‘CIA psychics – absurd, waste of taxpayer dollars’

The use of psychics by the CIA to spy on Iran is an example of a bureaucracy tackling a crisis when there’s no quick fix, throwing money at a problem, says retired CIA official Larry Johnson, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if a similar program still exists.

A batch of declassified CIA documents has revealed the agency's dealing with the paranormal is now official. 

According to the once secret files, the Central Intelligence Agency used a team of military-trained telepathic individuals during the Iran embassy siege nearly 40 years ago.

The program named 'Grill Flame' started in 1975 and began as research into paranormal abilities. But its star turn came in 1979 when the telepaths were used to provide information on where the hostages were being held inside the Tehran embassy and their state of health.

RT: Surely the argument is that trying everything, especially in a hostage situation such as that, is the only option. But when you see the vague drawings and read the information "revealed" by the psychics, isn't it all a bit ridiculous? Do you think relying on ESP is irresponsible when lives are at stake?

Larry Johnson: I think you are very charitable to call it just ridiculous, it was absurd, it was a waste of taxpayer dollars. What is astonishing – as we look back… it was 37 years ago – it was something that really never should have been done because it was not based upon good science…This is an example where the CIA, for whatever reason, maybe watching too much television, thought that this would actually produce something. In the end, it didn’t produce anything.

RT: Of 202 reports from the Grill Flame psychics “only seven reports” were proven correct and more than half found to be entirely incorrect. How do you think they explained spending time and resources on such an unreliable endeavor?

LJ: I call it a bureaucratic imperative. Large bureaucracies like the CIA, like the State Department, like the Department of Defense, when they face a crisis of some sort, and they don’t have a ready answer to it or a quick and easy fix, often times being encouraged to literally throw money at a problem and do anything because it is considered a high priority. And by making something a high priority, people no longer have to worry about being accountable for what they are doing. And I think it is exactly what took place here, that there was no regard for the accountability of it. And they had the added benefit of it operating behind a veil of secrecy. So, therefore, the average person would not know what they were doing. And by virtue of being able to operate in the dark, they could do this kind of thing without fear of being discovered and being asked to explain themselves in public. Because had they been put in a witness chair and asked to explain it, they would not have had a good explanation.

RT: Army officers supervising Grill Flame defended the project saying "the degree of success appears to at least equal, if not surpass, other collection methods.” How unnerving is that?

LJ: I have a better collection method that would have produced better results – that is called writing down two different choices of what could have possibly been going on, then flipping a coin to choose the correct explanation. Coin-flipping probably would have provided even more so-called accurate results. The bottom line in this is – we didn’t have good information on where the hostages were being held. And it was ultimately solved not by a military rescue which failed, and not because what the CIA did, it was a negotiated release, that is how they got out.

RT: The psychic program wasn't shut down until 1995. Why do you think it lasted so long? Do you think anything similar exists today?

LJ: It would not surprise me if it existed. The fact that it was able to hang on for so long – it is just a nature of large bureaucracy. Once you have a program up and operating and then you have to sell it to people that it is achieving great things, whether it is or it is not. On the intelligence side of the business, you don’t always have to show up and provide a demonstrable proof that what you say as going on is actually occurring. So that is one explanation I think of why they were able to allow this to go on for so long without any really concrete results to speak of.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.