27th November 1996

NEW YORK PRESS




URI GELLER:


Parlor Tricks or Psychic Spy?


By John Strausbaugh
URI GELLER AND I SIT DOWN IN A CORNER OF the lobby at the Algonquin, and he orders a couple of cappuccinos. Cool, I think. I can ask him to bend one of the spoons. But the cappuccinos come with some kind of rockcandy stirrers, like lollipops, instead. I can't ask the man to bend a lollipop with his mind.
When you hear "Uri Geller," you may think "fake." People do. Your government, however, apparently thought otherwise, at least for a while, and that's what I wanted to talk to him about.
Think what you want about Geller - real or fake, psychic or showman - he's one of the more curious figures of the last half century. Certainly the most celebrated and controversial psychic since Edgar Cayce, he's one of those characters - like Elvis, like O.J., like Oliver Stone - whom people decide they must either love or hate, must either believe in or just as devoutly notbelieve in. Personally, I don't care passionately if what he does - the infamous spoon bending, the less wellknown "dowsing" for oil and minerals he's said to have done for a number of corporate clients since the mid80s - is really psychic abilities or just parlor tricks. I'm more interested in the social epiphenomena a guy like this throws off. Especially if, as I'd heard, they involved the CIA and military intelligence.
*

Within a few weeks of his 50th birthday, Geller looks great - tanned, trim, full head of hair. He speaks softly, with a mesmerist's sibilant earnestness and strong remnants of an Israeli accent.
He used to live in Manhattan, but he moved his family in the mid80s to a big house in the bucolic hamlet of Sonning-on-Thames, outside of London. He was back in New York when I met him to give a lecture at the Learning Annex and do a media blitz for his new product, Uri Geller's Mindpower Kit (Penguin Studio, $19.95). It's a boxed set containing a book (his fourth), a cassette and a crystal. It's a beginner's howto with chapter topics ranging from "How to Develop Your ESP" and "Psychokinesis" to more standard newage stuff like "Color Therapy" and "Visualization."
Again, I don't personally find it very interesting, but I like it when he tells me, "I made my wealth finding oil and gold. I am a very wealthy person. The proceeds of this Mindpower Kit are going to Save The Children. I don't need this money. I mean I'm not a billionaire. I don't have hundreds of millions. I'm a millionaire over and over, but I live very simply. I don't have private jets, I don't have a yacht. I do have a very beautiful home on the river Thames, and that's where it stops. I've stayed the same person as I was 30 years ago, [except that] I'm less materialistic today. Years ago when I was young I wanted to show off. So I bought the Rolexes, the 25 Gucci suitcases Cadillacs and limousines. But that's over with. I stay with my family my two kids."
Geller says he's known he had unusual psychic abilities since he was a kid growing up poor in Tel Aviv. He claims he could bend spoons by concentrating his mental powers on them at the age of four, and doing other things like making clocks speed up or slow down. This made him feel like an oddball, and his parents thought about taking him to a shrink. But he says he's since come to understand that we all have these mental powers, it's just that most of us don't tap them.
"Psychic phenomena occur in many forms...," he writes in the book. "They include psychokinesis, dowsing, healing, clairaudience (the ability to hear things that are inaudible to others), and clairvoyance (the ability to see things that are invisible to others). All these phenomena harness our sixth sense, which is our psychic ability. Many people are psychic, yet they don't reaise it because they dismiss what happens to them as coincidence or put it down to an overactive imagination."
In 1968, Geller fulfilled his required national service as a paratrooper in the Israeli army. "I fought in the Six Day War, where I was wounded. Then I left the army and I struggled" to find a career. He became a photography model - "I sold watches, shirts, what have you. One day I demonstrated this keybending thing to a photographer. He invited me to a party. Then the parties became more prestigious - lawyers, generals - and Golda Meir was at one of them." The next day she was being interviewed on the radio. "They asked her to predict the future of Israel. She said, 'Don't ask me. Ask Uri Geller.'
"That started it. That moment. For the next two and a half years I was the biggest thing that had happened in Israel. It was mass hysteria. I filled up auditoriums with 10,000 people...I did the lecture circuit in a very bizarre way because I went on stage, I just did my thing, bending keys, doing telepathy. There was no order in my performance. It was a mess - but it worked.
"Then I started seeing that the auditoriums were getting emptier and emptier. The reason was because I couldn't change my act. I did what I did. I was not a magician. I used real powers. I couldn't invent things."
It was at this point, in 1971, that he heard from the just retired astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who'd left NASA to try and scientifically study paranormal phenomena, and the late Andrija (say "Andre") Puharich, who was working with Mitchell. By all reports Puharich was a brilliant but unstable scientist; his interests ranged from psychedelics (he wrote an important early book on hallucinogenic mushrooms) to ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) electromagnetic waves to UFOs - to Uri Geller. Puharich went to Israel to meet Geller, became very excited about his powers and in 1972 brought him to the U.S., where he could be "studied under laboratory conditions."
Geller spent five weeks being tested at Stanford Research Institute in California. Two physicists, Dr. Russell Targ and Dr. Harold Puthoff, led the research. Significantly, they were less interested in Geller's metal bending than in the potential to use telepathy to transmit images and information.

"I had a call from someone
in the CIA," Eldon Byrd
recalls. 'They asked me to
come over. They wanted to
talk about Uri Geller"

"They almost turned me inside out at SRI, trying to discover what I do and how I do it," Geller writes in his book. "The scientists began by studying the things I did as an entertainer, such as telepathy and spoon bending, and then went on to tests that they had devised - for example, asking me to erase the images on videotapes or influence an electric scale on which was placed a gram weight. The scale was isolated under a glass bell jar. The scale showed that the gram weight sometimes weighed more and sometimes less...
"While I was fascinated by what I was undergoing at SRI, it was an unnerving experience to sit still and concentrate for so long. It was not made any easier by the fact that my powers had started to attract some odd phenomena: Objects would levitate; others would vanish into thin air in front of the bemused gaze of myself and whoever else was present; cassette tape recorders would pick up messages for me from disembodied mechanical voices..."
To this day, when former astronaut Mitchell discusses why those weeks at SRI convinced him that Geller's powers are real, it sounds like those stray phenomena, which seemed out of Geller's conscious control, impressed him the most.
Targ and Puthoff published their findings in Oct., 1974, in the highly respected journal Nature. Despite the rather modest tone of their report, there was an instant shit-storm of protest, criticism and condemnation. New Scientist put out a special issue just to upbraid Nature and thoroughly trash the SRI tests as unscientific.
"Oh yeah. Because Nature is the most prestigious magazine in the world, and everyone was shocked," Geller recalls. "And Ill tell you what annoyed me. The ones that didn't believe, the scientists that were fighting it, were the ones that never saw me. The ones who were next to me knew it was real."
There were calls for the tests to be redone at other labs. Geller resisted.
"I am not a guinea pig to be shlepped all over the world just to entertain or to convince skeptical scientists," he flares at me. "I'm a human being. I want to live. I've got a family. Am I going to, just because of their negativity, how do you say, satisfy them? Am I going to spend the rest of my life proving myself over and over and over and over? Enough is enough."
It didn't help that Puharich, meanwhile, was going off the deep end.
"He wanted to own me, to possess me," Geller explains. "He wanted to make me like a small god. But he was not doing it for money. Money wasn't in his mind. He believed that my powers were coming from an extraterrestrial source. That discredited him. He was booed down at Columbia University. The book that he published, Uri, from Doubleday, it was lunacy. It was mad. In a way, it discredited me a bit... That's why I had to write my book at that time, My Story."
But then, Geller has always attracted skeptics and people who seemed to make it their life's mission to debunk him. It's largely due to magician James Randi ("The Amazing Randi") and Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), that the name Uri Geller became linked with the words "fake psychic" in the popular overmind. Geller tangled with them in long, ugly lawsuits that reportedly ran up over half a million dollars in lawyers' fees before things were finally settled out of Court, both sides bloodied but claiming victory.
*

Among conspiracy theorists there's always been talk that Andrija Puharich was not just a mad scientist - that he was working for U.S. military intelligence when he recruited Geller. That the work Puthoff and Targ were conducting - as well as other research into psychic powers, ESP, ELF and such around the country - was heavily funded by the U.S. military. That the U.S. was locked in a covert sort of psychic arms race with the Soviets, both sides conducting research in how to use this stuff for spying, for mind control, for weapons. And that Geller himself had put his psychic powers at the service of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.
Such stories got the usual lunaticfringe treatment until, within the last couple years, some of them started turning up in the Washington Post and on Nightline. Now it seems that, at the very least, SRI was testing the psychic technique called "remote viewing," supposedly an ability to psychically "see" faraway people, places and events. The applications to espionage are as obvious as they are seemingly outlandish.
I ask Geller if it's true: was he a psychic spy for Mossad? "Look," he says soberly, and I'm expecting him to say it's all nonsense. Instead, he says, "What I did in Israel for Mossad I cannot talk about. There were rumors. Some of them are real, some of them are not. Andrija wrote very powerful things in his book, which were true, about the Entebbe raid, where we knocked out radar systems.{This was not in Andrija's book 'Uri'. - Internet editor.} And probably, I believe, the whole thing with Andrija was financed by the American Defense Dept." Later on, he says, "People from Washington came to see me."
People?
"The CIA approached me personally to work for them," he says. This would've been 1975." After SRI, I was living in Mexico, and two CIA agents came over to me, in Zona Rosa. They showed me their credentials. They said they'd like to talk to me. They said they knew all about the SRI experiments. Then they started testing me in Mexico. And then they started giving me tasks. Like to spy on the Russian embassy, because it was this espionage center in Latin America. Like to erase the discs on the computer floors" of the embassy. They sat me many times on Aero Mexico flights between two KGB agents next to me, who were carrying diplomatic pouches chained to their wrists. My task was to erase the computer discs in the pouches, to tell them what was in the pouch, things of that nature. I did it. Of course, I wasn't paid for it, but they promised me a visa for America, so I could work [here] forever, which I did get later on."
He says it went on from '75 through '77. "Because I was young, naive, gullible, I did it for ideological reasons. I had a James Bond mind. I liked adventure, being a spy... Then, later on, I really got scared from some of the things they wanted me to do and I catapulted out of it."
Yeah, I know. Still, it is a matter of record that in 1987 Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Claiborne Pell, wellknown as a Geller fan, took him to nuclear arms talks with the Soviets in Geneva. Geller says his role was to psychically "bombard" Russian negotiator Yuli Vorontsov (now Russia's ambassador to the United States since 1994) to get him "to sign the nuclear treaty." And as Newsweek winkingly reported at the time, "The very next day Mikhail Gorbachev made his offer to eliminate mediumrange missiles from Europe."
"Of course, they didn't know why I was there," Geller tells me. "And next to me stood [then Senator] Al Gore, Richard Lugar, [U.S. negotiator] Max Kampelman... I have photographs from then, Al Gore standing next to me... So there you go. This is real. This is not an invented story."
Indeed. With the media poking fun at him ("A Twilight Zone Defense?" Newsweek jibed), Pell insisted that he'd brought Geller to Geneva merely as an entertainer. Which didn't quite explain the closeddoor briefing he also arranged for the psychic on Capitol Hill.
And then there's Eldon Byrd. In 1972, he tells me, "I had a call from someone in the CIA. They asked me to come over. They wanted to talk about Uri Geller."
*

By striking coincidence or, as Geller happily insists, synchronicity - Byrd happens to be staying at the Algonquin, too. Geller had asked him to come from his home in Illinois to help him give his twohour Learning Annex lecture, something they'd done only once before, Byrd tells me, in Japan.
Byrd's name has been linked to Geller's for years. Today, he tells me, he's an inventor. But from 1968 into the late 80s, he was an engineer for the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Silver Spring, MD (a suburb of DC), with an interest in what he calls "unusual and unexplainable phenomena." In the early 70s, when Geller came to DC to give one of his lectures, Byrd arranged to meet him and administer a little test.
At his Weapons Center lab, Byrd had worked with "shape memory alloys" metals that change shape only under specific conditions, like extreme temperatures. When you return them to those conditions, they "remember" that shape and go back to it. They're used, for example, in antennae for satellites. You mold them into their antenna shape at a temperature near absolute zero. Then, at room temperature, you can crumple them into a little ball and stuff them into a pocket on the side of the satellite. Out in space, where it's zero degrees, that little ball "remembers" and pops out of its pocket, back in antenna shape, ready to transmit. { Memory metals return to the pre - formed shape when warmed. - Internet editor.}
Byrd tested Geller's power to manipulate snippets of a filament of a shape metal alloy, figuring it'd be "pretty difficult to cheat." Basically, he says that Geller was indeed able to bend the wire with his mind, in ways that couldn't be reproduced physically.
Very impressed, Byrd "had the laboratory put out a press release...an officiallyreleased U.S. government statement that the Naval Surface Weapons Center of the U.S. Navy will neither confirm nor deny that anything unusual had happened to the material." Which, he grins, was the first time the U.S. government hadn't denied that it was conducting tests of psychic powers. "So that was a real breakthrough," he chuckles. And his superiors at the lab? "Boy, were they mad. My boss came down to me and said, 'What is this?' 'You signed it.' Yeah, but I don't read these things.'"
In 1972, he gets that call and drives around the Beltway to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. At that first meeting, "they asked me some general questions, like how well did I know him, what he was doing, had I visited with him. General questions at first. And then, had I ever had any experiences" of Geller's powers. He came away with the distinct impression that the CIA was doing its own testing of psychics. "I went home really excited," he recalls.
"It turns out that that was just the beginning of the CIA and Uri. They'd call me every once in a while and ask me if I knew where Uri was and what he was doing... They were very interested in Uri" for the next few years. "Finally, years after they stopped asking about Uri, I asked the person I was contacted by, 'Why were you always interested in where Uri was? You were almost more interested in where he was and what he was doing than I was.' He said, 'First of all, we would not have been interested in him at all unless we knew he was for real.' I said, 'How did you know he was for real? You've got all this controversial data I could tell you what I did, but you weren't there.' He said, 'Oh, we know he's real because we tested him.'"
Byrd further claims that Uri once said to him, "'Look, I live in the United States. I work here, I don't pay taxes as a resident alien. I'd like to do something to help. Why don't you call your contact person at the CIA and tell them I'd like to do something for them?'"
Byrd called his contact ("I always made it a point to call the CIA from the scramble phone. We only had one scramble phone, a KY3, 'the gray phone.'")
"When I told [the CIA contact] Uri wanted to do something for them, he said, 'We can't use him.' 'What do you mean you can't use him? He's willing to help you.' He says, 'The policy of the CIA is we never use double agents.' I said, 'A double agent?' He says, 'We know Uri works with Mossad.'"
It's not clear to me how this version of events fits with Geller's chronologically, but anyway. It's Byrd's belief that Mossad used Geller as "insurance." When they raided Entebbe on July 3, 1976, for instance, they apparently flew in under the radar defenses - but also had Geller concentrating his mental powers in an attempt to knock the radar out. He thinks they similarly used Geller when they bombed Syrian antiaircraft missile batteries in Bekka Valley.
I know, I know. But then there's Project Grill Flame. Code name for secret research conducted at SRI in the mid70s. Later moved to Fort Meade in Maryland and renamed Stargate. Byrd claims he was "read into the program," as the jargon went, and signed a form stating, among other things, that the government would deny he'd ever signed it.
It wasn't the CIA running the project, Byrd says, but the DIA - the Defense Intelligence Agency - and the funding was military. He adds that "they weren't getting all that much. There were rumors out there of millions of dollars. When I was working for the government, the maximum they ever put in was a million, total, in a year. And it came in bits and pieces. It wasn't like a chunk. The Navy chipped in so much, the Army chipped in."
Byrd says he once went to a Grill Flame briefing "in the most secure briefing room in the Pentagon. You had to have seven levels of badges to get down there. Every time you go through a level, [the guards] have this list. They check you off, they touch the badge, they look at your face and compare it to the picture on the badge. This room was swept everyday for bugs. It was the 12th floor down underground."
The reason for the secrecy, he says, was the "remote viewing" aspect of the program. They were not just testing it, he claims: they were training a group of military intelligence personnel in how to use it. A couple of years ago, a retired Army warrant officer named Joseph McMoneagle went public with the claim that he was one of about 15 of these remote viewers, involved in Grill Flame/Stargate from 1978 until 1993, using the technique to help locate hostages, enemy spies, submarines and so forth.
In 1995, the CIA issued a report critical of Stargate and calling further expenditures on it "unjustified."
*

Why would intelligence agencies be funding topsecret paranormal research? The easy answer is because the Soviets were doing it. It's well documented that the Soviets carried out a lot of research in ESP, telekinesis, a whole range of psychic phenomena. Our guys may simply have wanted to keep up. Recall, too, that these agencies have funded lots of other wackysounding programs over the years. Ever hear about the seeingeye cats? The power to make Castro's beard fall out.? Or for that matter, the Bay of Pigs?
Or it's as Geller and Byrd say: this psychic stuff works, and it's just us civilians who don't know it. Note that Grill Flame/Stargate was in operation at least from 1978 until 1995.


Back to Press & TV choices.

Back to main index

Back to Uri Geller's home page.