Meet the Former Pentagon Scientist Who Says Psychics Can Help American Spies; Two Decades after the CIA Denounced the Government's Top-Secret ESP Program, Edwin May Is Trying to Bring It Back to Life

By Popkin, Jim | Newsweek, November 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Meet the Former Pentagon Scientist Who Says Psychics Can Help American Spies; Two Decades after the CIA Denounced the Government's Top-Secret ESP Program, Edwin May Is Trying to Bring It Back to Life


Popkin, Jim, Newsweek


Byline: Jim Popkin

Steps from the Hayward Executive Airport in Northern California, a brunette in jeans and hiking boots scans her surroundings for police. She's carrying a 13-pound canister of liquid nitrogen in her hand. She unclasps the lid and dumps the colorless, minus-320-degree liquid into a beer cooler packed with 2,000 tiny aluminum balls. A thick white cloud erupts below the airport's control tower, a witch's brew that crackles and pops. Undetected, she darts back to her SUV and is gone.

Over the past two years, the same intruder has performed this clandestine ritual three dozen times across the San Francisco Bay Area. Without warning or permission, she's released nitrogen gas clouds in front of a fire station, a busy Catholic church, a water tower and a government center. She's smoke-bombed her way from Palo Alto to Alameda, spewing her cryogenic concoction in popular city parks and near lakes, highways and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway lines.

She's not a Satanic cultist or an incompetent terrorist. Arguably, her mission is even more improbable. It's all part of an experiment run by a former Pentagon scientist to prove the existence of extrasensory perception, or ESP.

Washington's Most Expensive Psychics

Twenty years ago this month, the CIA released a report with the unassuming title, "An Evaluation of Remote Viewing: Research and Applications." The 183-page white paper was more like a white flag--it was the CIA's public admission, after years of speculation, that U.S. government agencies had been using a type of ESP called "remote viewing" for more than two decades to help collect military and intelligence secrets. At a cost of about $20 million, the program had employed psychics to visualize hidden extremist training sites in Libya, describe new Soviet submarine designs and pinpoint the locations of U.S. hostages held by foreign kidnappers.

But the report, conducted for the CIA by the independent American Institutes for Research, did much more than confirm the existence of the highly classified program. It declared that the psychic-spy operation, code-named Star Gate, had been a bust. Yes, the CIA researchers had validated some Star Gate trials, finding that "hits occur more often than chance" and that "something beyond odd statistical hiccups is taking place." But the report declared that ESP was next to worthless for military use because the tips provided are too "vague and ambiguous" to produce actionable intelligence.

Like a Ouija board, the resulting news headlines seemed to write themselves. "End of Aura for CIA Mystics," The Guardian quipped. "Spooks See No Future for Pentagon Psychics," a Scottish paper reported. "Putting the 'ESP' Back Into Espionage," BusinessWeek added.

ABC News's Nightline also joined the fray, hosting a face-off between Robert Gates, the former CIA director, and Edwin May, the scientist who had been running the government's ESP research program. Gates struck first. "I don't know of a single instance where it is documented that this kind of activity contributed in any significant way to a policy decision, or even to informing policy makers about important information," he said. May fought back, citing "dramatic cases in the laboratory" in which Pentagon psychics had accurately sketched a target thousands of miles away that they had never actually seen.

That wasn't good enough, however. Already embarrassed and under pressure for the disclosure that one of their own, Aldrich Ames, had been spying for the Russians for a decade, the CIA officially shut down the psychic spies program. Star Gate had fizzled out.

It was November 1995, and May was out of a job. His life's work had been discredited by the CIA, and he had been humbled on national television. At 55, the trained scientist might have retreated to academia or simply walked away. Instead, he doubled down on ESP.

A Jewish Hungarian Cowboy

As a boy, May always seemed to stand out. …

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