Project Stargate–the CIA’s Psychic Spies

For over two decades during the Cold War, the CIA attempted to spy on the Soviet Union using psychics, clairvoyants, and “remote viewing”.

Soviet military bases

In 1970, authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroder wrote a book titled Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, which purported to describe an intense program being carried out by the USSR to spy on the United States using people who were supposedly “gifted” with ESP and clairvoyance, and who claimed to have the ability to see places or objects at long distances using the power of their mind. 

For most people, the book was dismissed as a load of baloney, based mostly on wishful thinking, a willingness to believe, and selective cherry-picking of “results”. (One indicator of the book’s credibility–or lack of it–was the fact that the introduction was written by prominent Bigfoot and Yeti “researcher” Ivan T Sanderson.)  But one group of people who took it seriously happened to work for the CIA. This was the peak of the Cold War: the US was fiercely fighting what it viewed as Communist Soviet proxies in Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been less than ten years previous, and some in the CIA, seeing the book’s claims that the Russians were spending upwards of 60 million rubles a year on psychic spying, decided that if the Soviets were doing it, the Americans had to do it too—just in case.

So in 1972 a research program was established by the SRI International think tank (then known as the Stanford Research Institute) in California. Funded by the CIA and known as Project SCANATE (for “scan by coordinates”), it was run by Harold Puthoff, who had once worked for the NSA as an analyst, and Russell Targ, a physicist. Their goal was to test the effectiveness of psychic “remote viewers” at obtaining information from target areas deep inside the Soviet Union. In these experiments, psychics would be provided with geographic coordinates for places of interest, and asked to describe what they psychically “saw” there. Puthoff was also a member of the Church of Scientology, and most of the purported psychics that he tested were also Scientologists. Some of the psychics used tarot cards, while others would concentrate their mind on a faraway location and draw sketches of what they “saw”.

Over the years, some analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency joined the experiments, and the program continued for some time under different code names including SUNSTREAK, GRILLFLAME, CENTERLANE, and, finally, STARGATE. The psychics were brought to Fort Meade in Maryland and assigned targets that ranged from Red Army bases to Kremlin bunkers to Soviet research centers. At one point, when an American Army General was kidnapped in Italy by the Red Brigades terrorist group, a psychic was asked to try to locate him by remote viewing. Well-known “clairvoyant” Ingo Swann joined the project, and he began training military recruits to act as psychic spies.

The project’s managers issued a steady stream of information which came from the psychics, and enthusiastically claimed a success rate of over 65%. But when a pair of American physicists tried to duplicate the claimed results during controlled experiments in 1972, they failed to find any accuracy in it. In 1984, after the existence of the secret project was revealed by newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, the CIA ordered another review of the program carried out by the National Academy of Science, which concluded that the information produced by the remote viewers was vague and contradictory, and contained no usable results. (Some of the sort of “information” that was being produced may be judged by the fact that several of the psychics, including Swann, claimed to have remotely viewed UFO bases on Mars and on the far side of the Moon.)

When the CIA lost interest, the project was taken over by the DIA in 1991 and was then re-assigned to the Science Applications International Corporation, where it received the designation Project STARGATE–the name by which the entire program has become known. In total, around two dozen psychics participated in the American remote viewing experiments. 

Once again, the project produced nothing useful, and in 1995 it was transferred back to the CIA, who conducted another review. One of these reviewers concluded that the whole thing was a waste of time: “The overwhelming amount of data generated by the viewers is vague, general, and way off target. The few apparent hits are just what we would expect if nothing other than reasonable guessing and subjective validation are operating.” The other (who happened to have worked on the project), while noting that the accuracy rate was only around 15%, nevertheless concluded this was “statistically significant”.  In any case, the STARGATE program never produced any tangible intelligence information, and the final review report was brutally blunt in its assessment: “The foregoing observations provide a compelling argument against continuation of the program within the intelligence community. Even though a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory, it remains unclear whether the existence of a paranormal phenomenon, remote viewing, has been demonstrated. The laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the origins or nature of the phenomenon, assuming it exists, nor do they address an important methodological issue of inter-judge reliability…. Further, even if it could be demonstrated unequivocally that a paranormal phenomenon occurs under the conditions present in the laboratory paradigm, these conditions have limited applicability and utility for intelligence gathering operations. For example, the nature of the remote viewing targets are vastly dissimilar, as are the specific tasks required of the remote viewers. Most importantly, the information provided by remote viewing is vague and ambiguous, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the technique to yield information of sufficient quality and accuracy of information for actionable intelligence. Thus, we conclude that continued use of remote viewing in intelligence gathering operations is not warranted.”

In response to the review, the CIA shut the entire operation down. By the end of 1995 some 270 pages of reports were declassified and released to the public.


5 thoughts on “Project Stargate–the CIA’s Psychic Spies”

    1. You know, stair, as in Stairmaster. You’ve see goats on a Stairmaster, right? Totally what I meant to type…

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