According to the documents, the program was established in 1975. It involved hundreds of candidates who either claimed psychic powers or were somehow determined to possess them. Of several hundred candidates, only six were chosen to take part in further operations.
For several years, the program, codenamed "Grill Flame," was more about research and accumulating theory behind the paranormal abilities. But its star turn came in 1979, when Grill Flame was brought in to help search for a missing US Navy plane.
The operation was a success, as the psychics were able to pinpoint the location of the plane with an error margin of about 15 miles. Jimmy Carter, US president at the time, dropped a hint about this program in an interview he gave 12 years after the incident.
"We had a plane go down in the Central African Republic — a twin-engine plane, small plane. And we couldn't find it," he said, even with satellite photography. "So the director of the CIA came and told me that he had contacted a woman in California that claimed to have supernatural capabilities. And she went in a trance, and she wrote down latitudes and longitudes, and we sent our satellite over that latitude and longitude, and there was the plane."
However, subsequent operations seem to have less success. One of the worst failures was the Iranian US embassy hostage situation the same year. According to the documents, the telepaths repeatedly failed to provide accurate information throughout the whole situation — starting from initial stages of conflict and up until the hostages were separated and scattered across the country. The locations they guessed at were sometimes hundreds of miles wide of the mark.
Interestingly, while the Iranian operation was a failure for Grill Flame, the program continued for 14 years. It changed names and changed supervisors, but it survived. Even now the debate surrounding the program is quite intense.
"The psychics were just as good as other human intelligence sources," said Edwin May, a physicist who worked with Grill Flame. "And, unfortunately, they were just as bad. Human beings are notoriously horrible at second World War-type spying, standing out there with binoculars, counting tanks. There are all kinds of biases that can creep in."
May oversaw parapsychology research for government intelligence agencies for 20 years.
"Mostly at the beginning, we were doing foreign assessment — that is, what the other side was doing," May told reporters. "We'd get a report that China or Russia was experimenting with psychics who claimed to be able to do this or that, and our job was to judge whether this was possibly true and if so, what threat was it to us."
"The psychics were able to tell, in some cases, where the hostages were moved to. They were able to see the degree of their health," he said. "If you can sit in Fort Meade and describe the health of hostages who are going to be released, so that the right doctors can be on hand, that's very helpful."
There might be one possible explanation to why the program survived so long.
"The stuff that the CIA has declassified is garbage," one of the Grill Flame psychics, Joseph McMoneagle, said in an interview. "They haven't declassified any of the stuff that worked."
The program was officially shut down in 1995, after an outside audit commissioned by the CIA concluded that "remote viewing reports failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence reporting."