Before last week, most people probably thought all the really important psychics worked for the National Enquirer. Then came the news that the U.S. military and the CIA ran Operation Stargate--a two-decade,long project in which a team of government psychics "visualized" everything from the identifies of KGB agents to the design of top-secret Soviet submarines. At the program's peak in the late '70s and early 80s, the Feds had six of these "remote viewers" -known inside as The Naturals-toiling away at Maryland's Fort Meade. "We worked hard, really hard," said Agent "518," a former army lieutenant colonel who had joined the elite psychic corps. "It was really tiring."
And apparently unappreciated. Last week the CIA recommended killing the program. Since the 1970s, the CIA and the Defense Department had spent $20 million employing at least 16 psychics. To justify the cost, advocates within the government cite apparent successes like the time Agent 518 lay down on a cot, cleansed his mind and proceeded to tell CLA agents precisely how a KGB operative in South Africa was transmitting information through a personal calculator. Psychics later interviewed by CLA evaluators said the program worked well--as long as it was run by officials "who accepted the phenomenon." But Ray Hyman, a research psychologist who helped review Stargate for the CIA, is wary. "I don't close the door on anything," Hyman told NEWSWEEK, "but these are nice tall stories that can't be evaluated."
In typical cold-war fashion, the initiative began when the CIA concluded that the Soviets were dangerously far ahead of the United States in the use of the paranormal. Unless swift action was taken, American officials reasoned, we might never close the psychic gap. At first, program supporters say, the military used only the highest-quality psychics. Joe McMoneagle, an army intelligence officer, discovered that the CIA would pay him to sit in a room and use his powers to draw pictures of prospective Soviet submarines. He impressed the military brass by diagramming a key communist sub and predicting (within a month) when it would emerge from its secret hiding place. In 1984, McMoneagle left the army to work as a civilian psychic consultant and was awarded the Legion of Merit for "providing information on 150 targets that was unavailable from other sources."
How seriously did the government take all this? One skeptical CIA officer became less dismissive after one of Stargate's psychics predicted that an American official would be kidnapped on a certain day in 1981-and Gen. James L. Dozier was abducted in Italy that night. "I became convinced something was there," the CLA official says, "but I didn't understand it." He took to calling these episodes "eight-martini nights."
But by the mid-1980s, McMoneagle says, the military started letting any old "kook" into Stargate. There was the senior general (yes, general) who would call subordinates in for special spoon-bending sessions. One Pentagon consultant working at SRI International wrote a 10 page report predicting a massive air attack on Washington during one of Reagan's State of the Union addresses. When the gulf war began, Stargate offered several suggestions about capturing Saddam Hussein, all of which proved useless. And one "remote viewer" left the army when he became convinced there was a Martian colony hidden beneath the New Mexico desert.
Despite Stargate's mixed record, persistent support on Capitol Hill kept it going. Although no lawmakers would admit to being fans, Pentagon officials say lawmakers like Claiborne Pell and Charlie Rose used to resist efforts to kill the paranormal program. Advocates point out that flummoxed police sometimes call on psychics to help find missing children or identify serial killers. Defenders admit that psychics are wrong about 80 percent of the time, but say the other 20 percent can be really helpful. Given the recent troubles plaguing American spy agencies, maybe that's not such a bad batting average. .