The investigation had dragged on for three long years already, and there was still no sign of Charles Frank Jordan. As supervisor in charge of the Key Largo Customs office, which at the time boasted the most drug seizures in the country, Jordan was discovered to be one of 23 federal Customs employees working in concert to smuggle several thousand pounds of cocaine and marijuana into the United States during South Florida’s drug trafficking heyday in the 1980’s. In 1985, the self-proclaimed “Ruler of the Keys”, was charged with conspiring to smuggle 52,000 pounds of narcotics into Louisiana, along with 10 other men. The following year, a trial in New Orleans resulted in his acquittal, but after being indicted for perjury in the Spring of 1987, he decided to take his chances and run.
Reagan had just declared the war on drugs a matter of national security with decision directive 221 in 1986, opening the door for the U.S. Department of Defense to take the lead in the interdiction of illegal narcotics, both inside and outside its borders. The Pentagon’s formal role in this capacity was still a few years away, but in the meantime the DIA - official intelligence organ of the DoD - was using a controversial program inherited from INSCOM (U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command) to assist the FBI’s investigation with a highly unorthodox method: Extra Sensory Perception or ESP.
Talking Plants and Psychic Spook Roots
The origins of the government’s involvement in the paranormal can be traced to Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Backster, co-founder of the CIA’s polygraph program, who was at his New York office late one night in 1966 working on a difficult case for the FBI. Cleve Backster was, by then, a well-known figure in law enforcement circles, testifying as an expert witness in state prosecutions with regularity. The evening in question had been a long one, and in a brief moment of distraction absentmindedly fixed his gaze on a house plant his secretary had recently brought to the office. Staring at the plant, his focus suddenly started to coalesce over a harebrained idea. Could he potentially demonstrate plant consciousness by attaching his polygraph machine’s sensors to the leaves and provoke a reaction?
Cleve Backster put aside the case file in front of him and reached for his polygraph equipment. He decided to set one of the leaves on fire, surmising that this would certainly elicit a reaction from the potted organism - if there was one to be had. What happened next changed the course of Backster’s life, and set the stage for the creation of a highly classified, government program comprising a team of men and women charged with gathering intelligence of remote locations and events using their innate or - in some cases - learned psychic powers.
Backster claims that the very act of striking the match on the matchbox produced a dramatic spike in the polygraph readings. The founder of the Backster School of Lie Detection dedicated the rest of his life to the study of plant consciousness and paranormal phenomena, such as ESP and telepathy. He would go on to publish several papers in scientific journals and other publications.
One of the people who came across Backster’s research was a physicist in California, who was also dabbling in questions about extrasensory perception and related topics. Harold “Hal” Puthoff was a young 35-year physicist working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a think tank in San Francisco. SRI was home to many government-funded programs with close ties to intelligence and the military, which included a cybernetics and artificial intelligence divisions.
Puthoff contacted Backster in a letter, proposing an experiment involving quantum biology inspired by Cleve’s recent work. The former polygraph expert introduced the physicist to Douglas “Ingo” Swann, a gifted psychic Backster had been using as a subject for his own research into ESP. In 1970, Swann would travel west to participate in a sophisticated experiment designed to test his extrasensory abilities under strict laboratory controls at SRI. Six doctoral candidates, in addition to Hal Puthoff witnessed what seemed to them an impossible task as Swann successfully disturbed the operation of a magnetometer - a state-of-the-art piece of physics research equipment created to detect quarks - using only his mind’s intent.
Puthoff shared his findings through a report with a few colleagues at SRI. A couple of weeks later, he got a knock at the door. Two CIA agents, holding Swann’s test results were asking to come in. As a former Naval Intelligence officer, Puthoff was perfectly suited to hear what they were here to tell him. The Agency’s concern over the Soviets’ continued research into parapsychology and possible advances in so-called “psychoenergetic” weapons, was growing and they were looking for a research laboratory, that could carry out their own, low-key investigations into these same phenomena.
For the next decade and a half, Dr. Puthoff would serve as the lead scientist in several iterations of government-funded research of the ‘supernatural’, and develop the protocols for the development of a team of “psychic soldiers”, who would put their sixth senses to work in the service of Cold War targets and other intelligence gathering needs of the U.S. government.
Where in the World is X
The Army needed to distance itself from the esoteric nature and derisive perceptions surrounding ESP, especially within a military environment. Part of this effort centered on what the advertising world calls copy writing. Scientific-sounding terminology was created to replace much-maligned words like telepathy, psychokinesis and psychics, mainly for the purpose of credibility in the eyes those holding the purse strings on Capitol Hill.
RMS, RP, and RV, were all acronyms designed to give ancient divination methods a modern technological sheen. Remote Map Sensing, Remote Pertubation and Remote Viewing, respectively, appeased the overwhelmingly skeptical Pentagon officials who, nevertheless, dedicated at least two decades to the use of these ‘occult’ arts.
Despite efforts to duplicate the talents of Swann and other innate psychics, who passed through the secret ESP programs and experiments by developing training techniques, the truth is that the military never really ascertained the source of these mysterious forces, and barring very few notable exceptions, were never able to turn ‘regular’ soldiers into psychic mediums. The earliest program, code named “Grill Flame”, employed six “remote viewers”, whose work consisted in carrying out reconnaissance missions of far off places in the world from a building in Fort Meade, Maryland using the power of concentration and, essentially, magic.
Joe McMoneagle was one of those notable exceptions who was able to ”learn’ his psychic abilities, although certain events during his tour of duty in Vietnam point to the possibility that they were simply dormant in him. In any case, McMoneagle was the program’s first (official) star remote viewer, delivering exceptional results in many of his RV sessions. One of his most celebrated occurred during Remote Viewing Session C54, when he was able to ‘see’ a clandestine Soviet submarine project, which contemporary spy satellite imagery could not possibly discover. The Soviets were building a massive new submarine vessel in the Severodvinsk Naval Base, inside a concrete structure several yards inland. McMoneagle described the vessel as it was being constructed, and even discerned its name. Satellite image confirmation arrived months later, when pictures of the “Shark” stationed on the water at Severodvinsk were seen by astounded Pentagon officials.
Regardless of McMoneagle’s success or that of his peers, remote viewing showed little to no actionable value, since confirmation was almost always required. It also didn’t help that the research continually failed to identify the source and mechanisms behind this seemingly supernatural power. As long as no one understood how it worked, trusting it as a viable intelligence tool would be very difficult.
The Gifted One
Angela Dellafiora had known she was psychic since childhood. As a civilian woman in a male-dominated environment - first at the FBI, where she worked filing criminal fingerprints in a database and then at INSCOM working for Army intelligence - her career was not bereft of obstacles. Her paranormal abilities didn’t necessarily make things any easier, even when she became a part of Sun Streak, as the remote viewer project was now named. The black program had been absorbed by the Defense Intelligence Agency after the original INSCOM project was cancelled a month earlier by Brigadier General Harry Soyster, who came on as INSCOM’s new commander, forcing General Stubblebine - the project’s biggest sponsor - into retirement.
Grill Flame had run into some PR trouble as a result of a hoax perpetrated by James Randi, a popular magician, and militant skeptic of the entire psychic/telepath/paranormal milieu. For years, Randi had been aggressively pursuing any avenue to discredit people who claimed to have any sort of psychic powers. Uri Geller, the famous Israeli spoon-bender in particular, was one of his favorite targets. Randi’s latest campaign centered around a new age retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains called the Monroe Institute, which offered psychic training programs to the public, among other things. James Randi recruited two young men to pose as psychics and undergo several of the tests offered at the Institute. Despite largely failing to prove anything with the stunt, Randi - who had a platform - made a bit of a scandal out of the whole affair. While the incident barely caught people’s attention, the fallout in the Army was severe enough to end the program at INSCOM.
The program Angela Dellafiora would be a part of would add many more layers of secrecy and compartmentalization to the already black project, so as to avoid situations like what had occurred with Grill Flame. Her natural talents, however, grated on some of the empirically-minded project managers and her “psychically-trained” colleagues, as well. Having no need to follow the steps established by SRI in their remote viewer protocol designed years earlier, Dellafiora followed her own process, which produced far quicker and more accurate results than any other non-psychic team members.
The day they asked her to locate Charles Frank Jordan, the Sun Streak supervisors had already tried sessions with the other remote viewers, each of whom came up with different locations -from Mexico to Minnesota. Dellafiora focused her mind on the target and, within minutes gave Jordan’s location as Lowell, Wyoming. Fern Gauvin, the operations manager, suggested she meant Lowell, Massachusetts, since the former location doesn’t exist. But, she insisted. After consulting an atlas, Gauvin found a Lovell, Wyoming. Dellafiora confirmed that was the location, and the psychically-obtained intel was forwarded to their point man at DIA, Dale Graff.
A few weeks later, she was asked to do another session on Jordan. Dellafiora then revealed he was living at or near an old Indian burial ground, adding that if they didn’t get him now he would escape them. A few days later, a ranger at Yellowstone National Park recognized Jordan from the alerts issued by the Customs Service. He was apprehended 50 miles from Lovell, Wyoming, where the FBI later confirmed he had been.
The Hidden Hand of Fear
The story of the U.S. government’s interest in the paranormal goes back decades before the creation of Grill Flame and its subsequent - possibly continuing - iterations. In fact, the search for mystical knowledge is a ubiquitous feature of most regimes in the history of mankind. Still, the mystery of the origins and functioning of these abilities continues to escape us.
Yet, it almost seems that the more we look for it; the more we try to find ways to bottle it and sell it on street corners, so to speak, the more elusive it becomes - and, ironically, the more paranoid we get.
MKULTRA, the most notorious mind control R&D initiative undertaken by the American military industrial complex, was born out of the same desire and paranoia. Much of the technology we “enjoy” today has emerged out of these and similar programs. Highly advanced research, dating back to the late 50’s has already yielded a technologically feasible imitation of telepathic communication, where thoughts are transferred directly to the mind of another human being thousands of miles away.
From a certain, trivial perspective, that might seem like an amazing feat. But from another, it is quite sad. In our hyper-connected, increasingly privacy-deficient world, instead of asking how we can distill and package psychic abilities or mind-reading, maybe we should ask ourselves why such faculties occur so infrequently and appear so tenuous and intangible. Or better yet, don’t ask at all. Can we live with the unknowable or are we too afraid?
Author’s Note: Much of the research for this article is based on Annie Jacobsen’s book “Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis”