The secret history of the US government's "psychic arms race"

Skeptics may scoff at the existence of extrasensory perception, or ESP, and other paranormal powers, but the U.S. government hasn’t always been so quick to dismiss the idea. In fact, millions of dollars have been spent over several decades to find out if such human capabilities actually exist. So what prompted our government to take interest in these phenomena?

“Like so many Defense Department programs, it all leads back to the Nazis. Always,” said Annie Jacobsen, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist in history. “And at the end of the war, military intelligence collected a cache of Nazi documents called Das Ahnenerbe, and that was Heinrich Himmler’s science into this extrasensory perception psychokinesis. We got half, the Russians got the other half, and that led to what we know now as the psychic arms race.”

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Jacobsen writes about the pursuit in her new book, “Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis.”

In the 1975, the CIA concluded, “A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon.”

“It’s an astonishing conclusion to draw, and it’s created an enormous battleground for decades between the CIA and the Defense Department as they inquire into this area that has so long been associated with the supernatural, with magic. And here we are, advanced science looking at it,” Jacobsen said.

But she said there was always a battle within the intelligence community about whether the claim was legitimate.

“You have skeptics on the one hand who say, ‘This does not pass scientific method muster. The experiments are not repeatable. It’s pseudoscience,’” Jacobsen said. “You have others in the work who insist based on that [CIA] quote… and some extraordinary stories locating hostages, locating lost weapons, downed aircraft. So this debate, the science versus the supernatural has been going on for decades, and it’s infinitely interesting.”

Intelligence officials would refer to ESP using other terms, including “remote viewing,” to destigmatize the idea, Jacobsen said. They also changed the names of programs, like Project Sun Streak, to keep the Russians and Chinese from finding out about what they were working on.

The Defense Department at one point even tried to train people to be psychic, the author revealed.

“That’s where real grave problems arose,” she said. “The CIA’s position was, ‘This is individualistic. This is a biological phenomena.’ It’s physiological and they sought to investigate. Think of the analogy of like, ‘I can’t sing in the shower.’ Think what Mozart does. That’s how the CIA saw psychics.”

All this leads to the question, where are we now with these intelligence programs?

“We’re back in the same place we were in the ‘70s except for we have advanced technology brought into the mix now. So you have the Defense Department working on programs, but bringing in computer technologists, neurobiologists,” Jacobsen said.