December 13th, 2010

Would there still be a debate about the validity of psi?

(Yeah, probably there would be.)

During the recent kerfuffle over academic psi experiments, I thought of Pat Price, the apparent super remote viewer who worked for the CIA in the early 1970s.  If, instead of dying suddenly and mysteriously in 1975, Price had escaped his heart disease (and alleged Soviet assassin) and moved into academic parapsychology … would the skeptics have been able to debunk him?  Would there be any skeptics left by now?

It’s tempting to think that he would have won the day for psi.  But there is an odd – and for psi proponents, unpleasant – epilogue to the Price story that isn’t very well known.  It doesn’t prove that Price was a fraud, and by recounting it I don’t mean even to hint that he was.  But I think it does serve as an example of the potential tricksiness of the “psychic personality” and the “psi culture,” and the difficulties this poses for psi as a scientific phenomenon.

The Shaman

Price – to recap, for those unfamiliar with him – was a fellow in his fifties who just sort of turned up in SRI’s fledgling remote viewing research program in the spring of 1973.  He had been a gold-prospector in Alaska, a Christmas tree salesman, a building contractor, and somehow a town councilman in Burbank, California.  And then suddenly he was a star remote viewer.

If you hadn’t known him well, you might have thought of the gray-haired, grizzled-looking Price as the down-to-earth type.  But beneath his regular-guy exterior beat the heart of a shaman.  He believed that he could evaporate clouds, and make red stoplights turn green.  At night in bed, he claimed, he could close his eyes and drift above the oceans of the world, spotting the dark shapes of submarines beneath the waves.  Sometimes he psychically spotted UFOs; he was convinced that their secret bases riddled the globe.

Hal Puthoff, who led the SRI research program, knew Price slightly, and one day asked him to use his psychic abilities to check out a set of geographic coordinates in West Virginia.

At the time, Puthoff and his SRI colleague Russell Targ were running a tiny ($50,000) pilot project for a technically oriented office within the CIA.  Other offices at the Agency were potentially interested, and the big question was whether remote viewing had a useful espionage application.  SRI’s chief psychic subject Ingo Swann had come up with an early remote viewing technique that involved prompting a psychic with a target’s geographical coordinates.  From a scientific standpoint, this was obviously problematic, because it involved the leakage of target-related information, but the CIA didn’t necessarily care about that if they could get something that robustly worked.

On this occasion, so the story goes, a CIA officer gave Puthoff coordinates of another CIA officer’s vacation cabin in West Virginia.  Puthoff, who didn’t know what was at the coordinates, asked both Swann and Price to describe what was there.  Both men sketched out something totally un-cabin-like – essentially a military base of some kind.  Price’s “viewing” generated particularly detailed verbal descriptions:  “…large underground storage areas….  Looks like former missile site …  Personnel, Army Signal Corps…  Folders inside cabinet labelled:  Cueball, 14 Ball, 8 Ball, Rackup …”

The two psychics’ descriptions corresponded closely to a secret National Security Agency facility, tucked into the hills a few miles away from the vacation cabin.  But it was the detailed verbal descriptions provided by Price that really got people’s attention — and set off a security investigation.  Ken Kress, a young CIA officer helping to monitor the work at SRI, would later write in an official memorandum that “Price, who had no military or intelligence background, provided a list of project titles associated with current and past activities including one of extreme sensitivity.  Also, the codename of the site was provided.  Other information concerning the physical layout of the site was accurate.”

After this, Price was formally included in the SRI research program, and contributed some sensational outbound remote viewing experiments that were later reported in Nature.  But for operational remote viewing, he soon began dealing directly with the CIA.  One of the Agency officers who worked with him used the phrase “an eight-martini evening” to describe how shaken up he was after one of Price’s performances.  Another, years later, would remember that Price “was extraordinarily accurate, unbelievably accurate.”

A Mysterious Departure

In July 1975, in the midst of a lengthy CIA remote-viewing project relating to a suspected Libyan terrorism facility, Price died of an apparent heart attack while visiting Las Vegas.  At the time, the Church Committee hearings in Congress were holding the Agency’s feet to the fire over its past nefarious doings (e.g., attempts to assassinate Castro), and it was anxiously closing down unorthodox and potentially embarrassing projects.  Price’s death therefore gave the Agency a convenient excuse to terminate its official connection with remote viewing, despite the enthusiasm that Kress and other Agency officers had for it.  Two years later, when CIA Director Stansfield Turner was asked about stories of the Agency’s dabbling in parapsychology, he dismissed the subject by saying that the CIA had once briefly worked with a man who appeared to have some rudimentary psychic ability, “but he died and we haven’t heard from him since.”

In a sense, though, Price has refused to lie quietly in his grave.  To begin with, there were strange circumstances surrounding his death.  A so-far-unidentified individual appeared at the hospital in Las Vegas where paramedics took Price, produced his medical records, and somehow persuaded the hospital to waive an autopsy.  Although Price did have a history of heart disease and unhealthy living – “he smoked, and his breakfasts were Pop Tarts and Coca Cola,” according to Puthoff – many suspected that he had been poisoned by a Soviet assassin, and that theory was eventually dramatized in the novel, Maze, by Larry Collins.

The Scientology Connection

A few years later, the Price story became even more complicated, after the FBI raided the Los Angeles office of the Church of Scientology.  Among the documents they found were records of briefings that Price, a Church member, had routinely given to a senior Scientology official about his SRI and CIA activities.  These included descriptions of highly classified taskings and the names of covert Agency personnel that Price had agreed, in his CIA and SRI contracts, to keep secret.  (Puthoff, who was informed of all this by government officials in the late 1970s, recently described it as “the biggest betrayal I have ever experienced.”)

The FBI’s raid on the Scientology offices had been part of a lengthy investigation – eventually resulting in plea deals and jail terms – that concerned the Church’s alleged infiltration of U.S. government offices and theft of documents.  This naturally raised the question:  Had Price’s sensational “remote viewing” data – some of which he claimed to have generated at home, in private – been fed to him by a Scientology spy network within the U.S. intelligence community?

A milder suspicion to this effect had lingered at CIA since almost the beginning of the program, since Puthoff and Swann had then been Scientologists – though both soon became ex-Scientologists – and it was through the Scientology connection that Price had first entered the picture.  The idea that Price’s sensational abilities had all along been a sham might have seemed implausible, because nearly all of his remote viewing sessions had been done with CIA and/or SRI officials present from start to finish, and in at least one case he produced details of a Soviet target that were as yet unknown to US intelligence officials.  Even so, in the psi controversy, any hint of methodological weakness by psi proponents was going to be exploited by the other side, and the revelations about Price’s Scientology debriefings apparently gave some skeptics within the government all the reason they needed to dismiss remote viewing.  Two decades later, a former senior Navy scientist expressed a blunt skepticism about the RV data (from Price, Swann et al) that Puthoff had used to sell the program, saying that it “could have come from anywhere.”

Kress himself was moved to wonder, in a remarkable but rather obscure essay that appeared in 1999, whether Price’s initial remote viewing of the NSA site in 1973 had been merely “a dangle, that is, real information supplied by others so that a psychic double agent ingratiates themselves and achieves a penetration which eventually returns even more important information to his handlers?”

Kress also suspected that Price had elicited some target-related information directly from CIA officers:  For example, he wrote, in the midst of a foreign embassy-related tasking by “Frank,” a CIA man, “Pat would say he liked the subdued red and green decor surrounding the stairs and Frank would respond that he also was impressed with the lavish use of Italian marble.”

At one time, Kress had been criticized by skeptics within the CIA for his enthusiasm about Price and the SRI effort.  By the time of his 1999 essay, he had been away from psi research, and witting of Price’s treachery, for years, and his enthusiasm about remote viewing had largely drained away.  He described himself as a “skeptical agnostic,” and concluded that the most real and remarkable talent of psychics such as Price was their ability “to instill the belief in unexplained capabilities” in the unwary.

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