out of money and futures which had no substance because no one could verify what he was saying.
Trump has continued with this policy since taking office. He has banned travellers from certain countries, such as Syria, from entering the US by claiming they represent a threat, simply because he says so. Many of these are Christians fleeing Muslim terror, or people who have the visited the US many times before to see family members and not created any problems. As Trump refuses to be briefed more than once a week there is no way he could have assessed the threat these people pose, but he says they are a threat, so that is that. If you don’t agree, it is because you are not Donald J. Trump, and lack his superior level of understanding.
The psychic programme of the 1970s is far from being yesterday’s news. It is tomorrow’s news – an example of what will be standard practice if this Administration carries on doing what it is doing now. We can only hope that it does not end the same way – but as any mechanism of verification is gradually being eroded by Trump relying on Executive Orders for everything, and appointing the enforcers of past illegal actions rather than those they ignored orders from, we should all be very afraid.
Big enemy, bigger weapon
According to the documents released, the psychic programme was begun after the more famous Project MK Ultra, which conducted a number of illegal mind control experiments, was purportedly shut down in 1973, ironically during the Nixon Administration. It appears the CIA had heard rumours that the Soviets and Chinese were experimenting with psychics, and this was something they could not control.
In the business world this process is known as “Metooism”. If your competitor starts doing something, you have to do it too. Your competitor might have particular reasons for doing that thing, which will further its business plan, but it may not be a suitable action for you. Nevertheless, rather than analysing what the competitor is doing you slavishly copy it, trying to do it bigger and better, regardless of the broader consequences for other areas of your own business which are not then given the proper attention.
The logical conclusion of this is to let your competitor run your business, if you are so impressed by what they are doing. The US should have seen that little good would come from slavishly copying the Soviets and Chinese during the Cold War. But in an era when the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was being negotiated and both sides were warning the world about the nuclear threat of the other, using psychics had an obvious attraction for those who sought an unanswerable weapon, but could not get political clearance to nuke everyone.
The documents released suggest that the psychics were not deployed against the Soviet Union or China, but against Iran after its revolution. Of course they were. The Americans and British had shown in 1953 that they were prepared to ensure regime change to retain control of Iran’s resources. The resentment this caused was one of the factors which sparked the 1979 revolution, which the US could not forgive because it hadn’t seen it coming, and thus been made to look stupid.
All this made Iran the Great Pariah, and it was legitimate to unleash anything on it. If you can’t nuke it, you can use psychic weapons against it as no one can see these coming, or deal with them, except other psychics, or at least the CIA hoped so. It is therefore no surprise that psychics were used extensively during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, or that their efforts to locate the hostages led to a military attempt to rescue them in April 1980 which famously blew up before it could reach their supposed location.
The declassified documents suggest that less than 5% of the reports the psychics had given matched the information the hostages themselves gave when finally released. But the CIA and the Pentagon are still insisting that the programme had a much higher success rate. As it continued for 20 years, until after the dissolution of the USSR, there must have been plenty of senior people arguing the same within government. But were they arguing on the basis of actual achievement, or because they were so enamoured of this weapon?
Even though the 227 psychics may have been accountable to the CIA, no one could actually control what they did unless they were another psychic with superior skills. Other methods of intelligence gathering rely on controllers who have to check people. The agency which wanted no oversight had the ideal weapon in psychics, regardless of whether it was useful or not, and wasn’t going to give it up in a hurry, and then have to acknowledge that accountability is a fundamental principle for any agency or branch of government.
Make up your given mind
There are many different opinions about psychics. The perspective with which Russian readers will be most familiar is that of the Orthodox Church. Throughout the history of that Church there have been genuinely clairvoyant figures whose visions have proved to be true. But there is also a long tradition of people foreseeing bad things with their “psychic powers”, which are genuine, but do not originate from themselves. Russians have a particular term for this – prelest, or spiritual deception.
This is one viewpoint. Others maintain that psychics serve a positive purpose and really do have innate personal powers. One of the most famous cases involving the use of psychics was the apprehension of John Wayne Gacy, a prolific American serial killer who had a number of other convictions, but had evaded murder charges for years.
One psychic consulted by the detective in charge of the Gacy case identified where the body of one victim was buried, and another directed him to look under the floorboards of Gacy’s house to find more bodies, which he did. All this helped ensure Gacy’s conviction, and therefore justified the detective’s decision to involve psychics in the case, which he must have had trouble getting past his superiors.
The problem is that the view of a psychic, on its own, doesn’t stand up. The evidence against Gacy was the dead bodies, not the fact that psychics had told the detective where the bodies would be. This is the distinction Donald Trump and his team are apparently unable to make.
When the falsehood of his comments about his “record breaking” Electoral College win was exposed by a reporter Trump’s response was, “I was given this information“. It did not need to be verified by anything or anybody. If some unnamed person has told him this, and he chooses to believe it, these things are not necessary.
Imagine if the detective investigating the Gacy case had not been able to find the bodies, but the case had proceeded anyway. He would have been asked in court why he had searched Gacy’s property and had to say “a psychic told me to”. There are reasons why such a response would most probably have been ruled inadmissible as evidence. It is not considered proper for a jury to make a decision on the basis of such information, as it does not meet the fundamental standards of justice. But Trump is not only behaving in this way on isolated occasions, but making it standard practice.
By February 13th Trump had issued 12 Executive Orders. These are legally binding on all government agencies, and all presidents issue them. But most presidents conduct most of their business through Congress, where what they want to do is scrutinised and voted upon. The US political system is famous for its multitude of “checks and balances” – Congress can override a presidential veto of its legislation, for example. Trump has shown little interest in doing anything the American Way, as embodied by this enduring system, while he can get his own way by signing orders for as many things as he can.
What are these orders based on? Where is Trump getting his information from on the issues he is trying to address? “I was given that information” was not only the answer to the Electoral College question, it is the standard answer for everything. Anyone who disagrees is pursuing a bad agenda – one which calls for accountability, the very thing the US system was designed to provide.
No need for a crystal ball
The psychic programme, latterly known as Project Grill Flame, was ostensibly shut down in 1995, following a review which concluded it wasn’t providing reliable information. Now we are told that things like spy satellites do what the “remote viewers” of that programme used to do, and have therefore rendered them unnecessary.
What spy satellites actually do is classified. But a few people do know what they do, and keep records, and everyone is acting under orders and is accountable to somebody. This is because the system wants it that way. But if we look at how Commander-in-Chief Trump is going about his business, can we say this is what it will continue to want?
There are plenty of arbitrary regimes around the world, many of which are sponsored by the US, to the horror of the people living there. Russia has gained increasing international influence, no matter what attempts are made to demonise it, simply by pointing this out in word and deed. Until now the US has sought to explain away the crimes of client regimes such as that of Equatorial Guinea, whose main torture prison is next to the US Embassy. Now it is likely to present them as good examples, showing a new admiration for those who do what they want without having to answer to anyone, as the unaccountable nature of psychic activity was designed to help the CIA do.
There may or may not be a revival of the CIA psychic programme. After all, we only have the CIA’s word for it that it ever really went away. But the attraction of the arbitrary action it represented is never likely to go away, and informs US executive behaviour at present.
For 20 years a programme which generally delivered false information was supported by the US government for this reason. If we don’t have a psychic programme inflicted on the world by the CIA again, we are very likely to have similar arbitrary action inflicted on us by the entire US government, as what the CIA wanted then is exactly what the new Administration wants is doing now.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.