Psychic Spies: Any Truth in 'Men Who Stare at Goats?'

Former officers discuss covert program to train unit in the paranormal.

November 9, 2009, 7:37 AM

Nov. 9, 2009— -- Major Paul H. Smith calls it his "Men in Black" moment.

It was 1983 and he was working as a Middle East analyst at Fort Meade, Md., when a fellow intelligence officer approached him with a highly-classified, so-called "black project."

They couldn't tell him what it was. They just said that as an intelligent, accomplished, open-minded and creative person, he fit the profile.

Intrigued, Smith agreed to take the tests thrown at him. And when the results confirmed his competence for the top-secret task, he was invited to try his hand at a new mission: To uncover details about places and activities around the world without stepping off of a U.S. military base.

"We're basically asking you to become a psychic spy," Smith, now retired, said he was told.

At first, the skeptic in him resisted. But when the recruiter revealed that the military was actually funding an ESP-type program, he thought, "There's got to be something to it. At that point, I had to know what there was to it."

For seven years, Smith took part in a congressionally-funded program focused on training officers in "remote viewing," or a paranormal skill that supposedly allows a person to see a target despite the restrictions of space or time.

And though the program was shut down in the mid-1990s after 20 years, stories of it and other allegedly paranormal military activities are at the heart of the new George Clooney movie "The Men Who Stare at Goats," and the Jon Ronson book upon which it was based.

In the movie, the paranormal is played up to the extreme. Soldiers attempt to become invisible, walk through walls and even kill a goat just by staring at it.

Smith and others familiar with the actual events upon which the movie and book are based say they only loosely reflect reality. But they also say that in ways both formal and informal, the military did dabble in the paranormal. And, they claim, they had some success.

Remote Viewers Explored Russian Targets

"Remote viewing was a legitimate program funded by Congress," Smith, now president of the International Remote Viewing Association (IRVA) and his own private training service, told

Started by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1972 and, eventually, moved to the Defense Intelligence Agency, it trained about 25 viewers over 20 years, he said. Smith and others selected for the program were chosen because in addition to the analytical, left-brain skills possessed by most military officers, they were also accomplished in the fine arts, music, language and other "right-brained" activities.

"Remote viewing is more of a right brained facility," he said. "The left hemisphere explains, interprets. It tends to get in the way of the process."

While in the program, Smith said he and his colleagues were frequently tasked with uncovering the purpose of Soviet sites. For example, if the military knew the Russians maintained a large facility on the far side of the Ural Mountains but couldn't get close enough to discern what was happening inside, Smith said he and his colleagues might be brought in.

"They knew what the target was, but couldn't get spies in. We were kind of the last resort," he said. The remote viewer wouldn't see clear pictures, but might describe his impressions in very broad strokes.

If he saw big containers holding a viscous, harmful substance, Smith said it might be determined that the facility houses biological weapons.

Could they document successes? Sometimes, Smith said. The viewers provided just one slice of information and, often, he said they wouldn't get feedback on the projects.

But in one high-profile example, he said, a particularly talented viewer, Joe McMoneagle, predicted a new class of Soviet submarine months before photos confirmed its existence.

Still, after 20 years, the controversial program was brought under review and found to be lacking enough evidence to justify its continued existence.

Ray Hyman, now a retired University of Oregon psychology professor, was among those called in at the time to review to the program.

"There's no science behind it," he said. "There's just no evidence behind it."

He and Jessica Utts, a statistics professor at the University of California, Irvine, were asked to review the data surround remote viewing and answer two questions: Is there any scientific basis for remote viewing? And, if so, is it at a stage where it could be useful for intelligence gathering purposes?

First Earth Battalion Meant to Explore Limits of Possible

While Hyman said there was no science to remote viewing Utts said that it was just not yet reliable enough. Utts did not immediately respond to requests for comment from but is on the executive board of the IRVA.

Though remote viewers point to a few successes as proof that the technique is effective, Hyman said that when they went back to research the success stories, they couldn't find witnesses to corroborate or confirm the stories.

However, though there's no documentation supporting the phenomena, he said that the defense he often hears for remote viewing is that science can't accommodate it.

"Rather than admit they don't have anything there, they say there must be something wrong with science. That's the nature of psychic phenomena. Whenever you study it, it disappears," he said. "The situation is that they just don't have anything that would come close to being scientific evidence."

Col. John B. Alexander, a retired intelligence officer who is on the IRVA's executive board, didn't take part in the remote viewing program, but participated in other activities loosely described in "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

Even more than the remote viewing program, the so-called First Earth Battalion supposedly inspired much of the book and movie. In the movie, members of the group are the ones who experiment most heavily with the paranormal.

But Alexander said that though the Battalion did indeed exist, it was not an official, authorized military unit. Instead, it was a manual and tool meant to encourage other officers to think creatively.

"It was what we called a 'notional unit'," he said. People interested in it would meet occasionally, but the purpose was less about studying the paranormal and more about pushing boundaries to improve military operations, he said.

The story of the goat stared to death, he said, likely came from casual experiments with the martial technique, dim mak or "death touch."

Did 'Death Touch' Kill Goat?

The controversial technique supposedly involves channeling energy in such a way as to use a small amount of force to inflict a great amount of damage.

It was explored, Alexander said, with weakened prisoners of war in mind. The idea was that after months of physical degradation, with the right training, they might be able to summon enough energy to escape.

Though he didn't see someone use the technique on a goat, he said he saw the necropsy report for a goat that had apparently experienced the "death touch."

He said across the goat's rib cage, he saw a path that looked just like that of a bullet, but there was no wound of entrance or wound of exit.

Contrary to the movie, Alexander said, no one attempted to walk through a wall. But he said that they were concerned about Soviet psychic research and did explore some New Age tactics, like spoon bending, to test the possible.

"Cerebral centrism," he said had blindsided Americans in the past. Americans thought that if they couldn't do it, it wasn't possible. The First Earth Battalion "was a way of thinking about things, not to be taken as a real construct," he said.