The U.S. Army Had a Whole Unit of Psychic Spies
The project turned out to be an, ahem, headache for the service’s leadership
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Sept. 15, 1995, Army chief of staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan held a meeting with a colonel from the service’s top watchdog agency as well as with another colonel who had served as a psychologist at Army Intelligence and Security Command.
The meeting covered a sensitive and then still-secret topic — so-called “extra-sensory perception activities,” or ESPA.
What they were really discussing was the Army’s experiments involving an entire unit of psychic spies. The ground combat branch’s leadership wanted to know just what was going on so they could make an accurate public statement.
In July 1995, a woman had sent a distressing letter to Secretary of the Army Togo West, Jr. complaining about ill effects from “psychic warfare.” The next month, journalist and author Jim Schnabel wrote a detailed article on the Army’s studies for the London Independent.
“The chief of staff was genuinely unaware of Grill Flame and its history,” the officer from the inspector general later wrote in a classified report, using the official code name for the project. “The chief of staff has asked me to monitor developments concerning Grill Flame and advise accordingly.”
War Is Boring obtained this report and other related documents through the Freedom of Information Act. Citing privacy concerns, censors redacted the officers’ names, as well as the name of the woman who wrote the letter.
What the colonel found — and others within the Army had already documented this— was that the project had long been an irritant to the ground combat branch. And that’s putting it lightly.
Though they rarely publicize the fact, the Pentagon, U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies have never shied away from the paranormal or pseudo-scientific. The potential benefits of psychics, mediums, telekinesis and other similar techniques are immense — if they actually work.
During the Vietnam War, American troops tried to find Viet Cong tunnels with witching rods. Researchers at defense contractor HRB Singer criticized skepticism of the age old practice as “somewhat academic” and said, given the importance of the mission, that “scientific rigor can be de-emphasized, if necessary.”
By the 1970s, Americans were faced with the ever-present specter of nuclear annihilation, as well as the increasing threat of international terrorism. Some in Washington were willing to entertain radical ideas.
What if intelligence agents could “see” into Soviet bunkers from a hotel room outside Washington, D.C.? What if they could predict a bombing or airplane hijacking?
In October 1978, Maj. Gen. Edmund Thompson, then the Army’s top intelligence officer, ordered Intelligence and Security Command to look into ESPA. The Army intelligence specialists put together a team after combing their units and calling on other agencies. Six years earlier, the Central Intelligence Agency had looked into similar concepts with the help of the Stanford Research Institute think-tank.
“Driven by the notion that the Soviets might develop capabilities in this area, key personalities in the intelligence community were determined to explore the potential usefulness of psychic phenomena,” a once-secret December 1995 overview of the project explained. Grill Flame only applied to the Army’s portion of what was in essence a Pentagon-wide set of experiments.
The entire project was highly classified. Thompson initially had literally told his subordinates what to do rather than write anything down.
The ground combat branch’s spies apparently felt the studies were promising enough to push ahead. Still, the project would likely have died without the interest of a colorful group of characters, including Thompson.
Worried about the Kremlin’s own paranormal efforts, the general was also a true believer. “I never liked to get into debates with skeptics, because if you didn’t believe that remote viewing was real, you hadn’t done your homework,” Thompson said, according to Schnabel’s book Remote Viewers: The Secret History of America’s Psychic Spies.
Grill Flame focused largely on training and honing the skills of remote-viewers. The hope was that these individuals could describe sensitive details about enemy equipment and facilities without ever having to leave the United States.
“In short, it involved placing an individual in a controlled darkened environment, descending him or her into a self-hypnotic trance and causing him/her to vocally describe images and other impressions that came to mind,” according to the overview. “In an intelligence context, the subject would be given some parameters of a target area or an intelligence question and the subject’s verbalization would be closely monitored.”
In 1981, Thompson gained a significant ally when Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III took over Intelligence and Security Command. The two officers shared an enthusiasm for unconventional ideas.
As Thompson left for a post at the Defense Intelligence Agency, he gave Stubblebine full control of Grill Flame. In September 1981, the Army stood up a formal unit to handle the project.
The ground combat branch buried Detachment G in the Army Operations Group. This banal-sounding unit handles the service’s human intelligence mission — the business of going out to gather up important information from other people.
In the beginning, the team’s staff included a grand total of five people — three soldiers and two civilians, including an office secretary — according to a now-declassified instruction detailing the unit’s creation. Everything they did was on a “need to know” basis.
Throughout the Pentagon, remote-viewers were given intelligence and other tasks to test their skills. Grill Flame and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s own project — nicknamed Sun Streak — tried to find the exact whereabouts of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before American planes bombed his country in 1986, according to Schnabel’s book.
Three years later, they tried to locate Manuel Noriega after American troops chased the Panamanian dictator from his residence. The Pentagon tapped the psychic spies to try and find out if there really were any U.S. prisoners of war still in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.
But despite all of these efforts, the Army in particular had quickly soured on the entire idea. To the service’s top leaders, the results were inconclusive and the players embarrassingly erratic.
After taking over the Army’s main intelligence command, Stubblebine had begun promoting a number of pseudo-scientific ideas beyond remote-viewing. He became famously known for bringing other officers to “spoon-bending parties.”
At these events, self-described psychics and telekinentics would twist silverware into amazing shapes. In the 1970s and ’80s, individuals such as Israeli-born Uri Geller had wowed American and foreign television audiences with similar demonstrations.
“The key in all of this has nothing to do with bending metal,” Stubblebine, with an array of bent spoons and forks in front of him, told journalist Jon Ronson in an interview for his 2001 documentary The Secret Rulers of the World. “What it has to do with — lord, mercy, if I can do that with my mind, what else can I do?”
The general tried to “energize” Army Special Forces troops with these ideas, but found them dismissive. He finally prevailed on them to give the techniques a chance by telling them that they might one day be able to kill people with their minds — a story Ronson later detailed in his book The Men Who Stare At Goats.
According to Ronson, the Central Intelligence Agency had a sent a psychologist to evaluate Stubblebine’s competence. In the process, Dr. Ray Hyman interviewed the officer’s successor, Maj. Gen. Harry Soyster.
“I asked him if he had been forced to go to a spoon-bending party and he said, ‘Oh yes,’” Hyman told Ronson in another interview for his documentary. “He said, ‘Well the spoons bend, but I couldn’t see any military application so I didn’t think much of it.’”
When Soyster took over in 1986, he worked to curtail Grill Flame and similar projects. The general insisted that his command’s job was to “listen to bad guys talk to each other, catch spies [and] take pictures,” according to an official Army historical review a private individual obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and submitted to the independent website GovernmentAttic.org.
Still, in Washington, like-minded members of Congress kept Grill Flame and related programs alive. In particular, Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell — best known for the federal college grants that bear his name — was an ardent supporter of the paranormal experiments.
“Pell and his staff were largely instrumental in keeping the funding alive for this effort even when skepticism was building in the late ’80s and ’90s,” according to the Army watchdog. In 1987, the legislator had tried to draw attention to an “extrasensory perception gap” with Moscow by inviting Geller to bend spoons for his colleagues.
After the stunt, Time Magazine dubbed him “Senator Oddball.” Army leaders and others in Washington were not thrilled with these associations.
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On top of these public relations issues, the Army appeared to have concerns about the ethics of Grill Flame’s activities. As early as February 1981, Thompson “recommended … continue to ensure all legal/medical human use issues are met prior to conduct of any new [Grill Flame] initiatives.”
A number of former remote-viewers and other participants in psychic projects developed physical and mental illnesses or symptoms thereof. While conspiracy theories and speculation is rampant, it’s hard to say whether any of these issues were directly related to the projects.
“Had they been living too far out on the shamanic edge of things?” Joseph McMoneagle, one of the Army’s remote-viewers who eventually suffered a heart attack, wondered — this according to Schnabel’s book. “Did the act of remote viewing, or even being near a remote viewer, produce some kind of hazardous effect on the human nervous system, or the immune system?”
Despite his experience, McMoneagle continues to practice and promote the technique. In a review of one of his books, Reader’s Digest called the former Army soldier “the most renowned remote-viewer in the United States.”
“What is true is that the Army … did participate in this heavily and some embarrassing episodes resulted,” the inspector general official noted in his review. “Media exaggeration can clearly hurt [Intelligence and Security Command’s] name.”
And while the colonel from the inspector general dug into the project’s background as Sullivan had asked, he could find no instances where a remote-viewer had clearly produced real results.
The final assessment was that Grill Flame had been “more smoke than substance.”
While researching his documentary and subsequent book, Ronson described claims of remote viewing and other psychic techniques making a comeback after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. But six years earlier, the Army’s opinion was loud and clear that the whole idea had been more trouble than it was worth.