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The psychic hunt for Osama Bin Laden

How 9/11 rekindled the military’s obsession with psychic power and paranormal activity

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Martin Williams
10 September 2021, 12.00am
Drawing by a CIA 'psychic' in the 1980s
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CIA

A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the British government under Tony Blair hatched a secret plan. If successful, it would completely transform the fight against Al-Qaeda.

While public attention focused on Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) embarked on a bizarre series of experiments to find out if psychic powers really exist. Could it use clairvoyance to track down Osama Bin Laden?

The story may sound like a crazy conspiracy theory, or a ‘Stranger Things’ spin-off. But declassified documents show just how seriously this idea was taken by the government – and how much they wanted to believe the bullshit that ‘psychics’ told them.

Britain was not alone in this mad venture; the CIA had a long tradition of not only testing psychics, but also using them in real-life military operations. After the atrocities of 9/11, the British government literally lifted the handbook on psychic powers from the website of one of America’s top ‘psi spies’.

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The MoD quickly set about trying to recruit well-known psychics from the internet, believing, according to the declassified documents, that “experienced” people might be “more effective”. But when most of them refused (perhaps worried that their charlatanism would be exposed) it settled for a group of “novices” instead.

In mid-November 2001, the team of wannabe psychics were taken to a secret rental property with “minimal environmental distractions”, where testing began.

The technique used by the MoD and the CIA was called ‘remote viewing’, described as the “acquisition and description, by mental means, of information blocked from ordinary perception”. To test their abilities, a “target” image – of “buildings, places, events, objects, people” – was placed in a sealed envelope. The psychics had to guess what it was and replicate it on a blank sheet of paper.

Obviously, it didn’t work. And the declassified documents provide a minute-by-minute account of just how badly the psychics failed.

The first guy walked into the MoD’s Remote Viewing Room at 15:45 on 20 November. His target, hidden in an envelope, was a photo of Mother Teresa.

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Psychic 'target', 2001 | MoD

After ten minutes with his head in his hands, the man started to breathe more deeply. But nothing happened. Time passed. His head slumped forward and the officials monitoring him thought he had fallen asleep. Eventually his left arm slipped off the table in his slumber and he abruptly sat up straight again, arms folded.

Eventually, having still not managed to connect, he got up and went to the toilet. Then, “right at the end of the session”, he finally grabbed his pen and drew some doodles on the paper in front of him. The whole thing had taken nearly two hours.

This is what he drew:

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Mother Teresa? | MoD

The truly remarkable thing, however, was that this attempt was deemed a success. One of the government officials said the drawing of a pyramid “may represent the white triangular section of clothing” in the photo of Mother Teresa. Another argued that part of the picture “could represent the face”.

They concluded by saying there was a “possibility” that the individual had “accessed some of the features of the target”. So the experiments continued.

Officially, the purpose of these experiments has never been confirmed. But when details were first reported in 2007, experts were in no doubt that it was linked to 9/11 – especially given the timing of the project. “You don't employ that kind of time and effort to find money down the back of the sofa,” said Nick Pope, who ran the MoD’s UFO research project. “We must be talking about Bin Laden and weapons of mass destruction."

The problem was that the human brain loves to see patterns, even where none exists. We find it hard to comprehend that some things are just a coincidence. It is this trait that spawns rumours of satanic ‘backmasking’ in music, or claims of divine prophecy in the ‘Bible code’.

In fact, when mathematician Brendan McKay argued that the coded predictions found in the Bible were merely a coincidence, he was challenged to find similar predictions in ‘Moby Dick’. He succeeded – finding hundreds of ‘predictions’, including the death of Princess Diana.

But for governments and security services, the stakes are higher. For decades they have erred on the side of believing the hype, just in case it’s true.

Cold War psychics

The MoD’s tests in 2001 appear to be the only serious exploration of psychic powers by the British military. But America and Russia had long been competing in an ‘ESP race’.

The role of psychics in the modern military can perhaps be traced back to a French magazine article in the 1960s, which claimed the US Navy had successfully communicated with a nuclear submarine using telepathy. Western intelligence agencies laughed it off, realising that the magazine had fallen for a hoax. But the Soviets took it seriously, and eager researchers used it as ammunition to get funding from the Communist Party.

In true Cold War style, the Russian scientists quickly boasted of amazing results, and even released a previously unpublished study from the 1930s claiming to show successful demonstrations of telepathy.

As the Americans watched the extraordinary claims come out of Moscow, it was their turn to be gullible. After all, if the Soviets really had harnessed psychic power, it would give them a huge military advantage that could be disastrous for the US. And given that it was difficult to categorically disprove that any of this was real, the scientists who objected were ridiculed as ‘conservatives’, while psychic believers were labelled ‘progressives’.

“The old familiar split occurs between those who do and those who do not require an acceptable theory before recognizing a new fact,” one scientific paper said in 1961. “It has always been thus when new findings emerge.”

The following year, the CIA sent an agent to the UK to talk to senior academics in Oxford, Cambridge and London who were interested in studying psychic powers. Memos from the visit suggest that Britain’s ‘experts’ on the subject were perhaps more cautious in their approach than the Americans. “The people I interviewed are interested in discussing ESP,” the CIA agent wrote, “but they are not willing to get down to the nuts and bolts.”

The US acted differently, however, bringing a small army of self-professed psychics into the CIA, using the principles of remote viewing. It is unclear how many of these people genuinely believed they had extrasensory perception, but the CIA remained interested.

By the early 1980s, it commissioned a psychic mission to Mars. The individual involved reported back from his trance, saying he had seen “ancient people” wearing strange clothes. A full transcript of the episode has since been released by the CIA, reading like someone hallucinating on drugs.

In 1987, another psychic drew a picture of the US president sitting at his desk. The writing underneath says: “Although it is denied, President Reagan is terminally ill and will not finish his term in office.” Reagan ended up living for another 17 years.

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Psychic-drawn picture of President Reagan, 1987 | CIA

Eventually, the team would go on to experiment with the most wacky, New Age ideas surrounding psychic powers and paranormal activities, like walking through walls and going invisible. Much of this is discussed in Jon Ronson’s book ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’. But what is less well known is that these psychic spies were deployed in a number of real-life, highly sensitive military operations.

Psychics and the military

The US military had used psychics in real-life situations long before the British started experimenting after the 9/11 terror attacks.

In 1979, students supporting the Iranian Revolution had stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans captive. It was the longest hostage situation in recorded history, lasting 444 days, and was seen as a turning point in Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

But for the CIA, it was a chance to put its psychic research to the test. Documents show that the agency ran hundreds of remote viewing sessions in an attempt to gather information about the hostages, their captors, and possible escape routes.

One of the victims they tried to monitor was a man called Bruce German, who had worked in the US Embassy. After many failed attempts, one of them finally exclaimed: “He’s standing barefooted in the far left corner… I think I finally got him.” He continued by claiming that nobody else was near him, and that he was “settled in” and “reading a lot”. In reality, the embassy worker was being woken up in the middle of the night, stripped and blindfolded for a mock execution. The psychics, of course, were of no help.

But still, the CIA refused to learn. And with each new secret service mission came the chance for the psychic team at Fort Meade to prove themselves, as ESP snuck its way into US military strategy.

When a highly decorated US officer, Brigadier General James L. Dozier, was kidnapped by Italy's communist Red Brigades a couple of years later, the psychics sprang into action once again. Remarkably, it seems that everything they said was taken as legitimate evidence and passed on to investigators.

Within days, a “data package” based on their visions was sent to the Italian police – without mentioning the source of the information. Dutifully, the Italians launched a huge search operation in Verona, but found nothing.

Undeterred, more information was sent a few days later. This time it seemed to indicate that Dozier was in a small nearby farming town called Este, so the Italian police went in with full force. A CIA memo notes: “Italians reacted to this specific data with over 100 search personnel supported by helicopters.” By coincidence, one of the houses in Este seemed to almost match the psychics' predictions – so the police raided it, only to find an entirely innocent family and no sign of Dozier.

He was eventually found using traditional detective work, leading one American official to write an angry note about the psychics. “Not one of the ‘data packages’ was useful in finding and freeing BG Dozier,” he said. “The reports drained our resources, embarrassed us with the Italians, and confused crisis management.

“BG Dozier is with us now due to extraordinarily dedicated, patient and patently effective police work by the Italians. His release, alive and unharmed, was engineered by policemen using good police intelligence, applying excellent training and tested techniques, and above all, producing results. The psychics were never even close.”

But even after being embarrassed in front of the Italian authorities, the temptation to use self-professed psychics remained.

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The Lebanon case

In 1988, US marine Lieutenant Colonel Rich Higgins was speeding down a coastal highway in Lebanon, from the ancient city of Tyre. His colleagues were leading the way, back to their base at the UN peacekeeping headquarters. But when they came to a sharp bend in the road, they lost sight of Higgins’ jeep. At that moment, three armed men sprang out, stopped the vehicle and overpowered him. Higgins was dragged away at gunpoint.

In America, President Reagan told reporters: "We are still investigating, trying to learn more about it.” But how was the investigation unfolding? The very next day after the abduction, a command was sent through to the CIA’s team of psychic spies: “MISSION: Determine the location of US Marine Corps LTC William Rich Higgins.”

Right from the start, there was no consensus among the remote viewers and documents show how they guessed almost every possibility. One psychic said Higgins was being held “close to the ground, a tunnel or bridge”. Another said he was in a “very, very old building”. A third claimed: “[Higgins] is in a geometrically bizarre structure.”

Crucially, most of their readings were extremely vague and generic, meaning they could be applied to any number of settings in Lebanon. His location was described as a “hilly area with rocks” and a “farming type area, with animals like goats”. The psychics said there was “an ancient feel about the area” with “mild and timid” people. “They wear different color scarves on their heads.”

Clearly, the information was useless. But there was one thing that most of the psychics seemed to agree on: Rich Higgins would be fine. “He will not be hurt”, one said. Another added: “He could be released quite soon. In any case, he will be released soon after the 17th of March 1988.” It seemed like everything was going to be ok.

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Notes taken by CIA psychics after kidnapping | CIA

Even when a video was released showing Higgins in captivity, the psychics said that he was “angry” and “scared”, but was not being tortured and “is now coping better”.

“The fact remains that Higgins will be returned unharmed,” they said.

Key to these remote viewings were the sketches and diagrams drawn by the psychics in the midst of their trances. These were meant to provide crucial information, visualising the scene where Higgins was being held. Often, they looked more like silly doodles, but they were were classified as secret for years afterwards.

In the summer of 1989, a grisly videotape emerged showing Higgins dangling from a noose. At first, the psychics denied it was him. “Higgins is alive,” said one of the CIA’s team. “The videotape was the killing of a serviceman who is not LTC Higgins. [He] will be released in mid August following political negotiations.”

But the video was real, and Higgins was not released in August.

Eventually, the remote viewers fell into line and said what everyone else had come to accept: Rich Higgins had been killed. At last, the long, arduous case was over – but not before the psychics had a crack at uncovering the secrets behind his death, complete with their bizarre drawings.

Rich Higgins’ remains were not found until late 1991. He was flown back to Washington to be buried with elaborate military honors. By that time, the CIA’s psychics had already moved on to their next project. Nothing could make them question their beliefs. In fact, that same year, the agency claimed that a Russian researcher had “perfected his method” of “transmitting psychic energy”.

Eventually, however, the psychics were rumbled. In 1995, the project encompassing their work – Project Stargate – was axed after its methodology and findings were thoroughly debunked. Analysing the work, American scientists trashed the psychic spies, saying there was a “compelling argument” to end their work.

Another analysis said: “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.”

Six years passed before Tony Blair’s government picked up the baton after 9/11. After testing a series of wannabe psychics in their secret location, the MoD finally concluded that they had been “almost completely unsuccessful” and the results were “disappointing”.

“The remote viewing study was conducted to assess claims made in some academic circles and to validate research carried out by other nations on psychic ability,” a government spokesperson said, when details of the experiments were later revealed. “The study concluded that remote viewing theories had little value to the MoD and was taken no further.”

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