Damien Broderick: Declassifying Psi Research

The Star Gate Archives, Volume 1 (of 4): Remote Viewing, 1972-1984 Reports of the United States Government Sponsored Psi Program, 1972-1995, compiled and edited by Edwin C. May and Sonali Bhatt Marwaha (McFarland 978-1-4766-6752-2, $95, 546pp, hardcover) 2018

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction Fantasy reviewFor a time—especially in the 1950s—ESP or psi was the hottest trope in the broad fields of science fiction, promoted especially by John W. Campbell, the iconic, quirky editor of Astounding.

Few readers or writers of these mid 20th century tales supposed that such imaginative abilities might be genuine, once the exaggeration due to wishful thinking was peeled away. (Isaac Asimov rejected psi, saying “If you came to me… and demonstrated [psychic phenomena] I would probably proceed to disbelieve my eyes. Sorry…”) It would have seemed absurd to suggest that psi should be investigated with government funding. Yet that actually did happen within two decades, with positive results, just as other “far fetched” favorites of sf—orbital spacecraft, Moon landings, nuclear explosives—became realities. Curiously, these tested psi abilities are still largely mocked and dismissed as superstition or trickery by physicists and psychologists. That could be about to change.


Anomalous psi phenomena include precognition (“foreseeing the future”) and remote viewing (“seeing what is not accessible to normal or instrument-augmented sight”). Despite the jibes, it looks as if these effects really do exist, if not always reliably. Their authenticity was supported in mind-boggling detail, and not just as statistical anomalies in millions of random numbers, by US government-supported research conducted between 1972 and 1995. Unfortunately, until quite late the details were hidden from the public under heavy-duty classification.

The program is known now in declassified hindsight by its last, rather science fictional name, but during the two decades of its existence it bore many code tags: Grill Flame, Gondola Wish, Center Lane, Sun Streak and, on its last legs in January 1991, Star Gate. It was closed by the CIA in 1995. (Why? We’ll come back to that, but there are parallel questions one might snarkily pose: Why was the Apollo program shut down? Because space travel was demonstrably impossible? Well, no. Why has research in global climate change been blocked by the current administration? Because it’s a Chinese hoax? Well, no.)

Funding, drawn from a number of different government sources and renewed annually only after scrutiny of detailed reviews, was modest for its first seven years. It grew to $1,500,000 in 1981, dropped to half that the following year, rose and fell with a serious slump in 1985, soared in the next two years to roughly two million a year, slumped again, climbed back to two million in 1991, then dithered up and down until the program was shuttered on quite misleading grounds.

The emphasis on developing a substantial national capacity for remote viewing, if it’s real, is rational. Military and intelligence need all the help they can get in tracking hidden enemies and their most secret plans. Crammed with official and long-classified reports on the program, many illustrated, this book and its forthcoming sequel on remote viewing studies in the final decade focus on that uncanny skill. Hefty, data choked, double column volumes, they are not meant as cozy summer beach reading. But they might change some skeptical minds.

Star Gate’s version of traditional clairvoyance, when used operationally, was strictly implemented and controlled. Trained viewers were required to follow a strict protocol. This was a set of steps that were practiced again and again. The targets these viewers attempt to “see” (downed aircraft, say, or kidnapped spies, or, during training, just random locations or people) were “double-blinded.” That is, neither the viewer nor anybody with access to him or her knew what the target was, nor its location. This design prevented deliberate or accidental cueing. The viewer made sketches and verbal reports (scrawled notes of sensations, shapes, scents), usually with no attempt to interpret them immediately lest unconscious biases affect the process. This activity was supervised by another trained person, equally blinded, whose questions helped maintain focus on what was seen in the mind’s eye. And it worked far more accurately than random chance would predict.

So why was this surprisingly effective program shut down more than twenty years ago? The official justification was that psi, being unreliable, not 100% effective overall, could not by itself solve intelligence puzzles. Nobody, though, had ever made that claim. Remote viewing by experienced experts pre-selected for intrinsic psi abilities only averaged a hit rate quite significantly higher than chance. So it must have been, you know, obviously worthless…

Incredibly, the panel that recommended closing down Star Gate examined only ten studies, out of many hundreds, despite appeals by the working personnel that a broader basis for the study be employed. In this volume’s Foreword, former US Senator William S. Cohen, for ten years a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, notes that his initial “high bar of doubt began to descend as I listened to and observed the participants in the Star Gate program” (p. 1). He concludes “I believe it was a mistake for us to abandon the effort…” Insiders have told me that the closure was driven not by failures of the program but by its frightening degree of success. Certain influential military and political figures were convinced that remote viewing achievements had to be due to Satanic influence.

While the CIA did finally declassify and release a lot of the data and analyses in 2003, this multi-volume Archive is the first to arrange the material in intelligible and historical order. Editorial changes or deletions are limited to correcting obvious typos and compressing tedious redundancies. Diagrams and tables of data are clean and readable, and frequently astonishing when their significance is grasped. Consider these examples, shown above: with targets that could be anything and anywhere in the world, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was drawn as two curved lines and a tall rectangular block at their back, and actually annotated by name (p. 450). The Stanford radio telescope was sketched in schematic but recognizable form (p. 451). The spires and body of St. Patrick’s cathedral were drawn without their decorative surface but instantly identifiable for what they were (p. 454)—nothing at all, for example, like a radio telescope or a gateway arch.

This is an impressive body of work—not only the program itself, but the labors of compilers Dr. Edwin May and his Indian associate, psychologist Dr. Sonali Bhatt Marwaha. Trained in nuclear physics, May was for a decade the scientific director of the research end of Star Gate, located first at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and then Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) on the West Coast. Most of the operational applications (or, more candidly, psychic spying) were conducted in a rather shabby building on the grounds of Fort Meade, Maryland.

For several decades, informal memoirs, tell-alls (including scads of mostly-made-up-alls) and serious personal histories have been available, starting with a paper in Nature in 1974 by the founders of the project, laser experts Russell Targ and Dr. Hal Puthoff. That was followed by their non-classified volume (Mind-Reach, 1977). Several persuasive memoirs are by military Legion of Honor holder Joe McMoneagle, formally and formerly Remote Viewer 001. Yet some of the alleged “memoirs” by others only marginally connected to the program are so palpably bogus that one might wonder if they are subsidized by the DIA or CIA to enhance the “giggle factor” and ensure that scientists and other trained minds walk away in revulsion.

By contrast, the book under review is thrilling enough in its realistic contents, which display a large variety of experimental approaches to psi along with the results, not all gratifying to ardent believers. For example, Star Gate spent a lot of money testing PK (psychokinesis, or “mind over matter”) and got very little bang for their bucks. This part of the Archives is promised extensive coverage in Volume Three. Then again, most reported PK in the wild is unlike dull repetitive lab attempts, and is correlated with very different and sometimes traumatic motives.


Far from best-seller fact-fiction, the Archives chart the developing search for effective methods to harness psi, characterize its limitations and find possible explanations. Early on, the scientists wondered if extremely low frequency waves might be the vehicle allowing information to pass from mind to distant mind in carefully conducted experiments. Not so; immersion in deep water attenuates even these radio waves, yet trials done using a submersible turned out to be highly accurate. Besides, no known electromagnetic pulse is able to reach back from the future and bring news of next year’s military constructions—yet this result was achieved by some remote viewers given only geographical coordinates to lead them to the target.

A brisk summary of this history is provided in advance by psychologist and psi researcher Dr. Richard Broughton. He observes correctly that “the most dramatic realization to emerge from Star Gate is that psi could be useful… When intelligence agencies need information about a situation… they will deploy all the tools at their disposal… Psi does not enter the picture as some sort of magic power that will give them the answer. It is just one more of the tools that can be deployed… The take-home message is that psi isn’t magic.

The mathematical physics that crop up in this book is rather more sophisticated than most non-statistical studies of psi—even though it doesn’t, finally, explain how psi works or when it does, because nobody knows yet.

I suspect that with the background tilling and planting in this volume and its forthcoming companions, it’s just a matter of time before we do get a firm lock on the problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if it emerges from some side alley of cosmology or post-Standard Model particle physics (sterile neutrinos, anyone? anions? many universe theory? panpsychism?). It is all too likely that when this occurs the sterling, baffling work of a century and more of psi researchers, notably those with the Star Gate program, will be swept hastily under the carpet by the new Nobel candidates.

This important volume is at last the definitive story of the hunt for workable remote viewing. One can only imagine Campbell, who alas died a year before the Star Gate program began, chortling with satisfaction.

Damien Broderick, PhD, is a literary theorist and reviewer, award-winning novelist and editor, specializing in science and science fiction. An Australian now living in Texas, he has written or edited 74 books, including Evidence for Psi with AI researcher Ben Goertzel, PhD, Psience Fiction, and the forthcoming Consciousness and Science Fiction.

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2 thoughts on “Damien Broderick: Declassifying Psi Research

  • July 30, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Fascinating stuff, Damien. Thanks very much for this detailed review, and I hope you’ll keep us informed about subsequent volumes in the archives as they become available. One of the most interesting things here is the range of reaction to the work, and the reasons why it was shut down.

  • August 2, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Perhaps I’m confused but how does this book related to Locus’s historical focus? Unless this is a satirical piece. I’ll take my non-fiction recommendations from other sources than Locus. I’m not taking time to evaluate the pros and cons on what this book covers but, if I did I, would expect the analysis would be based on the scientific method and not anecdotal coverage.


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