Image Credit: MaxPixel
Words By Rhys Mather, Features Sub-Editor
Jon Ronson’s book “the men who stare at goats” tells the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon, a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war and spent time with many people involved in counterculture movements. This period of time was a revelation for Channon, he was particularly enchanted by ideas of spiritually and “unlocking human potential”. In 1979 he wrote and illustrated a 51 page “operations manual” in which he presented a radical idea that would revolutionise the face of warfare – creating an army of psychic super-soldiers (yes, really).
Channon’s manual, which reads like some esoteric self-help book, proposed a military unit where “warrior monks” would utilize various psychic and spiritual abilities to engage in non-lethal “ethical combat”. This unit would be named the “First Earth Battalion” and he would take this idea to high-ranking US military officers who, according to Channon, made him the commander of the First Earth Battalion. There is no evidence of this ever happening. Jim Channon sadly passed away in 2017 – despite his unconventional ideas Channon appears a genuinely charming man, speaking in a high-pitched, plodding tone and presenting his ideas openly without fear of ridicule. It’s hard not to admire Channon and while his story lacks validity – his ideas are, bizarrely, echoed in very real military research.
During the cold war the US government gathered evidence which allegedly uncovered the existence of soviet ‘psychic’ research; the rational response was, of course, to create their own psychic research programme. Declassified documents reveal the CIA began research into “remote viewing”, the supposed ability to psychically observe enemy operatives from anywhere on Earth, and in 1972 hired physicists to test potential psychics for this potent ability – one of whom was celebrity spoon-bender, Uri Geller. Initial reports shockingly revealed the tests were a success with many subjects, especially Geller, allegedly performing successful remote viewings. However, a subsequent investigation by Professor Ray Hyman from Oregon university dismantled the programme, finding no actual evidence of remote viewing and calling Geller a “complete fraud” in a 2014 interview. Funding for these initial experiments was cut after Hyman’s damning report but the US government remained determined to produce results, with myriad projects all investigating different psychic abilities throughout the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. These projects eventually coalesced into one unit in 1991, dubbed the “Stargate project”.
According to the Los Angeles Times, approximately 20 million US dollars was spent on the Stargate program, the vast majority of which came from the Pentagon. Given the inordinate amount of money that was funnelled into stargate, it would seem the department of defence had faith in the project: but The Independent reports one of the primary reasons for continued funding was its “inexpensive” nature. Furthermore, History Channel documented a US congressman calling Stargate “a hell of a cheap radar system” – Stargate existed for so long, at least in part, because it was cheap. In declassified documents the project reports some alleged success, such as locating a soviet spy plane. But these claims begin to fall apart under scrutiny – Joe Nickell, a prominent skeptic renowned for debunking hoaxes, had this to say:
“Other evaluators – two psychologists from AIR (the American Institutes for Research) – assessed the potential intelligence-gathering usefulness of remote viewing. They concluded that the alleged psychic technique was of dubious value and lacked the concreteness and reliability necessary for it to be used as a basis for making decisions or taking action. The final report found “reason to suspect” that in “some well publicised cases of dramatic hits” the remote viewers might have had “substantially more background information” than might otherwise be apparent”
The Stargate project was decommissioned in 1995 after an AIR report concluded the program “never provided an adequate basis for ‘actionable’ intelligence operations—that is, information sufficiently valuable or compelling so that action was taken as a result.” Extraordinarily, the history of psychic spies doesn’t end here. At home in the UK, Tony Blair’s Ministry of Defence conducted a study of remote viewing in the early 2000’s although it never went further than an initial, now declassified, experiment which produced no apparent successes. However, funnily, the 72-page report states “Recent developments in Sussex University have indicated that brain electrical activity can be monitored from up to a metre away using new very high impedance sensors. The acquisition of this equipment will be investigated for future trials” – so, go team.
As recently as 2014 the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) conducted research with the aim of allowing sailors and marines to harness a “sixth sense”. It’s apparent that government interest in this field still endures even after decades of apparent failure. While these paranormal experiments are admittedly bizarre, it’s not at all surprising – In 2018 the Pew Research Centre reported approximately 40% of American adults believe in psychics and 23% of Britons have consulted a psychic, according to a 2011 YouGov report. It could be argued that projects like Stargate are simply an alignment of government and public interest, given how common belief in the paranormal is.
The world of psychic spies is incredibly strange and shockingly vast, spanning decades and investigating everything from mind control to telekinesis, the ability to move objects with your mind. And although this particular method of espionage never went far, and the notion of tax-payer money being spent on it can certainly be frustrating, maybe we should take a page out of Jim Channon’s book and relish in the weirdness of it all.