Reading the Enemy's Mind: Inside Star Gate - America's Psychic Espionage Program
Army Operations Group
...a commanding general does a curious thing...
The tall, lean man pacing the apron of the stage acted like he owned us, which at that moment, he did. Major General Albert Stubblebine, III, was the Commanding General of INSCOM, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. And he was here in early 1983 to inspect a small corner of his worldwide empire, the intelligence school at sleepy Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Stubblebine’s piercing eyes were search radars probing the audience. Wherever his gaze landed, soldiers fought the urge to squirm.
I and a few hundred of my comrades in arms were at Fort Huachuca attending various intelligence courses for officers and NCOs. We had been assembled at the Post Theater for an afternoon to learn at the great general’s feet, which at that moment were shod in glossy black low-quarter shoes stalking the stage at our eye level. I settled in, expecting the homilies one usually gets from a major general on a lecture tour. And that’s how it began. But it didn’t stay that way for long. As Stubblebine’s lecture unfolded, it turned into a most unorthodox military pep talk.
From where I sat, half a dozen rows back, I took stock of the man. By rumor or reputation we all knew of General Stubblebine---"Bert" or "Stub" to his friends, "Stretch" behind his back to some of his fonder subordinates. This was the first time I had seen him in person and he was straight from central casting. His craggy face was set in a dour, no-nonsense grimace, his gruff voice describing new systems, new tactics, and new ideas that would propel military intelligence into the next millennium. My mind wandered away from the millennium to Lee Marvin; Stubblebine could easily have served as the actor’s double. Only later did I learn that he was often referred to as "Lee Marvin’s brother"---a reference that brought scalding rebukes down upon the shoulders of anyone careless enough to mention it within earshot.
Though I no longer remember much of his speech, I do recall that he talked of changes looming on the horizon for military intelligence. In the early 1980s technology was just beginning to dramatically alter the face of the world as we knew it. Stubblebine spoke about the various "INTs" which made up his domain: SIGINT, or signals intelligence---information gleaned from the airwaves when the United States eavesdrops on foreign radio transmissions; HUMINT, or human intelligence---whispered secrets coaxed from the traditional spy lurking in the shadows; and IMINT or imagery intelligence---pictures snapped from satellites or high-flying aircraft.
He emphasized our mission as military intelligence officers; it was our job to provide commanders with the best information available, so they could fight and win on the battlefields of tomorrow. And he gave us a general’s advice about how to make successful careers as intelligence officers in the Army of the twenty-first century.
I settled deeper into my seat. This was what I expected from the general who held most of the reins in the military intelligence community. Stubblebine’s self-assured, down-to-earth manner was more animated than we were used to from the brass, but any of us could have predicted the main themes and topics he covered. Then he paused, just long enough to signal a change. Sensing that something out of the ordinary was about to happen, I leaned slightly forward in my chair.
"As impressive and amazing as are all the advances we are making through technology," he continued, reaching into the pockets of his dress green uniform, "they cannot compare to the power that lies within our own minds. We only have to learn to tap it." He began tossing small, glinting objects into the audience. "Now I want these back when you’re through looking at them," he added nonchalantly.
"It is said," he continued, "that we only use about ten percent of our brains. What would it be like if we could access another five, ten, fifty percent? This is a frontier we are just starting to explore. Some of you now hold in your hands results of the first tentative steps of that exploration."
A low murmur began to build among the officers as the objects were examined and passed from hand to hand. In moments I held some of them in my own fingers. They were pieces of silverware, contorted into shapes that no silverware was meant to take.
Since the age of eleven I had spent my summers as hired help on farms and ranches in the West. I’d worked with tools and heavy machinery, and seen metal of all descriptions bent deliberately or by accident, both mechanically and with heat. But nowhere in my memory banks could I find anything that resembled what had been done to these eating utensils. An eerie feeling washed through me, dredging up from somewhere deep in my subconscious the German word unheimlich. What I was holding in my hands was creepy.
The tines and stems of the forks were twisted and curled in every direction. Some tines even looped around like pigs’ tails. The spoons were buckled, twisted and spun in tight spirals. My experience told me that metal mistreated like this should have cracked or broken. If great heat had produced these contortions, there would have been evidence of discoloration or fusing. But there was none.
Stubblebine was not finished. "These were bent by me and my staff. But not in any way that you’ve encountered before. Not by strength. Not with a blowtorch. These were bent by the power of the mind." He dragged out the word for emphasis, then paused to let it sink in. "It’s something we can all learn to do, even any of you. And if old farts like me and my colonels can do it, I’ll be interested to see what you all might accomplish someday."
Without further explanation, he ordered us to pass the silverware back to the stage. Then, suddenly, we were on our feet, standing at attention while the general left. As he disappeared, the auditorium exploded into muted pandemonium.
"What was that all about?" demanded one of my comrades.
"I’ve never seen a general do anything like it before!" snorted another, shaking his head. Others in the group were merely curious, and quizzed each other about what it might mean. From my brief look at the twisted forks and spoons, it was clear to me that unless the general was lying (unlikely), there was something bizarre going on.
Even as Stubblebine was wrapping up his speech I had been puzzling about that silverware. I vaguely remembered something I had read about a "psychic" famous for bending metal objects (it was Uri Geller, though his name wouldn’t come to me then). From what I recalled, Geller had been debunked as a fraud and a charlatan, and his metal bending declared counterfeit. At the time I accepted that indictment, based on my own limited experience with the paranormal. For a friend’s junior high school science project, I had tried to be psychic and failed. To me as an eighth grader, that meant ESP was probably a fiction.
In the years since Stubblebine’s talk I have read or seen attempts by skeptics to debunk this form of psychokinesis, often derisively called "spoon bending." Most of these debunkers see it as a cheap parlor trick. Professional magician and die-hard skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi is fond of demonstrating a trick that he says explains away spoon bending. I have seen Randi do this and, frankly, his results bear little resemblance to what I held in my hands that day.
But no one offered further explanation, and the next morning brought a return to regular lectures and exams on topics as diverse as radio propagation theory, Soviet order of battle, and military law. The deluge of new facts shoved the experience far back into the dusty corners of my mind. There was nothing in the fading memory of Stubblebine’s spoons to tell me they foreshadowed events that would change my future utterly. Or that I was soon to become intimate with whatever it was that warped Stubblebine’s cutlery, and stranger things besides.
Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, met us with a curiously abandoned feeling as I and my family drove through the front gate on the last day of May, 1983. What set the mood was the empty guard shack. In our moves to a dozen other military installations over the past seven years, there was always a nattily uniformed MP to snap a salute and wave us through. This gate looked as if it hadn’t seen an MP in a long while. At a post where some of the Pentagon’s biggest secrets were gathered, they had left the front door wide open.
We wound along Mapes Road, which serves jointly as Maryland State Highway 198 and Fort Meade’s main drag, past grassy fields and copses of pine and Eastern hardwoods. There seemed to be more parade fields and golf greens than barracks and barbed wire. To the left beyond the trees were the first clues that spy work was afoot---the buildings of the National Security Agency, topped with a jungle of satellite dishes and antennae.
Ft. Meade’s sprawl had been gerrymandered by its history. Established during the First World War, the post later became the training base for more than 3.5 million men during the massive mobilization of World War II. Back then, large tracts of land were crammed with temporary wood-frame, clapboard-sided barracks, battalion headquarters, mess halls, and company day rooms housing the thousands of soldiers bound for the fields of war. But many of those buildings, nailed together for just a few years at most, were still there more than four decades after the war. I soon found out that some were even still occupied, ramshackle as they now were.
But the Army was finished with most of the old wooden structures and, a few at a time, they were being razed. As the debris was carted off and the land reseeded, large tracts of vacant real estate were left behind. This gave the place a rural, parklike feel, smack in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. I didn’t know it yet, but one of those beat-up old splinter-palaces was soon to become my official home for the next seven years.
I had been assigned to the post in what amounted to a lucky fluke. Less than a year before, in the early summer of 1982, I was a lieutenant in Germany, serving as the strategic intelligence officer for the Special Forces unit stationed in the quaint little city of Bad Tölz. Snuggled at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, the town overlooked the Isar River as it rushed down from the mountains on its way to the Rhine.
My allotted three years in Germany were almost up, and I hated to leave such an idyllic posting. But the Army insisted I move on. My previous transfers, prior to attending officer candidate school, had been as an enlisted soldier, and I was always told when to be where, with little say in the matter. So on this, my first reassignment after a tour of duty as an officer, I was pleased to find that the assignments people at Military Intelligence Branch were willing to listen to my preferences. They even said I had a good chance at getting my first or second choice, as long as I didn’t ask for anything too exotic.
Armed with this information, I consulted my wife Betti, who was also pleased to have a say in her fate. "What about Washington, D.C.?" she asked immediately. Betti wanted to go to graduate school for social work, and had heard that there were some top-ranked programs in the area, so D.C. seemed like a good choice.
I considered it. Many Army officers try to avoid Washington, with its stifling bureaucracy and miles of gray, institutional corridors. Eventually, most career officers end up there for at least one tour of duty. But lieutenants and captains usually try their best to avoid the seat of power so they can "stay with the troops."
It was a little different for intelligence officers, since there were many jobs in and around the District of Columbia that could boost their careers. Perhaps there was a Middle East analyst position open. I had a degree in Middle Eastern studies, had been trained as an Arabic linguist, and had ambitions of becoming a Mid-eastern foreign area specialist. So the decision seemed obvious enough.
I called my assignments officer and asked to be sent to Arlington Hall Station in the Virginia suburbs, just down Highway 50 from the Pentagon. A former girls’ boarding school, Arlington Hall was headquarters for the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, INSCOM. My assignments officer checked and reported back to me with some surprise that Arlington Hall had no openings whatsoever for lieutenants or captains, let alone anything related to the Middle East. "Call me back weekly and we’ll see what turns up," he said. For two months the phone calls turned up exactly nothing. The time for a decision was fast approaching, and we were forced to consider alternatives. There was the Pentagon, but it was unlikely that a junior captain, as I would be after my imminent promotion, could find anything more interesting there than paper pushing. Nearby Fort Belvoir in Virginia was then an engineer post, and an unlikely possibility for me. I was running out of options to work in the shadow of Capitol Hill.
Then an intelligence sergeant from another unit came by my office on the top floor of Flint Kaserne for a meeting. I no longer remember his name, just how his plain olive drab fatigues contrasted sharply with the camouflaged jungle uniforms all the Special Forces troops wore. Our business finished, we lapsed into casual conversation, comparing notes and careers. I explained my assignment quandary and complained about the lack of jobs in a city otherwise crawling with soldiers.
"What about Fort Meade?" he wanted to know.
I had dismissed Meade as a possibility, thinking it was too far from Washington. Plus, the only assignment options I knew of there were at the National Security Agency, which specialized in signals intelligence. I had no interest in spending my days in a windowless concrete building full of headphone-wearing linguists as they eavesdropped on the usually boring gossip of the rest of the world. I had already had my fill of that line of work as an enlisted linguist and electronic warfare specialist. From what I’d heard, NSA jobs were mind-numbing, and officers who ended up there were "stove-piped" into signals intelligence---typecast for the life of their careers. Much of this turned out to be mistaken, but it was enough to discourage me at the time.
"Fort Meade is probably the best-kept secret in the D.C. area," my new friend told me. "It’s the closest you can get to country living anywhere near the city. It’s only about half an hour outside the district, and Meade itself is more like a park than a military post. It’s one of the best places in the area to have a family---safe and uncrowded."
"No way do I want to work for NSA," I said.
"Oh, there are lots of other options. The 902nd MI Group for one, Ops Group, and also First Army. Other, smaller intel units are scattered around post, too." I’d only heard of the 902nd, but the others also sounded promising.
As soon as time zones between Germany and the U.S. meshed during office hours, I called Military Intelligence Branch and suggested Fort Meade.
"That’s possible. I’ll check. Call you back next week." But I didn’t have to wait that long. The very next day the phone rang. "Hey, Lt. Smith---have I got a deal for you. Would you like to be a Mideast analyst with the 902nd MI Group? I have the requisition sitting right here on my desk."
Only weeks later we were leaving for Fort Meade, but detouring first for six months of temporary duty at Fort Huachuca for the Military Intelligence Officer Advanced Course. No doubt it was just happenstance but, looking back years later, the way I ended up at Fort Meade now seems to have a whiff of fate about it.
And now, finally, here we were at Meade. I was still destined for a Mideast-related job, but the unit assignment had changed. Instead of the 902nd MI, I was headed for something called the U.S. Army Operations Group---which everyone abbreviated as "Ops Group"---a HUMINT unit. This was where the bosses of the Army’s real cloak-and-dagger spies made their home.
But before I signed in for my new job, I first had to see about finding a place for my family to live. After backtracking and wandering around the tree-lined streets, we finally came upon the post’s housing office---and ran into our first problem. There was a several-month wait for a family of five with a dog.
I had a week of leave coming to me before I had to sign in to my new unit, so after some head scratching, we added our names to the waiting list, put the problem on the back burner, and headed south to visit Betti’s sister and brother-in-law, Virginia and John McCaughan in Norfolk, where they had settled a Navy career. The McCaughan’s offered a more welcoming harbor than the Fort Meade guest house, where you had to share a toilet with strangers.
John and Virginia were warm hosts, but Betti’s sister had always had what I thought of at the time as quirks. We found her as entrenched as ever in what I considered paranormal "hocus-pocus." Esoteric-looking books by obscure authors such as Ruth Montgomery, Lobsang Rampa, and Jane Roberts were wedged in her bookshelves. Virginia often talked about premonitions she claimed to have had. When we were visiting six years before, she had told us of how she "knew" of the 1963 sinking of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher before it ever made the news. She also claimed she "knew" to the moment when her late brother Joe had his legs blown off in Vietnam. And she frequently told us about strange and arcane things she found in the various books she devoured. I was dubious, particularly when I noticed her fondness for tabloid scandal sheets. But I tried to be polite, and even pretended to listen, just to make her happy.
Abruptly, a phone call from the Fort Meade housing office cut our leisure short. "We have some quarters for you. Be here as soon as you can."
Buckner Avenue was a quiet, shady street bordered by some of the oldest permanent quarters on the post. They were two-story red-brick townhouses dating from 1950. Fortunately, ours had just been renovated, which accounted for its sudden availability. Best of all, the townhouses had full basements---the only junior officers’ quarters on the entire post to have them. The third bedroom was hardly more than a closet, but with the basement we could make it work.
Our unit was second from the end. Occupying the very last row house was Fred Atwater, with his wife Joan, daughter Shelly, and sons Freddy and Jimmie. Fred was definitely not government issue. He never wore anything but civilian clothes, he never talked about his job and, though his door bore the modest placard Cpt F. Holmes Atwater, he seldom otherwise directly admitted to being in the military. Of course we all knew he had to be, since only military personnel were allowed to live on an Army post.
Across the street lived Tom and Faye McNear, with their three children. Tom never wore a uniform either, and in fact sported a very un-military, but neatly trimmed beard. His door also declared he was a captain. When asked about his hirsute look, all he would say was, "It’s my cover."
A few days after moving into our new quarters, I pulled on my dress-green uniform and walked up the steps of Nathan Hale Hall to report for my new assignment. Named after America’s first famous patriotic spy, of Revolutionary War fame ("I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country"), the hall was made of aged and imposing red brick with a drive-through archway leading to parking behind the building.
After passing through the cipher-locked door on the fourth floor, I soon learned that my immediate boss was to be Dennis Roeding, a retired Army human intelligence officer, and that I would share an office with an affably cynical coworker named Ron Kloet. My sponsor was Captain David Hoover, who shepherded me around Ops Group headquarters for the first few days while I learned the ropes.
The ropes, as it turned out, were pretty mundane. Ours was essentially a bookkeeping job. We maintained a rank of five-drawer safes standing along the walls of our dingy office. Filed inside the safes were reams of documents describing and categorizing the various questions for which our "customers" in the intelligence community needed answers. These questions were posed as "collection requirements." A collection requirement might request information about opposition leaders in the Middle East; or perhaps troop movements that could threaten U.S. interests; or even foreign tinkering with technologies that could have military uses. There were any number of topics that interested the nation’s decision makers---and, therefore, the U.S. intelligence community.
In the course of snooping around in foreign countries where they were assigned, American spies would ferret out anything they could find that seemed valuable. They would then write this information into reports---IIRs, we called them, for "intelligence information reports"---which they forwarded through their secret channels.
En route, the IIRs passed through our office. These reports were the raw data of the HUMINT business. They had to be examined, analyzed, and compared with other reports, as well as with data from other intelligence sources, before the information could be determined to be useful "fact" or not. But that part was not our job.
We were only responsible for reading, then matching up each IIR with the collection requirements it most closely met. It was then passed on to whichever agency had asked for the information.
It was an essential, even vital, job, but it was empty of any of the glamour or excitement that people usually associate with espionage. Reality was very different from James Bond; I was stuck in the bureaucratic soup in which eighty percent of all intelligence work is done. Still, even if this was not the hands-on position I had been hoping for, it was at least related to the Middle East and would do until other opportunities, whatever they might be, came along.
Though tedious, the work itself was at first a little daunting. I have a few talents, but being a bureaucrat was never one of them. Organized, meticulous record keeping and cross-referencing was a challenge. In retrospect, it was a good apprenticeship for more complex and sometimes managerially hostile job environments in the future.
And Ops Group had an important mission. The headquarters where I worked was the main office for much of the Army’s active HUMINT collection effort. Officers and civilians assigned to Ops Group were always going and coming from exotic places around the world, or sitting in on high-level meetings with counterparts from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, or the other military services. Often when a phone rang, the call came from some other continent. The success or failure of U.S. spy efforts around the globe depended on the policies, guidance, and coordination we provided.
Ops Group’s headquarters oversaw lower-level organizations that "handled" the case officers---government civilians and military personnel who were assigned in turn to "handle" the agents (or "assets," as they are officially known) that were our human eyes and ears in places where Americans could not easily tread. A case officer friend of mine once summed up his job by saying, "Our task is simple: we try to persuade foreigners to betray their countries." Back then, during the days of the Soviet "Evil Empire," the foreigners who "betrayed their countries" to supply us with crucial inside information often did it altruistically. They believed that helping the United States would eventually benefit their own countrymen suffering under repressive regimes. Friends of mine who are still in the HUMINT business tell me that since the fall of the Iron Curtain things have changed considerably. These days, money speaks louder than either ideology or altruism.
But there was more going on at Ops Group headquarters than I imagined. Sometime in late June or early July 1983, I again encountered General Stubblebine’s spoons.
Copyright © 2005 by Paul Smith